That’s Where the Music Comes From!

I love, love, lurve this short cartoon that Disney made back in 1953: Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, the building blocks of all musical instruments (and, yes, it’s the mate to Adventures in Music: Melody that I shared during the singing discussion).

(the only DVD I was able to find with these and tons of other awesome bits of animated nostalgia was the Walt Disney Treasures – Disney Rarities – Celebrated Shorts, 1920s – 1960s DVD)

I’ve talked about my “toot” instrument experience and the early-childhood “plunk” failures. Several years back, for a variety of reasons (though a large one was my involvement with the local SCA–Society for Creative Anachronism–group), I purchased a harp and have endeavored to teach myself how to play it. Off and on. Okay, more off than on.

Before I get too far into the harp, well before it’s purchase I was hanging out with this guy (it never really developed into dating, despite my temporary desire to the contrary) who loved to play the piano. One night, in the wee hours of the morning, I found myself sharing a practice room at the local University listening to him play. At one point he turned to me and said: “do you want to give it a try?”

“Oh, no, I can’t play the piano.”

“You can’t press a button?”

Gee, is it really that simple? Yes and no. On the one hand, the piano is a simple instrument in which each of it’s 88 keys represents a particular note on the scale. This is probably why folks who play ‘by ear’ (instead of using sheet music, they are able to pick out and match the notes they need by traveling up and down the keys) gravitate towards a piano or keyboard as opposed to instruments with many keys and valves (not that it doesn’t happen, just not as often).

On the other hand, it’s one thing to press a button or two in a particular sequence to play a tune and another level of skill, entirely, to understand chords and what notes sound right together (consonance) and which do not (dissonance). Some truly amazing things can be done with folks just noodling about on the keys but, me? I prefer a road map, which is what sheet music provides.

Guitar is another instrument many pick up and just seem to play. Of course, with only a handful of strings, it’s more important that the musician know which strings to press and on which section of the neck to change the chord they’re strumming or note their picking. As much as I would love to learn to play guitar I admit my vanity gets in the way: I like to keep my nails long, when they cooperate, and at least one hand would need to be kept short. Ick! Of course, Dolly Parton manages with those long nails of her’s so may there’s hope for me, yet.

Which brings me back to my harp. Like the piano, each string corresponds to a particular note on the scale. My little lap harp has 22 strings, covering 3 full octaves and sounds lovely when I do get the itch to tune it and actually practice it a bit. The only thing I would do differently, were I to purchase another, is to get one with levers.

Unlike a concert harp (the big ones you see performing with orchestras and at fancy weddings) that use a pedal to modify a note sharp or flat, lap or folk harps have little levers that sit above the strings that can be flipped to change the pitch of a note at will. Without levers, the harp has to be returned for each song that falls in a different key. I failed to adequately understand what an absolute pain in the ass that is.

Still, levers can be added after the fact though it’s not something I’m keen to do on my own. Considering how little I do play it, though, it’s not high on my priority list. I think I’d better work on my treble clef skills and playing with both hands moving at once, first!

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