As long as you can tie your shoelaces you can restring a harp. Around 3 mins 4 secs is the description of how to tie the knot. The basic gut string knot is good to start with but if you find your strings are slipping then watch from about 6 mins 45 secs for extra assistant with thin and slippery strings.

Over the past few years I’ve been in the very lucky situation to be written for as a lever harpist as part of a few new commissions. I’ve developed some handy images to try and explain how lever harps work and what is possible to non-harpist composers: a key wheel to show what is easily accessible, and a slightly different way of writing out the same stuff with some fun pentatonics too.


Lever harp key wheel for composers


Recently composers have been writing for me in the extreme ranges of #s & bs. Obviously I don’t have those keys, so whats the best way to write it out? I frequently end up rewriting sections for myself. I have two approaches and sometimes use both:

1, I’m a harmonic and tonal beastie. Knowing my centre and harmonic context is very important to me and my ear so I try to rewrite so this is clear. Gotta love a key sig. This harmonic structure helps me remember and learn pieces. It isn’t always clear from a single part.

2, If the section is in Ab, Db, Gb or related keys then write everything in Eb major (my no levers key) with added sharps / naturals only. This is the simplest set of instructions you can give me with the least processing on my part. For pedal harpists you’d write in C (no key sig) and their pedals can do the work. C is also their central key, pedals go up and down but levers only ever go up.

I’m sure I’ll try new approaches, but for now this is where I’ve got to. Composers: good luck! Check with your lever harpists what they tune into – that’s the key you should be writing in if you would normally give them no key sig.

If you like having music, then here are the dots we used in this morning’s workshop:


Drummond Castle

Bouree by Frederick Paris


So you’ve fallen in love with a harp and you want to buy your first instrument. You’ve decided you want a 34 string harp for it’s balance of range and portability great range, it has lots of lovely bass to play with but you can still get in in a car. A 34 string lever harp is a common size that loads of players play and music is arranged for.

One option is to go second hand, and probably for somewhere between £1000 (very rare), £1200 (more common) and £2000 you’ve got a lot of choice. You need to get acquainted with all the harp makers out there and try and few new instruments beforehand but with time and patience and looking in the right place you can get an instrument for less than £1500.

But what if you don’t want to wait that long, and actually you want a brand new instrument? Here’s a round up of the most economical levers harps to start with.

Camac – Hermine, £1,895, 11kg

Telynau Teifi – SiffSaff, from £1,895, 8kgs

Morley Harps – Ravenna 34 by Dusty Strings, £ 2,200, 8.6kg

Pilgrim Harps – Skylark, £2,220, 8.2kg

Factors to consider for your harp are:
1, Sound – this is the most important thing. Do you like the sound? Does it sound like a harp to you? Does it make you want to play the instrument? Your technique definitely has a big influence on sound quality but some instruments definitely sound brighter, others richer. It comes down to personal preference and the best advice is to try them: go to harp festivals, players meetings, harp shops, talk to people and ask nicely to try.

2, Weight – this probably the next most important decision. The heavier an instrument, the less likely you are going to want to move it: to lessons, to playing groups, to festivals. If you can find a harp you are comfortable moving then a wonderful social world of playing opens up to you! It’s definitely worth trying to lift each instrument. My personal maximum weight is around 14kg which my harp currently weighs. I once moved an electro-acoustic lever harp weighing 25kg and that was very difficult. I’ve put an order in for an electro harp weighing 7kg and I am very much looking forward to that!

3, String tension / feel – this is a big part of the sound and your experience playing the instrument. The higher the string tension, the more effort you need to put into each finger to pull the string and make it ‘sing’ properly. Higher tension instruments (heading towards a pedal harp) tend to be richer in sound and louder. Low tension instruments tend to be brighter and quieter. If you love classical music, go for the depth of tone. If you like trad dance tunes, you definitely want a faster lighter instrument!

4, Height – measure your car and see if you harp fits across the back seats or if you’d need to put the back seats down every time. I buy my cars so I can get one harp plus four people (inc driver) and a PA in – split back seats are great.

So in summary: affordable harps are out there. Try as many as possible and you’ll get your ear in to what you like. Think about the practicalities – by and large, lighter = better. Good luck!

For parents of children in full time education and young people aged 18 – 25 have a look at the Take It Away Scheme ( which can give you an interest free loan. You may also be able to avoid paying VAT with the cooperation of your school – talk to them and the harp shops.

Flash cards, some open some held together with a hairband

One of the most frustrating learning experiences for many pupils is that of learning to read music. It can be hard, especially if you part of the population who don’t find reading in general easy. Unless you target those skills it can take many difficult years for it to become fluent and can adversely affect how pupils relate to their music making. It’s no fun if you’re a teacher of a child who finds it hard either.

Late in the term last summer I got particularly frustrated myself with this problem, and so just tried something new (or new to me at least). I made flash cards of the different notes and started this game with my pupils.

