The Harp Pedal Display Unit
Amarillie Ackermann, harpist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Graham
Guthrie, electronic engineer.
non-harpists: Concert harps have seven pedals, one for each note in the
scale; each pedal has three positions corresponding to flat, natural and
sharp to set keys or make accidentals. (Click
here to view an article that discusses harp pedals). Harpists must learn
to “read” the pedals set-ups with their feet because the pedals can’t be
seen unless the harp is returned from its playing to its upright rest
position. Sometimes players may hear that one pedal or other is in the wrong
place but not be able to find which pedal it is with their feet while
continuing to play the piece with their hands.]
Many years ago a world-famous harpist often
visited South Africa, and I attended two of her solo concerts. She would
give a lecture-demonstration in between pieces and explain to the audience
that the harp is the most difficult instrument partly because it has pedals
that the harpist can’t see. And, tongue-in-cheek, she would continue that
her greatest wish in the world was that the harp manufacturers
would invent an 8th pedal, attached to a tiny pair of clippers close to one
string - the Emergency Pedal, she called it. In mid-fiasco, [harpist’s
definition: when you know a pedal is wrong but can’t find it] she could
quickly engage this pedal and it would clip the string, and people in the
audience could think she had come to a grinding halt because a string had
broken, when actually her crisis was needing time to sort out her pedals.
She said she would happily sacrifice a string every time that she was in
such a jam.
I, too, am a professional harpist, and I
think I do all I can to learn and prepare my music. I memorize all my solos
and always perform from memory, and make and learn hundreds of pedal
diagrams in my music, which I call pick-up points. I play really difficult
repertoire, e.g.. Mandoline by Parish-Alvars, with 304 pedal changes.
I do not have perfect pitch, so if I get into a pedal mess, I can't always
hear so quickly which string is wrong, as I expect a harpist with perfect
pitch can. I hear some, but not all. When I make pedal mistakes, I have to
run my feet frantically over the pedals in order to set them in the diagram
of the closest pick-up point, and try and improvise something with my
fingers that would get me to that pick-up point, and then I continue from
there. I have seen plenty of harpists in the same boat. In fact, I have seen
some very famous performers lunge the harp forward to look at their pedals.
Been there, harpists? Wished for that
“emergency pedal”? I had often found myself wishing that the harp were
transparent so I could see the pedals, especially for the fiascos. I made
any number of experiments over the years, with mirrors, etc., all to no
avail. Then, a few years ago, The Three Tenors visited South Africa and I
played in the orchestra. When their crew was setting up, I was intrigued by
the glass screens on stands that were rigged up behind the microphones.
They looked like glass music stands, but slanting forward, toward the
singer. A projector was placed on the floor and an operator backstage
projected the words of the songs onto the glass screens, visible only to the
singer, not the audience. At first, I was shocked that they did not perform
from memory, but I realized that there was my answer! If I could only see
the pedal diagram displayed on a screen like that, it would be the biggest
dream come true for me. Any screen, any size, a billboard would do! But
As a professional harpist I have spent many
years of my life admiring Erard's invention of the
double action pedal
mechanism and the difference it has made,
compared to other accidental-producing mechanisms that couldn't provide what
it did. I often marveled that it is so revolutionary and effective that
nobody has been able to improve upon it in 200 years. However, I found it
amazing that in 200 years, nobody had solved the problem of not being able
to see the pedals. And I carried on wishing desperately that I could
buy some kind of pedal display unit. Finally, after looking in every
possible place, I invented it myself, for myself, because I wanted it
so desperately. I consulted an electronic engineer, explained the problem to
him and what I wanted to have, and commissioned him to build it for me,
which he did. Because I was proud of my idea, he and I patented it.
Description of the Harp Pedal Display
There are 21 LED lights on a little screen,
arranged in the corresponding positions of the pedals – 3 rows x 7 columns.
The unit is attached to the top of the base of the harp. Each pedal is
equipped with a sensor, which lights up the corresponding light on the
matrix, which then displays the pedal diagram perfectly.
It looks like a miniature computer screen,
and functions like an alarm keypad – different lights indicate different
A battery pack of 4 “AA” batteries is
attached to the underside of the base, and defaults to “off” when the harp
stands upright. As one pulls the harp back, the unit switches on
automatically. It has an override “off” switch for transportation. When
the batteries have lost a certain amount of energy, the lights flash for a
few seconds as a warning, but give you enough more time to replace the
batteries. Batteries last about 1 - 3 months, subject to usage.
The actual size of display unit is 60.5 mm
X 30.5 mm (2.4" X 1.2") including frame.
The LED display is 60 mm X 30 mm (2.4" X 1.2"). It is 10 mm
D, B, E, G, A light up in yellow
C lights up in red
F lights up in blue
The display represents D Major
The background is opaque white
I made the C’s red, and the F’s blue,
corresponding to the string colors, as I have found in my own playing and in
teaching that coloring C and F notes, pedal markings and pedal charts is a
very good memory aid.
It was like getting a cell phone, e-mail,
GPS for the car, bumper sensors for easy parking, a microwave oven, an ice
maker, and Brad Pitt all on the same day, and still winning the
Lottery in the evening. Nothing has ever made a bigger difference to my
life. And now I need never be without it again. I wouldn’t change it for
all the money in the world.
I personally think it is the first
significant improvement on Erard's magnificent invention – it does not
change what he invented, it facilitates a certain aspect of it, which has
been difficult up to now for enough harpists around the world. Why not have
it easy for a change? Good luck to those who don’t find the pedals
difficult, never make pedal mistakes, and do not need it. I wish it could
have been me.
In case you’re wondering, I can still do
everything without it. As part of my feasibility study, my first project was
to practice very carefully right through my whole repertoire in slow motion,
so that I would really be able to study the unit and see the pedal movements
unfold as they were happening (of course, I already knew them by heart). It
was such a help to just see once how it all took place. It was like watching
a National Geographic programme with those little graphic displays they
design to explain how a bridge was built, or how problems were overcome.
After a thorough study for about 6 months
with my eyes glued to the unit, I turned it off and found that the images
were in my mind and it was as though my feet were “seeing” them. And now,
having had them imprinted on my eyes has given me enough confidence to be
without the unit, should I need to. I frequently play at gigs without it,
knowing that I can just flip the switch at any moment, and it is as if I
have no more troubles with pedals. I simply don’t go wrong in the first
place. The movements have been corrected in my mind. But of course, at
recitals, why should I be without it? Why should I drive at night without a
cell phone? Why should I try to park without relying on my bumper sensors?
Why should I not use my microwave instead of stirring fudge on the stove
over a hot pot?
I welcome your
inquiries and comments. Please
Purchase and Installation Information
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