Monday, March 21, 2011

Harp Grove

Harp Grove of Western PA

The day before yesterday, Saturday, was the third Saturday of the month, and that meant a Harp Grove session! I set off for Joyce Emery’s house in Crafton, because she was hosting the March meeting of the Harp Grove of Western PA, the Celtic harp ensemble we belong to. This is a (slightly) more formal version of an earlier harp circle, and was founded by Faith Stenning, Joyce and me in 1990 or thereabouts—I was an officer because I was the only member of the International Society of Folk Harpers & Craftsmen (ISFHC) at the time, and we wanted to organize as a chapter. We mostly play Scottish, Irish and Welsh music, and we get together in each other’s homes the third Saturday of the month at 2 pm to play together for a few hours, followed by tea and goodies; the host provides the tea. So I stopped off at Whole Foods to pick up my contribution, which today was assorted hammataschen. Not what I had expected to take, with us doing Irish music in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, but they are sooo good! 

Ft. Pitt Bridge over the Mon & Downtown Pgh
The love/hate thing about Pittsburgh topography is that while on the one hand, the hills, valleys and rivers make some beautiful scenery, on the other, it means that the old ‘Burgh adage that “You can’t get there from here,” is often all too true. Add to that geography an aging infrastructure, cash-flow problems, the beginning of construction season , and pot-hole season yielding a bumper crop after this winter, getting from Point A to Point B can be an exercise in creativity, flexibility, and stamina. Route 28 was out, because part of it is shut down for yet more construction, so I am currently avoiding that side of the Allegheny River.  I chose to go up through Oakland from Shadyside and across the Birmingham Bridge into South Side, and out West Carson Street. I could have gone over the Fort Pitt Bridge, but in my opinion, whoever designed that must have been a cousin of the idiot who inflicted the peculiar outbound cloverleaf at the Parkway East on Squirrel Hill right before the tunnels upon an unwary public. Ft. Pitt is a great introduction to Downtown, coming from the Airport through the Fort Duquesne tunnels, but going from the opposite end outbound, approaching on the Parkway East as it curves up onto the bridge (from the top right in the picture) means that you have to cross two lanes diagonally to (my) right  to take the off ramp (down in the lower left of the picture out towards Crafton, or you find yourself going through the tunnels. I-just-don’t-like-doing-it; I’m always worried that someone won’t be paying attention trying to go diagonally left wile I'm going diagonally right and plow into me.

Remarkably, I had almost all green lights going through the South Side flats. (100 years ago, when they were building railroads, they tended to put them on the flat parts by the rivers—and the mills, who depended heavily on the rivers to transport heavy goods like ore and steel—and roads were put up on and over the ridges.) I noticed a sign indicating a detour up onto Mt. Washington, which is what the Ft. Duquesne tunnels go through, via Sycamore because of work on McArdle Roadway, and spared the unwary out of towner taking it some pity. Sycamore is one of the seven steepest streets in the city, and also winding. When my dad went down it for the first time, at one point he thought the road had dropped out from beneath the wheels, because he couldn’t see it….When Pittsburgh used to host a big bicycle race, they’d go up it fourteen times—demonstrating that they were pros!

On Carson, I was cruising along, passing the Mon Incline on one side and Station Square on the other, going down the O-hi-o…and after passing under the Ft. Pitt, seeing the West End Bridge coming up on the right over to North Side, I braced myself for the Next Big Headache.

