Talk Story with Sylvia Woods

Named one of the 45 most influential harpists in the past century and the one responsible for the renaissance in Celtic harp music, Sylvia Woods resides in Princeville, still writes and shares her gift of harp music with the world.

Woods became only the second American to win the All-Ireland Celtic Harp competition in 1980. She writes and produces harp music for her 50,000-plus subscribers around the world.

Whether it’s producing harp music for Disney music such as “Brave” or the theme song from “Game of Thrones,” Woods has vast experience playing the harp and she has written over 30 books and over 50 pieces of sheet music, including the first-ever beginners book for the Celtic harp.

She owned and operated the world’s largest harp store in the world during her time in Southern California.

How did you end in Kauai?

My ex-husband is a surfer and he used to surf in Southern California where we used to live all the time. He used to go to El Salvador a lot to go surfing down there. And a friend down there said, “Well, if you like surfing these waves, you’ll like Hanalei.” So that’s when we first starting coming, in 1989. And then in 1990, we bought a house in Hanalei and I always kept a harp there because this is where I would get all my books written. We would rent it out as a vacation rental when we were gone. I would come twice a year for a month or two at a time. But it was great because I had a huge mailing list of harp players around the world, about 50,000 of them, so we always advertised it in the catalog and would say that you could come to Kauai and have a harp. It worked great.

I understand that you started playing the harp in college (University of Redlands). What motivated you to learn how to play this instrument?

Well, my mother always wanted one of us to play the harp but she never did anything about. I was taking piano lessons my first semester in college and I hated my teacher. So I said never mind, no more. So I went to the harp department that had a harp teacher that came out from Hollywood every week for lessons, so I did it just to surprise my mother. That was the entire reason, just for her. And I got hooked.

I kept taking lessons throughout college and that was on a great, big orchestra harp. Then my grandmother loaned me money to buy a used harp after I graduated and then I found out about the small harps. They were just starting to be made again after a couple hundred years. I really got into that; I was in the right place at the right time. There were no books for the smaller Celtic harps, so I wrote the beginning book that everyone uses. But everyone kept wanting more and more books. So I’ve now written about 30 books and 50 pieces of sheet music and that’s really what has kept the business going. And I love it because I have customers all over the world that tell me what they want. A new song comes out on the radio, and if I get enough requests, I’ll request permission to do it.

How exactly do your customers reach out to you to do that?

Now, it’s through email. In the old days, I used to print and mail out a catalog twice a year. In 1991, I opened a store. It was the biggest harp store in the world in Glendale. We usually had about 80 harps on the floor. When the Internet came in, we were immediately on it. The Internet allowed me to move over here full time, which is something that I wanted to do for a long time.

You were in some competitions playing the Celtic harp. Could you talk about those experiences?

In 1980, I went to the All-Ireland competition which has a really long Gaelic name. And in order to compete, you had to win your local competition. I lived in Los Angeles, my local competition was in New York. That was the only competition in the states. So I had to fly to New York, and I competed against no one. And I won! It was amazing! I basically just had to show up. And I taught a bunch of kids that were there so I gave some lessons to them, too. I guess I could’ve came in last, but they said I won. A couple months later, I went to Ireland.

The interesting thing is, that in Ireland, and in a lot of schools, you had to learn the harp there. And a lot of Irish kids hated it because they had to learn it. And basically all they were playing was “Danny Boy” and songs like that. I got into Irish music by playing with an Irish band. I didn’t know anything about Irish music before I started playing with this band, so I learned all their jigs and everything to do with it, so I was pretty much self-taught as far as that went.

In Ireland, all the harp players tune their key to three flats. No fiddle on the planet would play in flat keys, they would play in sharp keys. I was playing with an Irish band, so I always had my harp tuned to sharps. So when I first got to Ireland to where the competition was, I immediately took my harp out into the pub, and there were a whole bunch of guys there playing music and they stopped dead in their tracks because none of them had ever played with a harp player before.

Even though the harp is the national instrument of the country, no one would ever play with those instruments because they were playing in completely different keys. So I just went in and was jamming with them. And because of that, the next day for the competition, there was about 50 people that showed up to see me. They always had the harp competitions in the smallest room because there weren’t that many competitors, but they were lined up out the door, looking in through the windows. It was really pretty funny. And I was competing against a lot of people, mostly Irish with a couple people from Europe. But I managed to win. I won the All-Ireland in 1980.

How old were you at that time?

I was 29 when I won.

