A little homework will greatly increase the odds that the chosen instrument will be satisfactory. The following items may seem elementary to the experienced harpist, but they are all worth considering when choosing a new harp:
Size is the first consideration that comes to mind. Concert Grand or Semi-grand harps with 46 or 47 strings and extended soundboards are more or less standard today, but most manufacturers also offer smaller instruments and straight soundboard harps. These are well worth considering. Though the manufacturers often promote straight soundboard harps as student instruments, the harpist should not overlook the advantages of a smaller and lighter instrument. Many professional musicians keep a small “gig harp” in addition to their large instrument because the smaller harp is much easier to move. For the harpist who plays for her own pleasure, or who does not need the range of a concert grand harp, a small instrument may well be a better choice. Though the 47-string concert grand harp has become the standard instrument for professional musicians, the semi-grand harp is often a better choice for someone who is of smaller stature. With properly designed soundboards, there is very little difference in projection or sound volume between a concert grand of 47 strings and the 46-string semi-grand. The differences in height and weight are, however significant.
Size is very important when acquiring an instrument for a young musician. To give a full size concert grand harp to a child whose frame is not fully developed is risky. The child is often too small to reach the pedals on a full size harp unless he sits on a low stool. This means that the harp will lean back enough to place significant weight on the child’s shoulder and back, which is a recipe for injury. Though here are those who begin playing very early and who escape these problems, there are also those who have to stop playing entirely by the time they are in their 20’s because of physical problems resulting from supporting an overly large harp while their bones were developing. It is routine to start a young violinist with a reduced size instrument and to move to a full-size violin as the musician grows. The same should be true for harpists. A conservative rule of thumb is that a young harpist should not be given a harp that is too large and heavy for him to move across the room unaided.
Tone quality should be a major consideration when purchasing a harp. Paradoxically the sound of a harp is both its single most important characteristic and the most difficult characteristic to control during production. This is why it is so important for the harpist to play the instruments being considered for purchase before making a decision. When shopping for a harp it is wise to have another harpist to help. The sound the playing harpist hears is quite different from the sound a listener located a distance away from the instrument will hear. Usually the sound the listener hears is most important, but it is also essential that the playing harpist find the harp satisfying and enjoyable to play. Fortunately, a decent instrument is usually enjoyable for both the listener and the player, but this is not something to take for granted.
In general, a brighter sounding harp will project better than one with a warm sound. This is important if the harp will be used in an orchestra or in large rooms, such as auditoriums or large churches. However, harps can be built that are so bright and brittle sounding that they are unpleasant to play. Such instruments usually sound thin even in a large ensemble, and are particularly annoying to the poor harpist. Harpists usually enjoy harps with a warm sound, but if the instrument is too warm it can sound muddy, and both definition and projection suffer. Romantic music may sound lush and rich, but the harp will not have the clarity needed for baroque or contrapuntal music.
The ideal harp for most musicians has a medium-bright sound, good dynamic range, and even sound quality through the entire range of the harp. It should be responsive, and not require great effort to play. It should be light enough that the owner will be able to move it without assistance, and it should balance well when being played. Above all, it must satisfy the harpist and be a real pleasure to own and use.
The smart shopper will be prepared when trying out a harp. As noted above, take a competent harpist to help. Take a variety of music, including the normal repertoire and some music of different styles. Try to play the harp in a quiet place that is acoustically suitable. Neither an extremely live room nor a dead one is good.