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Harp Recital

Last month I held a recital and 11 of my harp students participated. Ranging in age from 11 to adults and they were all stars! We started the show with a few ensemble pieces to warm up and then everybody played a solo. We had a real variety of music; animal songs from the younger ones, folk tunes, compositions by Marcel Grandjany and J. S. Bach, a jazzy version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz”, a couple of South American dances and even an original composition called “A Mountain Goat’s Love” by an 11-yr-old student.

We played in a church that has great acoustics and the audience was struck by the uniquely beautiful sound that each different harp produced. Also, each harpist, regardless of experience level, exhibited an individual tone quality and style. I was exceedingly proud of everybody’s successful and professional performance. They all told me afterwards they felt excited to play and share their music with the audience and it showed. We’ll have to do it again in the Spring!

Three young harpists
Bridget, Anna and Ginger Rose accept the enthusiastic applause of the audience after their trio performance.

Lyon & Healy Harp Factory Tour

Lyon & Healy harp factory in Chicago

Two days after running the Chicago marathon Chanel and I hobbled on wobbly legs over to the Lyon & Healy Harp factory where, for over 100 years, exquisite harps have been hand-made by Old World craftsmen and women. I haven't been there in 12 years so it was nice to visit and see the new concert hall. We took a guided tour of the harp-making process but weren't allowed to take photos, lest we divulge any harp-making secrets. What I can tell you is that we saw stacks of lumber being gradually shaped and carved into divinely intricate instruments. Scattered around the five floors of the building are heaps 'o harps - more than I could count.

Lyon & Healy harp show room

By the time we finished the tour and arrived at the showroom we felt giddy and dazzled by all the beautiful instruments we'd seen but Chanel didn't have any trouble finding one to bond with. Now she's hatching a plan to sell her house and talk her husband into spending the profits on this 44-string semi-grand.

Chanel plays blonde harp

I confess that I'm attracted to the beauty of quilted maple and the bling of gold leaf so I was fond of this gilded Style 11.

Laurie and gold Style 11 harp

It wasn't just the looks - it sounded fantastic, too. But I'd have to save a while since the price tag on this lovely shiny harp is $49,000.

Just as we were getting ready to board the freight elevator on our way out Chanel heard a gilded Style 23 speak to her and say, "Psssst, take me home!" Lucky for her bank balance, it was already sold.

Chanel plays gold Style 23

My Big Fat Wedding Weekend

October generally brings beautiful weather to Santa Barbara. Crisp, clear air makes for a perfect view of the Channel Islands and sunny days aren’t too hot - just right for outdoor wedding celebrations. This weekend I played at three of them. On Friday I was at the Ojai Valley Inn's Herb Garden.

wedding harp at Ojai Valley Inn
The harpist's-eye view

Saturday afternoon's wedding was at the Sandpiper Golf Club where the officiant was the same judge who excused me from jury duty in August. I was grateful because it was a three month trial and although it was an interesting case I couldn’t spend the time. Thanks Judge Hill!

flower girl plays the harp
Flower girls are always fascinated with the harp and they're usually quite photogenic, too.

Sunday afternoon's nuptial event was in the sunken garden at the lovely Santa Barbara Court House. I took the pedal harp because the bride and groom asked me to play "their song" ("Love Letters" as sung by Elvis) which is too chromatic for the lever harp. My version was a bit different from the King's but I think he might have liked it anyway.

Laurie plays harp at SB Court House

Playing the harp all weekend is easy compared to schlepping different instruments to various venues every day. I think I need a sherpa.

Paddy Keenan concert

Last Thursday I had the great pleasure of opening for Paddy Keenan and Tommy O’Sullivan who were celebrating the release of their new CD, The Long Grazing Acre. The show was at the beautiful Victoria Hall Theatre, packed to the rafters with a sell-out crowd of Celtic music fans.

Paddy is legendary for his unique style on the uillean pipes - an instrument that is quite unique to begin with and one that is difficult to play. He makes it look easy though, a zillion notes flowing and trilling forth to become happy dance tunes or melancholy airs. He plays the low whistle too, which brings haunting mystery to any melody. Paddy’s musical sidekick Tommy O’Sullivan plays driving rhythm accompaniment on guitar as well as sensitive finger-style for his own soulful vocals.

