ALEXANDRIA, VA - In historic Alexandria, Virginia, near Washington, musician Jamey Turner is playing a most unusual instrument, the glass harp. This harp actually consists of ordinary stemmed glasses filled with water that Turner plays with his fingertips by rubbing the rims to create a range of musical tones. He performs music such as “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or the famous theme from the Star Wars movies.

The people who stop by are awestruck by the glass harp music Turner has been showcasing on a street corner in Alexandria for more than 25 years. It doesn’t take long before they drop dollar bills or larger amounts into a donation basket to show their appreciation for Turner.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Nicole Schwarss, a visitor from Germany. “I’ve never heard something like this before.”

Almudena Casdaneda from Mexico was spellbound.

“It’s a very different way to play music,” she said, “and it seems difficult to do, and to remember which cup sounds which way.”

Second nature

But to 78-year-old Turner it’s second nature because he started playing the glass harp some 50 years ago. Although he also plays other instruments, the glass harp is his passion. He got the idea as a young age from his father. When he was 6 years old, he said, he heard his dad playing around with a glass of water at the dining room table and he liked the sound a lot.

Turner sets up his instrument, consisting of 60 glasses, on a wooden soundboard anchored with rubber bands, which keeps the stemware from breaking. He uses inexpensive glass instead of crystal, which he says rings too long and doesn’t give him control of the notes.

Turner tunes each glass to a different pitch by partially filling them with distilled water, which he said gives better sound than water with chemicals and minerals. Then he uses a turkey baster to squirt additional water into the glasses to fine-tune them.

As Turner rubs his dampened fingertips around the rims, the smaller bowls produce higher pitches, while the larger ones resonate deeper tones. The more water in any of the glasses, large or small, will also lower the pitch.

Turner actually “auditions” his glasses at stores before he buys them. 

“I explain that I’m looking for a few that I can make music on. Then I usually find only one or two that will have a good sound,” he said.

Audience participation

Turner loves having an audience and teaching people about his instrument. He explains how he plays the chords. He gave some visitors the opportunity to play music with him, by having them rub the rims of the biggest glasses.

Joeli Pepe, a girl from New York, was all smiles as her glass vibrated a bass tone.

“I didn’t know it made that much sound,” she said.

She also learned from Turner that the glass harp was popular in the 1700s when classical composers like Mozart wrote music specifically for the instrument. There have been 400 pieces written for the glass harp. But Turner plays all kinds of music, from contemporary jazz, to country, to the U.S. national anthem. He amazed a Chinese visitor by playing a tune that is popular in China.

Turner said he has been able to make a living as a glass harpist and has even played with top U.S. orchestras. He has performed at numerous places around the country, including the Easter Egg Roll at the White House, for various embassies in Washington, and at Walt Disney World in Florida. A few years ago, he got to perform in Japan.

With so few people playing the glass harp, Turner is hoping the next generation will keep the instrument alive.

“I think it is gaining in popularity,” he said. “A lot of people have seen me on YouTube, and so I’ve seen a lot of people experimenting with it on YouTube.”

“People can’t help but smile when they hear the glass harp,” said Turner, as he played Happy Birthday to a little girl who gave him a big grin.