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How To Play

The following pages are from the book The Complete Chromatic Harp by Donald Hall.

The choice of these chapters assumes that the reader does not play the harp at all, so commences with a brief guide to playing on the diatonic row of strings. For the reader who is already a harpist, proceed directly to the next chapters, which introduce you to the notions of trichords and tetrachords; the three finger and four finger patterns which constitute the entire basis  of the technique. It is the combination of these two fingering patterns which produces all the scales, major and minor, as well as many of the modes,  thus allowing you to find your way around the instrument and begin to play melodies.

The notation for all of the examples and exercises mentioned in the text, are to be found at the end of the chapters. This is to make it easier to print them off and put them in front of you on the music stand without all the clutter of the text.

Subsequent chapters take you through each of the major keys, with their relative minors, one by one, then go on to deal with the playing of three and four part chords and arpeggios, octaves, as well as the fingering for pentatonic, chromatic, blues, jazz, Arabian and Persian modes.

For further information on these subjects, please feel free to contact the academy.

  • First chapter          Preliminaries. Playing the ordinary harp.
  • Second chapter     Trichords      Three finger patterns.
  • Third chapter         Tetrachords   Four finger patterns.
  • Fourth chapter       Notation of exercises and examples.

You will find that some teachers of the chromatic harp recommend that the student learn to play the instrument initially in the key of  C major, that is, on a single row only, as if it were an ordinary diatonic harp. This method does not take that approach. Rather, it takes the point of view that the particular demands of playing the chromatic harp rely so much on movement skills with-in a spacial area, that you are best off getting used to the double-vision that the brain must develop right from the very beginning. The earlier you are moving freely between the two rows, the more natural it will be and the sooner you will be able to judge exactly where your arm and hand height really needs to be.
Some musicians will come to this instrument already able to play the harp. As long as you have an operational “classical” technique, that is,

  1. Playing with the thumbs up.
  2. Playing with the palms parallel to the strings.
  3. Playing with the fingers slanting down slightly to the strings and closing right into the palm after plucking a string.
  4. Playing with the wrist and fore-arm forming a straight line and the elbow lifted,

then there is no need for you to bother with this brief chapter. Here I should point out that not all classical technique uses the raised elbow. Many harpists allow the elbow to drop, but not drag downwards, to the point where the wrist of the right hand is actually resting on the edge of the soundboard. While this style of playing may be useful on the straight harp, it is better to maintain a higher elbow position on the chromatic harp so that you have a more even access to both upper and lower courses of strings, and so that the hand is effectively suspended above the cusp. If your technique already addresses all of these points, then you should go straight to chapter four, as what we are about to cover is for people new to the technique of the harp.
We have already covered basic issues such as position at the harp and arm-shoulder position. But, at the risk of becoming dead boring, I will again mention that the back must be straight, the head lifted, the shoulders relaxed and the elbow, forearm, wrist and top-of-hand should be forming a straight line. We shall now proceed, finger by finger, to get the entire hand playing.


  1. Seat yourself at the instrument with your right fore-arm lifted to the height of your shoulder, the palm of your hand open and facing the floor.
  2. Take a good look at it. Ensure that the  shoulder, upper arm, elbow, fore-arm, wrist and the top of the hand, are all perfectly level with one another, so that, like a juggler, you could roll a ball along the entire length of the arm and hand.
  3. Rotate the wrist so that the palm is facing inwards.
  4. Take a good look at it in this position. The hand should be open as though you are about to shake hands.
  5. Let your elbow drop slightly lower than shoulder height, without changing the line with the forearm and hand.
  6. Bring the tips of your fingers into the palm of your hand. Avoid unnecessary grip and tension, just let them rest in there with the thumb cocked upwards.
  7. Bring the hand into the instrument and, using the thumb in a firm forward movement, pluck any diatonic row string you like in the middle register of the harp. The top third of the thumb and not just the very tip, is where you should be making contact with the string. For the moment, play on the string at a point just below the middle of the length of the string (from the top to the point of crossover).
  8. Continue the forward-downward movement of the thumb after the string is plucked so that it comes to rest on the base joint of the index finger.
  9. Repeat this action, carefully watching that you do not drop the elbow lower than the wrist, and that the thumb follows through, just like a tennis racquet does when you’re serving.
  10. Play, gradually, up the register, ensuring that as the  hand goes higher up the harp, it remains in alignment with the elbow, which should be effectively drawing the forearm up and back. Play only on the diatonic row.
  11. Very slowly and carefully, play down the entire treble register, watching the levels of your elbow. Then play slowly right up to the very top string, feeling how high the elbow has to draw up and  then drop back. Play each note evenly and strongly. Make sure you like the tone you are hearing before you pass on to the next string.
  12. Do your neural patterning as described in Chapter Two. This is crucial, even with these non-complex movements.


