Celtic harper, teacher and recording artist Cynthia Lynn Douglass performs with her group Celtic Harpistry on March 17 at 7:30 p.m. at Westminster College’s Vieve Gore Concert Hall (ExcellenceConcerts.org).
Why were you drawn to the Celtic harp?
I think the harp picked me. Until the day I heard a Celtic harp, I had never considered playing any kind of harp. When I first saw the instrument at a music festival in Los Angeles, my feet became stuck to the ground and a little voice whispered in my ear, “That will be your life someday.” So what can you say when that little voice whispers in your ear? You have to say OK!
How is a Celtic harp different from classical harps played in a symphony orchestra?
The Celtic harp got stuck in a dryer (Honey, I shrunk the harp!)! Just kidding. The Celtic harp, dating back to 500 B.C. is the ancestor to the orchestral harp, which was invented in the 19th century. The Celtic harp is much smaller than the modern harp and can be small enough to place on the lap or big enough to place on the floor. Both harps are diatonic, which means they play in one key at a time. To go into other keys, on the Celtic harp, you raise the pitch of each string with a lever you move, at the top of the string. This process is mechanized on the orchestral harp, by running a cable from each string through a hollowed out neck, down a hollowed out pillar, to 7 foot pedals at the bottom back of the harp, with each pedal representing one pitch in the Western scale of C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. On this mechanized instrument, all octaves of each pitch (there are 47 strings, or just under 7 octaves of notes) are changed by the motion of one foot pedal.
What’s it do for you that other instruments do not?
The Celtic harp connects me, at heart level, with something that takes me outside of myself. For me, it is a long conversation with God.
Why were the Irish so big on harps?
They knew a good thing when they saw it. We think the harp came to the Celtic lands from Mesopotamia, by Northern European traders or possibly Spaniards. The harp reflects the Irish soul very well—more than the pipes, which were used almost exclusively during battle. The harp expressed love, and loss, and happiness, and grief, magic and merriment. That is why it is the national instrument of Ireland.
What does the harp say about the Irish soul?
The Irish soul is overflowing with passion, drowning in nostalgia, and bursting with pride and strength. That’s why Irish culture is felt throughout the world, in songs, art, jewelry, poetry, myths and legends.
Why should people give up a night of drinking too much green beer and eating bowlfuls of soggy cabbage and corned beef to listen to a concert of harp music?
The night of green beer and soggy cabbage is really Saturday this year, at the Siamsa following the St. Patrick’s Day parade, so that people can sleep it off on Sunday! Enjoying a Monday evening with the haunting sounds of the Celtic harp with cello, fiddle, Irish flute, hammered dulcimer and voice will mesmerize you with its beauty, and will have you whistling and skipping all the way home!
In addition to Gabriel’s blowing his trumpet, angels are often depicted playing the harp. Why?
The harp is the silver thread between us and the angels.
What would you say to someone who wants to learn to play the harp?
You can do it! It is both easier than it looks, and harder. Is that possible? Easier, because you can pluck out a tune within weeks that is beautiful, with very good tone. Harder, because it is incredibly demanding on the body, and requires a huge amount of eye/hand/brain coordination, more than any other instrument. You can be an amazing player as a beginner, but it takes many years to become an impressive professional.
How would someone get started?
First, you must have a harp. If you are strongly musical, you can learn with many self-teaching books and videos. If you are not so musically inclined, you must find yourself a teacher. I teach the Celtic harp exclusively, perhaps the only one to do so in Salt Lake City and Utah County. I teach traditional Celtic ornamentation, technique and styling, which is quite different from classical harp technique.
What does a Celtic harp cost?
A horrible eBay harp, which should really be a boat anchor or wall hanging, could run you $200 for a small one. My professional large-size models run around $7,000. That’s a pretty large range, but compare to the $20,000 plus orchestral harps, it’s a steal! Also, they are much more portable than the pedal harps, as they are known, and in my opinion, much more beautiful in sound! Of course, I’m a little biased!
You grew up in Egypt and lived all over the U.S. How did you come to settle in Utah?
My husband helped open the University of Utah’s Center for Alzheimer’s Care, Imaging and Research two years ago. This is the first center of its kind in the whole Rocky Mountain region, and it has received huge acclaim in its short time open.
What has your experience as a musician in Utah been like?
My experience here is quite different from my previous experiences in California, and the deep South, where I was also a full-time musician, teacher, harp salesperson, recording artist and consultant. Here, there are more classical harp teachers and students than anywhere in the entire United States, and there are two great harp stores plus a couple of wonderful harp makers in the state! However, there are no other full-time professional Celtic harpers that I know of in Salt Lake City or Utah County (we are known as harpers, not harpists, who specialize in the Celtic harp). I find that very curious!
As a musician, I am dismayed that so many fabulous local musicians here give their services away for free, or for a fraction of the national average rate! While I donate my time to my church and to several worthy causes each year, having such a devalued market makes it very difficult for me to make a living doing concerts and professional engagements. I find myself focusing on e-commerce, and out-of-town engagements and touring.
The Excellence in the Community concert series, founded and directed by Jeff Whiteley, addresses this disparity, and believes the Wasatch Front’s finest musicians are a valuable world class resource that could be better deployed to improve the quality of life in our communities and enhance our area’s reputation to visitors. The Wasatch Front in Utah is home to many world-class musicians who generally perform in the background at private and corporate events. Excellence in the Community believes there is a gap in the public’s perception between what our finest musicians are currently doing and what they are capable of doing. They move local musicians from the background to the concert hall and turn on the spotlights. They showcase local excellence. One concert at a time, they prove our point: the area’s top musicians are worthy of any stage; and one concert at a time, they move toward our larger goal of establishing Utah as a center for world class music of many genres.
What will those who see Celtic Harpistry perform on March 17 come away with?
You’ll find yourself enraptured by the exquisite waterfall of sound that master harpist Cynthia Douglass pulls out of her magical Celtic harp. You’ll thrill to the beauty and intensity that guest artist Paul Mitchell pounds out of his enchanted hammered dulcimer. And you’ll be amazed as fiddle, cello, Irish flute and voice charm you with everything from nostalgic love songs to electrifying reels and jigs. There’ll even be Irish dancing!