This story was written shortly after attending the 2015 Somerset Harp Festival, where I led workshops and represented the Jazz Harp Foundation. It's a unique perspective on a spectacular annual event that exposes those who play and love the harp to the best and brightest in the lever harp world. The 2016 Somerset Harp Festival takes place in New Jersey from July 21-24!
It’s very very cold. Huddled with my back against a windowless wall, swathed in almost all the clothing I packed for this journey, I’m waiting. In mere moments I’ll find myself in a deluge where I’m overrun by the curious, or in a desert where I’m isolated and left alone. I have no idea what to expect. Though I’ve gathered my resources, I’m not sure I’ve got what I need, or enough.
Loud and confusing is this large enclosure; paradoxically, passerby are making their way slowly and in a daze. Just a few feet away, almost-chaos breaks out as supplies are yanked from crates and quickly pieced together - is that a quiet-yell of excitement or irritation? We’re surrounded by both very familiar and foreign sounds, a constant din that foretells Something Big is Going Down.
What did I get myself into? Here I am, locked up for the next three days with so many situational unknowns, chronically chilled, incredulous, apprehensive, and hyperaware.
And then, the first of many approaches, hesitant. We look at each other cautiously, eyes wide with hope. “Do you…?” she trails off. I smile encouragingly. “I don’t know exactly what I need right now,” she continues in almost a whisper. “But I know I want something different. Can you help?”
Oh yes I can.
Outside is hot July summer; inside is winterish under the ceiling vent expelling steady chronic air-conditioned blasts. Before me are two tables piled with flyers, CDs, DVDs, sheet music, and books. To the side are two sets of headphones, my laptop for processing payments / exchanging panicked digital messages, several carefully-laid cables linked to a nearby mixer, a freestanding iPad, and an impressive shiny black 32-string electric harp on tripod-legs. Behind me are boxes of backup supplies, folders of paperwork and hastily-scratched instructions, tee shirts in brown and black, tote bags in bright orange, hidden extra cash, bags of teaching materials for the upcoming workshops I will lead, and the snacks - er, dark chocolate - that given the situation I can’t believe I remembered to bring.
We’re in the Exhibitor’s Hall at the 2015 Somerset Harp Festival, and I’m overseeing the booth for the Jazz Harp Foundation (JHF). I’m amidst an amalgam of harps - lap, medium and full sized, fashioned from precious multi-wood and indestructible carbon fiber, robust acoustic and sleek electric, bare-unfinished and gloss-shellacked. Milling about are both men and women of all ages - admirers, players, professors, private teachers, composers, therapists, artisan-makers, dealers and manufacturers. Here we witness firsthand just how much, in the past few decades alone, the interest in - and love for! - the harp has exponentially grown.
Somerset attendance increases every year. While the JHF has been a part of Somerset for several of those years, chances are what the JHF offers is still new to many and unlike what most harp players typically see, hear, and play. Launched in 2007 by Brenda Dor-Groot and Sabine Meijers of the Netherlands to “strengthen the position of the harp in jazz”, JHF’s presence at Somerset and its creation of events - the July 2016 Brazilian Jazz Harp Immersion is happening now! - embody their mission of putting “jazz harp on the map, to increase its reputation and quality, link jazz harpists around the globe, and inspire harpists, peer musicians and audiences alike.”
Sabine Meijers (left) and Brenda Dor-Groot (right)
“I’m sorry, Trista,” a favorite rep from the Virginia Harp Center says as she approaches the borrowed DHC electric harp we set up for the free online JHF jazz harp lessons offered via the iPad. “We just sold this instrument plus all its accessories - he’s taking it to a workshop that starts in ten minutes.” She gestures to a gentleman who, with wife at his side, is grinning broadly.
I smile back - his purchase is a perfect example of how, in response to the harp world’s rapid growth and increased interest in all things harp, makers are meeting our needs by producing high-quality harps at a variety of price points. Harp gatherings now feature “harp tastings” where we can literally sit behind the very instrument we just saw online. And these instruments can’t help but entice us to discover and explore new ways to play.
“Show me what’s new and good!” a repeat customer booms as he grabs a pair of headphones. “I bought a lot of jazz harp recordings from you last time, and my friends loved them so much they took them home. They can listen to what I buy today, but now I’m gonna hide the CDs where my friends can’t find them.”
Those outside the harp world are drawn in, allured by its magic. Those of us who live in the harp world see it broadening, changing. Our opportunities are changing. We are changing. The answers to where do I start? how do I continue? are now a whole lot more interesting.
