- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2002

Cynthia Cathcart of Silver Spring is often asked what a clarsach is. She's used to it, being one of only about 200 people in the world who play the instrument. A clarsach (pronounced CLAIR-SAWCH) is a Scottish harp with wire strings. The vast majority of harpers in the world play on nylon strings, so the instrument is quite a rarity.
But describing it? That's easy.
"It's the harp that you see on the flag of Ireland," she says. "It's the harp you see on a bottle of Guinness."
Both are perfect illustrations. The Irish may have a tradition of revelry, which is celebrated every St. Patrick's Day, but they have an equally strong tradition for the harp. In fact, there may not be as strong a connection between an instrument and a country in the rest of the world, except for Scotland and the bagpipes.
"Ireland and Scotland, especially the Highlands of Scotland, are famous for having a harp tradition," says Ann Heymann, a professional harper in Minnesota who has researched and written about the harp for more than 20 years. "And it's a tradition that goes way back in Celtic history."
It's also a tradition that more and more people are discovering, particularly in this area. The Washington Area Folk Harp Society boasts a membership of about 250 and is one of the largest harp organizations in the country, according to founder Sue Richards. No one can quite explain the fascination with this ancient instrument, other than to note the strong Irish and Scottish culture in the area. But even that doesn't explain it all.
"I don't know what it is, frankly," says Mrs. Richards, one of the top folk harpers in the country. "But it is amazing how many people come up and say they always wanted to play the harp. I moved to this area 20 years ago and hardly anybody was playing the harp. But as soon as I started teaching, people seemed to start taking it up. Now there really is an availability of harps in the area and teachers in the area. Everything seems to have come together in this area."

You could call it a musical love affair. Gayl McDermott tries to explain her relationship to her harp, and as the words tumble out, it becomes evident that "love affair" is almost a literal term.
"There's a real passion to it," says the Gaithersburg resident. "You really get into it. Part of it is the way you play, the way you hold it. You're actually hugging it. Your ear is pressed against it sometimes and the sound just comes right through to your ear that way. People name their harps, they get that personal with them. It's hard to explain."
Mrs. Cathcart agrees.
"We all laugh about it," she says. "We laugh about what other peoples' instruments are named. I mean, how many people would name their piano? There's a very large romantic feature to playing [the harp]."
Many people probably think of the harp in terms of the large instruments they see in the back of a symphony orchestra. Those harps are called "pedal" harps because musicians change keys by using pedals at the base. They have 48 strings, weigh about 80 pounds and can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000.
Most folk harp players, such as those who belong to the Washington Area Folk Harp Society, play a Celtic or lever harp, which uses levers at the top of the instrument to change keys. They look a little like the symphony orchestra pedal harps, but they weigh much less (20 to 30 pounds) and cost much, much less ($3,000 to $5,000).
Some musicians, particularly beginners, play a lap harp, which has even fewer strings (20 to 30) and costs around $1,000.
"It's a very flexible instrument," Mrs. Cathcart says. "It's kind of fun that way, too. I've had people come up to me and say they want to play the instrument, but they're all so big. I say, 'How about if we find one that fits you just right?' The whole Celtic folk harp tradition is like that. You can buy an instrument within a range and size that fits you."
Harps (and drums) are probably the oldest musical instruments known to man. Crude harps and lyres can be found on Egyptian and Mesopotamian tablets dating from almost 3000 B.C.
But Ireland is where the harp tradition found its real home. Mrs. Heymann says there are pictures of harps in Ireland from as far back as A.D. 1000.
"That's when you first start to see the depiction of the harp that Ireland and Scotland are famous for," says Mrs. Heymann. "But in musicology, you have to assume it takes about 100 years for instruments to develop to the point where you see them in artwork, so we assume the harp existed in some form as early as the early 900s."
The first "professional" Irish harpers played for kings and aristrocrats and were honored above the rest of their musical peers. Many of them were blind as a result of smallpox and other diseases ravaging the land at the time.
The "Shakespeare" of Irish harp music was undoubtedly Turlough O'Carolan, who lived from 1670 to 1738. O'Carolan, like many of his fellow harpers, was blind, but he wrote some of the country's greatest music for the harp.
Despite O'Carolan's genius and influence, by the end of the 18th century harp music was dying out. The harp tradition had always been an oral one, so there was little music recorded on paper to pass on. The influence of the Irish clans and nobility began to break up in the 1700s, and harp playing became more of an itinerant, rural pursuit, so fewer people took it up.
To preserve the tradition, harpers organized the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792 and hired a young church organist named Edward Bunting to write down the music performed by those who attended and played.
"They wanted to try to preserve what they could of what was left of an oral culture," Mrs. Cathcart says.
The festival drew fewer than 20 harp players, but Bunting was so fascinated by the music that he dedicated the rest of his life to preserving it. He published three collections of harp music over the next 40 years and almost single-handedly kept the Irish harping tradition alive.
"He basically turned an oral history into a written one," Mrs. Cathcart says.
His efforts were aided by Denis Hempson, who was already 97 when he attended the Belfast Harp Festival. He was the last of the "old-time" harpers but astonishingly, he lived another 15 years after the festival, dying in 1807 at the age of 112. Bunting wrote down many of the songs Hempson played from memory.

