If it’s a contest of origins you’re after, you could do a lot worse than choose the harp as a musical instrument of choice. Disregarding a tapping foot, or primal rhythms pounded onto taut animal skin, the harp, along with the flute, is probably the world’s oldest musical instrument of any real distinction. At the very least, it was the first stringed instrument. The ancient Mesopotamians (denizens of what is now bombed-out Iraq) reveled in it, and King David played it during times of utmost emotional duress.
More relevantly, it’s the instrument of choice for loads of young Salt Lake City women—and a few young men. In Utah, more than any other state, home is where the harp is.
“We probably have the largest per capita population of harp players out of any city in the United States,” said ShurDeLi Ownbey, director of the Lyon & Healy harp shop and studio on South Temple.
Ownbey would know. For her the weekday starts bright and early at 5:45 a.m. with a lesson for her first harp student of the day. Students continue to flow in through 7:15 p.m., the start of her last lesson. Between lessons she manages store hours at the harp shop from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. All told, Ownbey is mentor to 33 students at BYU, where she runs the university’s harp program, five students at the University of Utah, and 20 private students at her studio. Talk about pluck.
“We’re not doing our job if we’re not getting the harp out there,” she said, as if harp aficionados constituted a sort of misunderstood, under-appreciated collective.
In a culture where machismo and force are valued far above such outdated qualities as grace and delicacy, mention of the harp is a bit like trying to start a conversation about bone China teacups and drawing room ink pens. Feminine images prevail. With the abduction and subsequent resurfacing of Elizabeth Smart, a student of Ownbey’s, the connection between harps and Utah life got a massive burst of publicity. Elizabeth’s televised harp performances, both before and after her abduction, ramped the instrument’s angelic qualities off the scale and into America’s hearts. Just imagine how different public sympathy might have turned had she played a raucous electric guitar instead.
“If anything, I think some parents want their girls to learn harp so that it will soften them up a little. It’s an attempt to round them out, especially if they play sports. Almost all of my students are really good tennis players, soccer or volleyball players,” Ownbey says.
And therein lies the instrument’s beguiling paradox: Contrary to popular belief, the harp is really a very physical, aggressive instrument. Sure, it can sound like the perfect soundtrack for pastel-drenched, dainty afternoons in the flower garden. But it’s also a dexterous, playful instrument—ideal for all sorts of melodic and harmonic romps. Harpo’s celebrated performance in the Marx Brother’s classic A Night at the Opera is a perfect example of how one harpist can make the instrument evoke an entire world of sounds and show off enough technical skill to give Jimi Hendrix or Itzhak Perlman a run for their money.
It can also send off vibes worthy of Satan’s bloody spawn. That menacing oscillation between two lurking notes throughout Jaws? Music snobs no doubt thought it was a row of orchestral double basses. In actuality, it was pedaled bass wires of eight harps.
“Only someone from outside the harp world would think it’s angelic. Society works hard at projecting it as angelic, but it’s not,” Ownbey says. “It’s a very gutsy instrument.”
Imagine sitting long hours, balancing the instrument with your knee and shoulder ever so slightly, all while using both feet to work the harp’s many pedals. Or don’t. You can easily opt out of the larger, symphonic pedal harp and go for the lap harp instead. At around $900 to $1,000, the lap harp is a lot less expensive than the pedal harp. It was also the harp of choice for Turlough O’Carolan (full name: Toirdhealbhach O Cearbhallain), Ireland’s own national composer, and a musician who traveled his country blind after a battle with smallpox.
Unlike the paragons of other musical instruments, such as violinist Paganini, O’Carolan wasn’t celebrated for his technique. Rather, it was his compositional prowess that set him apart. His numerous musical pieces transformed the harp’s rustic, folk qualities and made them part and parcel of the classical music world in continental Europe. For a man who loved his drink and often let his temper get in the way, that was no small accomplishment.
But somehow, the instrument frequently inspires Herculean tasks. Ownbey herself rallied 122 harpists for a concert performance at the Utah State Capitol rotunda in remembrance of Elizabeth Smart before she was found walking on a Sandy sidewalk with Brian “Emmanuel” Mitchell. If you think that sounds like a lot of harpists in one place, sit tight for the American Harp Society’s fifth summer institute and 15th national competition, set for launch at the University of Utah’s Libby Gardner Hall, June 21-26. Rather than Utah’s many harpists packing up for far off destinations, this national event’s finally coming their way.
“People say they don’t know any harp players. That really dumbfounds me. I know lots of people who play. We interact with people all over the world,” Ownbey says.