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Dial H for Harp

img  Tobias Fischer

The harp may still not be the most fashionable instrument. But to many music lovers, it is definitely the instrument of choice when it comes to the special occasions in life, be they a reason for celebration or sorrow – from anniversaries and birthdays to rites of passage and funerals. Unfortunately, with the harp community still very much a niche, it has long been hard to find suitable performers for these special moments. For almost two decades, Mark Grimwade has made it his mission to connect harpists and listeners, to find exactly the right performer for an event and to clear up some of the most apparent, long-standing misunderstandings about the instrument. Initially running an entertainment agency, Grimwade found himself increasingly drawn into the sound world of the harp, eventually dedicating his life to it. The Harpist Directory started out as an agency for harpists, but would quickly develop into the UK's biggest booking website.  Today, the directory includes thousands of professional and amateur musicians, some of which operate mainly on a local level, others of which hold recording contracts with major recording companies. The diversity of this roster reflects the diversity of the scene as a whole, which has gradually developed into one of classical music's most versatile communities and expanded into a global grassroot movement. No wonder, then, that the Harpist Directory has long added sections for other countries. That's not just good news for Grimwade and the harpists on the directory, but for listeners as well. The more this frequently misunderstood instrument gets into the spotlight, after, the more it can make every day a special occasion.

You've been running the Harp Directory for a full seventeen years now. What sparked your interest in the harp initially?
Initially we had a live music venue, recording studio and general entertainment agency. One of our clients requested a harpist for an event. At that time we didn’t have any harpists and back then you couldn’t just go on the Internet to find one. After several days of telephoning contacts, we managed to track one down and booked her for the event. This led to another booking in a different area, for which we had to find another harpist. We started to advertise harpists and slowly, the amount of harp bookings started to increase and gradually word of mouth got around amongst the harpists and they then started to contact us. I began to think that there were probably millions of people out there that hadn’t experienced the power of solo harp music and how great it would be, if I could help bringing it to a wider audience by advertising them more prominently.

At the same time our first website had been launched with numerous harpists and from that point The Harpist Directory exploded in to life. It seemed that lots of people now wanted harpists for all kinds of engagement, but no one could find them. We proceeded to track the musicians down in all four corners of the UK. As each harpist came on board I would edit each of their demo sound clips ready for the website. This is where my appreciation of the harp, began and I was hooked. Before this, I would not have sat down and chosen to listen to it.

After many years of making it easier for harpists to get found, collectively our musicians have played in front of 100’s of thousands of people, many of which will have never seen or heard a solo harpist before. This has led to many other people wanting a harpist, because they had seen one at a previous event. This has therefore increased the popularity of harpists and probably inspired many a young musician as well. We now specialise in supplying harpists and harp combinations for weddings, events, promotions, orchestral work, television and recording.

What sets the harp apart from other instruments, do you feel?
Like some other stringed instruments such as the violin, cello and guitar, the harp has a great subconscious effect on how you feel emotionally; the music really gets in to your soul. The harp, having many more strings, is much more versatile and it has a more comforting effect with its wide range of exquisite tones that the other instruments don’t have. Unlike most other instruments, the harp also has massive visual impact in a room. This makes you watch the harpist and therefore you tend to listen more intently. As your brain is receiving audible and visual stimulus, it has more impact on the listener. Of course the beautiful sound generated by the harp is a major part of its effect.

How did you come up with the idea for the directory and how did the site get started?
There was never a ‘eureka’ moment as such, it really happened by accident. The more harpists we had, the more bookings we were able to achieve and therefore more people saw harpists performing, thus creating more bookings and so on.
I felt our service was important because the demand from the public was there for the live performances, but the musicians were not accessible. This was not only bad for harpists but for live music in general. If you read many of the customer reviews, you will see that many clients say how moving and emotional the harp music made them feel and that many guests say how fantastic the harp music was. Be it a proposal, wedding, anniversary, funeral or birthday people tend to book a harpist for major personal milestones in their life. They often comment that the harp made the event extra special and the harpist will have given them an experience they will treasure for the rest of their lives. To touch a person’s life with music in such a positive and personal way is something very special. Though I’m not the harpist, I feel honoured that we have helped create special moments in so many people’s lives.

In terms of visitors and bookings, how has the website developed over the years?
Having to deal with so many clients for one subject over a long period of time, it gives you a unique perspective on what makes a client want to book a particular harpist. You begin to see patterns of behaviour emerging, that individual harpists never get to see. The Harpist Directory has had to evolve with the growth of the Internet and deal with the changes in the way people think. We have made efforts to improve the information we supply for each musician to fit the many different things that make people want to make a booking. This has been very hard, as trying to convince the musicians that they need to improve their promotional material in certain ways, to react to the changes the Internet has created, is very difficult to say the least.

