Organists' News
by Susan Burkhalter

September 2018
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Filed under: General
Posted by: Sue @ 12:41 pm


by Susan Burkhalter, © April 21, 2009

(1) Cynthia Cathcart is a charming and friendly member of our local music teachers association, the Montgomery County Music Teachers Association and also our newsletter editor. Most of our members are piano teachers and so is Cynthia. For a period of two years, Cynthia studied the pipe organ. She is “an award winning performer and instructor on the clarsach, the wire-strung harp of Ireland and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland,” as her website says. Its address is I found a description of a similar instrument in a book about music: “The Irish harp is a small instrument with a gracefully curved forepillar. It is played with the fingernails. Large orchestral harps are played with the fingertips.” P. 37, “The Young People’s Book of Music” by Keith Spence with Hugo Cole, consultant. Unlike the orchestral harp, the clarsach is lever-free.
By coincidence, Cynthia knows Diane Heath from her church, St. Columba’s Episcopal in Washington, DC. Diane was the organ teacher I interviewed in my BLOG of June 1, 2007. Cynthia is from Silver Spring, Maryland. She studied at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland and has a B.A. in Music, Piano. Her piano professor was Noel Lester. She performs at private functions on average 3 times a month, and teaches the clarsach and piano in her home studio. She is also available for workshops and lectures internationally, on topics such as “Ornaments and Figures for Nail Players.” Cynthia taught herself to play the clarsach. She won awards as a harper from 1998-2002 and has written 3 repertoire books and one instructional book for the clarsach. Information on her awards, two CD’s and books, published by Highland Circle Publishers, can be found on her website.
Cynthia represents Ardival Harps of Strathpeffer, Scotland. She was editor of “Kilt and Harp”, the journal of the Scottish Harp Society of America, for 5 years.
Cynthia’s husband, Eric Cathcart, is also a musician. As she told me, “He plays the saxophone, he’s a tenor man. He does have a sweet soprano sax that he plays, plus he plays flute. He also plays the penny whistle and the bodhran (Irish frame drum) with me sometimes. He’s got a wonderful alto-flute that he brings out sometimes as well. He’s officially retired from performing, but he comes out of retirement whenever I need him!”
Recently I interviewed Cynthia. and her answers follow: I am “SB” and she is “CC.”
SB: When did you start the harp, and have you ever played the orchestral harp?
CC: I began playing the wire-string harp in 1994, which was the year that I inherited one. I had never played the harp before then. I’ve never even touched an orchestral harp!
SB: At what age did you start piano lessons? Have you played other instruments?
CC: I began to play the piano when I was too young to remember. My father taught me at first. My formal piano lessons began when I was about 8 years old, we think. I don’t really remember, and neither does my father!
I have also played the pipe organ. I studied organ for two years at Hood College. I played classical guitar when I was in high school, and I currently have a harpsichord in addition to my piano here in my studio.
SB: I was interested to learn that you had studied pipe organ. What was your experience with it, and why did you quit? Was it difficult playing with your feet and reading 3 staves? Did you just not like the organ much? For instance, I know that I never liked playing the harpsichord the few times I tried it. It was too tinkly-sounding for me and didn’t have enough dynamic variation.
CC: I really enjoyed playing the organ. I loved the big sound, and actually got quite good at reading the three clefs, including the old tenor clef for the left hand! There were three things that led me to leave the organ behind. One was simply the time it took to practice both organ and piano while I was a college student. Secondly, my teacher was quite strict that I was only to play certain types of music on the organ, and only certain types of music on the piano even though he was not teaching me piano. It just turned me off that I was not allowed to play some of the music I liked on the organ, and it bothered me when he would get angry with me when he heard me playing Bach on the piano!
And finally, I began to feel as if the music was too far away. I later discovered the tracker organ, and wish I’d known of it back then! I think the problem was simply that the console of the organ I was playing in college was placed too far away from the pipes. At least they were too far away for my liking. I like the sound to be near me, not coming from the other side of the room. This may help explain why I like the harp so much. The instrument lays right against my heart.
SB: Do you also sing along with the harp while you play?
CC: I do sing, I love to sing! I rarely sing on stage, though it is fun. Most of the harp playing I do is solo.
SB: How do you carry around the clarsach? Is it as heavy as a cello, or heavier?
CC: The clarsachs that I play are very light weight. The smallest one I have is 19 strings and weighs just 3 and a half pounds. I think the case weighs more than the instrument. My larger harp, my “main harp” weighs about 11 pounds. I have a harp that weighs almost 35 pounds (30 strings), but I rarely take it out anymore precisely because it weighs so much. Both my light-weight harps have back-pack straps on their cases, so I can carry them both on my back, just not at the same time!
SB: How do you find music for the clarsach? Do you have to arrange music for it?
CC: There are a few books of arrangements on the market. Sometimes people will publish one-off arrangements in publications like the Folk Harp Journal (in which I have a regular column), or the Wire Journal of the Clarsach Society.
Most harpers reach a point where they write their own arrangements. The harp lends itself to this, in no small part because it comes in so many different sizes and ranges. The individual harper will usually want an arrangement that perfectly complements his or her unique instrument. All the same, there is a fair amount of standardization. Most 19 or 20 string harps, for example, will have a D as their highest string. So if I publish an arrangement with D as the highest note and stick to a range of 19 or fewer notes, the 20-string harper will be able to play it.
SB: Does it play any classical music, or just folk and hymns and dance music? Do you play it in church?
CC: Well, this depends on how one defines classical music! The wire-strung harp is native to the historically Gaelic speaking areas of Scotland and Ireland. In Gaelic, there is a term ceol mor, which means “big music.” Small or light music is ceol beag. Jigs and reels would be small music. Big music would be something along the lines of a Theme and Variation form (called a Port), or Laments. One of the biggest musics in the genre is the Brosnachadh, which is an incitement to battle. This is music that would have been played on the eve of battle, to which the bard would recite a poem to inspire the soldiers to do well in battle.
Classical music, in the sense of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms is difficult to play on the wire-strung harp because it is primarily a diatonic instrument. Some harpers will tune an accidental, or use scordatura tuning, but these techniques are fairly limited in the face of a Brahms rhapsodie!
I do play in church. Hymns typically fit on the wire string very well. I also have a very effective piece that my husband and I arranged a few years ago, where I play a port while he reads the poem “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” Which brings to mind the hymn by Charles Stanford and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Many of the organists reading Susan’s weblog here may be familiar with this hymn. Yes, that’s the poem that Eric and I use, though in a different translation. Also, the melody “Deirdre”, which was harmonized by Ralph Vaughan Williams, is a very old Irish melody and was possibly performed on the wire-strung harp many years ago.
SB: Can you tell about a humorous or embarrassing incident that happened when you were playing the harp at a wedding or wedding reception?
CC: Well, there was the wedding where the bride was 40 minutes late. It turns out that the limo driver forgot to pick her up, and there it was sitting at the church. I saw it, and thought, “well, she’s late, but she must be in the church here somewhere” so rather than get involved in a piece of music I just improvised on a standard melody. Had I known she would be so late, I’d have launched into more interesting repertoire.
Meanwhile, my husband Eric was setting up to play at the reception to follow, which was at a bed & breakfast not far from the church. While I was wondering about that limo sitting in front of the church, he was watching the bride pacing back and forth at the B&B, wondering where her limo was! If only there had been such a thing as cell phones and texting back then, we’d have been able to save the day!


