More than angelic
MSU Harp Studio puts harpists on versatile career paths.
From pop culture to ancient history, harps have captured imaginations through their ethereal and mythical qualities, conjuring religious associations or the curly-haired, top-hatted Harpo, playing a calming interlude in a Marx Brothers film. Chen-Yu Huang is working to expand that reputation.
“When people hear I’m a harpist, a lot will say they’ve never met someone who’s played,” said Chen-Yu Huang, assistant professor and director of the Harp Studio at the MSU College of Music. “Generally, people like the way harps look and sound, but they don’t have a lot of exposure to the instrument except through movies or books or pictures.”
Since 2014, Chen-Yu has inspired students to explore the potential of a stringed instrument that spans eras and genres. She’s encouraged harpists as soloists and contributors, and prepared them for performing, teaching and entrepreneurial careers.
Her blended approach of practice, collaboration and community outreach has fostered innovative projects in music education and sparked discussions on music therapy. She’s built relationships with orchestras, colleges, K-12 schools and associations, and she started Harp Day—an annual event for harpists of all ages at MSU.
“It’s important to show how diverse and versatile the harp can be,” she said. “Most people don’t know it comes in more than a half dozen shapes and sizes, and can be played in most any style. To me, that’s one of the best ways we can keep people interested in playing and listening to this beautiful instrument in all its styles.”
Harping on it
Belle Coty is among the undergraduate, graduate and elective students in the MSU Harp Studio. She’s a senior, graduating with her bachelor’s in harp performance in May 2020. Coty also elected to minor in entrepreneurship as a way to strengthen her career.
Coty became enraptured with the harp around age six after attending a high school orchestra performance with her grandma. There was a harpist on stage, and her grandma leaned over and pointed it out.
“She also said, ‘I always wanted a granddaughter who played the harp,’” said Coty. “I wanted to be that granddaughter.”
From that night on, Coty kept asking, but the family couldn’t quite swing the harp or the lessons. Then, three years later, her dad found a small knee harp while cleaning out a closet at their church. He asked if he could take it home to his daughter, and since no one knew where it came from or even how to play it, he did.
“That’s when it really all started,” she said. “Although it took me a year to find a teacher.”
Coty began lessons in fifth grade after finding a Franciscan nun who played and used the harp for music therapy. Within two years, she had saved up enough babysitting money, and split the cost of a Prelude Lever Harp with her parents. Starting in 9th grade, she took lessons from the harpist at the Grand Rapids Symphony, while playing in her high school orchestra.
Entrepreneurial from day one, Coty played frequent gigs for churches, weddings and special events. She saved every penny, she said, and combined it with her earnings from working in a frozen yogurt place and other part-time food service jobs. When she graduated, she had just enough money to buy a Style 30 Lyon & Healy pedal harp—a concert grand that she took with her on scholarship to MSU.
Coty had already taken a few lessons from Chen-Yu and had learned about MSU by attending the Harp Day event. While the university felt huge at first, she soon felt at home within the “small college feel” nurtured by the College of Music.
“I’ve been so happy here,” said Coty “It’s welcoming. It’s diverse. And since there’s not a lot of harpists in the studio, we’re close-knit and supportive of one another.”
Being a harpist at MSU presented Coty with enormous opportunities to perform with a range of groups within the College. She also continues to play at a host of special events across campus.
“I’ve played with the opera, the orchestra, the concert band and wind symphony,” she said. “And I’ve played with most every ensemble, including Musique 21. You get to work with a ton of conductors. It’s a huge advantage. MSU is a great place to make connections and get experience.”
Pulling a few strings
Eliot Gitelman agrees that MSU can help aspiring harpists build connections with others who share their passion for the ancient instrument.
The educator from Sturgis Public Schools has brought from 5 to 8 students each year to MSU’s Harp Day since Chen-Yu invited him to the very first one. As director of orchestras, Gitelman oversees a robust harp program in the small southwest Michigan town. Fourteen middle and high school students currently play, leveraging a program that got its initial start in the 1970s when the Kirsch family donated a 1927 Gold Lyon & Healy.
Today, Gitelman’s high school orchestra features five harp players among a group of 100 string players. He brought all his high school harpists, plus his three middle school players, to the full-day event offering master classes, a harp jam, workshops, and a participant recital.
Through Harp Day, Gitelman said students get exposure to all different ways of playing the harp.
“They get to see people who are successful at harp, and they see what they need to do to be successful themselves,” he said.
Gitelman said his students value the chance to have one-on-one private lesson time with Chen-Yu. He remarked, too, that the “harp jam” involving attendees is a life-changing event. This year, the jam was led by composer, harpist, and Harp Day guest artist Molly O’Roark, who penned an original piece for the jam.
Chen-Yu said this year’s Harp Day was the biggest yet, with 28 registered participants. She hopes the event continues to grow, and serves as an educational and recruitment venue for the College.
“We’re all extremely supportive of one another, and we help each other collaborate and make connections,” said Chen-Yu. “This is a place where you can explore and realize your dreams and potential.”