The big difference with the left hand is that the height at which the entire arm is held is much lower as the fingers are playing on the bottom half of the strings. The elbow and shoulder are in a more relaxed position. However, the alignment of the wrist and elbow remains the same in the middle of the bass register, but as the hand drops and stretches towards the strings at the bass end, the  hand tends to angle down from the elbow level, and as the left hand plays right up into the treble register, as it frequently must, the wrist level must lift  above the height of the elbow.
The other really important difference is that the left thumb is your mainstay on the pentatonic row, as it conveniently reaches upwards to play the “black notes”. Initially this will not concern us and we will be playing only on the diatonic row. However, it does effect the closeness of the placement of the tip of the thumbs to the cusp. Where on the right hand the thumb is placed at the greatest distance from the cusp of all the fingers, with the left hand it must be placed as closely as possible to the cusp, and indeed, you must get used to the thumb being able to play in the spaces between the E flat and F sharp strings and the B flat and C sharp strings.
Keeping this in mind, and beginning with any string in the middle of the bass register, repeat what you have already done with the right thumb including the neural patterning.


Once you feel that you have control of each individual hand, waste no time in getting both hands into action. The bi-lateral demands of the chromatic harp are quite significant, and need to be cultivated from the very beginning. The most important thing to remember when you first begin to play with both hands is not to tense the shoulders up, and to continue breathing.

Begin with close order intervals, that is, with the thumbs at a third- place the left thumb on any note then place the right thumb on not the next string up, but the one above that. If the left thumb is on a C then the right thumb will be on an E. Now, very slowly and deliberately and evenly, both in terms of tempo and tone, play as far up and down the registers of the harp as you comfortably can. Use a metronome at this stage if you have one. If you don’t have one then get one. You should get into the habit of doing all of your exercises and particularly your scales, to a strict beat. You will be astonished how important an aide the metronome can be in helping the body to assimilate the music you are learning.

When you feel that you have accomplished that task with some degree of success, extend the interval by another string, that is to a fourth, then to a fifth and then to an interval of a sixth followed finally by scale passages at the distance of an octave. Remember, this is merely an exercise for the thumbs, not the way to play a scale, although there are certainly times when the playing of a piece requires entire passages to be played with the thumb, such as passages of stopped notes and passages using harmonics.


  1. Place the pad of the thumb on any string in the mid-register. The rest of the fingers should be loose and hanging downwards.
  2. Let the index finger fall onto the next string down, letting it reach down slightly to contact the string. Bring the tips of the third and fourth gently up to the palm of the hand, to rest there without tension.
  3. Feel the relationship of the thumb to the index finger- the pinch and pressure that they share with one another when you press down on both strings simultaneously without actually playing them, Feel how each stabilizes the other.
  4. Keeping the thumb in position to provide an anchor, pluck with the index finger by striking with the front-tip of the finger and then bringing the point of the finger through in a swinging, downward reaching arc, finishing with the tip of the finger coming into home base in the palm of the hand. This follow through of the finger is vital for the tone you produce, as well as for the strengthening of the fingers. Do not pull upwards and backwards with the middle joint of the finger when you are plucking, rather that joint should be moving downwards as you pluck lifting only when you go to replay that string, that is, after you play the string, but never when you are playing the string.
  5. Keeping the index finger placed on its string, pluck with the thumb, bringing it through to its closed position on the base of the index finger. Again, feel the foundation that the index finger provides for the thumb as it strikes.
  6. Play thumb-index-thumb-index, being carefully to allow for a good extension  upwards and downwards of the two fingers.
  7. Do the same routine further up the instrument.
  8. Do the same thing further down the instrument. In each instance, remember to watch the alignment of the forearm.
  9. Play thumb thumb index index. Keep your timing even end try to keep the tone even. Play as strongly as you can, but be careful, with any repeated movements of the muscles of the body, not to over-do things, either with too much force or with too many repeats of the movement.
  10. Do this routine further up the instrument, then in the high register and then further down the treble then right down the bottom of your treble reach.
  11. Apply neural patterning. 

With the next step the thumb remains static on a single string while the index finger “takes a walk” down the four strings below  it. For the first time we are going to a specific note, and therefore, for the first time, musical notation becomes part of the equation. The note which we require is a C natural- middle C. This is the red string more or less in the middle of your instrument’s register. Likewise, you will find that middle C is written right in the middle of the bass clef and the treble clef, sitting on the leger line that divides the two.

Firstly, the thumb plucks the C, closing all the way into the palm of the hand and then returning to its position on the string, providing foundation for the index finger to play the B below it. Ensure that the index finger plays strongly and follows through to its point on the palm of the hand, retuning, not to the same B which it has just played, but to the A string just below it. There it provides the foundation for the thumb to pluck the C again. Having done that, and returned to the string placement, the index finger is then free to play the A string on which it has been pre-positioned, using the thumb as its support again. As the index finger returns to its string placement, it does so down to the next string, the G, where it is placed ready to support the thumb replaying its C. Play the C and follow it with the G, replacing the index finger on the F before playing the C with the thumb again.

  1. See Exercise 1. From the very beginning it is wise to get used to looking at the music when you are playing the note.
    Once you have some degree of competence with this downward passage, get your index finger walking back up the same passage, giving you an exercise not unlike a riff from Bach. Repeat the same exercise up the octave. But only when you are secure in the lowere octave.
    When you are satisfied that you have some control over that process,
  2. move onto Exercise 2 where you are training your fingers to play non-consecutive notes, jumping over a string to play series of notes at a third.

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