Harp & soul

William Rees' hand-crafted stringed instruments make heavenly music in Rising Sun and around the world.


By

Tiny Rising Sun became an unlikely harp hotspot when renowned harp-maker William Rees set up shop on Main Street 10 years ago. But if residents thought Harps on Main would gentrify the town’s main drag, they were only partially correct. To be sure, dulcet tones waft from the building during harp lessons and visits from famous harpists. But more often, classic rock blasts from the workshop in back, where Rees and his crew coax harps out of wooden planks and nylon strings. Angelic or not, Rees’ shop has put this small Ohio River town on the map with harp beginners and professionals alike.

The Harps on Main storefront brightens up Main Street in Rising Sun. Inside, William Rees and his crew handcraft harps and Harpsicles. / Photo by Lisa Tomcko

Rising Sun could have lost its harp bragging rights to the economic crisis. Concert harps, after all, are not the most recession-proof items. But Rees also introduced a lower-cost line called Harpsicle Harps. “It saved our butts,” Rees says simply. While concert harp orders plummeted to about three per month, Harpsicle orders rose from around 120 to 170 per month in the last two years. In fact, Harpsicle business has increased eight-fold since 2003, as hosts of established and first-time players have been buying the colorful little harps that are contributing to a larger revival in the United States and beyond.

Harps on Main is a family affair. Besides William, the shop employs 10 people, and everyone is either a Rees family member or a close friend. While William’s domain is wood, glue and sawdust, his wife, Pamela Rees, is the chief operating officer who handles the administrative end of the business. Two of William’s three children from a previous marriage also work in the shop. Son Garen Rees, 29, helps out in the office and designs, paints and carves the intricate ornamentation on the concert harps. Daughter Rebecca Brown, 36, levers the harps. Levers are devices above each harp string that raise the pitch one half-step, creating sharps.

Although they don’t have a standardized system, Rees estimates that he and his crew take three weeks to make a concert harp. When they really hustle they can make 10 Harpsicles in a day. Due to the Harpsicle’s popularity they’ve had to extend the expected waiting period by two weeks, to five to six weeks.

Darlene Walton adjusts the hardware on a Harpsicle. Walton also gives harp lessons at the store and leads a harp choir of local children. / Photo by Lisa Tomcko

Harps are both made and played at Harps on Main. Darlene Walton is the shop’s resident harp teacher. She gives lessons at the store and leads a harp choir of local children.

This morning, Harps on Main is bustling. Even at full volume, “Bad Company” is barely audible over the buzz of saws and sanding equipment.  Sawdust and the sharp smell of spray paint fill the air. Harp frames and templates line the left wall, and small piles of precariously stacked lumber are everywhere. Rees, 61, strides into the chaos. “What do we have on the table today?” he asks of his son-in-law, Shannon Brown.

“We’ve got 10 Harpsicles waiting to be sanded and 10 that need painting,” Brown replies in a mock-boss manner. “Go, go, go!”

When Rees emerges for his lunch break a few hours later, he doesn’t look much like a master luthier. His orange T-shirt and blue jeans are coated with sawdust. His hands and the tip of his nose are smudged with royal-blue spray paint. But his crisp blue eyes behind their wire-rimmed glasses betray Rees’ quick wit. Eleanor, his beloved golden retriever and standard poodle mix, curls up next to his chair while he recounts his journey of the harp.

Rees has always been a musical man. He’s been playing a variety of
instruments – from ukulele to accordion to guitar – since the age of 9 and has been building instruments since 1972. A biologist by training, Rees taught science at a small high school near Yosemite National Park for 20 years. Although he loved teaching, he didn’t want to become, as he puts it, “one of those old-fart teachers.” Rees needed a change, and so he turned to his part-time hobby of building instruments. Initially he dreamed of his own guitar shop, but there was greater demand for harps as a folk-harp revival took hold. So Rees was drawn to the harp and has been building them full-time for the past 20 years.

