“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)