Laurie Nielsen didn't believe in fate until she decided to change her life. She began by reading "What Color Is My Parachute" by Richard Bolles — a best-selling book about job hunting and career changing.
"I did the exercises and listed the qualities that I wanted in a business. I started searching and heard about this guy in Bend who had a unique string-designing business for harps, one of only two custom designers in North America. The owner had a disability and needed to sell," Nielsen recalls.
After several telephone conversations back and forth, conducting research and writing a business plan, Nielsen drove to Bend from her home in Phoenix to sign a contract and pick up supplies.
"When I entered Mark's home, I noticed a copy of the book that had started it all for me."
"Oh, yes," he said. "My father is the author."
Thus, Nielsen became the owner of two businesses: Markwood Heavenly Strings & Cases and Cambria Kits, which sells a harp-making kit. Twenty-one years later, she says it's still a perfect match.
Harps, Nielsen explains, fall into two categories: pedal and folk. Pedal harps are constructed in standard sizes with manufactured strings you can buy off the shelf. "Folk harp" is a general term that includes all nonpedal harps that are handcrafted, including Celtic, Irish, Gothic and lap harps. There are thousands of folk-harp builders and myriad models. With no standard note ranges or sizes, they all need custom strings.
"People are usually astonished to learn that I never see the clients' harps unless they send me a picture. They provide me with the vibrating length for each harp string. Then I design the string set, and the owner installs them," she says.
The process is mathematical, she explains.
"I have almost 2,000 string charts for different harps, and a custom-written software program giving the specifications and formulas for each material and size. It can tell me when a string might break, when the sound is good and the total pounds of pressure. Using those numbers, along with my years of experience, I can pick the right size and materials to use."
Harp strings are made of different combinations of nylon, steel, bronze, silk and silver. Usually there is a core string wrapped with another material. She can make 11 different composites of strings, depending on specific needs.
"I make and stretch my strings on an 11-foot, custom-made machine giving me the length I need to make long bass strings. The core of the string must be stretched perfectly, or it can become loose on the harp or sound a false note."
Nielsen says she enjoys unusual challenges.
"I love doing strings for fragile or antique harps. Strings can apply 2,000 or 3,000 pounds of pressure, so I have to design strings for fragile harps that can still sound good at a lower tension," she says.
She's come across many interesting projects over the years that have tested her abilities. She once designed a string set for a harp built into the bannister of a stairway. And she made steel strings that exerted 7,000 pounds of pressure for a 12-foot steel harp in Mexico.
"The diameter of the steel strings was so thick that I couldn't cut them," she says. "I had to send them to Mexico with instructions for cutting and installing. I'm told by the owner that the harp was played by three women on ladders using mallets because the steel strings were too hard to pluck."
Nielsen has more than 3,000 clients from more than 30 countries in her database. They come from all walks of life, and many have been with her for years. She notes that there is a close relationship between the player, the harp and the strings.
"It has been said that next to the human voice, the harp has the most healing vibration, so whenever you can make someone happy by providing them with good-sounding strings that don't break, it's satisfying for everyone."
Designing custom strings is a technical, precise operation, but it really boils down to putting good vibrations out there into the world.