Little did I know piano songs could be made to sound so spectacular when accompanied with music from a musical instrument as ancient as the harp
Because of the sophisticated complexities in its design, I have always thought the piano is the most versatile musical instrument. It came as a shock to see how much more awesome it was the first time I watched a string quartet accompanying it. Imagine my astonishment when that experience was surpassed the moment I heard the harp accompanying the piano.
One typically conjures up an image of a Greek goddess plucking away under a waterfall in a faraway mythical land when harp is mentioned. I was amazed and pleasantly surprised to discover it is actually a still popular musical instrument.
Learning how to play the piano was what led me to discover its existence. I was in my second year of lessons and was struggling to play ‘Well Tempered Clavier’ by Bach, so I decided to look for a recording of the song so that I can listen and absorb the rhythm in the hopes of being able to play it well enough sooner. I found what I was looking for with an unexpected bonus – a recording of Well Tempered Clavier’ performed on the harp accompanied by the piano.
Since that fateful day, it has been a personal goal of mine to play the piano with a harpist by my side enhancing the quality and entertainment value of my music making.
To make it a reality, I knew above all else my piano had to be in complete harmony with the harp, therefore my timing had to be perfect.
Fortunately, the creator of the modern harp happened to be a piano maker as well. He used his extensive knowledge in the building blocks of the piano to advance the harp’s evolution into its current modern form. One example is by installing pedals to raise the notes by a semitone. Sebastian Erard made the first double-action pedal harp in 1820, Paris, France [reference: Vienna Symphonic Library GmbH]
Since the tone generated by the harp is influenced by its strings and soundboard which uncannily resembles the concept of tone generation on the piano; I was able to estimate the decay time of each note in the music emanating from the harp and matched it with mine on the piano. As a result, a harmonious duet was born from the coupling of the two instruments.
The harp’s gentle and resonant sound dueling with the piano’s wide ranging dynamics exposes a unique musical experience. The uniqueness stems from the contrasting timbre of each instrument; a factor that is inherent to the individual instrument.
The pianist and harpist merely yield the timbre into place to sound like a C or an F# for example. Herein lies the second factor, how well can they do it? – The skills and technique of the pianist and the harpist themselves.
Besides those obvious factors, when a pianist is accompanying another instrument a much more elaborate preparation is needed. After learning the composition and knowing it well, I had to know the parts the harp will be playing too. Not knowing would have made it impossible for me to match the lifting of my fingers when it was time for the harp to be the voice of the melody and the piano at rest.
Labeling the sections helped, we also had a heart to heart talk about each others’ duties, when to make an entrance and even brutally honest assessment of our performance with the music.
It would not have been fair if the other person was too much of a better or lesser musician, so long before we decided to embark on this project we made sure our proficiency were about at the same level, mine on the piano hers on the harp
Accompanying another instrument allows the pianist to connect with another person because he is forced to interact with the harpist or violinist or cellist. It is a welcomed change because most of the time the pianist practices alone and prolonged solitude stunts the creative mind.