The Harp Pedal Display Unit

New Invention: The Harp Pedal Display Unit

By Amarillie Ackermann, harpist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Graham Guthrie, electronic engineer.

[Information for 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 how?

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 Unit:

 

 

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 zones. 

 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  (.4") high.

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 see Availability, Purchase and Installation Information

 
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