Since the Midwest is the country’s manufacturing center and home to many of the most profitable fine arts festivals (where most of Rees Harps Inc.’s business originally came from), the Reeses decided to relocate in the Heartland. Both William and Pamela come from rural areas and love nature, so they settled on Rising Sun for its pastoral charm, hilly landscape and location along the scenic Ohio River.

Rees brushes off the grand claim on Rees Harp’s website that his science background gives him special insight into instrument making. “That’s a bunch of bull,” he says with a laugh. But he admits it requires almost scientific discipline and precision to determine the proper density and thickness of the wood. And many of his construction techniques are indeed based in science, such as his trademark asymmetrical soundboards and his use of flat “Plano” backs versus the more common round or staved harp backs. Rees thinks of his abilities as common sense. To him, the solution to an instrumental design flaw seems obvious, while others have to struggle to find the answer.

This struggle to perfect the harp has gone on for centuries.

Rees tunes a concert-line harp. Rees' concert harps are used by such stars as Ray Pool and Neil Young. / Photo by Lisa Tomcko

The harp has been documented in Egypt and Sumeria as early as 3000 BC, making it one of the oldest string instruments. Nearly every society that used a hunting bow developed some form of harp. Rees says the harp was never standardized the way other string instruments have been. Modern harp luthiers keep improving the instrument’s design and construction, so, unlike violinists, harp enthusiasts want the newest instruments rather than the antiques.

When people think of harps, they tend to envision the massive, ornate harps used in orchestras, weddings and other formal events. These pedal harps – so called because players use their feet to control the key and pitch of the strings – are designed for classical music and can be physically taxing to play. Despite its limitations and the fact that it represents a fraction of all harps, the pedal harp and its harpists received all of the music world’s respect and recognition for a long time.

Then, in the 1970s, Robinson’s Harp Shop in Mount Laguna, California, sparked a folk harp revival that spread to Europe and the rest of the world. Luthier Roland Robinson began publishing the Folk Harp Journal and founded the International Society of Folk Harpers and Craftsmen. Christina Tourin, a former director of the Folk Harp Society, says that there were virtually no small harps in the United States before Robinson’s campaign. “At that time other people were getting excited and starting to build harps and get more harps out there,” Tourin says. Before the days of blogs and Facebook pages, the Folk Harp Journal provided a forum where harp builders could communicate, compare and experiment with harp designs and techniques.

Rees set out to improve the traditional lever harp. While most harps use symmetrical soundboards, Rees discovered that asymmetrical soundboards better distribute the harp’s tones. He also sacrifices the beauty of round or stave-backed harps for the wider range of tones obtainable with flat backs. But his Harpsicle venture has made the biggest impact on the modern harp world.

Rees knew that people who wanted to play the harp were deterred by the instrument’s cost. A concert-level lever harp can run from $2,000 to more than $5,000. It’s difficult to find a cheap “starter harp,” because less expensive models from Asia are shoddily made and produce a tinny sound. So Rees developed the Harpsicle. As he explains, “You have to pay a little more, but you actually have a real, functional harp.”

Harpsicles are available in 10 different colors, so customers can personalize their harps. / Photo by Lisa Tomcko

Rees designed the Harpsicle to be an affordable, quality instrument that can take a beating. Harpsicles don’t have the asymmetrical soundboards of the concert line, and the most basic Harpsicle model does not have levers for sharps or flats. But the harps produce a good sound, are more reasonably priced (about $400 to $2,000) and maintain their tune. Weighing in at 4 ½ pounds, Harpsicles are light and portable. Rees offers the Harpsicle in 10 vivid colors – from red to purple – so customers can personalize their instrument.

While the Harpsicle is a deal for harp enthusiasts, it’s a struggle for its makers. The shop fights to keep costs down and prices low. Rees suspects this is why the Harpsicle has little competition. Some companies have begun to mimic Rees’ model, but the seasoned luthier isn’t ruffled. “It’s a good thing because now there are other more available harps in a price range that people can afford,” he says.

