Harp Tips from Kim Robertson

Kik Robertson



KIM ROBERTSON....  the name everyone in the harp world knows.  A genuine pioneer in the American folk harp movement, Kim Robertson always amazes with her inventiveness & virtuosity.   Her classes at conferences are always great-great-great, so we are excited to have Kim as one of our headlining presenters this fall 2012 Southeastern Harp Weekend. 












Kim, we get so serious about our music and practice.  What is something playful we can do to lighten up?


Have some fun with harp accessories... sparkly ribbons, colored felt, twist ties,  silk scarves, etc and experiment weaving them between the strings to make various sounds & effects.   


Improvise a piece inspired by a person or place..  Play a tune while reciting the alphabet backwards and then in French.  Sing while playing.  Laugh while playing.  Breathe. 




Help us sound less "clunky."  It would be great to increase volume, then fluidly transform to whisper-quiet notes, and so forth.  The magic stuff.  Pointers?


"All fingers are not created equal" so I think a lot of the general clunkiness comes from uneven finger strength.. The 'smart' fingers, the ones we use the most in daily life, hear the brain commands faster and the weak ones tend to lag behind because the synapses aren't as well-connected.  The rhythm becomes uneven because of this.   My childhood piano teacher had me play scale exercises accenting the weak beat ...one TWO three FOUR, etc. and then when I played them normally, it magically evened out the phrase of the scale.  


I do this on the harp now for all my warm-ups and patterns, and also elongate the rhythm of the weak beat: short LONG short LONG.  It's an effective cure to a clunky phrase because it strengthens the weak fingers and also takes the weight off the strong beat where we usually get snagged.  



Your arrangements are stunningly beautiful and well-known in the harp world.  You use a lot of 9th chords, 10th chords, and "suspended" chords.  Would you explain these to folks who don't know about them?  


Thank you!  Basically, they are just 'wide-span' chords, reaching up 9 or 10 strings from the bottom of the chord.  So instead of playing a triad chord, C-E-G-, I play C-G and then the above D or E, 9 or 10 strings up from the bottom C.  So it's still just a 3-note chord, but spread out.




Why do you use them?


For my taste, it sounds better to play more open, wider chords on the harp, rather than smaller triad-based chords. Especially on the bottom range of the harp (from middle C down), the chords give a richer sound and allow the overtones to ring more clearly. And 9th chords add harmonic tension, which makes for more interesting arrangements.  




What is the chord symbol for a suspended chord?


It's usually the root letter of the chord followed by  "sus" , like Csus, or Csus-9. Or sometimes it's indicated by just the letter, followed by the number of the suspension after it: C-9 (a 9th chord) or C-2 (same suspended note as the 9th but down an octave). 


In jazz notation, it can be quite specific and it's daunting to see all those numbers, but a suspension is nothing more than a note that is not in the basic triad of the chord, so it could be any number except 1, 3, 5 (or the 8-octave). 


They are way more complicated to explain than to play! Basically, squishing 2 notes together in a chord gives some kind of suspension, so it can be an intuitive thing too... does it sound good or not? It doesn't really matter what number the suspended note is if you like the way it sounds!




Now for some basics:  Do you have some advice for someone buying their first harp?


There's nothing wrong with buying an affordable  'starter harp' but some beginners make the mistake of buying those quasi-harps on eBay (also found in SkyMall catalogs).  They are cheap and have pretty carving on them  but getting a good sound out of them is pretty impossible (in my opinion).   So if a 'real harp' is the objective, it's better to ask advice from a local harp teacher or look for  a harp builder in the area. 


Or even better, attend a conference to see the range of harps and prices available, and most important, what they SOUND like.  Renting a harp is a good option for beginners too and some places offer a rent-to-buy option. 




In what ways do you think it's good to have a small harp (like a 26 string) as well as a "full-sized" 34- or- more string harp?


Well, they are just so darn cute, aren't they?  They're ideal for taking into 'real life'.. to cottages, parties, Celtic sessions, etc., but without the anxiety, weight or performance expectations of a bigger harp..  I find the smaller harps are more approachable for most people and makes them smile. When I use one in a performance, afterwards people want to see and touch it (not the bigger harp!), like it's an adorable puppy. 




What advice do you have for beginners?


Be patient with yourself (and your hands!) because there is no hurry, no finish line for learning the harp. By taking the time to learn the basics of good tone and technique, even slow & simple tunes can sound amazing. 




What about advice for intermediate harpers?


I would say, play fewer pieces but play them better.  I find many intermediate harpists reach a plateau where they can play a lot of pieces but all their arrangements start to sound alike.  I think it's better to work on fewer pieces at a time but create interesting & even challenging arrangements that are exciting and inspiring to perform.  


Also, some intermediate players get roped into playing professionally (church, cousin's wedding, etc). before they are really ready. Then they have to cram to learn the repertoire, with no time to really finesse the various pieces, so the arrangements can get stuck that way.




And to make it more FUN? 


I believe it's important to  'play' the harp every day, not just 'practice'.  By allowing  some time for creative free-play, with no written music, no agenda, no judgement about how it sounds,  it creates a deeper mind- body connection and allows the important spirit-connection to come through. 




What is one of the biggest mistake advanced people make?


Sometimes advanced players can get buried in their technique, over-thinking an arrangement or playing so many busy notes that the musicality or even the melody gets lost.  One of my own common blunders is to play too fast or rush the end of a  phrase because I'm 'thinking ahead' and lose the inner pulse of the melody. 




What is one of the best things you have ever done for yourself in regards to developing as a harpist, or enjoying it more?


I will always appreciate my classical training but one of the best things I ever did was drop out of classical music to follow my own eccentric path. 




What would you say to someone proficient in technique, composing, improvising, and learning by ear but who can barely read music?


Counting all the musicians on the planet, only a small percentage can actually read music.  It's definitely not a requisite for being a successful musician or performer.  I've worked with some top Celtic players in recording sessions who could not read a note but could still play the part using their ear. 




Syncopated rhythms in the left hand sound SO great and you are teaching those at the Southeastern Harp Weekend.  How do we "get" syncopation so that it feels natural?


It helps to break it down into smaller sub-divisions to count the syncopated accents.So if it's in 4, I count it in 8.  And for visual people, it helps to draw a connecting line on the music where the beat falls in the melody. Slow repetition is the key because it needs to get into our hands, not just our head. 




Are there easy exercises we can do to get our brains and hands used to syncopation?


It helps to practice rhythm away from the harp because we can listen better.. listen to different kinds of music...Latin or African are great..  and tap along on the off-beat and in various syncopated beats. I do this in the car a lot. It's back to the idea that we have to hear it before we can play it. 




Last words of wisdom for today?

I think one of the harpist's greatest gifts is the ability to help people relax and slow down in this fast-paced world.  Our music can create a space for the listener to be suspended in the present moment for awhile.  Whatever our path is on the harp, maybe our real job is to spread that peace.




Kim has loads of great CD's and books of her arrangements.  You can peruse Kim's website at  kimrobertson.net or see her goodies at the Southeastern Harp Weekend.