Pulling Strings

by Fred Rooks

The latest in our series of let-me-try-it! articles, in which Fred Rooks, a proper English gentleman, submits to all kinds of horrors and punishment when he tries to play a musical instrument for the first (and usually last) time.

Harpist Barbora Váchalová shows Fred some moves

Czechs and Czech (i.e. the language) may seem to be rather complicated, but they do have a sense of the aesthetic. For example, while English-speaking dogs say woof, Czech dogs say huff.

So you will certainly not be surprised when I tell you that the Czechs don’t called the harp a harp, which is after all a rather harsh-sounding word, but a harfa, which is a far more dainty-sounding word, and one far more befitting such an elegant instrument.

Nobody really knows how the harp was born. Some people think that the inspiration for it came from a hunter’s bow, while others prefer the more peace-loving story about the loom. These days, it doesn’t really matter as the harp occupies a noble status among musical instruments in the most prestigious of orchestras.

However, as I discovered for myself, trying to play it is not the most dignified experience you might expect from this highly-dignified instrument. At least not as far as mutilation of ageing human joints is concerned.

My teacher this time was Barbora Váchalová, for whom the harp is the tool of her profession. She obviously knows a thing or two about it, and especially how to play it, as she is a member of the National Theatre Orchestra in Prague. And I should add that you have to be good at your job to become a member of this rather prestigious bunch of musicians.

My experience plucking things has been rather limited during my hitherto life to the activity required if you give preference to eating roast chicken without the feathers. Plucking a harp, however, is far more difficult.

No other stringed instrument comes with seven pedals

Unfortunately, it is also far more demanding and requires an advanced level of coordination between individual components of the musculo-skeletal system. And even before plucking your first string, you need great patience before you finally master the art of getting the damned thing gently balanced between your knees.

Once you manage this, then you are presented with 47 strings. That’s further complicated by seven pedals.

And that’s four more than I have in my car.

Our Mr Rooks is getting a bit frustrated. Hang in there, Fred!

This time, I have to admit that this instrument (unlike my previous encounters with a violin and a marimba) had me completely flummoxed. I did, however, manage to get my thumb to pluck at least one string in the proper way. But as soon as I had to bring into play the next three fingers, I found my hand going into an advanced state of rigor mortis (although the blood continued to circulate in most other parts of my body).

Not such a great achievement, especially when you consider that a harpist uses two thumbs and six fingers on two hands when playing, not to mention the two feet needed to tread on the seven pedals.

This time, absolute victory was on the side of the harp and I sounded the retreat after suffering a shameful defeat.

Mrs Váchalová shows how it's done

Mrs Váchalova may be a slight and delicate-looking young lady, but when she took her place behind the harp to demonstrate what this instrument is capable of, she was transformed into a powerful and impressively dynamic personality. (See video, below.)

After mercilessly destroying my ego, the harp bowed down in humility to its master (in this case its mistress) and proceeded to show off its almost endless versatility, from the most fragile and beautiful tones right through to spine-chilling strains straight out of a modern sci-fi horror.

I am sorry to say, though, that not even this remarkable performance helped us clear up the harp’s origin. You see, Mrs Váchalová knows how to pluck it with all the vigour of Diana herself (oh my, what a celestial twang!), but she can also weave on it the most intricate compositions with the artistic skill of an Afghan carpet-maker. oo

Relief and rewards as Fred finally manages to pluck one pure, golden tone


Practice Czech! Here’s a general translation of what Mrs Váchalová and Fred Rooks are saying:

Mrs Vachálová helps Fred:

Prst nejdřív prohnout, dobré, ano, dobré, pochvala, dobré poprvé. No; no.

First bend the finger, good, yes, good, my compliments, you play well for the first time. Yeah; yeah.

Dobře by se Vám hrálo, když budeme hrát rozloženě.
You’ll play well if we play with spaces (divisi).

To je C G E. Palec musí být výš. Já budu hrát s Vámi. Jdeme na to.
This is C, G, E. The thumb has to be high. I’ll play with you. Let´s go.

Fred: Já to zkazím.
I’ll destroy it!

Mrs Váchalová: Ne.
No.

Bolí to, že!
It hurts, doesn´t it.

(She plays alone)
Přišlápnu několik pedálů….
I step on a few pedals …

zase sur la table…..
again back to the belly of the instrument …

teď je glissando dvěma prsty….
now a glissando with two fingers …

teď hraji nehtem….
now I play using my fingernails…

teď je glissando….
now it’s glissando …

teď zase hraji nehtem…..
now again I play with the fingernails …

jinak pedály.
different pedals.

Photo Credits: Photos and Video: Miroslav Setnička

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