The band I played with for the first set is a new group, all made up of Santa Barbara area musicians who’ve been playing together just a few weeks. Gilles Apap, fabulous fiddler, pulled us all together for this event. Here we are from left to right (band photos by J. Downs): Gary Jensen, bodhran; me; Gilles Apap, fiddle and Eliot Jacobsen, guitar and flute.

Laurie and the Dirty Nellie band

And here’s Treasa McGettigan, our lovely Irish songbird.

Treasa sings wih Gilles and Eliot

At the end of the show Paddy and Tommy invited us, along with a couple of extra fiddlers, to join in on a set of reels.

Paddy Keenan and Dirty Nellie band

While we waited backstage to go on Gilles demonstrated one of his many talents - he can balance his violin bow on the tip of his nose while doing sit-ups. The rest of us are still learning how to do that and when we figure it out we'll all join the circus.

Gilles does sit-ups

Poetry in Laramie, WY 1996

In 1996 while on a concert tour I played a gig at the Coal Creek Coffee Company in Laramie, Wyoming. I was pleased to find this spot of Bohemian culture after driving through vast expanses of nothing in the northern part of the state where just a few antelope bounced around the landscape. During the show that evening a quiet young woman sat at a nearby table writing in a journal and afterwards she presented me with a beautiful poem she'd been inspired to write while listening to the music. I'd forgotten about it until by chance I came across it again today. Here it is:

Chords run through this life of mine
And chords run through my soul.
Chords struck soft in the evening’s quiet
Are the sounds that make them whole.

Music is a blessèd gift,
Bless those who give it birth,
And twice bless those who play the songs
That heal a wounded Earth.

There is a silence of the mind
When life about you stills,
An empty place within the heart
That only music fills.

There are chords that bind us all
These chords that sing our songs,
And to the few who touch the chords,
Our gratitude belongs.

~Mary Lovelace~
Laramie, Wyoming

Alice Keck Park

I often play for weddings at Alice Keck Park which is located in downtown Santa Barbara, just a few blocks off State Street. This afternoon's event was a small intimate gathering at the arch near the sundial and koi pond. The good thing about a Friday wedding there is that it's relatively quiet, unlike weekends when there are parties, picnics, music jams and flying frisbees. Today there were just a few dog walkers who stopped at a respectful distance to watch the proceedings and listen to the music. I had an old K & K pickup lying around that I slapped into the Wurlitzer at the last minute and was surprised to find that it makes the harp sound amazingly golden and bell-like.

Gold harp and wedding couple in Keck Park

Harp Parking

Playing the harp is so much fun - I wish I could say the same for transporting it. The harp and all related gear - bench, amplifier, music, music stand, etc - must be schlepped to the car and stacked carefully inside. Then I have to find a place for the clothing I'll wear to the gig where it won't get too crumpled (I change into it after I've worked up a good sweat hauling the harp). Drive to gig, dump gear on the sidewalk and go park the car. Return and hope to find harp etc, where I left them. This evening I played at Yoga Soup and while I parked the car my harp lurked in the bamboo shrubbery pretending to be an innocent bicycle.

Harp at bike rack


I've heard plenty about the famed garden called Lotusland but last Saturday evening was my first visit there while playing for a private party. Flautist Ricardo Gonzales and I were stationed above the lily pond.

Harp and Flute garden duet

From this position our music could waft down over the scene and we had a beautiful view of blooming lilies, dragonflies and hummingbirds flitting about the flowers, and guests meandering with cocktails in hand. In addition to this there were five people dressed as sparkly butterflies walking about on stilts while a mermaid and merman cavorted beside the pond in the neighboring aloe garden. Several strategically placed bubble machines sent iridescent orbs floating through the air, adding to the ethereal ambience.

Laurie and bubbles in the garden

We were extra lucky that July is peak blooming season for the lotus plants in the pond. The gardener explained that these were young plants so the blossoms weren't as "big as basketballs" like they will be when they mature but I wasn't the least bit disappointed. The perfect blooms gave off a surreal glow in the late afternoon light.