If you haven’t already, read Dan’s “Rampage” of March 24, 2009, “Let’s Talk about Inclusion.” It contains some ideas worth discussing. Dan’s “Rampages” are always invigorating. He wears out a lot of shoe leather, both virtual and real, to make these reports for us. Ever the crusader, he digs up stories about “heroes” who replace a failing digital organ with a pipe organ!
MUSIC I’M STUDYING NOW: Prelude and Fugue in D, BWV 532, by J.S. Bach; Adagio from 2nd Sonata by Felix Mendelssohn, Les Anges from La Nativité du Seigneur by Olivier Messiaen, “Final” from Symphony No. 1 by Louis Vierne, and more. Here is my advice for playing the Widor Toccata, which I’m playing as a postlude next Sunday: How many of you play it with this articulation? The groups of 8 sixteenth notes are grouped by slurring the first and second notes and the remainder staccato. Slur the first note to the second in the groups of two eighth-note chords of the accompanying part (one hand plays the groups of 16th notes over the chord part). My teacher Dale told me about this. It keeps your hand from getting tired. Practice this on the piano first. The piece is pianistic and the legato and staccato will be more obvious. Also, if you’re not a young person, you might want to do leg warm-ups to prepare for the pedal octaves at the end, pliés and modified extensions, before playing it.

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