Confessions and Ramblings of a Reluctant Autoharp Teacher

This was a handout given to the 1999 Autoharp class at Augusta Heritage Workshops in Elkins WV. It was published in October 2009 in Issue #9 of Lula Magazine. Hear Harvey play autoharp. His autoharp CD is on iTunes and many other digital download services.


I suppose that after this many years I should make a public confession about me and the autoharp. Yes, I know it should be called a capital A Autoharp® with the symbol or be called a chorded zither, but mine is actually an Oscar Schmidt, so it is an autoharp to me, and I hate typing the capital A. I am primarily a guitar player, and I play 6 and 12-string and slide guitar, and some mandolin. I used to play banjo and fiddle, too. The autoharp transports me more reliably than anything else I play --to wherever it is that I willingly go when I am lost in playing music. A tuned autoharp is like a big slice of pie and ice cream that is set in front of you, or a sparkling pool of water to jump in on a muggy day. Or a bush full of ripe raspberries. You don't read the manual, you don't worry about how you look, you just indulge yourself. If instruments are food, the autoharp is definitely a dessert.

The autoharp is a platypus duckbill of stringed instruments. There is no instrument I know of that works the way it does. It makes no sense and it makes perfect sense. It is thoroughly confusing to watch someone play one if you don't know how it works. I tune it differently than anything else I have ever played, and I hold it differently. I use different fingerpicks. It is quirky and lovely and beautiful and personal and helpless and friendly all at once. Guitar players and banjo players can be competitive and flashy and forget all about the real purpose of music. Autoharp players are almost too nice. Give a young guy in a music store a guitar and he'll play runs and licks and riffs or whatever. Autoharp players usually seem to just play songs when you hand them an instrument. I like it when people just play songs. Some musicians are always playing songs they think people will like. Autoharp players usually just play songs they like.

For me the autoharp is a welcome refuge from playing guitar. I never fight with my autoharp, though my other instruments have been known to frustrate me a great deal. I borrowed an autoharp from my friend Rob for about 4 years, and then traded a cheap guitar to Dave Sander for the one I have now, and I have had it since January of 1975. I don't have more of them because this one always takes me where I want to go. I carry around too many instruments as it is, and I am afraid I might become dissatisfied if I have several. Like the man with two clocks who is no longer sure what time it is. My autoharp has rescued me countless times from a corner I paint myself into when I play guitar. It has something to do with expectations. The autoharp gently reminds me why I play music, and it speaks this truth more clearly and understandably than my other instruments. I have played autoharp since I was 17, and I have played mine at every one of my over 4000 performances, except a concert I did in Scotland on vacation, and I missed it and promised myself I would not leave it home again. The autoharp is not loud. It is not what I would call versatile. It is one of the only instruments that has made the transition into the folk tradition in recent times. It reminds me of the science experiments we did in school, or the books from the 1940's of fun things for kids to do with scissors and glue and clothespins, candles and coins. I can always fix my autoharp with super glue and a Swiss Army knife and some things from the kitchen drawer. It's not like a violin or a piano, where you have to be an expert to work on it.
When I am supposed to teach people how to play this instrument, I shrug my shoulders, and I wince and I laugh. I honestly do not know how I learned to play it or even how I play it. I worked very very hard to learn the other instruments, and I have never worked at the autoharp. I have always just played it. It is so easy to just push buttons and go. It's harder to stop sometimes than to go. I strongly feel that folk music should be approached as a non-academic subject, and autoharp is the best example of why. They say that folk music is when folks play music, and I think the autoharp is the perfect instrument for folks. I have a great friend who is a Ph.D. in music and a college professor, and he tried to learn autoharp, and he knew every chord and every melody note and every piece of data, and he tried to pick out songs that way. He could do it, but not quite fast enough to keep up with the songs. I tried to get him to forget all that and play instinctively. He eventually gave up his rational approach, and was thrilled, because he was able to pick out melodies better by not using his intellect than by using it.

I think folk music should be learned less like science, and more like cooking or like kissing or gardening. The whole joy is teaching yourself and expressing yourself, and not looking over your shoulder worrying about doing it right or wrong. It's more like tribal drumming than it is like classroom learning. It is a meditative activity more than an academic discipline, and perhaps the simplicity of it and its small size make it easier to find the path out of yourself and out of the worries and the self-conscious mind. The violin and the saxophone are all about failure. You try to play them and it takes forever to get one good note. Anybody can make a whole slew of good notes from an autoharp with no skill or knowledge or practice. It's almost too easy, which no doubt is why it does not get proper respect in some music circles. It's like a good magic trick that is really easy to learn. It works the first time. It's like a boat that's big enough for everybody or a picnic where there is enough watermelon to go around. It's like paddling a canoe downstream or flying a kite when there's a good wind. It's a wonderful little raft to float on, where ordinary people can experience the joys of the music river without years of pain and failure.

Imagine what a fine world this would be if everyone played music. Imagine if our world leaders played autoharps. Nobody ever tells you to turn down your autoharp. It's always polite and predictable. It's not like a trumpet or a drum. You can play at night and the neighbors never bang on the walls. You can play in a car seat or a hammock, where guitars are too big and awkward. You can even play it lying flat on your back when you are too tired to even sit up. But make sure you stick the side of it against your head, since those vibrations are the best part.

© Harvey Reid (August 1999 Elkins WV)

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