The Harpsicle is literally taking harp music around the world. The instrument fits into an airplane’s overhead storage bin. Owners take their Harpsicles to the beach. People go on Harpsicle hikes in Sedona, and Harpsicles are used to soothe battered women in Alabama. The Irish Harp Centre in Shannon, Ireland, uses Harpsicles as well as Rees concert harps in their instruction.

Rees and his faithful "golden doodle", Eleanor. Eleanor looks up when Rees mentions Rascal, one of her dog friends. / Photo by Lisa Tomcko

The Harpsicle has a following among harp therapists, who believe it harmonizes the mind, body and emotions. Christine Magnussen, a certified therapeutic harp practitioner in Washington, had found lap harps uncomfortable to play until she came across the Harpsicle line five years ago. Magnussen ordered three of the harps and now owns eight. She loves the Harpsicle’s lap stick, which keeps the harp upright and frees the player’s hands. Magnussen teaches customized holistic harp lessons via Skype and began recommending the Harpsicle to her students. Soon she was placing so many orders, she decided to become a retailer of Harpsicles. She says the Harpsicle is the right fit for about 90 percent of her students because of its quality and affordability. “I think that the harp empowers, and these little harps are very different,” Magnussen says. “A harp is an extension of yourself. It’s a way for you to pour out your emotions, like writing or drawing or singing. People can emote through the Harpsicle.”

The Chinese are interested, too. “We’ve been dealing with China for six years, so we’re doing our small part to offset the trade deficit of the United States,” Rees jokes. In 2005, the Hong Kong Harp Chamber selected Rees Harps as one of its main suppliers. In March, Harps on Main shipped 20 Harpsicles to China and expects more orders from the Chinese this summer.

Although his creations allow so many others to play the harp, Rees only plays at shows these days. His focus is on the design and construction side of the harp.

All Ireland Harp Champion Máire Ní Chathasaigh plays Rees Harps. American harpist Ray Pool uses Rees Harps. Even Neil Young owns a Rees Harp. These harp superstars don’t faze the luthier. He makes harps because he understands the instrument and sees its potential to reach a larger audience.

During breaks, he relaxes on the bench outside Harps on Main and shoots the breeze with passersby. When the shop closes at 5 p.m., Rees and Eleanor head off to the park for their afternoon walk.

Rees strums a few chords on a pink Harpsicle. He says that the harp is a surprisingly easy stringed instrument to learn. / Photo by Lisa Tomcko

Rees plans to retire from harp making in about a year, but the luthier’s impact will continue to resonate in the harp world. He has improved the harp and put it into the hands of people who otherwise would never have played. Garen Rees will take over the business when his father retires, so Harps on Main will keep turning out Rees harps and Harpsicles.

As for the harp itself? “It will never stop,” Rees says. “The harp has been around forever, and it’s going to go on and on.”

Watch William Rees and his crew handcraft Harpsicles. / Video by Lisa Tomcko

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4 Responses to “Harp & soul”

  1. Neal Gallagher
    June 6, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

    What a magnificent and informing article. I was never aware of the vast types of harps that exist! Furthermore, it is amazing to learn that some harpsicles only weigh 4 1/2 pounds! However, most importantly, during such tough economic hardships that the country faces today, it is nice to know that people like Mr. Rees and his family are out there to make it affordable so others can pursue their passion. This shows that the Rees Family (and Elanor!) is in this for the love of the music.

  2. Kinnari Patel
    May 25, 2011 at 9:23 pm #

    Interesting article! Harp music is very soothing and relaxing. Hmmm… this article has really got me thinking about ordering a harpsicle and signing up for some online holistic harp lessons. Thank you for making this information available.

  3. Richard Szatkiewicz
    May 19, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    Enjoyed this article. I don’t play a harp but started on an accordian.
    If a harp rocks as much as you say, I think I’ll try one in the future.

  4. Mike Fee
    May 18, 2011 at 9:47 pm #

    I am a musician myself.
    I loved the article and am intrigued with the real possibility of playing the harp. It always seems more unlikely to happen than having an elephant for a pet.
    I loved the personal touches that you wove into the story that makes the instrument even more appealing.
    This article rocks and I’d love to make a harp rock.