Those answers are in the birth and propagation of programs and offerings designed to help us find our own voice in the growing harp world. Along with the emergence of the JHF, we’ve seen top performers like Deborah Henson-Conant offer a smattering of extensive online courses and grow a community around new ways of playing. New online groups and forums are forming every day to discuss and share both old and new music. Podcast-programs like Harpestry (http://krvs.org/programs/harpestry-krvs#stream/0) and Harp Talk (http://harptalk.podomatic.com) highlight players and cultures around the world, blurring lines between lever and pedal harp music while showcasing similarities and differences among other stringed instruments birthed from divergent lineage in distant eras.
The lines between lever and pedal harp, and the type of music played on each, are no longer straight and solid. At best, they are dissolving into dots and dashes and even melting into flexible curlicues that happily intersect at random points throughout harp time and space.
In a workshop I led at Somerset called Songs Without Words, in which we explored composing music that relays a feeling or message without lyrics, participants almost whispered, “I just want to… “ or “How can I get to….” or “I don’t feel I’m creative enough to…” Our discussion gently circled and dipped into our innate ability and desire to create, where and how we find personal meaning, and how our instrument is a portal to our soul in ways we both already know and are as yet undiscovered.
We are all just trying to find our way.
Many harp lovers initially find themselves adapting to and accepting what’s believed to be the right way to play the harp and what makes a good player. This is how we learn - we’re very busy earning our proverbial wings, looking for affirmation and confirmation in an external stamped seal of approval. We may remain here for a short or long while before we ask, what else?
As a pedal harpist who never started on lever harp, who doesn’t subscribe to the idea that the harp world starts with the small lever harp and ends with the gigantic pedal harp, and who doesn’t hold the pedal harp as the pedestal-penultimate, I firmly believe we find our music and just-right instruments - or our instruments find us! - that best meet us where we are, as we are, on our very personal harp journey. There is no one Right Harp, no one Best Player, no Perfect Way.
And by the looks of all things Somerset, I’m in good company.
Back in the Exhibitor’s Hall, an accomplished player leans in close over the JHF table. Like the others, she is barely whispering. “I’m bored with what I am doing. How do I not fall asleep on my classical gigs? How do I start learning / hearing / playing jazz?”
“I’m so tired of Celtic / Irish music!” another woman declares loudly as her stack of new music lands in front of me with a thud. “Haven’t I endured enough suffering in my own life to not have to play yet another tune about someone else’s wayward Daddy and the horrors of the potato famine?!?”
Clearly no one I encounter here at Somerset is denouncing their instrument, its heritage, anyone who plays in a specific style, nor the way they’ve played themselves for most of their lives. Underneath each swift and offhand comment is this: I’m changing. I’m ready. NOW.
Listening to and experiencing other harp voices reminds or clarifies for us what we love, where we want to go, who we really are. We’ve been given permission to lean deeper into our ongoing journey toward what resonates more clear and true, what is more uniquely us. There are those that help preserve our past, and those who help shape the future. Traditions are important to uphold and maintain, and boundaries are meant to be pushed and reshaped.
Same same, but different.
The development and popularity of entities like Somerset, Camac, the JHF, and our most admired performers are already demonstrating there is more to the harp than we thought or assumed, that this instrument can transport us to worlds that were previously out of reach, that our dreams are actually possible, tangible, and real.
Everywhere there are tools and resources that help us edge ever closer to the Unknown where our own voice rings powerful and true. Look for us, your Personal Advocates, huddled in the cold, behind the strings, offering a slow smile at your admission that you want more.
Here we are, ready and willing to place in your hands, heart, mind, and soul all that helps you see, touch, feel, hear, and play in ways you haven’t before. Here we are, in this luminous and diverse harp-tuning din, now, together. Welcome.
‘Same Same, But Different’ is a loving reference to a recording title by jazz and world music harper Rudiger Oppermann. Learn more about the Somerset Harp Festival at somersetharpfest.com and the Jazz Harp Foundation at jazzharp.org.
Another imperfect post, accompanied by:
Sparks of July
Inviting the Yeti
Sparks of July
Inviting the Yeti
Trista Hill is a professional harpist and fine artist, creativity coach, educator in the arts, and Board-Certified Music Therapist. What her formal degrees in music and art gave her pale in comparsion to the gifts she's experienced in working with creatives just like you. Visit her website — tristahill.com — for links to her monthly letter, blog, listening library & compositions, performances, and offerings to further you along your own glorious creative journey.