Once upon a time, in a forest far, far away…
That’s the way stories about enchantments always begin, don’t they? At least, that’s the way the story of my enchantment begins.
It was the autumn of the year 2000, and the “forest” was located in Holly, Michigan. My husband and I were on our annual visit to the Michigan Renaissance Festival and it was the weekend of our 25th Wedding Anniversary. We were spending the day browsing through the shops, watching the shows, and listening to music. The day was warm, clear and bright and the atmosphere of the festival was colorful. We were walking down a lane of shops when the breeze blew a gust of magic in my direction.
The “magic” came to me in the form of a song played on a Celtic harp. I had no choice but to follow it. The harper sat in an open-air shop presided over by Jeff Lewis, a luthier from Howell, Michigan. I sat on a bench outside of the shop and could not move. Eventually the harper took a break, releasing me from the spell, and I approached the shop with all kinds of questions.
It took a few days of deliberation, but I couldn’t find an argument that would hold up against my desire of obtaining one of these beautiful instruments. The following weekend I returned to the festival and chose my first harp – a twenty-nine string walnut model with levers on the C’s and F’s, and yellow poppies painted on the sound board and column.
My first challenge was to find a teacher. Jeff had given me a list of teachers in the area and I began making calls. In the end I chose Mary Bartlett, a veteran teacher of many professional harpists. While she was not impressed with my small, Celtic harp, she still agreed to take me on to see if I had any promise. After a few months I continued to feel the magic, although I keenly felt the limitations of my harp. Mary encouraged me to purchase a Lyon & Healy lever harp, and I choose the Prelude.
My mahogany Prelude taught me many things about playing the harp. Yet, as my ability grew I continued to find the limitations of a lever harp slowed my progress. Again, at Mary’s encouragement, I traded in my Prelude went the next step to a mahogany Lyon & Healy Style 85PG pedal harp.
The freedom the pedals gave me was perfect for the music Mary was teaching me. I’ve always enjoyed classical music and the sense of order it brought to my life. I continued to play a piece or two of Celtic music, but Mary kept steering me back to classical music. I worked hard and continued to learn. Still, I was left feeling unequal to my ideals of what a “harpist” should be. As economic times turned bad, I stopped taking lessons in order to save money, but I never stopped playing the harp. I then began playing the music that called to me most – the Celtic arrangements of Kim Robertson.
I often thought of a harp made by a local luthier who was friends with my teacher. Bill Webster had repaired her harps, and she, in turn, taught him to play. She also encouraged him to build high tension harps. I had visited his website and had yearned for the McFall style harp he built. Being of Irish/Scottish heritage, I felt the Celtic style was beautiful and dreamed of owning one. As I was now playing Celtic music exclusively, I no longer needed the pedal harp.
Of course, the day came when I determined that I’d had enough dreaming. I didn’t have enough money, but I did have the down payment. I went to Bill’s shop and we worked out the details for my dream harp. It would be months before he began work, but I would have my harp before Christmas. That would give me plenty of time to save up the funds I needed.
The first email from Bill came in late summer. He had started working on my harp! Every few days I would receive an email with a photo of it. My work days had become hectic and stressful, but an unexpected email from Bill in the morning made me relaxed and happy all day. The day I received the email that the harp was ready, I had to fight the urge to run from the office and straight to his shop. As it was, I left work early, and on November 6, 2009, I brought my mahogany McFall harp home.
So now I have come full circle. It was a Celtic harp that left me living under an enchantment, and it is now a Celtic harp that fills my evenings with joy. I am still discovering all it has to give me as it grows into what it will one day become. I have to admit that there is a connection with this harp that I haven’t felt with the others. Is it the design created by Irish born James McFall over 100 years ago? Is it the expert craftsmanship of Bill Webster who has added modern improvements to create such a magnificent sound? Or is it the freedom I feel to be the type of harper I choose to be, and not what someone else believes I should be?
That’s right. Harper. I’ve chosen the term “harper” over “harpist” because of its connections to the lands where my great-grandparents were born. And also because it reflects that I follow a specific musical tradition. I will always love classical, and many other forms of music. But it is Celtic music that enchants my soul and sooths my heart. In this hectic, modern world, it transports me to a quieter time and a land where music is more than background noise. It is magic.