Let’s face it: harps are quite hip. Between the ethereal compositions of indie darling, Joanna Newsom, and the top-40 covers of folk harpist, Amy Farrah Fowler (Sheldon’s neurobiologist, not-a-girlfriend on the hit CBS comedy, The Big Bang Theory), the harp has been plucked from obscurity into the limelight.
Leaving the pop culture references aside, there are so many intriguing questions about this complex instrument: Where did it originate? What compels one to play it? And, most pressing, how the heck do you carry it?
For starters, harps range in sizes, shapes, colors, and without question, prices. They have also been in existence since ancient times, in numerous cultures, and are generally regarded as the oldest known stringed instrument.
To answer some burning questions about the harp and more, Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s Principal Harpist, Leslie Stratton Norris, recently took some time out of her busy schedule, which also includes directing her own ensemble, Harps of Grace, to candidly discuss her multi-decade career and share her passion for this varied topic.
Dayton Most Metro: Thanks for talking with us today. What inspired you to study the harp?
Leslie Stratton Norris: When I was a kid there was an orchestra show on CBS with Leonard Bernstein called Young People’s Concerts. When they showed the harp player, I was smitten. My mom took me to see a harpist in person shortly thereafter, and the harpist let me try it. Even though I was three years old, I was totally convinced that this would be my life. My mom thought that my interest was a fad, but I pestered her to learn the harp for six more years.
DMM: Did you finally convince her?
LSN: Yes, I was nine years old when I got my first harp, so I dove into playing it with gusto.
DMM: What were those early lessons like? Were you surprised by much?
LSN: I don’t recall being surprised by much. At that age, you just follow along and do what your teacher tells you to do, and all is well. However, I had some difficulty with memorizing. I’m a sight reader, and I resist memorizing. It’s far more fun to play new pieces all the time.
DMM: The size of a concert grand harp, being about six feet tall and weighing 80 pounds, is quite daunting. How do you transport it?
LSN: Thankfully, we now have two-wheeled dollies that are made especially for the harp. With the dolly, my harp rolls along easily, and when loading it into my car, we lean and push, rather than having to pick it up. When I was a kid, harp dollies did not exist unless someone invented their own model. My dad used to throw my harp up on his shoulder and carry it that way.
DMM: There was a hilarious skit on the IFC series, Portlandia, featuring Joanna Newsom trying to fit her concert grand harp into a Ford Focus. I’m assuming a harp doesn’t easily fit into a compact car! What type of car do most harpists buy?
LSN: Harpists tend to own large wagons or vans, but a full-sized (concert grand) harp does fit in my Subaru wagon.
DMM: Usually there are only one or two harpists on stage in an orchestra setting. That’s a lot of pressure, being in the spotlight. How you do handle performance anxiety?
LSN: Most of the time, there is just one harpist on stage, so if the harp sounds bad, everyone knows it is me! Performance anxiety can be disabling for some players. They can be good musicians and know their music, but they are unable to play it well in front of others. Those folks might try some therapies or even medications to help their anxiety. I am fortunate that most of the time, I can keep it together without such an aid.
DMM: Are there any myths you’d like to dispel about the harp?
LSN: The harp can play almost any kind of music. It is a versatile, full-range instrument and can function like a piano within a classical, pop or jazz group. The harp also has much more sound than many people imagine. It is thought to be a soft instrument, which it can be, but a good harpist can play it with a tremendous amount of sound.
DMM: It is easy to see why so many people hire harpists for major life events, such as weddings. Is there a gig in particular that you’d like to share or one that is particularly amusing?
LSN: I have enough funny stories to fill a book! In Los Angeles I was hired to play for an outdoor pool party. The host had decided he wanted some “beautiful music” wafting through the air along with the sound of his water fountain next to the pool. I arrived before the guests, moved my harp into position, and began to play as his guests arrived. After five or six people had gathered, someone said, “Into the pool!” and they all hopped into the pool…in their birthday suits! More folks arrived, and the same thing happened. Soon, I was the only person clothed, and thankfully I remained that way for the length of the party. I learned a valuable lesson: it is very hard to ask a host for your check when he is sans clothes, so I said “Thanks,” packed up at the end of the party, and billed him later.
DMM: Harpists have become quite hip in recent years. Are you surprised that it took this long?
LSN: Often it takes specific performers with charisma and a twist to their performances to open up an instrument to a wider audience. With a performer such as Ravi Shankar on the sitar, that instrument was brought before audiences who never would have thought to listen to a sitar. Harps have been popular in different cultures as folk instruments and as an accompaniment to vocals for a long time, so it is good to see harp music in the limelight.
DMM: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
LSN: When I am lugging my harp around, one of the most frequent questions that comes my way is, “Don’t you wish you played the flute?’” Here is the answer: “No!” In my opinion, the harp is the most beautiful, versatile, calming, joyous, warm, lovely, charming, and challenging instrument out there. Yes, hauling it around is daunting. Paying for it is daunting. Changing strings and maintaining it is daunting. But nothing sounds like a harp, and nothing looks like a harp. When you are in love with the harp, all the difficulties of the instrument are naught compared to the joys of playing it and hearing it.
For more information about the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra and its upcoming performances, visit www.daytonperformingarts.org. The next Harps of Grace concert will take place at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Centerville on May 6th at 7:00 p.m. This concert is free and will feature 12 harpists playing all styles of music.