written by Grace Browning, Principal Harp
(The Eileen Malone Chair, A Tribute by Mr. and Mrs. Harcourt M. Sylvester)
Every January, it’s hard to resist the temptation to create a new year manifesto, committing to all your resolutions with rigor and resolve. Whether it’s committing to a new gym, drinking more water, or simply looking for a creative reboot, the new year serves as a sort of catalyst to reassess one’s priorities. Like most of us, 2020 left me feeling a little burned out. But I looked forward to the freshness that accompanies a crisp new calendar and the promise of unlocked cosmic potential (bring it on, 2021!)
This year, one of my resolutions presented itself in the form of a 30-Day Practice Challenge hosted by the Harp Column: a magazine, virtual academy, and online platform connecting thousands of harpists worldwide. (…and yes, believe it or not, there are indeed thousands of us!) In a typical January, I would usually find myself immersed in RPO programs and chamber music, but this year was different. Perhaps I did have time to dive into a luxurious Liszt transcription! Moreover, as a featured academy teacher, I would have the chance to coach a “practice pod” with a group of eight students. I would check in twice a week, offering practice advice, motivation, and support throughout the month. So I eagerly accepted the offer — not only for the structure and stimulation but excited for the chance to connect with others.
Ever since the pandemic hit, I’d found myself in a productive moment of pause — keeping busy while waiting and hoping for things to go back to “normal.” As an extra-extroverted harpist, I’d always found the greatest fulfillment in making music with others. (Oh, how I missed the days of packed opera pits, Mahler-sized symphonies, and Wagner harp sextets!) But in this virtual landscape, I discovered a new social outlet: online teaching. In place of performances, suddenly, my calendar was filled with masterclasses: University of Arizona, The American Harp Society, and the University of Denver, to name a few – with the latter leading to a year-long virtual teaching appointment at Lamont School of Music. But could virtual learning really be as effective in person?
When the day of the first pod meeting arrived, I was nearly queasy with nerves until a group of eight smiling faces appeared on my zoom screen. One was an eleven-year-old girl from DC, learning her first solo in D-flat major. Another student is a recent retiree from Atlanta just starting out on the lever harp. I met a colleague in Milan, a fabulous harpist recovering from an illness that left her partially paralyzed, while another student (the mother of three) worked to prepare her much-anticipated graduation recital. In terms of skill level, age, and background, these harpists could not have been more different from each other. But we all had a few key components in common: we all love the harp — we are always learning — and we are here for each other.
Originally, I had no idea what I would do without my usual day-to-day when the pandemic hit. Without travel, performances, orchestra, who would I be? And then I remember: my passion isn’t just playing orchestra — it’s about sharing the joy of music with others in any way I can. After a semester of teaching at the University of Denver, and an intensive three weeks with my harp squad, I feel as though I’ve known some of these harpists my whole life. They’ve provided a new meaning to my life as a musician and a sense of purpose beyond the stage.
Although we find ourselves physically apart – separated by ions of data floating in the clouds – we are simultaneously more connected to each other in our hearts and intentions than ever before.