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Traditional harper shares music, stories at First Tuesday Speaker Series

By Staff | Oct 11, 2019

Traditional Harper James Dronenburg plays his harp for attendees at the First Tuesday Speaker Series at Christ Reformed United Church of Christ on Oct. 1. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN – Traditional Harper James Dronenburg, of Knoxville, Md., leaned over his wooden harp frame and flipped a few levers above the strings, before pressing his calloused fingertips to the strings. As a lilting folk tune drifted into the air, Dronenburg talked about his history with the instrument, during the First Tuesday Speaker Series at Christ Reformed United Church of Christ on Oct. 1.

Although today Dronenburg can be found playing his harp for weddings and meetings of his historical reenacting organization, the Society for Creative Anachronisms, for many years he only dreamed about learning to play the instrument.

“I am pretty much self-taught. I play by ear, and I also play by reading music,” Dronenburg said, calling the SCA a “teaching organization.” “I knew a lot of people in the SCA who were Irish harpers, and if I had a problem I would get help from them.

While for many years Dronenburg may have been learning from his fellow harpers, he eventually developed his skills well enough to return the favor and become a teacher, as well as a confident performer. He has now been playing professionally for 30 years, and was recently given the highest award in the SCA for his work in the Arts, the Order of the Laurel.

“I love the harp. I was banging at three-years-old on the piano, before I started lessons,” Dronenburg said, mentioning his love for music started with the piano, which he still plays.

In elementary school, Dronenburg begged his father to let him learn to play the harp. But the high cost of concert harps made it impossible for Dronenburg to get his wish fulfilled for many years. While during his childhood traditional harps were “museum relics,” as he came into adulthood, instrument makers began selling them again, with the rise in popularity of folk music. And, finally, when he was 30-years-old, Dronenburg purchased his first harp and began practicing on it.

Thanks to his years of experience on the piano, Dronenburg said the learning process was relatively easy.

“The harp is naturally strung like the keys of a piano, so it was easy for me to transfer from the piano to the harp,” Dronenburg said, mentioning his harp was made by the Dusty Strings company.

According to Dronenburg, the difference between a traditional harp and a concert harp is related to its size.

“As orchestras began growing larger in Elizabethan England, traditional harps couldn’t compete with their larger sound. So they created a much larger harp, the concert harp. It had to be made with a metal structure, to withstand the strain of the strings,” Dronenburg said, mentioning even with the right structure, the strings’ tightness affects the instrument’s lifespan. “Most harps last 15 years, if they are professionally made. Homemade harps have even shorter lives.”

To learn more about Dronenburg, visit www.jamesdronenburg.com email 2rutlands@comcast.net or call 301-834-6515.