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.
“I plan to play with major orchestras, maybe start a private studio,” said Johnson, who says the harp ensemble is responsible for his success today. “I was a bad, troubled child who didn’t pay attention in class. It definitely helped with my character.”
Surprisingly to Lund and Lewis, boys, who make up 40% of the enrollment, are the students who generally continue to study the harp after high school.
The teacher said, “We’ve said maybe it’s because the guys are just more competitive. It’s always the guys asking, ‘Ms. Lund, who is the best harpist in here?’”
Lewis has a theory, too: “It makes them feel powerful to play it. Even when they are six feet tall, the harp is bigger than they are.”
But now the women think they may have their first girl student interested in pursuing a career that involves the harp.
Kimberly Walker, 13, was intrigued by the instrument as soon as she saw the ensemble playing.
“When I got on the harp it was something that to this day I can’t put finger on,” said Kimberly. “It’s enchanting. I love it. I do wish to become a professional harpist along with a great composer.”
At the ensemble’s winter concert, Kimberly performed her own arrangement of “Carol of the Bells.”
“She’s always enjoyed music,” said her mom, Jacquelyn Willis-Walker. “When she was two or three I purchased a toy keyboard. She was the type of child who could hear something and play what she heard.”
Learning to play the harp and being in the ensemble has helped Kimberly with more than just her music, her mom said.
“She’s able to concentrate more. Research on classical music shows it works with the right and left side of brain. It helps her to retain information,” said Willis-Walker. “She was composing at about seven or eight, but it has progressed to where she writes music on a staff. She’s found a niche (with the ensemble). There’s someone to hear her and help her.”
Co-founder Lewis has witnessed the tremendous growth of many students as they learn the harp. “It causes them to do better in school work and think about doing something they would not have considered if it were not for the harp.”
The Urban Youth Ensemble has two free concerts a year. There is an Honors Ensemble made up mostly of juniors and seniors that also performs. The ensembles also play at various events such as meetings and weddings.
Meanwhile, in Boston, Morton, the first student, is now teaching middle school children how to play the harp. He remembers when some kids teased him for playing and he recalls “teachers who were not encouraging.
“I had a teacher tell me I didn’t have what it takes; I didn’t come from a music family so it would be hard and that I was a slow learner,” said Morton. “One even said my playing was wretched and deplorable and I would never work with her.”
Ironically, Morton would later perform with that instructor. As a grad student at BU, he studied with legendary African American harpist Ann Hobson Pilot, who he said helped him with his confidence.
“I guess I had to go through what I did because now as a teacher I have a lot of kids who come from nonmusical backgrounds and the harp is the first instrument they’ve ever played. I teach them how to read music. I make sure I am positive. Funny, how life is one big circle. I’m doing for these kids what someone did for me and it feels great.”
(Photo: From left to right: Montanez Baugh, Rajuhn Hamilton, Rico Mathis, Desmond Johnson of the UYHE Honor Ensemble)