It's happening again. The Harp Gathering. (www.harpgathering.com) I attended for the first time last year, and when it was over I was walking three feet off the ground for weeks. Like last year, I'll be blogging three times a day during the Gathering. But in then mean time, following is the story of my experience from 2009:
A few months ago I discovered that a harp conference was going to be held near Toledo, Ohio in the spring of 2009. It was to be called The Harp Gathering. Being of Scottish decent, I recognized the term “Gathering” as a tradition where clans were called home to celebrate major events, share information and make important decisions about the future. The Harp Gathering’s name therefore intrigued me.
So on a bright, breezy and warm spring morning, I packed up my little car with some “girlie” harpist clothes and my Celtic harp, kissed my husband and dogs goodbye, and got behind the wheel. But first things first, as they say. I plugged my iPod into the car’s sound system and selected an appropriate album – Avalon, a Celtic Legend. The name of the first song on this album is The Road to Camelot, and I was immediately struck with just how appropriate this music was. The name of the little harp tucked safely in my back seat, was Arthur.
When I arrived at the Heritage Inn at Sauder Village in the early afternoon, I was greeted like long-lost family. A lovely young harpist played in the light and airy, yet cozy, lobby which created a the feeling of, “Relax. You’re home now.”
The person at the front desk informed me that my room would be in the far wing of the hotel, and that I should take my car to another parking lot, and go through a different entrance. Following instructions, I parked my car where indicated and used a hotel cart to load up my suit case, camera/computer bag and harp. I didn’t get very far into the doorway when the sight that met my eyes brought me to an immediate halt. Before me stood a two story-tall oak tree – inside the hotel. As I stood looking up, a single thought entered my mind. “I’m in friggin’ Middle Earth!” My room provided luxuries which I was unaccustomed to in hotels. It was spacious and beautifully decorated. Everything was a level above “first class.” The bed linens were even better than the ones I had a home.
The workshops began that afternoon with artist/instructors Pamela Bruner, Timothy Harper and Kim Robertson. The wealth of topics they offered made it difficult to choose which workshop I wanted to attend. I chose Kim Robertson’s workshop on Introduction to Improvisation. Kim is my favorite harpist, and I enjoyed the workshop tremendously. She made us learn and laugh at the same time, with her dry wit and enchanting manner. While she was teaching us, I heard and saw elements of familiar recordings being put into action. I also learned how to make the music I play (her arrangements and others) sound more artistic. Although I chose Kim Robertson’s workshop, I know I would have enjoyed and learned as much from the other instructors. When the workshop doors opened harpists lingered inside, not wanting the workshop to end. As they slowly filtered out into the hallways, they were smiling and chatting about the amazing things they learned.
After a companionable dinner under the oak tree, harpists were treated to a concert featuring Tapestry and Frank Voltz. Denise Grupp-Verbon (aka The Queen of Harps) and Michael Grupp-Verbon (guitarist) are the artists who weave the magic into Tapestry. They began the evening with songs either written or arranged by the artists/instructors participating in the conference. It was the perfect way to showcase not only the participating artists, but also their own amazing abilities to enchant an audience with both ancient and modern music.
The electric Frank Voltz (aka The King of Strings) then wowed the audience of harpists with his lightening quick lever changes which brought forth gasps and applause from musicians who truly understood the level of skill this technique requires. His personality emanated from his harp as he played gospel and pop tunes that were as charming as Frank himself.
Friday evening also brought the opening of the Exhibit Hall. The hall was filled with new harps from several harp makers, sheet music, flutes, psalteries, tuning keys, CDs and all things “harp.” I had the opportunity to chat with Bill Webster, whom I had met several months before when I visited his workshop in Warren, Michigan. Bill is making a replica of a McFall harp for me, and I’m very excited about it.
I also spoke with Jeff Lewis, maker of my first harp. I brought the harp to him that day because I had a string that was giving me trouble. He took one look at the harp and exclaimed, “The Poppy Harp!” He then told me something that I didn’t know about this harp. He said that he had made it when he lived in California, and his sister-in-law had painted the poppies on it. She had used the Donna Dewberry One Stroke technique. Serendipity had struck again! I had once taken a One Stroke painting class from Donna Dewberry herself!
Even though several participants were fatigued from their long trip and the excitement of the day, many stayed up late to hear or play in the evening jam session. Harp maker/singer/song-writer and workshop instructor Timothy Harper guided the first timers through the elements of the session, and soon everyone was contributing the own twists to songs old and new. I had my first opportunity to see the improvisation techniques I had learned just that afternoon put into action as we were treated to some very familiar tunes (Ash Grove, Come to the Hills, among others) and a lovely 12th century piece that no one had ever heard, but that was perfect for "jamming." People brought not only their harps, but also flutes and concertinas. Before beginning each song, the question was frequently asked, “What key?” Once someone suggested Pachelbel’s Cannon in D. Then the frequent question of “What key?” was asked, I wasn’t certain that it was asked in jest. After a second or two of silence, everyone broke out in raucous laughter.
