Harp on a dream

Aruna Subramanyam | Updated on September 18, 2020 Published on September 18, 2020

Thank you for the music: History tells us that the harp also has an India connection   -  ISTOCK.COM

A fascination for the piano blossomed into a relationship with a vastly different instrument. Notes from a harpist’s musical journey

* It started out harder than I expected. My fingers hurt a lot, note reading was a challenge and learning Western classical music on the harp was — and still is — like picking up a new language.

“When you play, never mind who listens to you” — Robert Schumann. This is precisely how my harp journey started — to learn to play only for myself. Born and raised in a Tamil Brahmin family in Bengaluru, music has always been a part of my life. I woke up to Carnatic hymns by MS Subbulakshmi and listened to film songs composed by Ilayaraja. I watched in awe as my music teacher in kindergarten played the piano. I wanted to learn the instrument, too, but I was busy with my lessons in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. Later, studies took precedence and there was no time for the piano.

An opportunity arose when my husband and I moved to the US in 2007. I joined a community college to learn to play the piano. To my horror, the kids there already knew how to play the instrument and were there only for extra credit. My instructor tried hard to help me but I just could not get my hands to move together. I gave up. My lifelong dream wasn’t fun, after all... or, so I thought.

We were on a family trip to Hawaii in 2016. While strolling down an outdoor mall, we heard someone performing. It definitely didn’t sound like a piano. The gentle, joyful and relaxing sound struck a chord and I was curious to see where it came from. The instrument was just as majestic as the sound. It was a huge, blue Camac harp. I stood mesmerised and watched the woman play. I thought about the instrument through the rest of my trip, Once we were back home in California, I told my husband that I wanted to play the harp. I expected him to poke fun, considering my piano experience. But he surprised me by finding an instructor right away.

Then entered Dominique Piana, an accomplished harpist with over 300 publications, who had restored music pieces of the Romantic era (1800-1910). She arranged for a rented harp, a 36-string instrument with levers. Within a week, I began a new musical journey. It started out harder than I expected. My fingers hurt a lot, note reading was a challenge and learning Western classical music was — and still is — like picking up a new language.

We started with exercises and easy two-line pieces. That seemed like a huge accomplishment back then. Some of my favourite beginner pieces were Barcarolle by Jacques Offenbach, arranged by Linda Wood;The Little Fountain by Samuel Pratt; and Beauty and the Beast by Alan Menken, arranged by Kathy Bundock Moore. I am currently learning The Song of the Heart by Henri Van Gael and edited by Susann McDonald and Linda Wood;La Nouvelle Poupée by Peter Tchaikovsky, arranged by my instructor; and Goddag! Goddag! by Carl Nielsen, also arranged by Piana.

My very own harp arrived over a year ago — a Camac Athena with 47 strings and 7 pedals, one for every note of the scale. The instrument, I learnt, took six months to be crafted and shipped to me from the Camac factory in France’s Brittany region. Contrary to the piano, where the pedals are used to control volume, harp pedals are used to change the pitch of the strings, from flat to neutral and sharp. The harp’s soundbox is the least noticed part of the instrument, always in the shadow of the graceful neck, decorated posts and rank of strings. The soundboard serves as a resonator to the vibrating strings fastened to it and determines the tone of each harp.

Before Covid-19 struck, we had recitals at Piana’s house every four months, where we listened to all the students play. I heard a wonderful rendition of Amazing Grace by a friend, and it is a piece that I, too, would love to play. It is difficult to find Indian folk and film music in well written arrangements for piano, not to mention the harp. But I want to be able to play all the music I grew up with on the harp.

History tells us that the harp has an ancient Indian connection. Works in Tamil Sangam literature described the yaal (also yazh) harp and its variants, as early as 200 BCE. These harps had 14 to 17 strings and were used by wandering minstrels. Another early South Asian harp was the veena. The veena, in its ancient avatar (which is different from the one we see in India now) survives in the form of the saung harp in Myanmar. The swarmandal,often used by classical singers, is a Hindustani harp. The use of the modern-day harp — the kind that I play — is not common in India, though it figures in the concerts of AR Rahman and Arijit Singh. At a stage performance by the latter in San Jose’s SAP Center, I was delighted to spot a harpist in the orchestra.

For more than three years now, the notes of the harp have mingled with my love for music. Every time I pick up a new piece, I feel a sense of accomplishment. But more than anything, when I sit down to play this stunning instrument, I am truly in my happy place.

Aruna Subramanyam is a harp student who lives in California, US

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Published on September 18, 2020
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