Let’s find your center.
No, this is not a post about meditation or focus or concentration. It’s about something much more practical: how you should center your body at the harp.
Maybe you’ve had an experience like this one. You watch a video of yourself playing the harp. It’s difficult enough to watch and listen to yourself but what makes it even worse is that something looks wrong. You can’t quite identify it, but you just don’t look like those harpists you watch on YouTube. It looks like you’re uncomfortable at the harp, although you’re not aware of any discomfort while you’re playing. Possibly when you close your eyes and just listen, your playing even sounds pretty good. So why do you look so awkward?
Naturally the longer you play your instrument, the more natural your playing will look. Often, though, it’s your posture at the harp which makes you look uncomfortable. It may be the source of difficulties in your playing too, such as issues with music reading, tension, facility and speed.
One of the first things all beginning harpists discover is that the harp is an awkward instrument. If you remember back to your first days with the harp, you may recall your feeling of excitement when you sat at the harp for the first time, followed quickly by the unaccustomed feeling of the harp on your right shoulder with your left hand in front of you and your right hand hidden on the other side of the strings. It’s a pose that feels far from natural.
And that’s just the start. The asymmetry of the harp means that we don’t have an optimal view of the strings. Unlike a pianist who sits facing the middle of the keyboard, we harpists sit behind the harp and a little to one side, giving us a more or less perpendicular view of the strings. It would be so much easier to face the strings, but the harp isn’t built that way.
I remember long ago watching one harpist play, and as her performance went on, she shifted on her bench so that by the end of the piece she was balancing the harp on her right arm instead of her shoulder and her entire body was turned to face the strings. I grant you that sitting behind the harp isn't comfortable at first, but it’s much more comfortable in the long run than trying to play the harp sitting “side saddle.” Centering yourself at the harp is essential, physically and musically.
Henriette Renié writes in her “Complete Method for Harp,” that the harpist should place the harp “very straight in front of the right shoulder,” so that the harp is not on a slant in relation to the body. She also lists six reasons why it is important to sit behind the harp, not turned to face the strings, among them being able to see both hands and the music without turning your head and having your right arm free to play, instead of having the harp rest on it.
The 19th century harpist and teacher Bochsa noted that “it must be absolutely avoided” to have the harp rest on the arm rather than the shoulder to avoid fatigue and to allow for correct hand position.
In “Method for the Harp” by Lucile Lawrence and Carlos Salzedo the direction is very clear; “the harp must rest on the right shoulder “as near the neck of the player as possible.” The authors also note that this position may feel awkward “merely because it is new.”
Check your posture at the harp. Are you as straight behind the harp as possible? You might experiment by putting both hands on the strings and shifting your body to the left, turning to face the strings. Note the difference in the freedom of your right arm, the torque in your back, the twist of your head to face your music.
Now move back to center and notice how much more aligned your entire body feels, even if you don’t feel you can see the strings as well. No need to worry; that’s what practice is for!
NOTE: Being centered at the harp is critical to playing well. This is true no matter what kind of harp or size of harp you play. Correct seat height is equally important with a number of points for discussion. In fact, just about the only point of agreement among the experts is that it depends on the physical build of the individual harpist. I will attempt to clarify some of those points in my next post.