Assistive technology for making music: low-tech

Contrary to the state of my hands, I have always wanted to play music. Sometimes there’s just no other way of getting rid of pent-up energy. Stimming to recorded music just won’t do it sometimes. If anyone thought to suggest music to me, they would usually suggest something like hanging a triangle from a stand, or tapping on a woodblock with a wooden stick. I discounted the suggestions — I am much more of a string person. I prefer bowed strings, but at this point playing any bowed instrument is beyond me. However, I finally found an almost hands-free stringed instrument which, though its appearance is simple enough, is capable of playing actual melody. It’s easily found and relatively cheap, too. I am just thrilled. 

The instrument itself has several names. Officially, it appears to be a Russian gusli. One lay term is a lap harp (not to be confused with the Celtic variety). Another is a plucked psaltery or dulcimer. Another is board zither. I think my favorite name is the brand given to the one I have, which comes from Belarus. I can’t input Cyrillic script, but it looks like “Nepenenoyka” and is pronounced something like “Perepelochka.” This means “little bird,” or possibly “little quail.” Since nobody can agree on what to call it, it is often marketed as a “Melody Harp” or “Music Maker.” Very often, it is assumed to be a toy (in fact it won a platinum Oppenheim Toy Award and the Parents’ Choice), but make no mistake — while it is very good for children because it doesn’t require formal music knowledge, it is a real musical instrument. Adults — particularly dulcimer players — seem to like them as well, and some luthiers make them as seriously as they make their fiddles and guitars.

The Perepelochka is simply a hardwood trapezoid with 8 strings wound across it, but in such a way as to create 15 strings. There are 15 notes. The instrument is often tuned to make two octaves of the G major scale, but can be tuned other ways to match the song you want to play. It is tuned by turning a key on the pins. A T-shaped handle key is better if you have trouble gripping, and should be easy for a helper too if you need to ask. While the instrument can be held, you do not need to — setting it on your lap or a table is fine, and gives it projection besides. The instrument has a kind of faraway Middle-Eastern twang, but reminds me also of noon and 6 o’clock churchbell tunes with the resonance.

You do not need to finger the strings, because the scale is already in front of you; each string is a note. To play the Perepelochka, you can do several things depending on your disability. If you have full use of one hand, you can pluck the strings with your separate fingers. If you are able to hold a guitar pick, you can hit the strings with that. If you’re not able to hold a guitar pick, there are ringed picks that you can wear on your thumb. Or, you can glue the pick to something, like a wooden dowel, and slip it into a utensil cuff if you have one. That way you play it using your arm, not your hand. If you have a typing stick, you may not even need a pick — just slip the typing stick over your hand and use that for a more muted “practice” sound. If you cannot use your arms, you could use a mouth stick. I don’t know if using a mouth stick would be awkward if the instrument were laying flat, but if it were, there are articulating arms. I would imagine that you could mount a lap harp also, as long as you’re careful not to crack the wood. I’m not sure, however. Failing that, you could try propping it vertically against something.

The “sheet music” for the Perepelochka isn’t the kind of sheet music you’re used to seeing. There are no clefs or staves, and you don’t need a music stand. The music is shaped like the instrument, and you put it underneath the strings. The notes line up with their corresponding strings, and you basically “connect the dots” by plucking the strings in order. Much of the available sheet music is children’s tunes, but there are also Russian, Irish, and Appalachian folk tunes, as well as some popular tunes, carols and others. If you do have some musical knowledge, they have blank sheets on which you can diagram transcriptions of songs you like. Or, if you have good pitch, you can play anything you want by ear if the keys fit.

The lap harp is sold by several people under several brands. Hearthsong, a mail-order toy company, sells a Romanian-made “Melody Harp.”  (NOTE: the “Melody Harp” is tuned for C.) First Act used to sell a lap harp as well as a smaller toddler version called “Discovery,” but apparently it has been discontinued except for the mini version. (You can, however, still find tuning information and MP3 samples on their website.) First Act lap harps are sometimes found on eBay, often still in their boxes. If you feel like you could get serious, Bill Berg and T.K. O’Brien are Appalachian luthiers who make lap harps either plain or with carvings.

As far as I know, outside of thrift stores and eBay, the only place you can find the “Music Maker” Perepelochka-brand lap harp is the European Expressions website. PLEASE NOTE: European Expressions offers a more decorative (and more expensive) “adult” model called the Yerbonitsa, but as far as I can tell there is no functional difference between them except that the Yerbonitsa is slightly broader. The number of strings as well as the tuning are identical. (And frankly, I don’t think the Perepelochka looks childish at all. I like that plain red bird. Besides, Berg’s and O’Brien’s harps are grownup and they’re shaped just like it.)

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