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If you thought the harp is merely stroking the strings, think again. TSO Principal Harpist Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton explains.

If you thought the harp is merely stroking the strings, think again. TSO Principal Harpist Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton explains. featured image

So I was on Facebook recently, and I came across a short video clip that stopped me cold. I love it when this happens, because I’ve been involved with classical music for a long time, and I love being delighted by something I’ve never seen before.

Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra‘s Principal Harp, posted a short clip of a rehearsal for a concert recently presented by Trio Arkel. I’ve never seen the harp played from this angle – from between the ankles! I  was also reminded that pianos and organs aren’t the only instruments with pedals. When I saw Heidi’s post, I immediately bombarded her with questions and asked for more information. She kindly wrote me back the following article. The harp sounds really hard – like riding a motorcycle while balancing plates on sticks on your head.

***

The piece is Trio for Harp, Violin & Cello by Henriette Renié. Every time you see a red capital letter in the music is a “shift” or “pedal change” that I’m doing with my feet. In this particular excerpt, I’m getting 36 pedal changes in 15 seconds.

The pedals control the accidentals (sharps and flats) within the key of the piece. There are seven pedals, one for every note of the diatonic scale. Using my left foot I control three of them: D, C & B. With my right I control E, F, G & A.

I have my students use the following phrase to remember the order of pedals:
Did
Columbus
Bring
Enough
Food
Going to
America

Each pedal is connected to a rod which runs up the length of the hollow column and then connects to discs on the “neck” of the harp. The C pedal affects all C’s on the harp. When a pedal is depressed or released, it triggers the action on the discs which raise or lower the pitch by shortening (or lengthening) the length of the string.

There are three positions that each pedal can be in: flat on top, natural in the middle, sharp on the bottom. It’s extremely important to coordinate pedal changes rhythmically, otherwise the harpist risks making loud sounds / buzzes with the mechanism. Sometimes a composer will include these sounds as extended techniques, as in a pedal slide in a more jazzy passage, but in general, we endeavor to pedal silently!

It’s very challenging on the harp to play chromatically (every note in a row, consecutively – not in a pattern that would make up a scale or other passage). We have a total of 47 strings.

***

Heidi, thank you for the harp tutorial! She will be featured as soloist with the TSO in Mozart’s Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra with new Principal Flutist Kelly Zimba on March 9, 2019 at 7:30 PM and March 10, 2019 at 3 PM, with conductor is Gemma New. Also on the program is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.

Below is the video that caught my eye. Note she is doing this in HEELS.

See you at the Symphony!

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