From David Maughan Brown in York: of harps and chimneys

April 29th

One might have thought that lockdown eliminated any possible excuse for not practising diligently on whatever new musical instrument one might be learning to play.  Indeed one of my friends who has returned after many years to the cello tells me that he is very much enjoying the amount of time he now has to practise.  Not so where my harp is concerned, which has been playing second fiddle (they do belong to the same stringy family) to the allotment, phoning U3A members, evaluating ‘artivist’ bids, watering hyperactive seedlings, writing blogs and fulminating over the news.  There are also time constraints.   A harp is far less likely to disturb our terrace neighbours than, say, a trumpet or a saxophone.  But one of the children next door is very sensitive to noise, to the point where we were asked to turn the chime on our mantel clock off, so I am diffident about playing in the evening.  The more so as my teacher’s advice is to play everything loudly to begin with, to get the clearest sound out of the harp, and gradually reduce the volume.

Another reason for being diffident about playing the harp in the evening has to do with Victorian architecture, and chimneys in particular.  Although nowhere near wide enough for even the smallest Victorian child chimney- sweep, never mind a Father Christmas who has to eat a good deal to keep him going through the North Pole winter, our chimneys are very effective conduits for sound.  I discovered just how good when two granddaughters came to stay one Christmas and brought their hamsters with them.   The hamsters were parked near the harp on the ground floor and I was woken in the dead of night by the unmistakable sounds of a burglar trying to jemmy the front door.   I crept down the stairs to check, experiencing the adrenalin-rush of a vivid South African déjà vu, entirely unclear what I was going to do about it, only to discover that the threat was coming from the hamsters’ rapidly rotating exercise wheel.  The sound seemed to be being magnified as it came up the chimney from the ground to the second floor. Which probably explained the mantel clock, and certainly raises questions about how much harp the neighbours can hear, given that we share a chimney stack.

When I do find time to practice, I find that a lockdown induced restlessness makes it difficult to concentrate on one piece for any length of time.  Scheduling a lesson via Zoom would probably take care of that.  In the meantime I have been practicing sight-reading by paging through a Sylvia Woods music book which very conveniently has two settings of each piece: one for beginners and the other for “advanced” harpists.   As the “advanced” settings feature much the richer and more complex chords, I’ve been working my way over-ambitiously through some of those, but copping-out to some extent by focusing on pieces where I know the melody.  The book I’m working from at the moment just happens to be a book of “Hymn and Wedding” tunes, which is in no way reflective of a sudden Covid-induced access of terminal religious devotion.  They just happen to be great tunes with very rich harmonies.  But I couldn’t swear to it that some subconscious connections didn’t come into the choice of the two settings I was looking at this morning. 

The first was Abide With Me where, although unquestionably funereal, I would prefer to think that any subconscious association related to the cancelled FA cup-final that must have been due fairly soon.  Regardless of the actual history of the wildly improbable association of that particular hymn with a game of football, it has always seemed a kindly gesture on the part of the whole crowd to sing a dirge for the players and supporters of whichever team is going in a couple of hours to have lost the match.  Football associations point to the fact that I am missing watching the end of the football season and, in particular, seeing Liverpool win the Premiership for the first time for thirty years.   The other tune was even more funereal: Nearer My God To Thee.  Here the subconscious association can only have been with the Titanic, and can only have been political.  In all the years since the Titanic sank beneath the waves never can the UK have had a Prime Minister so perfectly temperamentally suited to steering a very large ship at top speed into an iceberg.

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