We just finished another fun week here at Harp in the Mountains. Harp camp is always fun, and this year I was privileged to have a great group of students. As always, we rehearsed a lot, but we had fun too. And this year’s heat wave made the swimming pool the best place to take a break from practice.
We like to call ourselves the only harp garage band. The garage is a perfect space for us to rehearse as an ensemble and to store the harps. Some years here at harp camp we have enjoyed our pleasant and balmy summer days and rehearsed with the garage doors open. This year, we kept the doors closed and relied on a dehumidifier AND an air conditioner. Even so, we had more string breakage than usual.
You can’t always prevent string breakage. Gut strings especially are vulnerable in hot, humid and changeable conditions. But there are things you can do to keep the inconvenience and expense to a minimum.
1. The obvious: keep your harp indoors, in climate-controlled conditions, and keep it in tune.
Now for the not so obvious:
2. Learn to change your strings and tie them correctly. The correct knot helps reduce the pressure on the string where it goes through the sound board. Follow the recommendations of your harp manufacturer, or follow the directions in a harp method book. Tip: try to make your knot the same size as the ones the manufacturer tied. Knots (or their tails) that are too big may cause a buzz.
3. Always tune with your pedals up or your levers down. Dragging your strings through levers or discs that are engaged causes extra wear on the strings and can misalign your levers or discs. Strings wear out quickly enough by themselves; you don’t need to accelerate the process.
4. Wipe your strings with a clean cloth when you’re finished practicing or playing. If your hands perspire a lot when you play, or if you use hand lotion, you will leave a residue on the strings which can affect their longevity or their sound.
5. Make it a habit to notice the condition of your strings when you tune. You may be able to spot a worn string and change it before it breaks at a less convenient moment (like in the middle of the wedding processional). The most likely wear points will be near the tuning pin, the discs or levers, and by the soundboard.
And lastly, since you can’t prevent breakage altogether:
6. Keep a complete set of replacements. Murphy’s law applies to strings as well as it does to everything else: the string that breaks is the one you don’t have.
7. Organize your strings so you can quickly find the string you need. I keep mine filed by octave, each octave in a separate plastic zip-type bag. You can also buy a string binder that files each string in its own pocket and allows you to see your supply at a glance.
8. Don’t forget to take advantage of the end-of-year string sales.
One last tip. This one seems obvious, but I’ll remind you anyway: thread your string through the soundboard hole from the top before you tie the knot. It’s much easier than trying to get the string into its hole from the back of the harp!