Hands on Harps: Bringing harps to the masses
13:17 17 January 2017
© Thousand Word Media
Folk singer Chantelle Smith visits local business Hands on Harps to find out how they are making harp playing accessible to all
There are few instruments in the world that can match the harp for ethereal beauty and the way it captures the imagination. Now Hands on Harps, a small business based in Nailsworth, is working to make playing the harp accessible to all those who want to learn.
I was 11 years old when a folk singer and harpist from the Isle of Man came to my school and enchanted my class with her songs and music. That day I fell in love with the harp. The only snag was that, in my 11-year-old mind, I thought the harp would be too expensive an instrument to play so it was not until a few weeks before my 30th birthday that I bought my first harp and began to fulfil a long-held ambition.
“People have in their heads that harps are expensive, fragile and difficult, and we want to put all those ideas to rest,” explains Creag Louttit-Vermaat of Hands on Harps, a harp-making and teaching business, when I went along to visit him and colleague Charlie at the community workshop in the Nailsworth Subscription Rooms where the harps are made. If only my 11-year-old self had been able to hear that!
The spark of inspiration for setting up Hands on Harps came during the years Creag and his partner, harpist Morwenna, were travelling around the world with their instruments. A combination of people asking Morwenna for lessons while on their journeys, Creag’s experience of learning to play the guitar by watching YouTube videos, and a gap in the market for affordable mid-range harps gave them the idea of not only offering harp lessons through online videos, but also well-made, sturdy instruments on which to learn. In 2013, Hands on Harps was born and in early 2015 it relocated to Nailsworth.
The costs of creating the 27-string ‘Morwenna Rose’ harps is kept down by the use of computing technology to cut out the wooden components of the harp from plywood, with the assembly and finishing of the instruments done by hand. The result is a beautiful, lightweight but clear-sounding instrument.
“We make them out of plywood because we really want people to just be able to take the harps with them,” Creag told me. One of the Hands on Harps students in Switzerland did just that recently, sending in a video of themselves playing a tune learned in online lessons at a beautiful spot in a forest by a lake.
Trying out one of the recently made nylon-strung Morwenna Rose harps in the workshop, I found it to have a very sweet, bright sound and I couldn’t help but smile as the waltz I was playing echoed around the room. Having seen and played the harp in person, I wanted to know a little more about the way the online lessons worked.
“Morwenna has made a series of videos starting for completely beginners .. every week you get a new set of lessons that just progressively get slightly harder,” Creag explains. While Hands on Harps was set up as a company for complete beginners, three years down the line some of the students are now at intermediate level of harp playing so there is a range of playing abilities that the company caters for.
The video lessons focus mostly on Morwenna’s hands as she shows students how to use the correct techniques to play their instrument. The lessons are taught in this way so students don’t have to learn to read music; all songs and exercises are taught aurally and through example. At the end of the first year, students spend their last month learning to play ‘Planxty George Brabazon,’ a very bright sounding reel written by Irish harper and composer Turlough O’Carolan.
Surprisingly, very few of the students at Hands on Harps are children, although Morwenna and other harpists affiliated with the company have visited some nearby schools. About a third of the Hands on Harps students are actually retired which brings home the point that it is possible to learn, and enjoy playing, the harp at any age.
Although students don’t get the immediate feedback of a face-to-face lesson with a teacher, Creag says there are some real benefits from learning from the video lessons provided by Hands on Harps. In addition to being able to learn the harp anywhere in the world, learning by video is perfect for allowing pupils to remind themselves of the pieces and techniques by playing the videos to jog their memory while in the comfort of their own homes. Video lessons also provide a relaxed method of learning for people who get nervous under the gaze of a teacher. While feedback may not be immediate, it is still available to students who are encouraged to send in videos of themselves playing the harp so that Creag and Morwenna can reply with encouragement and suggestions for improvement.
For students in the Nailsworth area, Morwenna also offers group lessons in a Harp Orchestra which provides some face-to-face teaching and the chance to meet other students and play together.
With all this going on, it’s clear that Hands on Harps is set to go from strength to strength, and I asked Creag what the next big project was going to be.
“The next thing we’ll be doing is developing a 34-string harp with levers,” Creag replied as he gave me a sneak preview of the plans for the new harp. The 34-string harp will allow the intermediate students to buy or rent an instrument with which to progress as harpists.
In addition to that, in 2017 Creag and Morwenna will be taking their beautiful harps to Nailsworth Festival, Stroud Fringe Festival and Port Eliot Festival to run workshops, so if any readers have wondered what it would be like to play the harp then I strongly suggest you keep an eye out for any Hands on Harps workshops coming to your area.
To find out more about Hands on Harps then visit their website www.handsonharps.com and follow them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/handsonharps. Harp Orchestra takes place on Wednesday evenings at the Nailsworth Subscription Rooms and is open to people of all abilities. A package to rent a harp and have lessons costs £40 a month. Check the website for costs of purchasing harps and lessons.
Chantelle Smith (chantellesmith.co.uk) is a folk singer whose particular loves are traditional ballads. She performs solo, as a member of Talis Kimberley’s band and with Kevan Manwaring in the song/storytelling duo Bríghid’s Flame. She has been fulfilling her childhood dream of learning to play the harp since 2014.