The Irish harp or cláirseach that adorns the Irish Euro, as well as the products of Guinness and countless other products and institutions in Ireland and Scotland is a replica of the Brian Boru harp that resides in the library of Trinity College in Dublin. Boru’s harp dates from the fourteenth century, and is of a design that was famous throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. They had a “dug out” willow soundbox that produced a bell-like tone when the strings were plucked.
The earliest reference to a harp in Irish lore occurs in the story of the battle between the Tuatha De Danaan and the Fomorians, fought around 1800 BC. It was described as having four angles and having “the murmur of the sweet apple tree.”
In Castledermot, Co. Kildare, granite north and south high crosses dating from the tenth century feature a depiction of a seated person playing what appears to be a six string quadrangular harp. The triangular harp we are more familiar with, is said to be an Irish innovation that originated in the ninth century, and become the prefered form by the eleventh century. It remained little changed for the next six-hundred years.
In the seventeenth century, the old Irish harp and the lifestyle of the harpers themselves changed dramatically, due not only to political persecution, but also to changing musical tastes and creativity. Lower tunings were necessary for the progressions common in the Baroque Period.
Today we have two basic types of harp: the orchestral harp and the folk or Celtic harp. It’s said that in the right hands “it can create laughter, tears and deep dreaming.”
Tiffany Schaefer is just such a harpist, and speaks with us about the Celtic harp and her music.
Tell us about your harp
My harp is a folk harp or Celtic harp. It’s not as big as a pedal harp, which is used in orchestral or classical music. There are usually over forty strings on a pedal harp. The kind I play, the standard, is about thirty-four strings, sometimes thirty-six strings.
My harp was made by Thormahlen Harps in Oregon. They are great harps; they sound good no matter what you do! The harp has been around since ancient Eygpt I believe, and has gone through several innovations.
The type I am playing is more modern than a pedal harp, it uses levers instead of pedals. A lot of people think of it as being more historical but technically, it’s not.
What do the levers do?
Whenever you have a lever engaged, it will sharpen the notes by a half step. It depends on what I’m playing; some of my strings are tuned to flat and if I put the lever up, it will make it natural, change the pitch a half step.
Many lever harp players will tune their harp to E flat; that is what I do; it gives you the most range, so I can play in E flat all the way to E major and everything between. Some people tune to C because a lot of folk music is in C or D or G, it really depends on personal preference.
How long have you been playing and what made you choose the harp?
What I was looking for, after I had my first real job and had some extra money, was a lute, because I liked the English Renaissance music, but then I came across a cheaper twenty-two string harp on Ebay and thought, I love Celtic music, I’ll give that a try.
I came to the harp because of the music more than the harp itself. I got it and fell in love with it. My friend invited me to the Scottish Games, where I was introduced to the harp competition and lots of harp crazy people. That’s where I started to get into Scottish music. My friend told me about Greg Meyer andthat’s where I got my thirty-six string harp; it’s been my life ever since.
Did you play any instrument prior to playing the harp?
No, I played around on the piano since I was five or six, and I also had a guitar that I picked up every now and then. The harp’s the one that stuck.
It’s not uncommon for the harp to be a first instrument. I teach a lot of adult beginners, people who always wanted to learn. It’s a very forgiving instrument, you don’t have that awkward phase like you do with a violin, where you sound like a dying cat for a while.
The harp sounds beautiful from the get go, and you can play simple things and it sounds good. It’s actually a really good first instrument.
Have you been able to teach much the last couple of years?
I teach privately, but also do on-line teaching and workshops, so people all over the world can take lessons. This is my job, I divide my time between teaching privately, doing workshops. I have a subsricption service out where I’ll put out material every month for those that sign up.
I put out sheet music there, and Zoom workshops. People can subscribe month to month and learn the music with me.
I also perform, more so lately that I’m playing with the Bigley’s. We have a group called the Cleveland Celtic Ensemble. That group is Brian and Kristen Bigley, Ian Crane and myself.
I like to do a little bit of everything. I also perform solo and with Andrew McManus on occasion.
Can you tell us about your learning process?
When I was little, I wanted to play piano by ear, but my mom wanted to teach me how to read music; I wanted none of that, which I kind of regret now. When I was twenty-two, I picked up the harp and learned more of its folk background.
I found you were encouraged to play by ear. I thought this is great, this is the instrument for me! I did a lot of self teaching, and once I got involved in the Scottish Games, they also have the Scottish Arts School the week after the games,which is like a week long summer camp.
They have a harp program with lots of great teachers there. I’ve had a smattering of lessons from others, but I’m mostly self-taught. That’s a bit of a misnomer because I’ve learned so much from others over the years.
How can someone contact you to inquire about learning or booking you for a performance? www.tiffanyharpandsong.com is my website; you can get to everything from there, including my monthly subscription and email. You can also get to my Youtube performances from there.