That must have been a crazy experience. What did it feel like winning that type of competition in Ireland?

It was crazy. Actually, there was a music teacher there and we became friends and one of the fathers of her kids paid me to come over to teach them for the next two summers. None of them had harps, so we borrowed harps from all over Ireland, one for every two kids. They were used to playing by ear because they were learning so many different instruments. So in the morning we’d learn the melody, in the afternoon we’d learn the accompaniment, and by the end of the week they would learn five songs and we would put on a show for all the parents. It was really fun.

Were you the first American to win the All-Ireland?

You know, I thought I was but there was a girl in the ‘50s who had won. And I didn’t know until they sent me the plaque. Apparently I was the second, but they had told me I was the first. But still, I was the first in 30 years!

It’s safe to say that you’re largely responsible for this renaissance of Celtic harp music. What type of pressure do you feel having that type of responsibility?

I was partly at the right place at the right time. But then I did something about it, which was step two. I never intended that I would make a living doing this my whole life, but it’s so satisfying because everyday, I get emails from people saying that I changed their life. So it’s really, really nice. I’m considered one of the grand dames of the harp world.

How many grand dames are there?

Not very many, there’s just a couple of us. At the turn of the century, the Harp Column Magazine, which is the main harp magazine, named me one of the 45 most influential harpists of that century, along with Harpo Marx. It’s really nice. Pretty much any harp player on the planet will probably know who I am and most of them have my books.

A funny story is when my father retired, my parents went around the world for two years, bought a one-way ticket around the world. And they were at the pyramids. And there was a very famous drawing of a harpist on one of the walls of the pyramids, standing up playing the harp. So my mother bought me a tray with the picture on it as a souvenir. And as she was at the checkout in the gift shop, the guy who was checking her out said that this was his favorite picture and asked my mother why she bought this? And my mother said, as she always says, “My daughter is a very famous harpist.” And he said, “What’s her name?” And she said, “Sylvia Woods.” And he gasped and said, “I have all her books!” So you never know.

What makes your harp music so unique?

On the Celtic harps, we have sharpening levers on every string that you flip or back down from an F to an F sharp. Part of what I’m known for, in terms of my arrangements, is trying to figure out how to make as few sharp and lever changes in a piece while still trying to keep the integrity of the piece. And particularly in pop music, there’s a lot of changes in the music. So I spend a lot of time trying to figure it out with the fewest number of changes.

You said that people send in song requests to you. What is the most recent request that you’ve received?

I just put out the theme song for “Game of Thrones.” Which is not particularly harpistic but I had so many requests for it so I figured out how to do it, and it actually sounds pretty good!

How long does it take you from the time that you receive a request for piece to actually putting the song on a sheet of music?

Once I actually start sitting down and figuring it out, I can usually do it in a bout a week. But I have to get copyright permission first and sometimes you don’t get permission. When “Downton Abbey” came out, I tried to get permission for that and they still haven’t replied.

Luckily, my publisher, Hal Leonard, manages over 50 percent of rights to most songs. So luckily, since I have a really good relationship with them after all these years, I can get permission for anything that they got.

What’s the most unique or random song that you were asked to write or play?

It was actually at a friend’s wedding where I was asked to play “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” which is about demon, dead horsemen riding through heaven. It was very bizarre.

I kind of thought “Game of Thrones” was kind of strange, but it worked. I’ve done a Disney book, I’ve done John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the ‘60s, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and now I’m writing a book on the ‘50s.

I actually have a really good relationship with a man who is in charge of all the music at Disney because I did a Disney book a long time ago. So now whenever a new movie comes out, I check with him. When “Brave” was going to come out, about a year before it came out, I saw a preview for it and wrote to him. It’s set in Scotland, it’s going to have a lot of really cool Celtic music that will work on the harp, and he didn’t know what I was talking about. He didn’t even know the movie was coming out! So he told me to write him in a year.

So two months before the movie was out, I emailed him and they were still working on the music.

So he actually would send the orchestrations of the music before the movie came out, even before the music was written. So a week later he would contact me and be like “Oh, measure six and seven, they changed to this.” They were still recording it. My book of harp arrangements of “Brave” actually came out before the official piano versions.

The Disney offices are like 10 miles from where I used to live in Southern California and one day, my guy called me up and said, “You know, we spend all our days working on this music and giving people permission and suing people who aren’t supposed to it, but we never get to hear anything.” So he asked me to play for his music department and it was really fun.

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