Blooming lotus at Lotusland Montecito

Irish Fair Harp Competition

On June 21-22 I missed the annual Santa Barbara Solstice Parade because I was playing at the Irish Fair in Irvine. Temperatures were hovering near 100 degrees so it was miserably hot at the fairgrounds. I felt really sorry for all those bagpipers marching about in wool socks and kilts. Those of us in the harp tent had the most pleasant location near the water where the fountain stirred a bit of breeze to at least keep the air moving. The harp concert stage is located on a small island in the middle of a lake which is quite peaceful and serene...or would be if it weren't for the dratted pipers marching past too frequently. Dennis Doyle and I were adjudicators for the harp competition which was small since this is the first year they've had it. We hope to see the number of competitors increase next year. I had the pleasure of presenting the First Prize ribbon and gift certificate to Jessica, an accomplished and confident 12-year-old.

Harp competition prize winner

Wedding at Fess Parker's Double Tree

Last weekend I played for a big wedding at Fess Parker's Double Tree and it was definitely one of the most entertaining weddings I've been to in a while. At the reception the newly married couple, along with their numerous bridesmaids and groomsmen, burst out into a well-choreographed dance routine set to rap music. This seems to be a new trend. After that a troupe of Tahitian hula dancers provided colorful hip-shaking excitement with the sound of their traditional drummers pounding all the way down the waterfront. Meanwhile, my harp lounged in the shade on the cocktail deck...

Harp in shade

Greek Wedding

St. Barbara’s Greek Orthodox Church in Santa Barbara is a place I’ve had the good fortune to play many times. Not only is it visually appealing with its sparkling golden Byzantine-style mosaics, but the acoustics are also outstanding making the harp sound gloriously crisp and clear. I was happy to be there last Sunday to play for a wedding that was standing-room only, packed to the rafters with festive Greek and Armenian friends and relatives.

Gold Harp in Greek Church

Traditional Greek wedding ceremonies are long and full of ritual. Interestingly, the bride and groom don’t exchange vows - just the fact that they’ve shown up at the church together is interpreted as a sign of their commitment to marriage. My favorite part of this ceremony was when the priests sang prayers in beautiful harmonies that rolled around the interior dome and brought me to tears. Yes, I go to weddings almost every weekend but I haven’t become jaded to the emotional aspect and frequently I find myself crying at the weddings of people I don’t even know!

Jazz Night

Saturday night June 8th was jazz night. I was invited to play a concert with the Santa Barbara Master Chorale, vocal soloist Art Emr and an assortment of amazing jazz musicians. Director Steve Hodson put together a moving arrangement of “The House I Live In” for the choir and it was a thrill to add my harp to their powerful voices.

Harp and Vibes Jazz Concert

I accompanied Art’s smooth Sinatra-like rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness” along with vibes player Dylan Morrow-Jones. Who knew harp and vibes was such an ideal combination? Although he’s young, Dylan is a master of his instrument and sometimes when he’s soloing smoke even comes from his mallets. Those jazz standards sound so classy on the harp. It’s a joy to play them in an ensemble with musicians who are so comfortable with their craft.

Harp As Hood Ornament

You just never know where you're going to spot a harp. This morning I took a long run (11 miles!) along the Santa Barbara waterfront, past the weekly Sunday Arts and Crafts Fair near the pier. There was a van in the parking lot that was a work of art all by itself. It had an amazing array of things glued to every surface but what caught my eye was the small harp prominently affixed to the top of the car.

Car as art

The harp was surrounded by several Star Trek characters, even the Starship Enterprise, and the android Data was plucking the strings. Finally, an appropriate use for one of those "hand-carved rosewood" harps from Pakistan - better known as "harp-shaped objects."

small harp on car

Irish Birthday Party

I’ve been hauling the pedal harp around so much lately that it was a relief when I was invited to bring my lever harp to a party on Memorial Day weekend. It seems so small and portable after maneuvering the concert grand in and out of the car! My friends Treasa, Jan and Solas all have birthdays within a few weeks of each other so this was a communal birthday celebration for all of them. Treasa is a singer of traditional Irish songs and has a voice like an angel. She invited several musicians to the party so... music ensued.

Laurie plays harp at seisiun

Although there are a couple of pubs around town with active seisiúns, I haven’t played at one in years. It was great fun to sit under the trees in a beautiful Santa Ynez garden and jam with three fiddles, a low whistle and a bouzouki. Fiddlers can add such a joyful “swing” to a tune and the bouzouki has that happy bouncy sound. It inspired me enough that I think I'll go to the pub next week (photo courtesy of J. Downs).

A Case of Harp Neglect

Yesterday evening I played at UCSB for a graduate student’s composition recital. The piece for oratorio and orchestra was fairly complicated and there were only a couple of rehearsals so it was a little rough at first but I was impressed with the way it all came together for the performance.

