VALLEY WEEKEND : Harps Working Their Magic on City of Angels : Virtuoso Sylvia Woods stimulates interest in the ancient instrument at her store. Harpists are popular at venues around town.


“Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies.’



Twice a month, Sylvia Woods leads a workshop called “I’ve Always Wanted to Play the Harp” for rank beginners at her store in Glendale. The source of the workshop’s title is simple enough to understand: “That’s always the first sentence most customers say to us,” says Woods.

Most people seem to enjoy the sound of the harp. For centuries, harps have soothed souls, and continue to do so today in Los Angeles, the city of angels, where the instrument of angels is ever popular. Harp music is featured at several coffeehouses and other venues, and the styles of play range from classical to jazz to New Age.

The Sylvia Woods Harp Center in Glendale lays claim to being the largest harp store in the world. Woods, a Californian who won the All-Ireland Harp Championship in 1980, is an internationally respected folk-harp virtuoso. She started a harp mail-order business more than 15 years ago and opened her store in September, 1992.


In the workshop, participants sit with a folk harp and handle the instruments. Woods reminds the hesitant that unlike the violin and other musical instruments, it’s hard for even a beginner to sound bad on a harp. Strings are tuned like the white keys of a piano. So, fingering an arpeggio is easy.

The free workshop is part music class and part sales pitch. Woods shows and tells all-you-ever-wanted-to-know about harps, plus demonstrates the different sounds of various models of harps in her showroom.

Models range in price from about $1,000 for a small folk harp to more than $25,000 for the ornate orchestral, pedal harp. Woods even leads the workshop in a halting version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

While some attendees are drawn to the magical sound of the instrument and others by curiosity, still others are attracted to the craftsmanship and physical beauty of the instruments themselves.

In fact, it’s hard to avoid the impression that some workshop participants are measuring the different harps not by their timbre, but rather by how they fit into a living room decor scheme, as a sort of high brow alternative to a highly polished spinet.

“It makes us very sad,” Woods says, “but some people do buy their harps just as furniture.”


For Woods and most of her customers, however, the harp is much more that just a piece of furniture.

Harps and other related instruments have been traced to ancient times. Those who play them insist that the instruments have a spiritual or even magical power.

“The harp is always associated with holy or healing power in all cultures,” Woods says. “People tend to be instinctively drawn to it.”

Although the folk harp is probably the oldest stringed instrument, its use by serious composers was limited due to its own chromatic limitations: It has no sharps and flats.


Attempts to provide chromatic tones were made by using double and triple sets of strings starting in the 16th Century. The modern pedal harp, which provides chromatic tones by pressing foot pedals, was developed in the 18th Century. The chromatic flexibility offered by the pedal harp made the instrument appealing to 19th-Century composers such as Berlioz, Wagner and Tchaikovsky. The harp became a regular part of their orchestras.

Sylvia Woods started playing the harp while she was a student at University of Redlands in the late 1960s. Originally a piano student, Woods switched to the pedal harp.


Several years later after hearing folk harpist Alan Stivell, Woods became interested in folk harp. Due to the lack of teaching materials and music specifically written for the folk harp, Woods began arranging pieces for the harp and published her first harp music book in 1978. She has also made three CDs of harp music.

Since 1980, Woods has toured as a solo performer on the folk harp. She’s taught master classes in the United States and Ireland and judged numerous competitions including the Guinness World Trophy for the Celtic Harp competition in France.

She’s also performed on radio programs, including “A Prairie Home Companion” and played on the soundtrack for the film “Dead Poets Society.”

Her store started as a mail order business, and Woods and her partner and husband, Tom, still print more than 60,000 copies of their 72-page catalogue and mail them worldwide. Besides selling and renting harps, the store also sells sheet music, harp music accessories, tapes and CDs.

The store carries pedal harps manufactured by Lyon and Healy of Chicago, [considered the Rolls-Royce of pedal harps] and Salvi of Italy, plus folk harps by Dusty Strings and Triplett. Woods also sponsors a concert series featuring internationally known harpists of various musical shadings.

“The magic thing about harps is that everyone likes it,” says professional harpist Carol Tatum, who performs regularly throughout Los Angeles. “The appeal of the harp transcends all boundaries: kids, older people, gang members, all kinds of people.”


Although Tatum has played guitar and mandolin since she was 7 years old, she didn’t start on the folk harp until about three years ago.

“I bought a harp from a friend of mine and it sat around for a year,” Tatum says. “One day, I sat down to play and it just fit like a hand and glove. I was able to play almost immediately.”

Tatum plays regularly at the Hibiscus Cafe in Glendale and also on the Venice Beach Boardwalk. She writes music for harp, flute and cello that’s performed by her ensemble, the Angels of Venice, who have also recorded a CD for Epiphany Records. Their style of music has been described as neoclassical. The Angels also played at Dodger Stadium last year, when the “Three Tenors,” Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, performed.

“I’ve found my home,” Tatum says. “The harp will be my instrument for the rest of my life.”

Karina Patrikian emigrated to Los Angeles from Moscow six years ago. She has studied the pedal harp since she was 5, and attended the Tchaikovsky Music Conservatory in Moscow.

Russian authorities would not let her take her harp when she emigrated. But here in Los Angeles, she found an antique harp with no strings and a cracked soundboard that she was able to restore.


Today, Patrikian, who lives in La Crescenta, plays at weddings and private parties. Her repertoire is usually classical pieces arranged for the pedal harp.

“People love harps, everybody loves them,” says Patrikian. “I think it represents heaven; it’s a holy sound.”



Nearby places to hear the harp:

* Bob Burns Restaurant, 21821 Oxnard St., Woodland Hills, (818) 883-2145.

* Bookgrinders, 13321 Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys, (818) 988-4503.

* Hibiscus Cafe, 3459 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale, (818) 541-9918.

* Kaldi Coffee House, 1019 El Centro, South Pasadena, (818) 403-5951.

* Lerma 76, 112 E. Wilson Ave., Glendale, (818) 507-8584.

* Peninsula Hotel, 9882 Little Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 273-4888.

* The Tower Restaurant, 1150 S. Olive St., Los Angeles, (213) 746-1554.

* The Wherehouse restaurant, 4499 Admiralty Way, Marina del Rey, (310) 823-5451.

The Sylvia Woods Harp Center, 915 N. Glendale Ave., Glendale, (818) 956-1363, sponsors a workshop and concert series:

* Sunday: Irish Harpist Patrick Ball in concert, $15 advance purchase, $17 at the door.

* Oct. 14, 24, Nov. 11 and 21: “I’ve Always Wanted to Play the Harp” workshop. Free.

* Nov. 5: Welsh harpist Robin Huw Bowen will conduct a workshop and perform a concert, $15 advance purchase, $17 at the door.

* Nov. 19: Jazz harpist Deborah Henson-Conant will conduct a workshop and perform a concert, $17 advance purchase, $19 at the door.