Anyone can play a glissando on the harp. You just run one finger across the strings. With one simple strum, the harp bursts into its rich, liquid song. It’s a magical experience.
Maybe that magical experience was the start of your harp journey. The sound of the harp, the feel of the strings, the sense of having all that music at the tip of your finger is almost irresistible. Yes, there is power in a glissando.
Of course, once you’ve been playing the harp for awhile, you realize a glissando is more than a simple strum. A glissando might be fast or slow, atmospheric or heroic, flashy or peaceful. You might play it with your fingertips or with your nails or even with your tuning key. There’s a technique to playing a glissando well.
Perhaps you’ve been puzzled by the different kinds of glissandi or wondered what makes some glissandi sound better than others, The key to making glissando magic can be summed up in one word: move.
MOVE AROUND THE HARP
A glissando is as physical as it is musical. There is actual distance to cover; you start the glissando on one string and end on another. Sometimes harpists don’t take this distance seriously and they try to play the glissando with a twist of the wrist. For a glissando to sound even from one end to the other, you need to maintain the angle of your hand. To keep that angle constant you need to move your arm as you play. Use the natural hinge of your elbow to move your hand up and down the harp. It is your arm, not your hand, that regulates the speed and accuracy of your glissando.
MOVE WITH THE PULSE
Most glissandi occur in tempo; they fit with the pulse of the music. (The most notable exception is a Hollywood style, up-and-down-as-fast-as-you-can glissando at the end of a piece.) Practice your glissando the same way you would practice other notes. Count carefully and match them to the beat.
It may help to practice a glissando passage without the actual slide of the glissando. Simply play the bottom and top notes in rhythm as you play the other hand. That will help you understand how the glissando fits with the other notes. When you are fairly confident that you understand the rhythmic flow of the glissando, then add the slide.
MOVE THE MUSICAL IDEA
Every glissando has a musical purpose. Glissandi are never just unnecessary ornaments. They can serve to intensify a crescendo, release musical tension, create a mysterious atmosphere, or enhance the forward momentum of a melody. It is the player’s responsibility to look for the musical intention behind the glissando and then to play the glissando accordingly.
For instance, an upward glissando may be used to add momentum and drama to a key modulation. In that instance, the glissando needs to crescendo to the top and likely it will need an accelerando as well. So you will start the glissando slowly and increase the speed and dynamic as you approach the top.
Be alert for breaks, holes, or blank spaces in your glissando. These holes typically occur just before the end of a glissando, in the effort to line up the last note of the glissando exactly on the beat. The motion - physical and musical - of a glissando must continue all the way to the end, with no bumps or potholes. Part of the art of glissando playing is to learn to gauge the speed of your glissando to fit the beat. One helpful strategy is to start your glissando a little more slowly so you have enough notes to last all the way to the beat. Then slide fearlessly and without hesitation to the end of the glissando.