- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2002

The good news about learning to play the harp is the plethora of styles of instruments to suit any beginner's taste. The bad news, which probably won't come as much of a surprise to many, is that the hobby isn't exactly cheap.
The large instruments harpers play in symphony orchestras cost around $30,000, but most Irish and Scottish folk harpers play instruments that cost a fraction of that. Still, be prepared to shell out.
"My harps are cheap by comparison [to the symphony orchestra harps]," says Cynthia Cathcart, a professional harper in Silver Spring who plays the clarsach, a Scottish harp with wire strings. "It's very much like buying a piano. You can get a very fine professional harp for $1,000. You can also spend $7,000."
Unlike the piano, Mrs. Cathcart says, harps come in such different sizes and styles that harpers can easily find one to suit their taste, budget and even body size.
"With a piano, you're locked into 88 keys and the same general size," Mrs. Cathcart says. "But I have a harp I used to perform in a concert that had only 19 strings. It stands about a foot and a half high. It's not that expensive, because it doesn't have volumes of wood."
David Crookston, a harp teacher in Woodbridge, Va., says beginning harpers should try different instruments to decide what they like, because each one has its own distinctive sound.
"Everybody has their own preferences about what they like to hear," Mr. Crookston says. "And everything sounds different on every harp, even from the same maker. You might play one you like, then another one just like it might sound different. It's nice to have a little playing experience to know what you like, then go out and make a purchase."
The House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park (301/270-9090) has different kinds of folk harps for purchase or rent, and it can help provide lessons through Sharon Knowles, a Germantown resident who plays and teaches the harp. Rental prices at HMT are around $60 for two months, but Mr. Crookston says renting can be a hassle, and he encourages prospective harp players to attend various concerts and workshops in the area to find what they like.
"If you go to events like that, typically you can sit down and ask the performers if you can play a song on their harp," he says. "Everybody is usually pretty good about letting people try out their harps. So you can go around and try them out, and you'll find out you like this one and you don't like this one. I have a little rental fleet myself, and I keep sending them out, but it is such a hassle to rent them sometimes."
The Washington Area Folk Harp Society and the Scottish Harp Society of America are also good resources to find rental harps and teachers. The WAFHS newsletter, which comes out quarterly, always includes a list of area teachers. Interested beginners can get a copy by calling the society's newly elected president, Judith Schwartz, at 703/461-1724 or e-mailing her at [email protected]
The Scottish Harp Society has a Web site where prospective students can find teachers (www.shsa.org/teachers.html). There are six in the Washington area, including Mr. Crookston and Mrs. Cathcart.
The Virginia Harp Center in Midlothian, Va., maintains a list of teachers grouped by area and specialty, as well as a large quantity of rental harps. The Harp Center can be reached at 888/378-3761 or on the Web at www.vaharpcenter.com.
Sue Richards, one of the area's foremost harpers and a teacher herself, says prospective students should try out different teachers before settling with one they like. Because private lessons can cost up to $60 an hour, she says, compatibility is especially important.
"Find somebody you can really work with," Mrs. Richards says. "Personality is so important. I would always say that. Don't just take the first person available."

Mark Stewart

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