This blog post bears the title of an email that arrived to my inbox recently from one of the Phoenix Autoharp Retreat (PAR) PARticipants.  The email reads as follows:

Just a note to say your teaching really works. My daughter from Anchorage Alaska, who is visiting us, said she heard a more beautiful sound and not the metal sound of my nails on the strings.

Wow, there is something to this!  (Good work!!)

What’s the “metal sound” all about?   I have heard the sound of metal on the autoharp in everything from jam sessions to club meetings to contests (yes, contests).  In fact, the sound of metal is so widely prevalent that it’s easy to accept as traditional autoharp sound–until the difference is heard and replicated.  And note that getting the metal out is not reserved to a talented few.  Anyone can convert metal sound into solid, gorgeous string tone with a little instruction, as all the PARticipants found out.  They now listen to their autoharps while they play to ensure that their instruments speak back with their best voices.  And that sound excites these folks!  A month after PAR, they still understand sound differences and continue to play with full harmonic string tone!  The metal sound is gone!  Now that’s music to my ears!

Now, someone out there in Autoharp Land may think that good sound is easy when a player has a custom-built autoharp.  While it is true that all PARticipants came with custom-built autoharps, there is more to rich, full sound than the quality of the harp itself.  (I think back to the playing I heard on PAR’s first day: yep, metal.)  While all autoharpists are incredibly lucky to have several luthiers making great autoharps nowadays (thank you, luthiers!), the sound equation still applies:

25% instrument + 75% player = 100% sound (good, bad or ugly)

This means that every instrument depends 3x more on the person behind the “inanimate object” to finish the job begun by its maker.  (If you’ve ever heard a reputedly fine instrument played badly, you hopefully drew the conclusion that it’s not the instrument’s fault.  See how big that 75% is?)

A case in point: my latest at-home private student successfully removed the metal sound early on from his new-ish, mass-produced-in-Asia Oscar Schmidt autoharp.  So the make doesn’t matter, although there are certainly differences in inherent sound quality coming from workmanship and materials that contribute to an instruments “best” voice as drawn out by the player.

Thankfully, producing full, resonant sound is easily taught.  What may make it tricky to master is reversing all those engrained habits that get in the way.  (I’m always saddened by players who would rather cope with marginal sound than reap its full benefits and free themselves to do bigger and better things.)

Over the decades, I’ve heard folk-stringed-instrument people hither and yon express the belief that good sound is the last thing to master.  Hmmm: that’s the first thing I teach.  Think about it: when you can make a good sound on your instrument, you will like to play it more.  And that approach takes all the drudgery out of the word practice.

Well, my congratulations to this PARticipant for making such great leaps, and to all the PARticipants for venturing into some sound-production game-changers at PAR that has turned their playing around.

In closing, know that everyone, beginner through pro, deserves to sound good.  This doesn’t take special, intuitive talent, just desire augmented by a little know-how.  When you are ready to receive it, I’m here.