A good example would be their photographs. Before the Internet, if someone was going to book a harpist, they would usually meet with them before making a booking. This face to face contact normally instills a subconscious rapport and trust between the client and the musician. With Internet bookings, this does not happen in the same way, so you have to combat this by making sure each individual’s promotional material has nearly the same effect. We have been sent many photos by harpists that are terrible. One was a photo of her at home on her sofa dressed in an old thick woollen jumper. We have had several pictures of the musician showing the back of their head while playing the harp. The most common, usually taken by professional photographers, are either looking away from the camera or looking down at the floor.
It is extremely important that a photo shows you looking direct at the camera so that when someone looks at the picture, you are looking straight in to their eyes. Equally important is a friendly smile.

Those harpists that supply us with the right type of photo tend to get the bulk of the bookings. There are several other factors that can make a difference and those that listen to us, usually reap the rewards. Many musicians think that it is the way that they play their instrument, their qualifications, the major events they have performed at, or the famous people they have played for, is enough to make someone book them. In other circumstances this can be true, but when a potential client is comparing you side by side against other harpists, other things have to be taken in to consideration.

More often than not, clients who are booking for an event are not musicians. People who are not musicians listen to music differently to those who are musicians. So a musician, when listening to a demo sound clip, will judge the harpist almost note by note and if there are any mistakes, they will spot them. However, the average client won’t spot this and will make a judgement based on the overall sound of the track and other things like the photo, etc.

We have got some amazing harpists on the directory, who are extremely experienced and at the top of their field, but it is quite common for a client to pick a harpist who can’t play as well, even though they are charging more than the better, more experienced musician. I’m not saying they are making the right decision or the wrong decision. They are making the decision that they feel is right for them, based on the information the harpist has supplied us for the website. It is important to note, that we still get glowing letters of recommendation from happy clients, for the less experienced harpists. Don’t get me wrong, the less experienced ones are fully qualified and still very good at what they do, it’s just that some are brilliant or have that special touch on the strings.

There are two areas where the website expanded in slightly unexpected ways.

We started to see an increase in the request for harpists at funerals, which we had not seen previously, though as people frequently book them for personal / emotional / romantic events, I suppose that funerals were a natural progression and now we have an area of the directory for funeral harpists. The most surprising, was the sudden growth of Bollywood music. Over the last 10 years we have seen a sharp increase in the requests for harpists that could play Bollywood music.  As the pedal harp is not a traditional Indian instrument this was quite strange. We have had to keep pressurising harpists to add this to their repertoire to cope with the demand and we now have a separate area of the website for Bollywood harpists.

How is the international section of the site progressing? What's still in store for the directory in the future?
The international section of the site took off very well initially, but slowed down when I had to focus on other areas. As this is a non-profit section of the site, I can only work on it as time allows and at the moment it is in short supply. Our statistics show that the international section is getting used quite a bit, so it is still high on our list of improvements, along with a total redesign / modernisation of the whole website. Though with just under 1000 pages this is a major project. Though we have harpists in numerous countries listed already, in the future, we want to expand on this, as well as more listings for harp manufacturers and everything else to do with the harp. So if anyone has something to offer the harping fraternity, they are welcome to submit their details via the website.

You've dedicated an entire FAQ to typical questions about the harp and harpists ('Can they play in one room and then move to another?'). Are you finding that there are a lot of misunderstandings with regards to this instrument?
Yes very much so. People don’t understand the amount of training it needs to become a professional harpist. The costs involved for teaching and the renting or purchase of the instrument are astronomical compared to other instruments. Add maintenance, insurance and even the larger size vehicle needed to transport it around, it really does mount up.

Clients are increasingly asking the musicians to play outside. Some harpists will refuse point blank. These are often those that have had damage to the harp, which can cost a small fortune to repair. Clients don’t understand that a good harp can cost more than a family car and that sunlight and moisture can seriously damage the instrument. Even if cover is provided, a cool breeze can make the hands very cold and stiff, which is not good when you are trying to play the harp. This aside many harpists continue to play outside, as long as they are protected from the elements and that there is a bad weather contingency in place if conditions change. Some people assume that a harp can’t be moved up and down stairs because of its size, but harpists do this all the time, either with help from someone or by using a specialist stair trolley for the harp. There are some occasions where they are asked to play in something like the tower of a castle and there is only a winding narrow staircase. In instances like this, a Celtic harp would be required.

Customers also assume that because it is so big, that you can’t just move the harp from one room to another as needed, but the harpists are very experienced at this.

Why, would you say, is the harp still such an undervalued instrument in many respects?
Though the harp is now often used in a wide range of music from classical, folk and even in a little rock and rap, it is still an ‘elite’ instrument. Though the Celtic harp is reasonably low cost and easily accessible, the larger concert or pedal harp is extremely expensive, which means only a limited number of privileged people are able to afford to buy one. There are a few organisations around the world that award funds to young musicians from less privileged backgrounds, to enable them to get their own instrument, but this is very limited. There is probably a piano / keyboard and violin in every school in the UK, but to find a harp in a school is very rare and in most cases, if you did, it would be an expensive private school. So poor accessibility to the instrument means there are only a few harpists around, compared to other musicians. It is because of its rarity that it will never be valued by the general public on mass, purely because they rarely get to experience its music. They may get to hear it in an orchestra when its sound is mixed in with other instruments, but unless a person makes an effort to go to a harp recital or they hear one at an event, they will never experience the warmth of sound you get from a harp being played live.

