Riddle on the Harp

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Local trio has variety of music offerings

By John Barnhart

    You may have seen and heard Riddle on the Harp perform at various local venues.


    The all female group, all of them Bedford County residents, first got together around the turn of the century. It started when Patti Black’s husband gave her a gift.

    “My husband surprised me with a hammer dulcimer and kind of created a monster,” commented Patti Black, a former attorney.

    The hammer dulcimer is a stringed instrument that’s been around for centuries. The metal strings are stretched across a wooden box. It’s played by striking, rather than plucking the strings, the way a piano makes its notes. The hammers don’t look anything like something you would use to drive nails. They are wooden sticks with flat, rounded ends and Black holds one of these in each hand as she plays. Black had learned the guitar as a teen and quickly picked up the dulcimer.

    Black was joined by some friends from church, The Kirk, in Forest. Barbara Compter, who also learned the guitar as a teen joined.

    “I’ve always loved music,” she commented.

    Jean Wibbens, formerly a photojournalist with a degree in the subject from the University of Delaware, joined in with wind instruments.

    Laura Claunch originally made the group a quartet. However, she dropped out after a few years.

    “We decided we’d keep going as a trio,” said Black.

    They just dabbled at first, just for fun, but that changed when they performed at an open mike evening at Givens Bookstore in Lynchburg in January, 2000. Givens liked them so much that they were asked to come back for a two hour performance. That was a problem as the ladies didn’t know two hours worth of music at the time. They worked at it and were ready by May of that year.

    Another issue they faced at the beginning was coming up with a name. Eventually Black hit on Riddle on the Harp from Psalm 49:1-4. In the New American Standard translation, it reads: “Hear this, all peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together. My mouth will speak wisdom; and the meditation of my heart will be understanding. I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will express my riddle on the harp.”

    Black called her friends, read the passage and they liked it.

    That, in turn, created another problem.

    “That was the riddle,” Black commented. “We didn’t have a harp.”

    Initially, they got something that was more of a toy than an instrument. It was more of a prop than anything. Eventually, Black got a small Celtic harp and learned to play it.

    The bottom of the Celtic harp rests on the floor and the harp leans against the musician’s shoulder. Instead of the foot pedals that a concert harp has, there are individual levers on each string. Black said that harps of this design have been in Ireland for more that 800 years. It’s that country’s national emblem and a distinguishing mark of Ireland’s nobility, in centuries past, was that they could play the harp and most others couldn’t. This also probably meant that, if you were a member of the royal family and had no musical talent, you were out of luck.

    All of the members play multiple instruments and one of the unique characteristics of their performances is that they often switch instruments in the middle of a piece. In addition to guitar, harp and dulcimer, Black plays the psaltery. This is a triangular stringed instrument and Black’s is played using a bow, somewhat like the bow used on a violin. This is also an old instrument and Black said that records indicate the first Jamestown settlers brought one with them in 1607. James Jones, a Bedford instrument maker, built Black’s psaltrery, as well as her dulcimer. If you want to see what a psaltery or hammered dulcimer looks like, you can attend a Riddle on the Harp performance or go to Jones’ Web site at www.jamesjonesinstruments.com.

    Wibbens has been primarily the group’s wind instrument musician. She plays Irish flute, silver flute penny whistle and recorder. The Irish flute is  made of wood, is side blown and has six finger holes, but no keys. The silver flute is what most of us think of when when we think “flute” — a metal-bodied instrument with a complex system of keys. The penny whistle is a small woodwind instrument, end blown, with six finger holes and no keys. Recorders are the ancestor of all modern woodwind instruments. They’re what you would hear if you listen to Bach’s fourth Brandeberg Concerto performed with the original instrumentation. They come in various voices, Wibbens has alto, soprano and tenor recorders. These instruments  have no keys, just finger holes. She also plays the fife.

    Her original instrument was the recorder, and her first experience with the side-blown flutes was interesting. She said that, the first time she tried, she blew but no sound came out.

