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The Harp

If you have a chance to attend an orchestra concert anytime soon and one of the pieces on the program calls for a harp, make sure to watch the harpist’s feet. They’ll be busy. The modern concert harp has forty seven strings, but it also has seven foot pedals, each of which controls one set of strings for each note of the scale. The A pedal, for example, controls all the A strings on the harp, and can change their length so that they sound A-natural or A-sharp or A-flat. As they play, harpists have to set and reset their pedals constantly—and quickly—to prepare for the notes that are coming up.

Meanwhile, shifting your view from the feet to the hands, you may, if you’re sharp, detect an interesting phenomenon: harpists don’t use their pinkies. Since it’s the weakest finger, and since on the harp it provides no reach advantage—the ring finger stretches farther—the pinkie is just along for the ride.

A Minute with Miles is a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.

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Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players, with whom he regularly tours the United States, and the Virginia I. Norman Distinguished Visiting Professor of Chamber Music at the Schwob School of Music, in Columbus, Georgia. He has appeared as viola soloist with orchestras across the country, and his solo performances on YouTube have received well over 700,000 views.