Angel Harps: Eh?

Anyone who uses assistive technology knows that a lot of the time it doesn’t come cheap. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about that. Take the Maltron keyboards, for example: they are beautifully designed things, even lifesavers when it comes to getting work done. But because they are very specialized in both market and mechanics, their sales volume is lower, making it difficult for the price to come down. Regardless, since they are the only ones of their kind, if you absolutely need the ergonomics they offer you’ll do whatever you can to eventually purchase one.

However, if you read my posts about low-tech devices, you know I appreciate it when I find something I can appropriate. It’s always nice to know that something can turn out to be disability friendly even if it wasn’t known or explicitly marketed to be. That’s why I got so frustrated, in the wake of happily reviewing my lap harp, when I saw this article a friend sent me.

The article was about Angel Harps, a nonprofit that seeks to raise money so that it can give “specially designed” lap harps to deserving school districts or individual children with various disabilities. That in itself is fine, especially since so many schools are facing budget cuts and the music and art programs — not to mention special education — are often high on the cut list. Anything that helps you get supplies, I guess. The effort was started by Dianna Woodley in 2003, who says that playing the harp cured her plantar fasciitis, so she wanted the harp to help with other disabilities. Admirable, certainly. I am seeing flags with the execution, however.

Dwight Blevins says that he created “a small, 15 string harp that can be laid flat on the lap or placed on a small table or chair for playing” because he was so inspired by Ms. Woodley’s idea. How much does his harp cost? $800. Eight hundred dollars for what looks like a large Music Maker or Melody Harp except that the edges fan out and there’s an angel carved on it, and the strings are nylon. I am puzzled with this — not his harp, per se, but the presentation.

First of all, the lap harp in all its guises — Perepelochka, Music Maker or Melody Harp — has been around for decades. The lap harp is not a new invention. It just hasn’t been actively marketed as something disabled people can use. Second, and most odd, is the exorbitant cost. Granted, Blevins is a well-known harp company; I’m sure the lap harps are excellent quality. Even so, there is no way a lap harp could cost $800, even handmade and carved. A full Celtic harp certainly could, but not a little lap harp like this — the wood would have to be ridiculously rare. A T.K. O ‘Brien carved harp might set you back $100 at the most, but only if you really wanted to be that fancy. Same with a $60 or $70 Bill Berg harp. Otherwise, a Hearthsong Melody Harp is $40 and a Music Maker is $33. Why petition for an $800 harp when we can get the equivalent ourselves — okay, minus the angel — for less than $50? If you want nylon strings, inquire as to the gauge and buy a set. These harps may be comparatively cheaper, but that does not mean they are junk. I speak from experience.

Ms. Woodley’s site gives the impression that the harp is like a Maltron — that is, something totally new for disabilities and thus the only one of its kind. That would be the only way to justify such an extravagant price. Unfortunately, Ms. Woodley’s presentation is a bit misleading, though her intentions are good. I’m not opposed to people wanting to help others acquire assistive technology — face it, some of it is very expensive and insurance won’t always cover it. If help is there for those who want it, go to. I just don’t understand why $800+ is needed in this case, when there are cheaper but equal quality alternatives available.

Not that wanting to give out harps is a bad thing — far from it. But if one wanted to distribute as many as possible, as Ms. Woodley declares, would it not make more sense to use the money raised to buy/commission multiple good quality but less-exorbitantly-priced harps? $800 gives roughly 11 carved Berg harps, or 8 O’Briens, or 20 Melody Harps, or 24 Music Makers. I know nothing about operating charities, but that ought to be possible. If not, excuse my ignorance.

PLEASE NOTE: I am not saying Ms. Woodley’s site is deliberately misleading. I just think her job would have been a little easier if she had done some homework. I am also not saying that a musician with a disability wouldn’t necessarily want a Blevins harp for himself or herself. Such a person may well appreciate the gift; Blevins has a great reputation. I am saying that, for a more casual recipient, it looks a little bit like overkill. Especially in a classroom setting… I digress, knowing what kids get up to… But I suppose the “miracle” or pity factor would wear off if the instrument wasn’t made out to be so “rare.”

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