I mentioned the railroad being on the flats. In fact, there are two lines there; one by the Mon and the Ohio, that is right on the water…and another running along the base of Mt. Washington. On the south end of the West End Bridge, the landward one is elevated on a mostly solid base. This is interrupted by  two openings, for what used to be the West End Circle, a roundabout dating from simpler days of much less traffic when drivers went at slower speeds, that is complicated by the railroad bisecting it in the middle. Another design marvel! The circle has been a headache for just about everybody over there for decades, and periodically, Penn DOT takes another crack at improving it. This of course entails mess, detours, closings, lane changes, barriers, and an almost constant blue cloud of curses hanging overhead. Eventually everyone gets used to the current version and the construction mess is cleared away, until the next go-around. We have been in one of these for what seems like forever but is probably more like a couple of years. My thought processes went like this:

I don’t want to go in the right lane or I’ll end up going across to North Side. I don’t want to get into the right lane too soon past the bridge or I’ll end up going to McKees Rocks. I don’t want to be in the left lane, because then I’ll turn to the left too soon (first opening) and end up heading towards the airport. I’m not sure when to get in the middle lane—is that a middle lane, or a snare and a delusion? Is the sign indicating Crafton misleading or right?—to take the second, farther opening to get on Steuben Street which is what I want, to take me to Crafton, and it’s 1:36, we start at 2, and I need to tune once I get there.

So I turned, trusting the sign, once I got by a humongous truck on my left…and found that oh, curses, I am now headed towards the airport….

Luckily, it’s not a divided road, so I was able to do a u-turn, back under the underpass the opposite way, go left, then left again (after a big SUV decided it didn’t want to come snack on my aged PT cruiser after all) through the overpass's far opening, and onto Steuben, bumping over a spur line, and almost limp with relief, went onward, beginning the climb upwards. “Onward and upward” applies to a great deal of Pittsburgh’s terrain, come to think of it….

To my astonishment, I was the first one there! Parked, rejoiced in the purple and white crocuses creeping out under her fence and the lilac bush beginning to bud, and began extricating myself and stuff from the car: water bottle and purse from the front seat, set down by the rear tire, before opening the back door for the rest:

          --put the bag of harp stuff by the bottle, along with a string bag of hammantaschen;
          --pushed back the folding cart on the seat (with which I had transported the whole kit and kaboodle downstairs to the garage from home) back to give me room to
          --push aside the space blanket swathing the harp from sunlight (I am compulsive about taking my harp, Dreamsinger’s, safety seriously. Heat can severely damage it by softening the glue that partly holds it together) and lift the harp in its grey softshell case up and out of where I had it nestled between the seats. I lifted the long strap over my head so it was diagonally over my shoulder, and straightened. Gathering up everything else, I managed to shut the door and moved through the gateway and up the path, up onto the back porch and succeeded in opening the back door without hitting anything.

It’s not that my midsized harp is all that heavy—only 14 lbs. But it’s a rather awkward shape for my short size, and the harpbag is what's heavy. Most of that is from the folded music-stand; the rest is from the folding stool I set it on to play, and the bag of assorted bits (snap-on shelf for the music-stand, tuning wrench, tuner, spare set of strings, pencils, etc., and several binders, folders and comb-bound books of music.) At some point, most harperists vow that in another life, they will come back as piccolo players. Some even mean it at the time!

I handed Joyce the hammataschen, put my harp and bag in the living-room, and took the empty case and my jacket to her front hall, which doubles as her office and a sitting-area. Then Verna arrived and soon others followed, and for a while there was a happy hubbub while we opened up music-stands, Joyce and Melanie handed out copies of music, tuned our harps, caught up on who’s been doing what since last time and who was coming, and generally sorted ourselves out.

Joyce’s home has a small living-room, but we can and did fit in several: Gene, our token male and only professional harpist was on the sofa with his little Mideastern harp (which Jeff Stone of Stone Creek Instruments put levers on after Gene restrung it) in his lap; Melanie had her big Heartland harp next to Verna and her large Kortier; Carol  brought her Dusty 26, leaving her Dusty Ravenna at home (the only difference between mine and Joyce’s, and Carol’s [besides the wood on all three] is that hers has screw-on legs. Joyce plays hers set on a little cut-down table.; like me, she plays a Dusty Strings FH-26. Next to Joyce was Frances, who also left her larger harp at home but brought her green Ravenna, and there was just room for Margie, a newcomer who has yet to get a harp, to sit in a wing-chair and listen.

We enthusiastically introduced our harps and ourselves, and deluged her with information, after starting with “Brian Boru’s March Parts I, II, and III”, an oldie but goodie that we haven’t done in years. Several still had it in muscle-memory; it didn’t sound too badly, even though as usual we tended to speed up. When did we play it before? Back when I was sloooowly picking out melodies, wondering if I'd ever use my left hand...and this time I was mostly doing drone chords.

The nice thing about a group like ours, (and I’m sorry we didn’t say so to Margie), is that while we aren’t all on the same level, each of us can do something. A brand-new harper can play the first note in each measure, or chords, some only play the melody, some play the bass, some play both. Nobody gets upset by mistakes (well, I’ve been known to get thoroughly disgusted with myself for not having practiced sufficiently, but that’s standard and my own fault). What I really mean is that our goal is to have a good time together playing the instrument we love, and we always meet that goal.

“My Little Welsh Home” sneaked into our Irish day, but that’s one of those we all like. As Joyce said, it’s not difficult but sounds wonderfully harpy. That sounded good, because we all play it so much. And it’s one of those handy little tunes that fits into so many programs. We’ve changed the name on occasion to “Our Wee Scots Hame,” “Our Small Irish Cottage,” and once Frances called it “Our Holy House” when it was played in church.

We moved on to Judy Aslakson’s lovely arrangement of “The Water Is Wide,” which in Scotland is called “Waly, Waly,” but like so many tunes has traveled and changed names. Gene was wondering why she put the melody in the Harp II part and the accompaniment in Harp I. I was doing drone chords on that as well, so I didn’t care; I was too busy being happy about doing D7 chords more easily. A small victory, but I'll take what I can get! Not all the playing was ensemble; Verna, Melanie and Carol played Turlough O’Carolan’s “Fannie Po’er,” Frances played “Danny Boy,” Gene played an aria from Puccini’s La Boheme, and two songs from Finnegan’s Rainbow: “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” and “Look to the Rainbow.” As a group, we slowly sight-read our way through “A Fig for a Kiss,” a slip jig, and “Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore,” which Melanie handed out and played for us first. We’ve tried “A Fig” before; I think Sue Richards gave it to us at one of her workshops at the Ligonier Highland Games, but Jennifer Pratt-Walter’s “Paddy” was new.

We were almost ready to break for tea and goodies when Faith Stenning, and Lorraine and her toddler son Darren Farnof arrived. They were harpless, so some of us played a little more, and I think Faith borrowed Frances' for one tune.

Darren is 17 months old, a happy little guy who saw that Gene’s harp was just his size  when it was set down on the floor, and he wanted to play it. After all, he’s used to Lorraine’s harp, and budding harpers should be encouraged! He was greatly diverted by Gene's opening and closing the bottom part of his music-stand tripod--what was that slivery spidery thing? And how long is it since I noticed how cool that motion of accordioning in and out can be?

Several kinds of tea, crackers and spreads, devilled eggs and salmon, the hammataschen, cookies…all presided over by some daffodils in Joyce’s big kitchen amid conversation, and after reluctantly packing up, we went home.

It was a lovely day! Personally I was pleased that in addition to playing chords I had done some fingering with my right hand on the newer pieces (mostly keeping up), was quicker on recognizing note patterns, that we met a possible new harper, and that I’d had the chance to play with several friends. This isn’t everyone in the group, so hopefully at our next meeting in April, more will be able to come. It'll be good to see them again.

Smithfield Street Bridge
The sun was still shining brightly as I crossed my favorite Pittsburgh bridge, the Smithfield Street one. Allegheny County has more bridges than anywhere else, even Venice, and to me, there is something very aesthetically pleasing  in its lenticular arches. Oakland seemed relatively uncrowded coming back, as I made resolutions about practicing more….and I arrived home a little after 6.

I love proverbs, especially Scottish ones. Here is one of my favorite music ones:

Everything will perish save love and music.


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