Note time trials

  • Pick your first batch of cards (maybe all the FACE cards for treble clef, maybe notes C – G near middle C that they’re already comfortable with)
  • Go through each card in turn, with the pupil naming the note and finding that specific harp string (e.g. not just any C on the harp)
  • Get your stopwatch ready! Press go:

    • Show each card in turn, the child has to find the exact string first time and name the card
    • If they do, put that card out of the game
    • If they don’t, help them find the right string and name. Add that card to the back of the pack and they have to do it again at the end.
    • Repeat with any cards incorrectly identified…

  • Press stop when they’ve correctly found all notes presented to them and finished their cards
  • I do this three times each lesson, in quick succession, every lesson


It’s all pretty straightforward. If you do it speedily it doesn’t take that long and my pupils enjoy the pace of it, they are playing a game with themselves. I make a note of the times and my pupils can see themselves getting better, getting faster and feeling more confident. You can start to assess what they can and can’t yet read without it seeming intrusive – it’s just normal.

The trick to keeping it fun is to have the right number of cards to work on at any time. I found that the best number of cards was that which took us between 30 – 50 secs to identify. More than a 60 secs and the exercise starts to drag, and the child is often struggling and getting confused. Less than 20 secs generally means it’s time to include more notes. When we can do all of our notes on one clef (generally 2.5 octaves) within 30 secs then I stop with that clef.

I often use this just before we start working on a piece and will target those notes needed. It really helps to boost their confidence with reading for that specific piece. I never expected this but I also found that it boosted the amount of practise my pupils were willing to do without prompting – various parents reported this back to me.

I’ve found this strategy to be a massive step forward for all involved and will be including it from now on for all my pupils who want to learn to read.

If you want an easy to make set of flash cards, try these:

Or you can buy similar here:

Sometimes the best way for your pupils to learn something is not through you! I’ve been having a hunt for online games for reading and key signatures, levers for keys on harp. These are my current favourites:

Staff Wars
This is just so much fun. Available as an app on multiple platforms or as a game on your computer, this easy to customise game has been a hit for note learning and getting your note reading fast. As long as pupils know their notes fast enough that the game isn’t stressful for them, this is a big plus.
There’s so much great stuff here. This is the free to access site from the creators of Tenuto, another app system. Have a browse through for yourself, and if you’re a teacher spot the link to customisable versions of the tests at the bottom. Super handy. The most useful tests for my pupils at the moment are:

Note names (great for pupils needing to take a more gentle approach)
Treble clef starter
Bass clef starter
Both clefs and all the leger lines!

Key signatures:
Major key signatures for harp (Eb major to E major)
Minor key signatures for harp (C min to C# minor)
Now, there was nothing other there for levers on harp. So I had a hunt for customisable educational games and found I’m just starting to use this with my pupils so it’s a bit of an experiment! If you have an feedback let me know.
Harp keys and levers for major keys
Harp keys and levers for minor keys

The best bit is these are all FREE or very close – Staff Wars in £0.79. Enjoy.

I have bought a new harp to do up…

A photo posted by @steph.harp on

The only problem with being a left handed harp player, is that when harp pupils come, your instrument is the wrong way around for them! So I bought a secondhand instrument which needed a bit of love, and I’m gradually doing it up.

Buy a tuning key that fits the pins (useful for other reasons as I also have lots of pupils with camas harps)
Gather all the bits and pieces you need

Today I am taking a note of all the string diameters on the instrument. The exact diameter / gauge / thickness of each string is really important: it is one of the four variables that determines the pitch of the string. Ideally you want to achieve each pitch with the same tension on each string – it makes your harp much more playable. You also don’t want to over tension the instrument as a whole, it will break it. Each harp sound board is designed to take a certain strain, if your new strings put more on than that then it will gradually pull the harp apart.

Next stage:
Figuring out the new stringing pattern

I’m out and about with two christmas shows this December: A Medieval Christmas and A Victorian Christmas. In our yellow van we are visiting most corners of the country. Come and see us for a good night out! Green for Victorian, red for Medieval.

Blast from the Past can be found on Facebook
This year I will have the pleasure of a Christmas tour in good company: the good folks at Blast from the Past have asked me to take part in their two December shows: A Medieval Christmas and A Victorian Christmas. We will be roaming the UK with engaging, stories, dance tunes, lovely vocal harmonies and the odd bit of theatrical nonsense. Come out and see us for a grand night in December.

I am thrilled to announce and share with you all the British Paraorchestra’s Christmas single ‘True Colors’, featuring ParalympicsGB athletes and the Kaos Signing Choir for Deaf and Hearing Children. Proceeds from sales of the single will go towards three causes: supporting the ParalympicsGB team at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, enabling The Kaos Signing Choir for Deaf & Hearing Children to set up a new Saturday Signing Choir and the funding of their next signed song DVD, and the future growth and development of The British Paraorchestra. Please help us to promote it, as it’s available on iTunes from TODAY!