A Stringed Instrument Gets an Introduction

Saturday, March 08, 2014
Angela Biggs’ harp commanded the room. It sat in a corner in Claremont’s Union Episcopal Church, with six smaller harps propped on stands around it.

“You might be surprised to learn you can play blues on a harp, jazz on a harp,” Biggs said from behind her 52-inch-tall cherry instrument. “We’re going to learn to play slap bass.”

She demonstrated the technique to her students, learners for a day at Biggs’ occasional novice harp workshops. It went like this: Slap the strings — slap them hard, they won’t snap — on the first and third beat. Then play an octave in between.

The students’ technique was spotty, as hands often bounced off the tight string bed before they could play the following octave.

That was, of course, OK. None of Biggs’ six students had experience with harps, and few knew the basics of piano. The class, Biggs’ fourth since joining with the West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts 18 months ago, was meant to impart the basics.

So the class started with an explanation of the parts of the instrument. Because of their imposing size and rarity, harps can seem inaccessible, Biggs said. The reality, though, is much different. The small learning harps played by the students were rooted in a single, unchangeable key, meaning there would never be any sour notes or bad-sounding mistakes.

It also mean the students could play glissandi — that stereotypical, heavenly cascade along the harp’s strings — pretty much from the word go.

“It’s amazing how you can just do that and it sounds so good,” said Judy Ptak, of Plainfield, running her thumbs and fingers up and down the string bed after the class ended.

The class was an opportunity for Ptak to try something she’d been interested in since she was little. Sitting next to her, Cindy Tobery, of Hanover, said she felt the same way. “I’ve always, as long as I remember, been fascinated by the harp,” Tobery said.

It’s not hard to be fascinated, especially when seven harps are placed in a single church room, one of them producing particularly angelic sounds.

That’s what happened toward the end of the class, as Biggs serenaded the class while they tried to come up with words that used letters from the notes on a musical scale. As they worked out words that would be played, letter by letter, on the harp, Biggs plucked out a melody.

After a few minutes, she stopped playing and started making rounds from student to student.

“What’s your word?” she asked Paul Brunetto, of Hanover.

“Dead,” he said.

And so he played the notes D, E, A and D, creating an impromptu melody line.

Less morbid in theme was Gavan Brunetto’s “B-E-D,” which prompted Biggs to ask him if harp class was tiring him out, or Ptak’s “B-A-D-G-E.”

“Badge,” she said, orienting her fingers. “It’s too long.”

And then, speaking the notes as she plucked the strings: “B, A, D, where’s the G, E?”

There are no other novice harp classes currently scheduled, but Biggs, who has a vocal performance background, said she gives lessons to those interested in the instrument.

One lesson she imparted to the group, though, as they alternately focused on their own strings and Biggs’ practiced playing while learning a beginner’s song, was to realize that the instrument, big as it may be, isn’t all that scary.

“It’s a harp,” Biggs said. “Relax — it’s a harp.”

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.