Everything has its time. So, it seems, does cow gut. Why is this important to me in particular? Because I spend every day plucking, pounding and touching that cow gut.
Harp strings are made from cow intestines. Gross, I know - but true. Something in the tensile strength, the porous or resonant properties and the elasticity makes them perfect for this purpose. How might an ambitious and musically-inclined cow apply for the dubious honor of becoming a set of harp strings, you may ask? I am told that the qualifications include being young, male, and castrated. Don’t ask me more than that because I don’t know. Actually, I don’t want to know – but that’s neither here nor there.
Until about a year ago, I appreciated my harp strings like any other critical part of my instrument. I bought the best brand I could find, changed them regularly, and trusted them to work under pressure. But all of a sudden, about a year or so ago, I started breaking strings – not occasionally, but all the time. Daily, in fact. During a weekend of Ginastera Concerto concerts with The Columbus Symphony last May, I broke thirteen strings in thirty-six hours. I won’t lie – I was freaking out. Something that I had always depended on was failing me. I was changing strings until moments before rehearsals, concerts, and at intermissions. The first 20 minutes of every practice session was spent changing strings. New strings don’t stay in tune for at least a day or two, so not only was I changing strings constantly, but I was also tuning constantly. Playing the harp is not exactly a stress-free endeavor, even when things are working. But with this new brittle-string wild card, let’s just say I became familiar with a whole new universe of stress.
Now let’s not blame the poor cows. They’re just donating their body parts to the cause of making beautiful music (ok, probably not voluntarily, but we’ll give them full credit anyway). That said, I’m not quite sure who or what is to blame because I hear different stories about the possible causes of the problem. One explanation is that recent cows selected for the job were too young - or too old. One source tells me that new regulations regarding mad cow disease in the U.K. (where most harp strings are manufactured) have altered the supply chain and there is now less control over cow qualifications.
Regardless of the cause, the largest manufacturer of harp strings is said to be well aware of the problem and is working hard to fix it, but the result of that is that many strings are back-ordered and are now hard to get. I’m about to confiscate my daughter’s tennis racquet and see if those strings will work any better.
Since I am a hopeful person, I am optimistic that this will not be the new norm, but a very inconvenient, stress-inducing, intonation-compromising blip that will soon be resolved. In the meantime, I’m trying to think of the cows. If nothing else, I will always appreciate my harp strings and the selfless, young, male cows who contribute to the cause just a little more. As we now know, not every cow has the guts to do it.