Many students of the harp say they were inspired to learn to play it not because of any Irish or Scottish ancestry or interest in anything Gaelic, but simply because of the instrument's sound.
Mrs. Richards started out as a concert harper, but said she never quite liked it. She discovered folk music and "fell in love with it." So did Jane Twomey, a professor of communications at American University and a relative beginner as a harp player. She not only loved the sound of the harp, she found physical benefits from playing it.
"I developed a rheumatoid problem in my hands a lot of stiffness, migraines, that sort of thing," Mrs. Twomey says. "I joked about playing the harp. My husband went out and got me a little lap harp the Christmas before last, and I found that playing it was a soothing experience. My hands really felt better when I played. I'd play it all day if I could."
Many harpers say the sound encourages them to keep playing, even when the notes are off.
"Even when you're tuning it, it sounds good," says Linda Titolo, a harp teacher in Arlington. "And unlike the violin, where you have to be very precise about where you put your fingers to get the right note, the harp is at the other end of the spectrum. It's not difficult to get a pleasant note."
That doesn't surprise veteran harpers like Mrs. Cathcart, who says the harp "sells itself."
"You hear it, and it has such a marvelous sound," says Mrs. Cathcart, who earned the title of master harper from the Scottish Harp Society of America in 2000. "I think it's just a fantastic instrument. Every day it seems like somebody's contacting me who's heard about it and wants to start playing it."
The Washington Area Folk Harp Society holds many workshops through the year for harpers to get together, learn new songs and techniques, and learn from accomplished players who are touring through the area. The society will hold a benefit concert on May 11 in Arlington, with many of the group's members planning to perform. Proceeds from the concert will be used to provide scholarships for members to study at workshops abroad.
Mrs. Richards, who founded the society in the early 1980s, says the fact that this year just about all the benefit concert's performances will be given by area musicians is an example of how much the society has grown in recent years.
"We used to have people from the outside come in and perform," she says. "But we're at a point now where we really don't have to do that. The group has really taken off in the last four or five years. We were very informal for the first eight or 10 years, but we finally started electing officers and decided to get serious about it, and it's really changed."
Laura Wahba of Gaithersburg took up the harp about seven months ago because of her interest in Irish music and says the society has helped her make friends in the harp world.
"I've always been interested in Irish music, and workshops give you a chance to play with other beginners and make new friends," she says.
Most members of the Washington Area Folk Harp Society play Irish or Scottish folk songs, but they also like the versatility of the instrument.
"You can play almost anything with it, Mrs Cathcart says. "You can play dance music, marches, laments."
That includes "Strangers in the Night." Kathy Chanik, a member of the society who lives in Fairfax, says she was performing on the harp in Las Vegas one night when the members of the glam-rock group Kiss walked in and requested that song.
"I swear that's a true story," she says, laughing.

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