Harp society teaches students via Zoom in pandemic

©The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Elizabeth Steiner watched closely on a laptop as Chanah Nielson positioned her fingers on the strings of a six-foot-tall concert grand harp. The Philadelphia High School for Girls junior was about to play Two Guitars, a piece by the esteemed harpists Linda Wood Rollo and Susann McDonald.

“Your hands look very good,” Steiner said. “But your audio is a little low for some reason.”

Welcome to another live, screen-mediated, analog-digital mashup of the sort that have become an essential part of music education in the pandemic era. This 30-minute session in August was conducted via Zoom between Steiner’s studio and Nielson’s home, both in Philadelphia.

The nonprofit Lyra Society, which has provided Philadelphia public school students with free professional instruction and access to quality harps for 16 years, switched from in-person to remote lessons in March. This has enabled 17 students to continue one-on-one harp instruction despite the disruptions of COVID-19.

Amid pandemic, Live Nation announces drive-in concert series”You get better at hearing over Zoom, and it’s surprising how many details you can pick up in a student’s playing,” Steiner, a freelance harpist who in normal times teaches a group class at Girls High and private lessons at Central High School. “But we’ve all got Zoom fatigue.”

Said Nielson, 16, who’s been studying with Steiner since 2018: “The audio isn’t always perfect, and at first it was really hard for me to see her hands. But after a while you can focus. And it’s not as difficult to organize a class. We can do it anytime.”

After Gov. Tom Wolf announced Pennsylvania’s public school shutdown on March 13, Steiner and other Lyra teaching artists moved fast to collect 20 fragile harps, including a number of concert grands, from schools across Philadelphia. Two were locked inside practice rooms at the suddenly shuttered Kimmel Center. Lyra members managed to recover, deliver, or arrange to deliver all of the harps to students, and stored others in their own homes.

“It wasn’t really an option for us not to have harp lessons,” said the harpist Helen Gerhold, a Curtis graduate who is the Society’s executive director. “We wanted to see our students every week.”

Continuing to play can be reassuring, a familiar anchor in uncertain times. The lessons also help the teaching artists — who have lost their classrooms, performance opportunities, and some or all of their livelihoods — to sustain themselves economically, and artistically.

“It’s been important not just for students but for our teaching artists to have something inspiring” during the pandemic, Gerhold said.

Elizabeth Hainen, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal harpist, founded the Lyra Society in 2004. The organization, which raises about two-thirds of its $100,000 annual budget, had to cancel its major annual fund-raiser in June due to the pandemic. A virtual event, featuring a panel that will include the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and the conductor Michael Stern, is set for October.

“The Philadelphia School District once had a thriving harp program,” said Hainen. “The 1950s and ‘60s had been kind of the golden years of the (entire) stringed instrument program. Three Girls High graduates had gone on to become principal harpists.

“I had a dream we could offer a thriving harp teaching program — something I never had as a young musician, and that many young people don’t have,” Hainen said. “Harps were sitting idly in remote places within these schools. Some were playable and some were not. But we wanted to give the gift of the harp to young people in Philadelphia.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra goes shorter, smaller and virtual for the first part of the 2020-21 seasonThe distinctive sound of the instrument is often associated with weddings, mythology, heaven, and traditional Celtic music. The harp is stereotyped as a delicate, decorative sort of older person’s music and not often seen as relevant to young people, particularly young people of color.

But 50 students, mostly Black or brown, have completed Lyra training; the current class includes 25 students, including four young men. Lyra students discover not only the joys of music-making on a versatile instrument structurally akin to the piano, but also a sometimes overlooked part of Black music heritage. This includes classical harpist Ann Hobson Pilot, the late classical harpist Harvi Griffin, and the contemporary jazz/classical harpist Brandee Younger, whose music is prominently featured in Beyoncé’s documentary film, Homecoming. (Speaking of Queen Bey, her 2008 hit “Halo” has become popular as a harp instrumental on YouTube.)

“There are so many unique sounds I can make on the harp,” said Jermoyah Parkinson, a Lyra alumna and former Steiner student who is continuing her studies at Bowdoin College in Maine. “One minute you can play Bach and the next, a Spanish piece. I love playing the harp. I love making those notes come to life.”

That’s music to the ears of harpists like Hainen and Gerhold, who aim to ensure that Lyra will continue to provide those experiences to new generations of Philly students.

“Otherwise we might not see another Ann Hobson Pilot, or another young person who needs music in their life might not find an outlet,” said Hainen. “When you can say, ‘I am a harpist,’ it’s like you have been given a royal title. It’s something different that sets you apart immediately.”

Said Gerhold: “It’s important that we lift up the communities around us so they can feel the magic we feel every day when we play in an orchestra or collaborate with other musicians. It’s so important to give students an experience they might not otherwise have.”

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer