By Roz Kohls
COKATO, MN Harping for the joy of it, or a “jam session for harps” is how Jenni Harris describes the Cokato Harp Circle.
Harris, a professional harpist in Cokato, started the group this fall. It meets every third Thursday from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at The Grounds in Cokato. Currently, the group of 13 is working on Christmas songs.
“If you already have a harp, bring it along with you. If you don’t have a harp, come see what harping is all about,” Harris said.
“All musical abilities, or lack thereof, are welcome,” she added.
Participants vary from having 25 years of experience, to beginners who just want to pluck a couple of songs. Members of the Cokato Harp Circle don’t need to know how to read music. One of the participants doesn’t have a harp, Harris said.
Harris noticed after she moved to her parents’ home in Cokato a year and a half ago that there were few harp circles in the area, compared to those in the Twin Cities, she said. She decided to start a harp circle, so her students in her harp classes would have an additional opportunity to play.
Harris and her students will perform a Christmas recital Sunday, Dec. 14, at 3:30 p.m. in Elim Mission Church of Cokato.
Harris became interested in playing the harp when she was in junior high school. All the members of her family were musical and tended to play unique instruments. Playing together, they would have sounded like a mini-orchestra. Harris already played the trombone, flute, piano and guitar, she said.
She considered playing the cello, but she wanted more of a solo instrument like a harp, Harris said.
Also, the harp is a healing instrument, she said. The player makes direct contact with the music through their fingers. The sound board rests upon the player’s chest, she pointed out. Research has shown that when the music is part of the player or listener, it heals and soothes more than a recording or indirect contact, such as playing keys on a piano, does, she said.
In addition to performing and teaching, Harris uses harp therapy with nursing home and hospital patients. She is interested in trying harp therapy with women during labor and delivery, she added.
Harris is originally from Minneapolis. However, her family moved to a hobby farm near French Lake, where she was home schooled through her high school years. Harris spent some time in Europe, and then got her degree from St. Cloud State University, she said.
Harris performs in churches, weddings, craft shows, corporate events, the Radisson Hotel in St. Cloud, and last week, for the Cokato Chamber of Commerce at Daniel’s Family Restaurant in Cokato.
Harris plays a Pat O’Loughlin Folk Harp, which is a celtic harp. It has levers at the top to make the strings play sharps and flats, she pointed out.
Harris also plays the concert harp, which has seven pedals on the floor to change the strings.
One of the most challenging pieces Harris played, was “Romance,” which she performed in the Czech Republic. It had many lever changes and notes, she said.
She prefers the folk harp, though, because it can play more sounds, she said. Discordant sounds, for example, can be played on a folk harp and not on a concert harp.
Harps have red strings which play the C notes, and blue strings to play the F notes. Harris’ harp is four-and-a-half octaves.
Harris plays harmonic sounds at the top of the strings. Also, plucking the strings near the sound board sounds different than plucking the strings at chest level, Harris said.
The 34 strings are just like those in a piano, except the strings are plucked with fingers, she said.
How to pluck the strings is very important, not only to how the harp sounds, but also to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, back problems, and tennis elbow, she said. That is why having a teacher helps ensure harpists will develop the correct technique right away, Harris said.
Elbows must be placed at the correct angle, thumbs are up, and fingers are down. Initially, this feels awkward, because thumbs naturally want to point down, she said.
However, if the technique isn’t correct, harpists can’t play all the notes they need to play, Harris added.
Harpists in South America pluck with their fingernails, which creates a very different sound.
Harris’ favorite piece is “The Butterfly Jig,” an Irish tune.
“You just kind of dance over the strings,” she said.
Every culture on every continent has some kind of harp music, she said.
Harris attended the World Harp Congress in Prague a few years ago. It lasted a week, and featured world-class harpists, such as Park Stickney of New York, she said.
Harris said she wishes she would have taken the opportunities available at the time to talk to the performers and drill them with questions about techniques, but she didn’t. She regrets that now.
Harris wants Dassel-Cokato area residents to have every opportunity and to know harps can be rented in affordable programs. There are also several folk harp classes. Dassel Cokato Community Education harp classes will begin Thursday, Jan. 8, and individual and group lessons, by appointment, through Harris’ studio are available. Community Education classes in Annandale, Buffalo and Waite Park will begin in January also.
For more information about harping, see Harris’ web site, www.caringharp.com.