Willoughby: Harps: hard to play — hard to move | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Harps: hard to play — hard to move

Harpist practicing on tent stage in the 1970s. Courtesy photo by Willoughby

My first year working for the Aspen Music Festival in 1966 included moving equipment. It was a surprise as I was the youngest member of the crew, but I think I was given the task because I was the only local and presumably knew my way around town. I hauled the campus garbage to the dump once a week, moved percussion equipment back and forth from the campus and the tent, and my favorite, I hauled harps.

The Festival truck was a 1950s Chevy that had seen better days. Every fender had a dent, there were holes in the floorboard so you could see the road below as you drove, and the bed also had a few holes. Harpists were surprised when I, just a kid, in a beat up old truck, arrived to move their precious harps. It was clear, at least the first time, they were afraid of trusting me with the task. The margin of safety, at least from their perspective, was that I moved them in their travel cases. However, the cases doubled the weight and were longer than the short bed of the truck so they hung over the back. I had to tie them down so they wouldn’t fall off.

In the process I became fascinated by the instrument and the difficulties harpists faced, especially after I began working at the tent where I moved the harps on and off the stage. If the backstage and stage were all on the same level you could put a harp on a dolly and move it, but the tent stage had several levels so I had to hand carry the 80-pound instruments, a challenge because you had to hold them away from your body in an awkward position (a task only for young backs).

The backstage of the tent housed harps and lessons were sometimes given there rather than moving the harps back and forth so I enjoyed hours of listening to them. The harp instructor at that time was Marcelle DeCray, a longtime instructor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. One summer she had a concert with all of her students performing at the same time, there were eight or ten.

A concert harp, also called a pedal harp, has 47 strings. Tuning is a tedious job. Seven pedals allow the changing of the pitch. Pressing a pedal moves a rod inside of the harp’s column. The rods are what make a harp weigh so much, nearly all the weight is in the column. That is also the source of problems for the harp. One of the more fascinating times I experienced was seeing a harp specialist dismantle a harp to fix a bent/stuck rod.

A pianist plays the piano of the concert hall and has to adapt to its idiosyncrasies. Aspen’s harpsichordists shipped their own harpsichords disassembled in large cases, but the musician had his/her own instrument. One, owned by Fernando Valenti, ended up in the Roaring Fork when the Rio Grand Railway delivery truck veered into the river. It had to be painstakingly rebuilt from the water damage. String bases are large, but not particularly heavy. They would be shipped to Aspen in large trunks, some wood ones similar to the harp trunks. One bass was damaged when the case was penetrated. Harps are in between pianos and bases, needing trunks to ship them, and often help moving them because they are heavy, but the musician can play their own instrument.

Next time you attend a Festival symphony concert focus on the harp and harpist. Every musician and instrument on stage contributes to your enjoyment, but the harp and harpists are special.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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