I agreed to play the University’s harp rather than haul mine over to Lotte Lehman concert hall. The thought of looking for convenient parking on campus (it doesn’t exist) and then wheeling my own concert grand a long distance into the theatre wasn’t appealing so I thought I’d be saving myself some trouble by playing a harp that was already on site. This turned out to be not entirely true.

I’d played the school’s harp a few years before and remembered that it was a nice Lyon & Healy style 23 but at our first rehearsal earlier in the week I arrived at the classroom, pulled the torn dust cover off the harp and discovered that it had three broken strings and was filthy dirty. Since the school has no harp program or harp students this poor instrument spends most of its time packed in a trunk and stuffed under a stairwell in the bowels of the music building. The school doesn’t maintain it and certainly has no spare string set on hand, not even a tuning key. For the rehearsal I tuned it up (brought my own key) and just did my best to play around the gaps of the missing strings.

On the evening of the performance I arrived early with my black bag full of harp accessories, replaced the broken strings and tuned feverishly hoping to have the stretchy gut stabilized by concert time. Then I wiped a thick layer of dust and grime off the soundboard and attempted to clean up the deep recesses of the carved column. When was the last time anybody paid any attention to this poor thing? There was nothing I could do just then about the stripped tuning pin on 5th octave A - it would have required vise grips to turn it.

Harp at USCB concert

Despite the dings it has suffered in its 50-year life span the harp began to look its regal self once I had it polished up. And aside from its neglected appearance this instrument has a great mature voice, the classic full Lyon & Healy sound, and is a pleasure to play. There’s plenty of spunk left in the old gal. With a regulation, some new pedal felts and a new set of strings it would be in great shape.

I realize that school harps often live a hard life and that schools don’t have unlimited budgets but it pains me to see such a lovely instrument being treated with so little respect. When that harp was built in the Chicago factory there were countless skilled hands involved in assembling the thousands of parts that make up the action, carving the ornate floral patterns into the column and making sure an even finish protected the smoothly-sanded wood. I know that for some people harps are simply objects, tools we use to create and express, but for me they are also beings and they have their own souls. I feel sick just thinking about the horrible crunching sound of each new ding they acquire.

Grace Under Pressure

Last weekend I had the pleasure of playing three concerts with the Santa Ynez Valley Master Chorale conducted by Chris Bowman. On the program was
Psalm 150 by Cesar Franck and Faure’s Requiem and Cantique de Jean Racine, all of which were new to my repertoire.

The Franck part was very “harpy” with fun pedal changes, at times with both feet on one side of the harp, and some well-placed arpeggios and glissandos.

The harp part for the
Requiem wasn’t too big of a stretch for me but the Cantique certainly was. Some harpists adapt the piano part which consists of flowing triplet figures. Others choose the harp accompaniment written by Marilyn Marzuki (available from which is far more interesting and equally more complicated. There are about a zillion pedal changes but it gives the harp some lovely solo moments and full rich harmonies that weave nicely with the other string parts. I did some creative editing on the Marzuki version so the harp got to shine while the part remained playable for me.

Since there were only two live rehearsals with the chorale and orchestra before the performance I found another way to get familiar with the music. YouTube has several videos of various ensembles performing the pieces I was working on so I practiced
Psalm 150 with a choir in Budapest and Faure with the Bow Valley Chorus from Alberta, Canada. Rehearsing with a recording is helpful but with the YouTube videos I also had the advantage of being able to see the conductor giving the cues. You gotta love the internet - how else could I play with international ensembles from the comfort of my own music studio and without even having to move the harp?

harp with SYVC concert

In the second performance of our concert I was given a good lesson in grace under pressure by Brendan Statom, the double bass player. Due to a pre-existing crack and then an inadvertent tap against the music stand as he played, his bow dramatically self-destructed with a loud shattering sound during the first movement of the
Requiem so he was left with just a handful of splintered wood and dangling strands of horsehair. He simply shrugged, tucked the remains of the bow into the holster, and calmly carried on playing his part pizzicato for the duration of that movement. It sounded great and I doubt most of the audience even knew what happened. Then the conductor took a 60-second pause while Brendan sprinted out to his car to fetch a spare bow and when he returned we launched into the second movement.

If my harp ever snaps a bass wire in the middle of a performance I hope I can remember to maintain the same composure!