    She’s now branching out into a stringed instrument. When Claunch left the group, they lost their fiddle and mandolin player. Wibbens has a 200-year-old violin that formerly belonged to her father and is taking lessons from Dobie Toms, a well-known local bluegrass musician. Black is learning the mandolin.

    They have not yet included these instruments in performances as neither feels she is currently ready for prime time.

    Compter plays six-string and 12-string guitars, but is also the group’s percussionist. Percussion instruments, for them, come in a wide variety. One is the Celtic drum. These come in various sizes and are open on one side. The musician holds it with one hand through the open side, grasping and internal crosspiece, and plays it with the other hand using a short, two-headed drumstick. In addition to Compter, the others also play this.

    Another is Limber Jack. This is a traditional Appalachian instrument that consists of a small wooden doll, jointed at the shoulders, hips and knees. It’s held by a stick, held in one hand,  and the musician plays it by making the doll dance on a thin wooden platform, held with the other hand.

    “Ours is a girl, so she’s a Limber Jill,” said Compter.

    As Riddle on the Harp is all female, they decided to have a female version of this instrument made for them. They have several outfits that Limber Jill wears for performances. Once, they did a performance at a reception for a judge and Limber Jill wore a black robe and a white, British-style, judge’s wig.

    “Any kind of percussion thing that makes noise, we use it,” said Wibbens.

    This even includes a wash board.

    Riddle on the Harp’s music is an eclectic mix. The group started out with Celtic music as they quickly realized during their dabbling stage that the instruments they were using fit that sound. Many Celtic pieces they do were written by Turlough O’Caroloan, a blind Irish harpist who wrote in the early 18th century.

    Since the beginning, they have included other types of music. They now have some Civil War era pieces in their repertoire. They also do traditional Appalachian pieces, which tend to fit their Celtic beginning as this music was influenced by the Scottish people who formed the region’s earliest European settlers. But, they’ll pick up anything they like, including music that they’ve found in old books.

    What they play is based on what audience they are performing for. If it’s a Civil War era dance, then it’s music from that period. At Appalachian festivals, they do traditional Appalachian music and, at Celtic festivals, they do Celtic music. They adapt to the audience and part of that adaptation depends on whether they are in concert or providing background music for an event.

    Their music is a 50/50 mix of instrumental and vocal pieces and it’s all acoustic as it’s played on traditional instruments. They have a sound system that they can use if performing in a large, outdoor venue. They can also use it to selectively amplify instruments that tend to have a quiet voice. They generally forgo a sound system indoors as they feel the instruments sound better without electronic amplification.

    Riddle on the Harp’s flexibility also helps them handle surprises, such as an unexpected problem with their sound system.

    “Or somebody forgot to tell us there is no power,” said Black.

    “We just change what we were planning to play that day,” said Wibbens.

    Temperature and humidity are also issues that they sometimes have to adapt to. Most of their instruments have wooden bodies and humidity can change their sound.

    “Outdoor events are tricky,” commented Compter.

    There is one thing they can’t adapt to — rain in an outdoor venue that has no way to cover the stage. Their instruments do not like getting wet and they’ve learned to ask outdoor event organizers if the stage has a cover.

    They perform at a variety of events. Paid events, and CD sales, pay their expenses and give them the freedom to perform free at benefits. One benefit performance coming up on Aug. 15 will be held at Grace Evangelical Free Church on Timberlake Road, in Lynchburg. It benefits The Marriage Alliance of Central Virginia. For more information about The Marriage Alliance, go to www.marriagealliance.org.

    “It’s to support healthy marriages,” commented Compter.

    They also have a regular concert, a Saturday evening event, “Music in the Mountains,”  in September at the Peaks of Otter Mountain Festival. This will be in the Peaks of Otter Amphitheater.

    Riddle has CDs available at Givens Bookstore, Point of Honor Bookstore, Lynchburg Music and at their concerts. They can also be ordered from their Web site at www.riddleontheharp.com.

    “We feel that music is a gift from God,” said Compter, stating the group’s philosophy.

    Compter said that they hope God can shine through what they do. She added that they also have a lot of fun with their music.

    “People seem to have fun watching us,” added Wibbens.