We are regularly contacted by people trying to find a harp teacher in their area and we help them where we can. However, there are many areas of the UK where there are no local harpists and because of travel, the cost per lesson is too high for people to afford or the harpist / client does not want to travel, so many people can’t learn the instrument, even if they want to.

Interest in Harp Music therapy seems to be growing. What exactly will this therapy look like in practise, who is it for and why is the harp such an ideal instrument for therapeutic purposes?
Harp music can be used on humans and animals in different ways. In humans harp music has been proven to increase relaxation and improve a person’s mood. So playing to patients with mental problems can be very beneficial. In a clinical environment it has been shown to stabilise a patients vital signs, as the brain ‘de-stresses‘. For those that suffer from anxiety or sleeping problems the harp is known to reduce the heart rate and induce a state of relaxation, reducing anxiety and helping them sleep. Studies have been done which have shown that when harp music has been played to patients who have had heart problems or heart surgery, they have been helped by reducing their stress, allowing them to heal quicker.
Some of the harpists on our directory are occasionally asked by hospitals and nursing homes to come and play for the patients when needed, but it is still quite new in the UK, though in the USA it is much more common.

When a seriously ill patient is close to death they are often distressed and in pain. A harpist playing near the bedside can actually reduce pain, calm the patient and allow them to pass peacefully. It also helps family members who are present. It is thought that playing live is more beneficial as the vibrations generated by the harp are very important as part of the relaxation process.
Harpists have also been known to play in veterinary hospitals where the animals have shown the same response as humans. It is a known fact that music can increase or decrease the heart rate and as all music lovers know, music can get right inside of you, so it’s not surprising that it has health benefits. I know music makes me feel good!  

In a bid of finding fresh sounds and attracting new audiences, some harpists have started looking for alternative approaches. What's your perspective on harp quartets, electric/amplified harps or exotic combinations with other instruments?
At the end of last year and early this year I spent around two months trawling the Internet reading harpists websites and forums and listening to some new sounds. This opened up a whole new world of harp projects, new styles and new ideas that I never knew existed.

Throughout the ages, people have created new instruments, new sounds and new styles and without people experimenting 100’s of years ago we would have not experienced the classical masters or contemporary music as we know it today.
As much as some of the traditionalists would like things to stay as they are, musicians are naturally creative and for the future good of music these new sounds deserve to be heard and encouraged. The many harp collaborations around and the modern electric harps can only have a positive effect on the popularity of the harp, creating new interest and new audiences. From our perspective we feel The Harpist Directory has done the same thing by making harpists more accessible, we have introduced not only the harp but live classical music to people of all ages that would not have listened to it otherwise.

Everybody who has a television in their home listens to classical music and classical musicians every day. Even those that would say, ‘I don’t like classical music’ listen and enjoy it every time they watch TV or a movie. The only problem is they don’t realise they are listening to it. Pretty much every programme you watch, in the background, there is carefully orchestrated music, designed to manipulate your emotions with the ups and downs of the plot. Music can make you sad or happy, it can calm you down or excite you. This is all going on at a subconscious level, but it’s there.

How many male harpists do you have in your directory?
A subject we have discussed many times here in the office!

We only have a mere 4 male harpists in the UK section of the directory. The most obvious reason for this is there are far less male pedal harpists in the UK, than there are female. This seems to be true in other countries around the world as well.
In my opinion this is down to sexual stereo typing, as the harp is one of those instruments which most people would associate with a particular gender. If you were to ask a group of men and women to imagine a drummer playing the drums, most, if not all, would picture a man, because the drums is typically thought of as a masculine instrument. The harp however, conjures up a vision of an attractive woman with long flowing hair and a pretty gown. It is this image, along with the soft delicate tones of the harp, which I think, attracts young girls to the instrument initially. The pedal harp has to be one of the most difficult and demanding instruments to learn, which I suppose, is what makes it less appealing to young boys who would rather learn something easier and a little less feminine. You would think that such a large, heavy and cumbersome instrument would be a deterrent to many girls, but this does not seem to be an issue.

The effect of the stereo type does not seem to stop there. This also extends to many people who are booking a harpist as well. Many clients are trying to create a certain atmosphere and they also have the same pre-conceived idea of what a harpist will look like at their event. Our female clients, many of which are brides to be, want everything at their wedding to be pretty and romantic, so more often than not they want a female harpist.

Don’t get me wrong, the male harpists all have successful careers. Each of them are in different parts of the UK and they all have their only little niche within their region. We always present our clients with a choice of harpists for their event and in the vast majority of cases, given the choice between male and female they choose a female harpist.

By Tobias Fischer
Image by Mtorrite / Wikipedia

Homepage: Harp Directory

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