You may or may not know that I play music enthusiastically if not particularly skilfully. It’s important to do things you like with no thought for the result. I remember reading a story a long time ago about a therapist who helped a gentleman get over his perfectionism. The gentleman wanted to paint pictures but felt he wasn’t good enough so he didn’t. After he completed his therapy he began to paint for pleasure, lots of paintings. The therapist had one of the paintings in his office, it was terrible, but on handing it over the gentleman said “I present you with…not my best”. It was hung in pride of place.
I took piano lessons for six years when I was little, gave it up at 13 because I really wasn’t getting much of anywhere, though switching from classical to jazz did help a bit. Then I had a go at guitar for a long time and even managed to play actual chords in an actual bluegrass band on actual stages in my late 20s. Then my musical engagement went underground for a long time, nearly 25 years. (I still have the guitar, it’s a really nice Yamaha that I got for a good price because the guy in the music store thought it was a less expensive model than it really was – but that’s another story).
Singing without accompaniment can sound a bit naff, unless you’re a very fine singer, indeed, and even then it can sound a bit naff. After watching the film “Walk the Line” about six years ago I became fixed on the idea of having an autoharp, like June Carter Cash played. And being an old 60s sort of person I admired The Lovin’ Spoonful, the only rock band with embedded autoharp player (and I always thought John Sebastian was really cute).
On with the quest. A quick internet search tossed up lots of autoharp sites and a lot of autoharps, some looking pretty cheap and cheerful and others, custom jobbies, rather expensive. What to do? A gentleman in Hereford was the ticket – Mike Fenton. Mike not only sells the very respectable Oscar Schmidt autoharps (and will replace broken strings if needed), he also conducts workshops and master classes, performs in schools and is a full inductee in the – wait for it – Autoharp Hall of Fame.
We contacted him, discussed my autoharping needs and for Christmas 2007 Alun bought me a very fine Schmidt 21-chord Centurion in a spiffy padded case. It has a lovely rich sound that less well-made harps don’t have.
It also came with an instruction book, “It’s an Autoharp” by Cathy Britell, named that because it was the answer to the question she was most often asked. (This eventually was my experience as well.)
If you play guitar you can get the measure of an autoharp in about 5 minutes. If you don’t play guitar it might take 10 or 15 minutes or so longer. Never was there an instrument that could provide such musical joy in such a short amount of time.
Naturally, it takes a bit more time to play well, but even a beginner player can create recognizable music quickly. Anyone can strum, but it’s the picking that makes the most beautiful sounds.
It can go all technical, with chromatic models or diatonic models, you can even have left-handed harps made, but you don’t need to deal with that at first.
Consider the autoharp. Once you play one you want one. Trust me.
It was a ukulele day at a local music shop, but I brought the autoharp as well. The shop manager had never seen one closeup before...
John Sebastian himself will teach you to play!
Jo Ann Smith is a brilliant player.
Mother Maybelle Carter (June Carter Cash's mother) who was the inspiration for Mike Fenton and many other autoharpists.
Put "autoharp" into a YouTube search and prepare to be overwhelmed...