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Meet a Harpist!

Helen from NYS's Principal Orchestra at Tanglewood

NYS spoke with Helen about how she came to be a harpist.

NYS: Helen, how old were you, when you started on the harp? Why the harp?

Helen: I started playing harp when I was 7 years old, in 2nd grade. To be blunt, I chose harp because I was 7 and wanted to brag to my friends.  I made the mistake of speaking up about my new ambition in front of my grandmother on my mom’s side, who immediately began to harass my mom on a daily basis. She’d call my poor mother up at 6am, asking “Have you gotten Helen harp lessons yet?” and my mother would say “She’s too young,” and my grandmother would reply, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” To make a long story short, I got harp lessons.

NYS: 😂 How did you know at the age of 7 that the harp existed?

Helen: I knew harp was an option because I come from a LONG line of musicians. My mother’s mother was a violinist, my father’s father was a conductor and his mother was a horn player, my mother is a flute teacher, my sister sings, and my father plays principal horn at Phantom of the Opera in NYC. So yeah, I was familiar with music and most certainly knew harp was an option.

NYS: Did you learn another instrument first?

Helen: I actually did not start an instrument before harp. I feel like there’s a big misconception in starting instruments that if a kid is interested in playing a certain instrument they MUST play piano first. In my pretty vast experience when parents force their children to play an instrument they don’t love and are not interested in, that precious curiosity and motivation to learn the instrument they wanted to gets sucked out of them. (I did however, always want to play the Ukulele, which my parents refused so I chose harp. Today, I’m not sure if they regret the decision to refuse buying me a $70 Ukulele instead of a harp costing upwards of $20,000. Oops.)

NYS: Do you have any funny harp stories?

Helen: As for funny harp stories, I do have a couple. First, my harp almost broke my nose. I was around eight years-old, and running towards it excitedly for another practice session when I bumped into it, knocked it over, and was pinned under the thing, it’s neck millimeters away from my nose, stopped by a handy coffee table. Another story is the time I decided to audition for Norwalk Youth Symphony as a one women band. I duct taped a maraca to my foot, rigged a tambourine drum to a pair of old boots, and armed myself with a kazoo. With these contraptions I stepped boldly into the audition room where poor Jonathan, my current conductor, was waiting. He had no idea what he was in for. I sat myself down at the harp, raised my hands, kazoo, maraca, and tambourine and began blasting out “King of the Forest” from the Wizard of Oz. Bless Jonathon’s heart, he actually let me into NYS after that, and I’ve been grateful ever since. I was about 10 years old at the time, and I’d say that’s probably my favorite NYS memory,  other than when Russel, the Concert Orchestra conductor, conducted Swan Lake while holding his new baby in his arms. SO CUTE.

NYS: Tell us about your harp.

Helen: As for my harp itself, it’s a Lyon and Healy Style 100 natural concert grand pedal harp with custom decals(If you’ve ever met a car person, a real motor-head, I’m basically a harp girl, a “string-head”. I can name most every model, style, and company). This is my third harp. I got it about two years ago when my parents understood I needed a professional sized harp. Before this one, I had a smaller, lever harp and I still use the travel mini harp I have. That poor mini harp has been lugged across the world. I’ve dragged it on planes, through Italy on a boat, over hills in New Hampshire, across Portugal, and even on a camel’s back while trekking through the Sahara desert (later that night I had a jam session with some Amasi nomads at our camp. Harp and drums sound surprisingly good together). I do have a special connection to my big pedal harp though. My grandfather on my mom’s side, Grant Culley, died before I was born. I’ve always felt a connection with him and always wanted to meet him. I remember as a little kid taking his portrait off the table to talk to it, like he was there in front of me. Harps are very expensive things, unsurprisingly, and we were all worried about footing the tens of thousands of dollars bill. However, it turns out my grandfather left money for his grandchildren, money that bought me the harp I have today. It enabled me to get the custom details, fluted finish, and overall high quality of the harp, and I will be forever grateful for what he did for me and my future.


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