What Does It Mean to Be a Harpist?

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What do you think it means to be a harpist?Fotolia_85486254_XS

I usually don’t ask myself that question; probably you don’t think much about it either. Mostly, I just know I am a harpist. I’ve been one nearly all my life.

But every now and then I have felt the need to examine it. What do I do as a harpist, and why? What is my purpose? What keeps drawing me back to the harp, even when things are difficult or my time is short?  And what do I need to do to keep myself on the “harpist” path?

I recently attended the Summer Institute of the American Harp Society. It’s a wonderful event, held every other year, and focused on education. The AHS National Competition is held at the Institute as well. The finalists, who have been selected in a video audition process, perform the required repertoire for the judges and audience. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the young artists who compete, and the audience is treated to great performances by the next generation of harpists.

Those accomplished young performers were just the reminder I needed of what exactly it means to be a harpist. And no matter what kind of harpist you are – young, old, amateur, professional, classical, jazz, pop or folk – they can be an example to you too, and a reminder of the three (or maybe four) things you need to do to be a harpist, or any musician, for that matter.

You know you are a harpist when you:

1. Practice and play. Every day. This is the number one defining factor for all musicians. They spend their time making music. Make sure that you don’t let your beautiful instrument gather dust. Get in there and do what you were born to do!

2. Never stop learning. Learn new music. Take lessons regularly. Attend classes and workshops. Read books about music and musicians. Listen to recordings and go to concerts.

3. Teach others what you know and love. This is an optional one; not every musician chooses to teach. But for me personally, teaching is an important aspect of my musicianship. My teachers were so generous with me, and I feel called to do the same for my students. It’s about musical heritage and personal gratitude and without it, my musical life wouldn’t be complete.

4. Share your music with others. Share your music with those who haven’t experienced the harp the way you have. Celebrate your love of the harp with those who have the same passion. But don’t hide it under a rock. Live your music every day.

What does being a harpist mean to you?

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  • Kathy

    I started the harp at 47 years young, not having been exposed to music in the home. I saw a harp for the first time, fell in love and had to learn to read music, and learn technique!

    After 20+years as a fledgling harpist, I am about to receive a Bachelor of Music in Harp Performance. I consider myself an intermediate harpist, but a harpist!

    The past 21 years as a harpist has brought me more joy than I can remember! It is hard work for me and I had a hiatus of approximately a decade in between after the death of my youngest brother. I did, however, get to play at his bedside just before he died and that has brought me great comfort to be able to do that. I also played at my mother’s bedside when she lay dying in the hospital. What a joy to share my music that way with my loved ones!

    I have had my share of abusive teachers as well as some marvellous ones.

    More importantly, the harp has taken me on a journey I could not fathom. It has brought me to many countries in pursuit of its learning. I have made many new friends many with whom I am still in touch! I get to go to conferences all over the world. I have been to 3 World Harp Congresses, and my life has never been the same.

    When I don’t practice, hubby doesn’t say anything BUT when I do, he always says it is so lovely to hear you playing.

    In short, a long hard road for me but one I would not hesitate to travel on again and again and again.

    I AM a harpist!



    • Anne Post author

      Way to go, Kathy! “Awesome” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Here’s a loud “woo-hoo” and a big hug!


      • Lorna Ota

        What a lovely way to begin this new morning with new thoughts about being a harpist. Do I want to claim the title? Yes! Then I’d better review my daily schedule to make sure I meet all of your four excellent reminders above. Thank you, again and again for your wonderful words for the day or week.

        Thank you to “Kathy”, also. Her harp life started at a later age, as mine, but I haven’t been as successful as she, probably due to her diligence, desire, love of the harp and music, etc. Even at this much later stage I’m at, she gives me much hope to keep pursuing my goals in harp. I am in awe of her success. Yes, Kathy, you are definitely a HARPIST, with degree and all! I’m probably your first admirer from Hawaii. Aloha, Lorna


  • Robert Stone

    I started playing the harp in the 1980’s while I was working as a salesman in the office furniture business. I think I was inspired by Harpo in the Marx brothers movies and thought I could learn it. I was previously a music major in college on the clarinet and played the saxophone for a living for awhile, but just couldn’t earn enough for the lifestyle I wanted. I really started playing music relatively late in life, not getting serious until I was college. So, not knowing anyone, I contacted Marilyn Costello of the Philadelphia Orchestra and asked her if she knew of a student who I could study with. She recommended Anne Sullivan, a student of hers at the time. I rented a harp from the estate of the late harpist, Pearl Chertok and took lessons with Anne for a year. After an upheaval in my personal and working life, it was too difficult to continue studying the harp. But 30 years later, with the internet now making it easier and less costly to find a used instrument, I took the plunge again! I found a a used instrument through Dickie Fleisher of Budget Harp Rentals in Florida. I reconnected with Anne again and have been taking lessons with her these past four years. I had to start all over again and my progress has been slow, because I still am a businessman, but the rewards have been great. I’ve gone to recitals, harp day events, met other harpists and am really enjoying myself this time around! And the sound of the harp, the many harpists I hear on Youtube, plus my teacher, and all the great music written for it, continue to inspire me!


  • Megan

    This is a great question to ponder, and I often do! I was brought up musically with the idea that you only succeed if you get an orchestral position. But with so few permanent positions available this just isn’t always possible. And of course not everyone is cut from the principal harpists cloth! So it’s easy to feel like you have failed before you have even begun. So here’s to a broader definition of a harpist!


  • Pam Irwin

    What a wonderful question to consider in the middle of my summer break! Anne, I listened to your presentation a week or so about playing a piece from first to last and it has inspired me to practice the harp more. I started harp after playing flute (which I also still do) all through middle school and high school. Harp is such a challenging instrument and I find that you are right – if I don’t get in there and practice every chance I get I will lose my ability to play my pieces. I teach harp for Hillsborough County Schools and we have been working through Suzuki Book I and II. I play the pieces in Suzuki Book I all the time and what do you know, I can play them pretty well! I need to dedicate that same kind of practice to my other pieces as well – use it or lose it!


  • Barra the Bard / Barra Jacob-McDowell

    My granny had a small antique bardic harp passed down for generations; I remember fingering the carving at the bottom as we both sang during her annual visits when I was just a toddler! Unfortunately, a witchy aunt threw it out instead of giving it to me as Granny wanted when she died shortly before my 12th birthday. 28 years later, I purchased an FH-26 harp from Dusty Strings, with the goal of becoming a harper. My Dreamsinger (named for hers) is now 25 years old; I’m an intermediate-level, and regard myself as a Celtic storyteller who plays a little harp….As a full-time caregiver for my severely physically handicapped husband, I find it hard to practice regularly–and notice that having a goal (translation: gig) motivates me to improve on that. Being on a fixed income and having responsibilities for his care, I can’t afford to go to any gatherings or afford lessons, but I buy one new harp book a year and plan to work on and with what I’ve got. Harping has taken me to places I never expected: co-founding an ISFHC chapter/Celtic harp ensemble with Faith Stenning and Joyce Emery, the Harp Grove of Western PA (sadly, now defunct); half of a duo, ClarSeannachie, whose motto is “Tales with Celtic harp”; doing “harptellings” in which I’ve combined both passions at the Three Rivers Storytelling Festival here in Pittsburgh; writing a column on Scottish tales and folklore for SHSA’s *Kilt & Harp* journal; and giving occasional workshops on combining music and storytelling and other public speaking-related topics. I’m currently about to begin practicing for my next gig, 20 min. at a Saturday Salon in Oct. These tips will help me better focus my practices. Thanks, Anne!


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