The Autoharp is a stringed zither which has chord bars that dampen any notes not in the chord, so when it's strummed, all you get is the appropriate strings ringing out when you strum. Like many people, I was first introduced to the Autoharp in grade school. Back in the good old 70's, we had both a piano and an Autoharp in the class, and we actually were allowed to check out the Autoharp and take it home. I think I was around nine years old when I fell in love with the beautiful sound. I still remember carrying it home on the bus, how heavy it was for my skinny little nine year old arms to carry. I set it on the living room floor, I remember that it had light blue carpeting, and I played it with my right hand strumming away from me using the fingernail of my index finger. I loved it so much, though holding down the chord bar was difficult for my little weak fingers, the sound was so amazing to me. When I asked my Dad if I could get one, his Norwegian common sense asked when and where would I play it? It wasn't a band instrument, and besides we had a perfectly good piano right there! When I brought the Autoharp back, I was very sad that I wouldn't get to have one of my own. It seems dissapointment would be my companion when it came to the Autoharp.
One of my earliest inspirations was June Carter Cash. I had seen her and her autoharp on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I was amazed at how she played, holding it upright against her body, she picked out notes and I thought she must be a musical genius! All those strings and she always managed to pick the right ones. My school music teacher said that she didn't play it correctly, when I asked her about playing it upright against your body the way June Carter Cash did. She assured me it was supposed to sit on a table, and you were supposed to press the chords with your left hand and strum with your right. Awkwardly crossing your arms was the proper way to play an autoharp!
When the time came to join band, I took up the clarinet. If Autoharp had been an option, I would have been the first in line. But fate would have it that I took up the clarinet, though whenever I went to the music store for my lesson I would see the lovely Autoharp in the case and my eyes would soak in it's beauty.
As a teen, I dutifully followed in my twin sister's footsteps and took up the guitar. She was a much more dedicated guitarist than I ever was, so while mine got resold, she kept playing hers. Once I started learning more about folk music from some local musicians, I learned that the Autoharp was not respected in our community. It wasn't considered a "real instrument" as it was more of a toy or a tool to produce sounds. Life went on and got very busy, and I tried taking up a 12 string guitar, but after a year of practicing and only three songs learned, I traded it in for a flute. Because I really never wanted to play the clarinet, and all the girls wanted flutes. The flute lessons went well, but I didn't keep up with it. I spent many years without picking up an instrument at all.
Then my birthday was coming around, and some friends who were also folk musicians had a gig coming up, so my husband and I went to see them. Riverfolk were playing at the Riverview Cafe, and as I saw the instrument cases and bags, there was one that looked suspiciously like an autoharp. Sure enough, Becca picked it up for a song, "Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" was played beautifully on it. Because I loved to sing so much, I asked Becca later whether the Autoharp or the Dulcimer would be better for me. She recommended the autoharp, but warned me that it would likely not be a welcome site at the local music circles. Guitar is king in the Twin Cities, so I decided once I took it up, I would have music parties at my house, that way nobody could complain when I played it in the circle! She also recommended her friend Karen Mueller as an instructor, and I'm so glad she did. Once I learned more about Karen, I realized we had a bona fide autoharp legend here in Minneapolis. I couldn't have asked for a better instructor!
But enough about me and my autoharp journey for now, her is Karen herself playing a wonderful celtic tune:
Now that's what I'm talking about! What an amazing instrument, lovely chords and wonderful picking my a master. I took classes for a while, and learned a handful of songs, and had a long list of songs that I was learning. One day I noticed that I could not keep my autoharp in tune. I kept trying every couple of days and it was no good. I posted in my blog about how my autoharp died, you can read all the gory details if you want. She sits in her stand looking pretty, but she is unplayable.
During the two years I had her, I learned a lot, and one of the things I learned is that I wanted to upgrade to a Luthier instrument due to many technical considerations. First, they always have to be worked on by a luthier to improve chord bar action, and for me the little buttons would rattle when I was nervous due to my tremor. So that would make me more nervous. Chord bars made by a good luther solve both those problems. Third, I didn't want another cracked soundboard ruining my instrument. My Kantele and Mountain Dulcimer are beloved to me, but my instrument family feels incomplete without an Autoharp. There was something about holding it over my heart and strumming, it was such an intimate thing. I really want my next one to be of better quality. I have chosen a real beauty to be my next instrument, The Luthier's Classic from d'Aigle Autoharps, now all I have to do is save up for it and I'll be all set.
I really am a zither enthusiast, each one brings it's own unique qualities, and certain songs fit better than others when it comes to the Mountain Dulcimer vs. the Autoharp. I have a few favorites that I was just starting to learn when my own instrument had to be retired. While I have tried them on the dulcimer, they seem to cry out for more strings. My hope is to be happily playing my own TLC a year from now.
* Update 4/28/2012 *
My choice for Autoharp changed and I am now going to get the lovely Desert Rose by d'Aigle Autoharps instead. Thank you for your support, and don't forget to donate! I'll add an update when my darling autoharp arrives in a few long months. :)
* Update 9/20/2012 *
My dream autoharp arrived last week and is safe in her new home! We are having a wonderful time getting to know each other. I love my Desert Rose for d'Aigle Autoharps!