in playing a variety of musical instruments is one of Debra’s unique
strengths. Because some are not commonly seen and heard, these brief
descriptions are offered to answer the questions most often received.
harps of modern construction come in a wide range of sizes and shapes,
different woods used, and materials for strings may be nylon, gut,
metal, or a combination of these. Unlike the pedals which change the
pitch of many strings at once on a modern concert harp, most neo-celtic
harps have some kind of levers or blades on individual strings to
raise or lower the pitch one-half step.
performs regularly on two harps of this type. One is a 36-string 5
½ ft cherry harp with Truitt levers which she made from a kit by MusicmakerKits
and decorated with an ivy vine on the sound board. The others (see
photo) is a 34-string mahogany harp with sharping blades, designed
and made by Bob Cunningham. Each harp has its own individual tone
harps may be reproductions of extant harps, or extrapolated from harps
in art and manuscripts of a particular time and consistent with known
examples. The goal of “historically informed performance” is to let
listeners experience music of an earlier time in as close to its original
sound as possible. Authentic instruments are critical to achieving
this goal, producing the appropriate tone quality and even encouraging
a different playing technique than one would use on a modern instrument.
Debra’s “Ghent harp”, made by Catherine Campbell, is extrapolated
from a painting c.1432 by Jan van Eyck in Ghent, Belgium and from
an extant harp in the Wartburg Museum, Eisenach, Germany. It has gut
strings and brays, L-shaped pegs of wood that can be set to barely
touch the strings, giving a distinctive buzzing sound to the tone.
Because it is much lighter in weight and the strings are closer together
and strung much more loosely than the neo-celtic harps, playing it
is very different experience!
flutes Debra plays range from a keyless wooden flute to a modern Boehm-system
flute made of silver. Although producing a tone by blowing across
the embouchure hole is much the same on all of them, the fingerings
are not. The keyless flute has the basic six fingerholes needed for
playing a “D” diatonic scale, with cross fingerings used to produce
the other tones. The Baroque (one-key) and simple system six-key flutes
work the same way, but the added keys allow another way to play the
extra notes. The Boehm system, first developed in the 1830’s-40’s
by Thoebald Boehm, starts with bigger holes placed for acoustic accuracy,
all holes covered by padded keys connected so that they can be controlled
by the available fingers. The result is greater range, greater volume,
better intonation, and much greater ease of playing in any key you
can imagine (and a few you’d rather not!). Even so, Debra loves the
unique beauty of the sound of the older flutes, special technique
used on Irish wooden flute and the challenge of learning yet another
set of fingerings.
fife is really just a small flute. Debra plays keyless 6-hole fifes
that play most easily in their primary scale and one or two closely-related
scales. The “D” fife plays easily in “D” and “G”, the “C” fife in
“C” and “F”, and so forth. The military fifes used in the Revolutionary
and Civil Wars were most often in B-Flat. The written music for all
is usually notated in D and G, so only the “D” fife is sounding as
it is written. Debra’s “D” and “C” fifes are made of rosewood, and
“B-flat” fife is of grenadilla, the kind of wood, as well as the size
and shape of the bore and fingerholes greatly affecting the tone quality.
instrument is variously called “tinwhistle”, Irish whistle, pennywhistle,
flageolet or just “whistle”. The names “tinwhistle” and “pennywhistle”
reflect the history of making whistles from rolled tin, with fingerholes
punched out and the top opening crimped around a block of wood to
form the fipple mouthpiece, with the whistle selling for one English
penny. They are made today in various metals, woods, and even plastic.
Debra’s favorite is of African blackwood. Whistles come in different
sizes to play in different keys like fifes, and the fingerings are
sweetness of its tone and sheer simple beauty of design and ease of
playing make the recorder a favorite of everyone from schoolchildren
to professionals. The recorder has been around at least since the
15th century, and experienced a well-deserved revival in
the 20th century. Recorder and whistle are both “fipple
flutes”, but the recorder is distinguished by the number and arrangement
of its fingerholes – seven on top and a thumbhole in the upper back.
Recorders come in different sizes, forming a family or consort, usually
in the keys of “C” or “F”. Debra is forever grateful that Charlie
Delaney made her learn to play both in concert pitch. Her recorders
are all of Baroque design, with three-part construction, conical bore,
lovely turnings in the wood, and Baroque fingerings.