Sylvia Woods asked me to write an article about my life and my composing for harp to accompany a sale she was having on my sheet music downloads in her store earlier this year. This is the original version of the article along with all the photos I offered her. I’m sharing it again because right now all my Sheet Music Downloads are 30% off through Dec. 25th at midnight! See the details HERE!
When I was seven I learned to ride a bike and play the ukulele. That set the scene for my life: music and movement were inextricably combined in my mind.
My first public performance was a school assembly: sitting on stage, 10 years old, with a baritone uke, looking out on a sea of faces. For the first time, in school, I felt like I was where I should be: on stage.
That same year there was a tortured month of baffling weekly piano lessons which blew up one day when my teacher gave me yet another song about a happy rooster.
“Can’t anybody else already play this?” I asked.
“Yes, yes of course,” she said. “All my students play it.”
“Doesn’t anyone play it well?” I asked.
“YES, many of them play it very well” she said archly.
“Well, then why do you need me to play it?” I asked – and I wasn’t trying to be a jerk. I truly didn’t understand why I should play something other people were already playing perfectly well. That job was already being done. I should be doing something nobody else could do.
Piano lessons ended shortly after that, and so I asked my mother how chords worked. She showed me: major, minor, how add a 7th, play the root with your left hand. It was pretty much like learning the rules to any other game; except that, unlike other games, these rules made perfect sense to me.
From then on I played the piano hours a day, like kids today play video games now. I gobbled my way through musicals, movie themes and ballads from the piles of popular sheet music inside the piano bench, ignoring the written notes, playing the chords and singing along from memory.
This would come in very handy when I started playing the harp.
When I was 13, my mother became one of the first students at the newly formed North Carolina School of the Performing Arts. She had friends who played nearly every instrument, and all of them tried to teach me. I had five guitar lessons, one on jazz piano, two on flute … and six harp lessons.
I came up with excuses for why I had to quit every one of them. When I told my mother that I had to quit playing harp because no boy would hold hands with me if I had calluses on my fingers, the writing was on the wall: I just didn’t like music lessons.
I wanted to write stories with music and make up the music myself. So they left me alone and I wrote and played, and played and wrote: Bossa Novas, Ballads, folk songs and musicals. I learned to extend chords, add jazzy rhythms, include dramatic flourishes. Music became my first language. But I couldn’t read or write actual notes.
That wasn’t a big problem. If people wanted to play my music, I just taught it to them. Plenty of great musicians don’t read or write music.
But in my early 20’s I started composing a BIG piece of music: a musical. I knew I could never remember the whole thing. I knew I had to bite the bullet: to actually learn to read and write NOTES. So I enrolled in the local junior college, College of Marin, which had a great music department. Turns out, they needed a harpist for the concert band. Remember those six harp lessons I had? With all that expertise, I became the harpist.
For the first time in my life, the discipline of learning notes began to fascinate me, thanks to my teacher, Linda Wood Rollo. I almost immediately started getting jobs in restaurants and events, and I needed them, to pay for the used harp I bought.
I discovered I could take the minimal amount of classical music I’d learned, combine it with improv patterns I’d learned – and I could create enough repertoire to play for 4 hours a night. Even better, because most of it was improvised, I got to be creative all night.
From there I got interested in Jazz, I fell in love with the lever harp, I started a band, I started touring, I collaborated with the world’s cutting-edge harp company, CAMAC, to create my own signature instrument, the “DHC” harp – you can see the whole story of that journey in my TEDx talk HERE.
The harp started me on a creative trajectory that was almost dreamlike – and by the time I woke up I had written countless pieces for the instrument, one-woman musicals with harp as the sole accompaniment, chamber music and hundreds of solo harp pieces. I also…
- Became the first female jazz instrumentalist on the GRP jazz label,
- Got to play one-on-one with musical greats like Mason Wiliams, Doc Severinsen, Steve Vai, Flora Purim and Aierto Moreira, Bobby McFerrin, and Marvin Hamlisch
- Debuted with the Boston Pops – and premiered compositions with great symphonies around the world
- Had my own PBS music special
- Got a Grammy Nomination!
- Have been featured on many national TV and radio shows including “CBS Sunday Morning,” the “Today Show”, PBS “Weekend Edition”
- Have now gotten to actually conduct my own concertos with stellar harp soloists – which inspires me to write even more music!
All because of the harp!
But the hardest thing for me to do was to actually write out the music I’ve created for harp.
Harp – especially with expanded and unusual techniques – like strumming, slapping, bending in Blues and Flamenco-inspired music – is THE hardest instrument to notate. I know this because I’ve written dozens of pieces for harp and symphony orchestra – and notating the harp parts are what breaks me every time. Harp has so much nuance, the capacity for so much flourish, and so many extended techniques, many of which are difficult to manage with notation software like Finale, but oh, do they sound wonderful.
That’s why I’m so proud that the pieces I have published are played around the world. I’m thrilled that nearly every day I see another new performance of “Baroque Flamenco,” “New Blues” or “The Nightingale” on YouTube. I love to share them on my blog (you can see Baroque Flamenco performances here) and I love that my concertos, chamber ensemble and orchestra versions are empowering harpists around the world.
I promised myself I would write music that was empowering, liberating, inspiring – so every harp player who plays it could inspire their own audiences, and so they’d all hear “Wow, I didn’t know the harp could do THAT!”
In all my newer arrangements, I try to include at least 3 versions of each piece: for advanced beginners, intermediate and professionals – and make sure that at least one of those is playable on lever harp. I know what it’s like to be an adult beginner and want beautiful, fun pieces I can play.
As I see more and more performances of my work, and work with more and more harpists who long to liberate themselves from the notes on the page, and have a true impact on the world – whether through concerts or bedside playing, in libraries, concert halls or speaking engagements with harp – I realized I need to pass on, not just the notes, but my entire way of learning and approaching music.
In 2014 I started the “Harness Your Muse” mentorship program and “Hip Harp Academy,” an online school to teach other harpists the art of improvisation, liberate them from the notes on the page and teach them the skills I used long ago when I took the art of improv, and developed a tiny repertoire of music into full-blown arrangements and improvisations. (Visit HipHarpAcademy.com to learn more about it)
Oh … and remember when I said I love music and motion? Last year I got to do something I’ve always wanted to: I rode the “HarpBike” 12 miles during the 25th Anniversary of the Minuteman Bikeway (Read more about this HERE) Just one more harp dream come true.
What are your harp dreams?
Here are some of the pictures I sent to Sylvia along with the article.
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Deborah Henson-Conant's "Hip Harp Academy" online learning community is open for self-paced learning yearlong. DHC personal guides each class in the Academy once a year. Access to each guided class is limited to students who register before the 2nd week of class. Registration for the Fall Guided course, "HIp Harp TOOLKIT" is currently closed.