Faces of Hope: Strings That Stretch Imaginations

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  • Carolyn Lund has seen hesitant boys who believe the harp is a sissy instrument, pluck a string and fall in love with what their hands can do. Under her tutorage boys and girls who have never heard or seen a harp proudly perform to packed auditoriums. As director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble, Lund witnesses transformations daily in her Atlanta classrooms.

    “The kids who come into the harp room tell me this harp class is unlike any other class they have ever taken…,” said Lund. “One of the most important benefits I see is giving these kids a big opportunity to be on stage and perform. They work on the music all year long and these concerts are popular, which is one of the coolest things. They see this whole community of support. People are always telling them, ‘You play the harp? That’s so cool.’ I don’t know if you get that kind of response if you play a more common instrument.”

    The Urban Youth Harp Ensemble (www.urbanharp.org) was featured in a recent episode of CBS Sunday Morning, bringing the group to national attention. The group hopes this broader acclaim will help raise money to buy more harps (Pedal harps cost at least $12,000).

    “It would be nice if each student had a harp…,” Roselyn Lewis, co-founder, said of the 55 students currently enrolled in classes. Last month (January) the program expanded to train younger children, beginning with the fifth grade.

    The Urban Youth Harp Ensemble was founded in 2000 by Elisabeth Remy Johnson, principal harpist of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and Lewis, who at the time was an Atlanta public schools music teacher. The ensemble is a nonprofit organization and offers free classes after school at two locations.

    Lewis, now retired, is chief fundraiser for the group.

    “As soon as the harp came in we had a whole lot of children who wanted to play,” Lewis said. “I found people at my church and they gave me money.”
    Then she picked a boy and a girl to be the first students.

    Mason Morton was the boy. He was just starting seventh grade. “I just wanted to play music,” said Morton, who is now 24 and has a Master’s Degree in Harp Performance from Boston University. “I wanted to play the piano but there was the issue of money. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know what a harp was, never heard one, really.”

    He was disappointed at first.

    “I was expecting a 10-foot instrument made of gold,” said Morton. “We started on the troubadour harp, which is four feet tall, if that.”

    Then he touched a string—and fell in love.

    The girl who started with Morton graduated from college, but dropped the harp. When the program was a decade old, the nonprofit hired Lund to teach full time. She had just received her master’s degree.

    “I would have loved to be part of a harp ensemble growing up. I didn’t know any other harpists my age,” said Lund. “These kids have a nice support group.

    She lures her students first with “Beyonce, Michael Jackson and sound track music and then as they get attached to that, we do classical,” she said.
    Desmond Johnson needed to be lured. “I didn’t really think it was something the boys should be doing,” said Johnson, now 20 and a junior at Georgia State College University, majoring in harp performance.

    “I joined in ninth grade. I didn’t want to be in physical ed and my counselor told me about the harp class. I just said, ‘Put me in that.”

    He hated it until he went to the ensemble’s summer camp in the mountains.

    “There were a whole bunch of musicians there, mainly harp players, many of them guys–professionals and students,” said Johnson, who realized he wasn’t the only young man who had been hesitant to play the harp.

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