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.


  • Dave Engels says:

    Hi Lucille,
    Thanks for your articles in AQ, which are a must-read/play for me! They are SO helpful.

    Your blog on getting rid of the metal sound intrigues me because I have been trying to do just that, on my own, for some time. Unsuccessfully, I might add.

    I can’t go to MLAG or PAR, and wonder if you’d share how you get rid of the ‘metal’ sound via email? Is that possible? Or, perhaps via a Youtube video?…

    • Lucille Reilly says:

      Thank you for your question.

      My students recognize the value of face-to-face teaching, and this is certainly true for the PARticipants. Students also understand that there are no substitutes for live teaching/demonstration. Being there means I can observe everyone while steering them around unexpected and/or unknown pitfalls as they replicate each skill for themselves. (Bodily tension shows up the most. The sense of touch is a huge help toward releasing excess tension quickly.)

      To that end, consider gathering a dozen or so of your autoharp friends and co-hosting a retreat in your locale. That’s ideal, because everyone will learn from each other–even I learn from my students!–magnifying the experience. Or, come to Denver for B&B lessons; I’m happy to arrange a time that’s convenient for both of us. One way or the other, we will transform that metal sound into full, harmonic resonance. In B&B lessons, I will also cover anything else you would like to focus on as time allows, alongside good food and some sightseeing. I hope to catch up with you soon!

  • I’m looking forward to MLAG again. It’s good to know that you will be there again after the elements held you away in 2017. I learn a lot from you…. Since the last time I saw you, I have worked up some fingertip callouses in the name of not playing metal unless I want to.

    • Lucille Reilly says:

      It will be great to be at MLAG this year. 2017 was supposed to be my “MLAG off,” to just hang out and enjoy. I missed that, and will be teaching two workshops this year. I’ll do my best to jam as much as possible!

      You’ll be interested to know that the PARticipants, including one who used to play bare-fingered (now a pick convert), produced a rich, full sound using metal fingerpicks and a plastic thumb pick! Yes, it can be done–because the picks (ironically) have nothing to do with it! We also discussed why autoharpists will want to wear picks to play, what kind of thumb pick delivers solid, audible bass tones, and how to widen dynamic range (soft to loud) in music-making. See you soon!

  • Lawana Beard says:

    Great blog! I’m so excited about this! After reading this post, I focused on that very thing. I can really tell the difference when I listen to the autoharp tell me how my playing is going just by how it sings back to me. Stature, arm use, the hip pouch, picks, etc.: when I apply all that, it makes playing the autoharp wonderful, with a sound so full, rich and enticing.

    I had another thought as I read your blog: when the sound is so good that you feel an overwhelming love for the music and the instrument, you lose a big part of your nervousness about playing in front of people. You want them to experience with you the joy of that moment enveloped in the music. It’s sad to not have that feeling because of “you can play any way you want” pervading our approach to music. That statement destines the autoharp to be forever thought of as a front-porch, amateur, old-timey instrument. I can tell you from my learning experience that the violin and piano sound better when tried-and-true, well-thought-out techniques are applied. So it goes for the autoharp, too.

    Keep pushing the envelope!

  • Midori Hall says:

    The sounds that project from my old, scarred, Oscar Schmidt Appalachian autoharp since learning from you at the Phoenix Autoharp Retreat are wonderful! They were always there. I just needed to know how to play this autoharp to achieve the beautiful sounds!

    • Lucille Reilly says:

      Woo-HOOOO! A mass-produced autoharp gets a new lease on sound! (And “they” said it couldn’t be done.) Keep up the good work so that you always sound good!

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