Saturday was a full day for all the participants with workshops in the morning and afternoon lead by Denise Grupp-Verbon, Timothy Harper, Kim Robertson and Frank Voltz. My first workshop was Geography of the Harp with Frank Voltz. Frank worked constantly with the group to have everyone use a good hand position. After a while, he turned to me and said, "I don't know you, but would I embarrass you if I had you come up and show the class your beautiful hand motion while you play?" I told him not to worry about embarrassing me and proudly demonstrated the exercise for the class. A few hours later (of course,) I thought of a better response. I was, after all, wearing a “butterfly” style blouse in purples and gold. I should have said, “With a blouse like this, do I look like someone who embarrasses easy?” After the workshops, I joined several harpists and Frank to rehearse his arrangement of Scott Joplin tunes, and Denise Grupp-Verbon’s arrangement of Greensleeves. At first it was a challenging task for harpists who were accustomed only to playing solo, but Frank stood like the captain of a ship before this armada of harps, and gently eased everyone into formation.
My afternoon workshop was with Kim Robertson again – Tricks of the Trade. She told us about tricks she uses to feel more comfortable while playing in front of people, and things to do when your mind goes blank while playing. Among the tricks I learned was to create a “sacred” area around your harp. A piece of cloth will do. The cloth can cover up carpets with figures in them that obscure your strings, and when playing background music in public places, it can keep people of approaching too close and throwing off your concentration.
The Saturday night concert brought harpists/singers Timothy Harper and Pamela Bruner to the stage. Timothy Harper can be best explained as a beautiful soul, full of grace. He wears a black kilt, black t-shirt and black boots. This sounds intimidating, but then you see his ever-present joyful smile. Timothy demonstrates all that is wonderful about folk music with his original songs accompanied by harp and harp-guitar. His songs tell stories that tug at the heart-strings (pun intended). His first song was one I had heard many times, but hadn't really listened to - Wayfaring Stranger. Timothy really brought the meaning home for me. It touched not only me, but the people around me. I saw more than one tear being wiped away!
Pamela Bruner's music is a reflection of her calling as a life coach. At times the audience sang along and got out of their seats to dance. Her style was so light and airy that I had visions of little girls, dancing with home-made fairy wings on. Then Timothy and Dave Woodworth (luthier and husband of Pamela Bruner) stomped through a waltz in front of the stage.
All that remained to the evening was more socializing in the Exhibit Hall and another jam session, this time led by Sara and Pete Walthery. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t attend. I was simply too exhausted to stay up late that night.
Sunday morning dawned, and devotions (for those so inclined) were graced by Jo Lynn Messer, who is a highly requested performer at charity events and churches. Then it was time for the final workshops, where I finally had the opportunity experience the joyful energy of Denise Grupp-Verbon. There is so much to say about Denise. She brings a joyous energy into the room with her. When she talks with you, you know that she is listening with her whole body. There is a effortless connection with Denise - which makes her an ideal teacher. After demonstrating a technique, she went to each student in the room and gave them individual attention. She has an abundance of knowledge to share, and a great joy in sharing it. This is evidenced by her frequent, "Wait until you hear this - it's really COOL!"
The Sunday concert began with the ensemble performance. Later in the day I was approached by several people who told me that they really enjoyed our kick-off to this last, special event. After we were finished, the ensemble took seats in the audience and everyone was in for a treat as Kim Robertson took the stage. Kim was (as usual) funny and awesome. I always enjoy her, but this time was even better. Not only could I understand the improv tricks she used (because I took her improv class), but she also used most of the techniques that Denise had showed us just that very morning! Like all the performer/instructors, she has an incredible talent that touches the heart.
One more important detail remained to the day – The Harp Hunt and Gather(ing) raffle. With over 30 prizes, ranging from gift certificates to the Grand Prize of a Lewis Creek harp, the harpists cheered and applauded as each winner was announced. Prize winners assembled on the stage for photographs, surrounding the grand prize winner who cried grateful tears.
As I loaded up my car for the drive home, Bill Webster was driving away. He stopped when he saw me and waived me over to his van. His face was just beaming. I’m certain that all those people playing and praising his harps was a total joy. He also is a big fan of Kim Robertson, and told me that the last concert was a major highlight for him. His only regret, he said, was that he wasn’t able to attend the workshops because he had to stay with his harps all day. Next year he would bring a helper!
I, too, felt like I was beaming. I've never been part of such an open and accepting group of people. As a solo traveler, I never wanted for companionship at a meal, or in what little "down" time I had between activities. The weekend was full and exciting, but at the same time beautiful and renewing.
I left The Harp Gathering feeling a new sense of my own abilities, and a new goal for my harp. My college music studies (which included theory and composition), and my harp training in my middle years made me a "by the book" musician. Not a bad thing, and a pretty good way to start. But the inspiration I received at The Harp Gathering has given me a sense of freedom to explore more, improvise more, and give myself of gift of slowing down. I don't have to constantly challenge myself with harder and harder music to play. (If I want to - that's OK too.) I don't have to be someone else's idea of what a harpist should be.
This weekend I found the freedom to play my harp without restrictions.
This weekend I believe I found my wings . . .