Placing Your Fingers at the Harp
A few years ago during my brief run as editor-in-chief of the Folk Harp Journal after Nadine’s accident, I wrote an article on “placing” at the harp. We badly needed fodder because that first issue under my pen would have been mighty slim. Of course I can’t find the article anywhere in my files, but I’m going to try and remember some of the highlights.
Why are those brackets and fingering numbers there anyway? Do I really have to pay attention to them? Well, no, of course not. You can ignore them. But they serve a very important purpose; to indicate phrasing. It’s easy to phrase on most instruments that are single line melody instruments. You either lift your bow or take a breath. On the harp, it is a different challenge to get across to the listener that you are taking a musical breath.
When playing the harp it is useful to look ahead at your music (or think ahead if you’re not reading music). Look for groups of 2, 3 and 4 notes going in the same direction. Get your fingers on those notes ahead of time so you are “set” or “prepared” for them. In some harp music, this is indicated by brackets. Many people take lessons specifically to have their teacher mark brackets. A few of you may think this unnecessary, but there is a vast difference to the listener in how your music comes across if you are well prepared.
I have always thought playing the harp is looking ahead for logical groups of 2,3 and 4 notes going in the same direction. My philosophy is to always look ahead and always have at least one finger on a string at all times. Just before you come to the end of a group within a bracket, prepare for the next grouping. The only reason not to have a finger on a string is if you are playing a long note such as a half note or whole note, if there’s a rest, or if you’ve come to the end of your tune. Some schools of harp playing teach raising, which serves a purpose, but first learn to prepare before you start these gestures.
There are quite a few arrangers and composers who edit their music with brackets and fingerings for the convenience of the player. The music of Evelyn Tiffany Castiglioni, Jeannie Kern Chenette and Louise Pratt comes to mind as being well edited with both brackets and fingerings. Julianne Johnson also has a book of easy folk tunes for children that is well edited with brackets and fingerings. TheBetty Paret First Harp Book is full of brackets, as is the Grossi Method and Finger Puzzles by Denise Grupp-Verbon. There are more, but these artists are coming to mind as I write this. Not all music notation programs make it easy to insert brackets, which is why some very good arrangers leave them out or draw them by hand.
In general, placing is used with nylon or gut strung harps and by those who play with the pads of the fingertips, and not the fingernails. When you use a combination of placing and playing with the pads, you are likely to have a warm sound with good tone. And don’t forget to put a little pressure on the string before you release it. Pressure, displace and release, three ideal techniques for really good tone. More about that another time.
So remember, the term “brackets” in harp music is used to indicate a grouping of notes on which you can set or place your fingers in advance in order to execute the phrase smoothly and effortlessly. The better prepared you are, the more natural your music will sound to others, and I would bet you’ll notice your level of playing improving, too.