So you want to be a harp regulator? Don't count on it, says Dale Barco, who thinks he may be one of a kind.
The problem is, there's not a lot of call for his craft. Barco estimates there are possibly only 25,000 harps in the world, though more are being made and purchased with the harp's increased use in pops music.Harp factories do employ regulators, but few of them travel to any extent. But Barco goes out to the places where there's a concentration of harps, often with a Suzuki program. Such a place is Salt Lake City, where he finds far more harps per capita than the average.
Here he was the guest of Shru De Li Ownbey, regulating harps belonging to students in her Suzuki harp program and others, and putting the instruments in tiptop order for the harpists' performance of "Anna and the Echo Catcher" with the Children's Dance Theatre (concerts tonight at 8 and Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Capitol Theater). He is amenable to such rooming and boarding arrangements, to hold down costs.
Barco looks about half idealistic college professor, half circus roustabout, with a sharp sense of humor and rough-and-ready optimism to match. One imagines he might have been at home as a 19th century peddler, his pack filled partly with dreams, partly with pragmatic services.
He hits Salt Lake City almost every year, or as needed, usually coming in March when the weather has turned pleasant. He likes to keep a harp for a day or two, or if you're in a hurry he'll do it while you wait. He puts in 12- to 16-hour days, conditioning three or four harps a day.
In Ownbey's capacious Avenues home, more than 20 harps occupied every nook and cranny of the living area. Barco had his "patient" spread out on the table, inserting a new pedal rod in the post, and as he worked, kept up a running commentary on his work and life.
If you had told him when he was 18 that someday his life would center around harps, you would likely have gotten a horselaugh.
After high school, Barco spent six years in the Navy, working in demolition. Then he became a machinist in and around Chicago, even helping to make torpedos for a time. "When our government contract was filled, I was out of work. I went to Lyon & Healy harp factory in Chicago to ask if they had a machinist's job," he recalled. "They said no, but how would I like to work at regulating harps?"
Ready for anything, Barco took the job, and he's been at it ever since. "For an Illinois farm boy, I've gone from the ridiculous to the sublime," he laughed. By no stretch a musician himself, he just likes the mechanics of harps; though he does like some pops music, and feels the harp is well suited to it, especially the amplified harp, which he said makes an "OK" sound.
"Working on harps has sort of brought my life all together, making use of both my mechanical aptitude, and my artistic bent," he said.
Barco is a talented wood carver and enjoys doing an especially artistic job, like his recent reconditioning of a 50-year-old harp in striking gold and cobalt blue. He admired also a purple and gold special order that Salvi Harp Co. had just completed. "I have in mind to sometime sculpt a special post," he said.
He makes his headquarters in Woodland Hills, near Los Angeles, which has a concentration of harps because they are used a lot in studio music; but "five harpists do 90 percent of the studio work. I know, because I take care of all their instruments," he said. He's also worked on Harpo Marx's harp, and on Mildred Dilling's the first lady of the harp for many years, who used to tour the community concert circuit with her five-member ensemble.
He also finds considerable work up and down the California coast besides Los Angeles, in San Francisco and San Diego; in New York City and Washington, D.C.; and inland in Albuquerque, New Orleans and Toronto, Canada.
Barco remained in the Lyon & Healy factory for 13 years, then was sent to the West Coast where he did all repairs for the company. Later he transferred to the Salvi Harp Co., based in Italy, which has bought out Lyon & Healy. In 1976 he went independent, opening his own shop for harp repair, sales and service.
"But I have to travel to make it, I'm on the road 50 percent of the time even now," he said. When he joined Salvi, his travels began, and he's been all over the country and the world to Canada, Mexico, Hawaii, Australia, Japan, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Holland.
"For a long time, Lyon & Healy was the only maker of harps, though Wurlitzer made them before the Depression," said Barco. "Now there are five companies. In America there is also Venus that dates to the late '60s. In Japan, Oyama began about the same time, and Horngacher of Germany. Salvi began in the early '60s."
Barco thinks highly of the Salvi product. "The mechanism is made in Switzerland, and the Italians are very artistic woodworkers," he said.
The harp is a prima donna among instruments, with 2,000 moving parts, and a possible 2,187 pedal combinations, counting the natural, sharp and flat of every string on a full-sized instrument. "It's a trade joke that they'll never be able to make a harp synthesizer, because they couldn't make it play out of tune," he laughed. "A harpist spends half the time tuning, and the other half playing out of tune!"
"The harp has a ton of pressure on the strings; from its first day it is trying to pull itself apart, and eventually the pressure wins," said Barco, whose job it is to compensate for this tendency. He adjusts the pedal mechanism, refelts the pedals, lubricates metal-to-metal parts, adjusts the discs, and the pegs, so indispensable for the player's tuning chores.
Finally he uses a strobocon, an ingenious instrument designed to scientifically measure when the pins are set just right, so the player can get correct pitches on the open string, or with sharp or flat pedals.
At home, Barco works out of his big roomy garage. (His car with license letters HARP DR is parked outside.) There the walls are crowded with his collections of antique farm tools, which he finds at swap meets, garage sales and auctions, and when he travels, he hits antique shops if possible.
Harps are of course bunglesome instruments. As Barco says, "for a family, first comes the harp, then the station wagon. I've had them brought to me by plane, train, truck, everything but a motorcycle, and I wouldn't be surprised to see that."
Just now there's a lot of trouble with harp snitching, which is not too smart a racket because, like original paintings, it's hard to "fence" them. "One guy stole a harp just down the street from me, and came to me trying to sell it," he said. "He said it had been his mother's, but I knew the serial number already and was waiting for him with the police."
Barco likes what he does, and doesn't ever expect to retire. "I may slow down, not travel any more, but I won't quit," he said.
How about after he's passed the pearly gates? Will they need harp regulators in heaven?
No way, Barco declared with authority. "The harps in heaven are gold, with crystal strings, and they play themselves."
The harp is a prima donna among instruments, with 2,000 moving parts, and a possible 2,187 pedal combinations . . . "It's a trade joke that they'll never be able to make a harp synthesizer, because they couldn't make it play out of tune. A harpist spends half the time tuning, and the other half playing out of tune!"