Harp surgeon who is No1 at keeping top players in tune

Billy Hornby
Billy Hornby

When it comes to affairs of the harp, Billy Hornby is the man for the job.

The Royal Family, celebrities, hallowed concert halls and opera houses, orchestras, international musicians and luxury hotels all want Billy to tug at their harp strings.

Puns aside, his skills as a harp doctor take him from Lynn on travels all over the globe from Scandinavia to Finland, all over mainland Europe, to Iceland, Tenerife, Malta and to South Africa.

As one of only around 200 highly-skilled harp technicians in the world, Billy is constantly on call to carry out work on musical instruments that can be worth up to six-figure sums and, in one or two cases, are priceless.

His role is to regulate, re-felt and re-align the mechanism of the harp – rather like routinely servicing a car but without the tuning.

High profile projects of pride for Billy include maintaining the gold leaf-adorned harp presented to Prince Charles by the prestigious Italian manufacturers Salvi in 2006 which took six months to create and made its debut at the Llangollen Musical Eisteddford.

He was called in to regulate two harps which were played at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and another which featured at the Beckhams’ star-studded wedding.

His work has taken him on board the cruise ship Queen Victoria when it docked at Southampton and to the most exclusive of hotels, including the Ritz and Savoy Hotels where the harp is the instrument of choice for background music at functions such as weddings.

There are regular visits to the Royal Opera Houses in London and Stockholm and musical institutions including Trinity College London and the Royal Academy of Music. Harps

“The majority of the clients are professional harpists but there are others who play the harp purely for enjoyment. I have worked for judges, doctors, solicitors.

“And I remember servicing a harp that was played by Mylene Klass when she was at the Royal College of Music before she joined Hearsay and became a show business celebrity.”

A slightly more local client is Eleanor Turner, who lives at Stamford and is a member of the quartet 4 Girls; 4 Harps who play internationally and will be performing at Lynn Festival on Monday, July 24.

He has also recently been asked to regulate a harp at Eton College and there have been requests from as far afield as the Middle East and Siberia.

It is a high octave world which is a million miles away from the time when Billy washed cows’ intestines at the Lynn ‘gut factory’ Bow Brand in the late 1980s.

The factory, tucked away in Highgate, has been manufacturing strings for musical instruments for more than 100 years and is now a world leader producing gut, nylon and wire strings for harps including those made by Salvi and Lyon and Healy.

Billy worked his way up to management level at the factory and when there was an opening for a harp technician in 1994 he jumped at the chance to train with these iconic manufacturers. It was a dream job for him.

“I spent time in Italy with Salvi at their headquarters in Piasco and in America with Lyon and Healy and earned myself a place in their Technicians Guild,” he explained.

It means that he is one of a select group of skilled craftsmen recommended by Salvi and Lyon and Healy to work on their musical masterpieces.

He works freelance and most of his bookings come by word of mouth and often through agents who will line up a string of appointments.

In South Africa, for instance, he will have work organised in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Capetown on a single trip.

A concert grand – the largest member of the harp family – has 47 strings and Billy would expect to work between two and three hours upwards on each harp.

Can he actually play a harp? “I can manage the scales but that is about all,” he said. “I have a decent voice and there is musical talent in my family but I wouldn’t describe myself as a musician.”

One family member who aims to follow in his footsteps is his teenage son Brad whose ambition is to become a craftsman like his father, but in the different role of repairing and restoring the wooden frames of the harps so that they could work as a team.