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Novices try their hand at the harp at a Glendale music
store. They are drawn to the mystique of the instrument
and the soothing sounds of the strings.

Love at First Pluck


Of all the musical instruments to learn--classical piano, cool sax, rock 'n' roll drums--the harp seems an unconventional choice. There's something old-fashioned, maybe even musty, about the harp. After all, harps appear most frequently at funerals and weddings, fancy teas and brunches. There are no harps, not usually anyway, on MTV.

But the harp has an undeniable mystique. Which may account for the steady stream of would-be harpists who enroll in a free introductory workshop offered several times a month at the Sylvia Woods Harp Center in Glendale.

Woods, 49, who opened her store in 1991, teaches the hourlong workshop, called "I've Always Wanted to Play the Harp" because, she explains, that is "the sentence we hear most often when people walk in the door." She's certainly qualified. The La Crescenta native has written 25 instructional harp books and released three harp recordings. Her nimble playing has been featured on various television and film scores, from "General Hospital" to "Dead Poets Society." And her store, she claims, carries the largest selection of harps in the world.

Sometimes only two people enroll in the workshops, sometimes 20. On a recent Saturday morning, 12 people showed up, ranging in age from 9 to 54. They included two mother-daughter pairs and just one man.

Before the class began, students wandered the sales floor, rearranged to accommodate rows of harps and chairs, checking out the instruments, examining price tags. There was quite a range: from $1,000 lap harps to $35,000 gilded pedal harps.

Most of the students had never touched a harp before. "I'm nervous," admitted Susan Welch, 39, an engineer from Eagle Rock. "I'd like to pick it up and do it well." Her husband, Ron Welch, 51, also an engineer, was less anxious. He was not bothered by his minority status. And he quickly deflected the notion that the harp could be considered a feminine instrument, evoking a biblical king. "David was a herder. He played harp to calm the stock," said Welch. "And David was a warrior. So I don't see anything feminine about it."

At 9 a.m., Woods took her place at the front of the room. "Pick a harp," she said, "any harp." On this day, everyone chose the smaller harps, which are also known as Irish, folk or Celtic harps.

"Pull your harp against your right shoulder," Woods directed the class. Next she asked everyone to examine the strings. "All harps have colored strings," she said. "That's a secret." Then came a mandate to find middle C. "I'll give you two big hints," said Woods, "it's red, and it's somewhere near the middle of your harp."

On half a dozen harps, Woods played the same composition, "Sheebeg Sheemore" ("Big Fairy Hill, Little Fairy Hill") by Turlough O'Carolan, an Irish composer who lived from 1670 to 1738. Students were able to hear how the sound varied from harp to harp. As she played, the students relaxed in their chairs. Some smiled. When she finished, it was their turn. They were learning "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

Within minutes, the whole class was playing the nursery school favorite. They weren't exactly ripping. Nor were they in perfect harmony. But they were pretty darned good for rank beginners. As Woods is fond of saying, "No matter what you do with a harp, it sounds good, versus a violin, which sounds horrible for a long time." To underscore the point, Woods shared an anecdote about one of her mail-order customers, a woman in Alaska who had never touched a harp. When the woman picked up her harp at the post office, she couldn't resist opening the box and plucking out a few notes. People started giving her money. Some asked how long she had been playing.

The last part of the class was devoted to the importance of tuning, and then Woods took questions. "How long does it take to learn?" one woman asked. "Some piano players who take up harp are playing weddings within one year," answered Woods. "Others are playing 'Twinkle, Twinkle.' "

"What's the difference in the woods?"

"Maples tend to be brighter than walnuts. Bubinga [an African Rosewood] tends to be fuller than the others."

"How do you choose a harp?"

"Some people," said Woods, "go totally by sound. Some people totally by look. Once in awhile, someone says, 'Oh, I like this one. It goes with my couch.' "

After class, most of the students lingered. Some, like Kiera Hornby, 15, of Huntington Beach, tried other harps. An accomplished pianist who confessed to a longtime fascination with the harp, Hornby was busy plucking out a "Bambi" tune from memory. "I hope I can talk my mom into it--buying one, getting lessons," she said.

Others, such as Aprille Isham, 54, an Auto Club manager from Manhattan Beach, purchased books or CDs. Isham also added her name to the waiting list for harp rentals. "Kind of like a test drive, to use an Auto Club phrase," she said. "I'm about to retire May 1. Harp is going to be part of my new chapter. I like the ethereal quality. The sounds are so enchanting."

Everyone seemed to agree.

"It's very soothing," said Ron Welch. "You expect a masseuse to come out and give you a backrub when you play."

The next "I've Always Wanted to Play the Harp" workshop is Tuesday at 7 p.m. Reservations are required. Call (818) 956-1363.

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