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Happiness With Strings Attached

November 23, 1989|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Sitting near a pool of blue water amid beautiful birds and soft afternoon breezes, 10 women gently pluck at the strings of their harps and sing in harmony to an elegantly simple version of the ancient Dona Nobis Pacem (grant us peace) .

Is this heaven?

No, it's Fullerton.

Specifically, it's the back yard of Pat Frostholm, which on a recent Sunday was filled with a swimming pool, tropical birds in cages, good weekend weather and several members of a group of musicians who call themselves the Happy Harpers.

Their instruments, however, are not the tall, complex, often gaudy harps that are seen jutting grandly above the other musicians in symphony orchestras. They are, rather, the more compact, simple instruments long favored by Celtic bards and minstrels, some of them small enough to fit on a lap. They are known among their players as folk harps, and their sound is plaintive, evocative and unique.

To the harpers, the instruments are a link with the past, a modern continuance of an ancient tradition of grass-roots music, an opportunity for informal communal music making and--not the least of all--fun.

"When you play the folk harp, the folk songs are very accessible," said Sylvia Fellows, chairman of the board of directors of the International Society of Folk Harpers and Craftsmen, a worldwide organization of folk harpers with about 1,200 members (nearly 200 in Southern California). "You don't play a complex style of music, and a lot of the music stays in one key. Even if you've never played an instrument before, you can play the folk harp."

Unlike the pedal harp, which is most often seen as part of an orchestra, the folk harp may be built in several sizes and does not employ foot pedals to change the pitch of the strings. Most folk harps follow the traditional Celtic harp design, but folk harps of different sizes and shapes are used in some types of South American music as well.

They also are substantially less expensive than pedal harps, which can cost as much as $45,000 "for a custom special job," Fellows said. Folk harps range in price from $300 to $400 "for a teensy-weensy one" to $4,000 for an ornate hand-carved model.

The Happy Harpers play a potpourri of harps and are something of an irregular group, Fellows said. They are all members of the International Society of Folk Harpers and Craftsmen, and they meet once a month, usually at a member's house in Orange or Los Angeles County, or occasionally at a local park. The members who show up for the monthly ensemble sessions are almost never the same, however, Fellows said .

Their common ground is a love of the simplicity and eloquence of the instrument, as well as a longing to play it as part of a group.

"I think it's the most beautiful instrument ever made," said Frostholm, a former high school teacher who studied the pedal harp in college in 1945 and took up both the pedal and folk harps again five years ago. "And it's so old. It dates back to biblical times, when David played the harp."

Much of the harpers' music comes from Europe, particularly the Celtic lands where the instrument has enjoyed hundreds of years of tradition. At the most recent session in Frostholm's back yard, they began with the traditional English ballad "Greensleeves" and followed it, in the same key, with the ancient Irish tune "Brian Boru's March."

"At first I wasn't particularly interested in the history (of the folk harp), but after a while it does seem to rub off," said Carol Miller, who drives from Barstow each month to play with the harpers.

"I wanted to play the harp when I was very young, about 5 or 6," said Miller, "but it wasn't something my parents were into. I played mostly woodwinds and took piano lessons when I was a kid. Now that I have the time, the interest in the harp came up again. I've been playing about a year."

Many of the harpers are self-taught, said Fellows.

"I would say it's not difficult," she said. "It's much, much easier than a pedal harp, where your feet are busy all the time as well as your hands. If you can type, you can play the folk harp. I don't think it's any different than that. And you don't really need to read music. Quite a few people in the folk harp community just play by ear."

Frostholm called the folk harp "just a piano that's vertical. And the simplest song on a harp sounds great. You just play simple glissandoes or arpeggios on a harp and people love it. There's something soothing about a harp."

And, apparently, something a bit addicting. Frostholm now owns seven harps, one of which, she said, is small enough to fit under an airplane seat.

"It's my traveling harp," she said.

Like Frostholm, Fellows also plays the pedal harp--which she studied in college--but holds a particular affection for the folk harp. Which makes her both a harpist and a harper. The difference, she said, is that a pedal harp player is a harpist, and "people who play the (folk) harp tend to think of themselves as not as sophisticated or highfalutin. They're harpers. That's an ancient term for a bard or a minstrel who plays the harp. That's how harpers think of themselves."

Which, she said, creates something of a demand for their services at weddings, Renaissance festivals, highland games and other traditional gatherings. Fellows said she has played the harp at Medieval Times in Buena Park and currently plays at Disneyland.

"A lot of people have found that music on the folk harp can be quite simple and pure and beautiful," she said. "With the folk harp, less is more."

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