Sylvia Woods: Teach yourself to play the folk harp, book/CD and DVD

Harp is an instrument mostly associated with classical music and and elegance. Elegant it is, an instrument that people have been playing for many hundreds of years. The oldest harps found are from 1200 B.C. You will be able to make nice music on a harp, even if you are a beginner – it is easy to create nice music on it. On our website we have reviewed some tutorials and books about the folk harp and a couple of song books with melodies arranged for it, to inspire people to play the folk harp.

Per Jakob Skaanes

Sylvia Woods is a professional harpist. She studied harp many years at University of Redlands, and had several quarters of harp lessons from Susann McDonald at California State University at Los Angeles after graduation. She loved playing the pedal harp. However, it wasn’t until she discovered and purchased a Celtic harp that she felt she had really found HER instrument. And so, ever since then, the Celtic harp has become her life’s calling.

Since 1980, Sylvia Woods has toured as a solo performer giving concerts throughout North America and Europe, as well as in Ireland and Northern Ireland. She has given many special performances for for The American Harp Society and The International Society of Folk Harpers and Craftsmen. She has taught harp workshops and master classes throughout the U.S. and Ireland, and has judged numerous harp competitions, including the Guinness World Trophy for the Celtic Harp Competition in Lorient, France. She has also written alot of books for harpers, among others the book  Music theory and arranging techniques for folk harp.

The harps have developed and there are many types of harps played in different cultures. Some talk about folk harp, mediaeval harp, celtic harp, lever harp and pedal harp. On our site we will review material on how to play folk harp, and the focus is the lever harp.

A lever harp is a folk harp with levers on each string to sharpen the tone one semi tone if you want to play in another key. If you are planning to buy a folk harp and want to use tools to learn the art of playing harp, the lever harp will fit best. If you, as I, don’t have a lever harp but another folk harp without levers, it shouldn’t be any problem. You just skip the tunes with any note sharped and play the non-sharped tunes first. Then you can retune your harp afterwards and play the tunes with sharped F till F# for instance. That’s what I do and it works fine.  I have a Norwegian folk harp made by the musician and instrument maker Sverre Jensen in Oslo, Norway.

Teach yourself to play the folk harp is very detailed and well composed. Here is a harp-tool-set of DVD, CD and book. This is the most detailed harp instruction we review on our pages because it contains one book with lots of information about harps and twelve lessons. It is one CD with all the tunes recorded. Beside that it is also a DVD where Sylvia Woods plays through all the songs and demonstrates the content in the lessons in the book. The book and the DVD are organized in the same way. You can buy these three tools as a package and you can of course buy them separately.

The book

The book starts with a presentation of the folk harp historically, different types of harps both metal strung and nylon strung. The playing style is a bit different on metal strung harps than nylon strung harps. This book is for the most about nylon strung harps. The book continues with a chapter containing holding the harp, hand position, fingering and so on. She shows how to read music, she introduces the different notes step by step so even if don’t know how to read music, if you are clever and study hard you will manage to follow I think. Woods does not use tabulature for harp. She moves slowly forward and there are lots of excercices for all the fundamentals you need to manage to be a harper. All the tunes are in C, so if you use a harp without levers, there will be no problem.

In the first chapters you learn to play with one hand, there after with both hands and playing chords with your left hand and melodies with your right hand. All the time she guides you step by step towards becoming a harper. In lesson eight Woods introduces chords and tells how they usually are played, broken. This means that the notes are played rapidly rather one after another than all at the same time. Of different skills and effects she teaches is cross-overs (and cross-unders) – That is when the thumb crosses over a placed finger and is placed on a lower string before the finger plucks. There is glissando, very famous ans typical harp-effect. You slide the finger up or down along the strings, and harmonics which is to play one string that it sounds one octave higher that its normal pitch. The book contains lots of skills and excercices for both hands that will be considered as building blocks that you need to manage before you start on the next excercise.

Beside that the tunes are good excercices for you to learn the harp, they are very nice too. Here are for instance the well known choir from Beethovens 9th symphony or the irish song Cockles and mussels on harp. But there are many very old tunes too here so it is a kind of cultural history. The book also contains a lesson on how to replace strings, one lesson about harp care. It is also a table of symbols you will meet when you reed music, alfabetically index of tunes.


The DVD with the same name as the book is made as a help-tool for the book. Of course the DVD can be used alone as a great help, but it is made to follow the book and refers all the time to whats written in the different chapters in the book. Here Sylvia Woods plays through all the pieces in the book and simultanously comments how she plays and what you should be aware of when playing the pieces. She is also demonstrating the advices about fingerpicking, how to sit and so on. Sylvia Woods is a masterful theacher. She won’t let you skip anything. She stresses often how important it is to play through the pieces many times and learn the techniques before you jump to the next lesson.  She stresses that every lesson is to consider as a building block that you need to manage before you start on the next excercice. The filming i clear and it is easy to see what she does with her fingers and hands. She explains very much in this DVD, she speaks with a luod and clear voice so there is no problem to hear what she is saying. Maybe she speaks a little bit too much when you see the DVD first time, but after you have seen it two or three times there is no problem.

The CD

Here you can hear Sylvia Woods play the tunes on her harp. This can be very helpful when you need to hear the tunes being played correctly. Many times I have problems to understand how e piece is to be played for instance because I am not that good a reading music, or because I misunderstand something. Then I can put on the CD and listen. It is not always it is time to look at the DVD to find out how the tune is played. This is actually a very nice CD just to listen to beside its use as instruction tool.

And further

If you are looking for a set of book/DVD and maybe CD too, this is what you ought to buy. It starts at a ultimate beginner level and ends quite intermediate. If you only want a DVD or a little book avout the harp, maybe you should read the other reviews and think a bit what you are looking for. Anyway, feel free to e-mail me and ask if you want to know more about the progression, levels and so on from a «beginner point of view». I will answer as good as I can.

When you have finished this instruction and play through every piece with any problems, one DVD by Laurie Riley may be a help to get even further in your harp play: Harp beyond the basics. Or If you want to learn more about music theory or arranging tunes for harp, this book by Sylvia Woods may be helpful: Music theory and arranging techniques for folk harp. There is also a book with tips and advices for every harper, The harpers handbook by Laurie Riley. For those who are interested, here you will find many interresting folk harp links.

Teach yourself to play the folk harp book/CD and DVD is published by Sylvia Woods Harpcenter. Spiral-bound, 80 pages.

Publisert: 26. juli 2010