Makers gonna make
If there is one thing that I love most about our community it would be the spirit and creativity of its members. I am constantly surprised, inspired, and excited by the work that all of you do and feel like it’s my responsibility to share that great work here! Not everyone can be a Harp Column cover model, but here we are all equal, and for that reason, I present to you a new series of blogs focused on getting to know some of the artists in our community and their projects.
When I asked myself who I would like to feature in the first of these blogs one name came to mind: Molly O’Roark. After seeing her perform as a part of the comedy/harp duo Ginger and Spice at the American Harp Society Conference in Atlanta this summer I felt so excited and inspired to share more about Molly and her projects! If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Molly, take it from me, she is one of the most genuine, kind spirited, and warm people you will ever meet. Beyond this, she is one heck of a harpist and has these monster hands that just crawl up and down the instrument with a grace that should be impossible.
I met Molly at Eastman (she was an undergrad during my DMA studies) and was immediately struck by her playing and personality. It’s been a few years since then, and a lot has happened in Molly’s life post-Eastman. Now on the fast track to finishing a DMA of her own at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne (UIUC), Molly is charging forward with her career.
My harp story started 20 years ago in Kindergarten. One day someone came to our class with a bunch of small percussion instruments like a washboard and spoons, but most importantly a small lap harp. Well, something about the lap harp connected with my five-year-old brain and I came home and told my parents that “I was a harpist.” As you can imagine, my parents’ response was “Oh…why don’t you go play now?” I mean what five-year-old comes home with that? Unfortunately for my parents, this was not a casual childhood pipedream as I began saving up allowances and birthday money to buy harp CDs.
By the time I was in first grade, harps were featured in every story or picture that I drew in class. That Christmas at age 6, my parents bought me a little auto-harp thinking that would satisfy my fascination. Again, poor mom and dad were unprepared as that plan backfired because instead of discouraging me, I simply reported that I was not good enough and would need lessons to get better.
At the end of my time in first grade, my teacher had a sit-down meeting with my parents to not only discuss my penchant for talking incessantly (I’ve always been a chatterbox) but also my obsession with the harp. My teacher first asked my parents if I played the harp. When they responded that I did not, my teacher stated that she had never seen a six-year-old quite so fixated on something and she along with the school guidance counselor thought if I had such a passion for an instrument at six that perhaps my parents should look into lessons.
So after two years of nonstop stories, harp CDs, and pictures I finally got to start harp lessons in September of 1998 a few months after my seventh birthday. In the first two years I played the harp, I managed to break both of my arms and my tailbone, but, apparently my determination to play the instrument was undeterred. 18 years and two and a half degrees later, I’m still going!“
Currently in the final semester of coursework for her DMA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne (UIUC), Molly is only reaching one checkpoint on the marathon that is the doctoral degree. Still on her plate: 2 qualifying exams – one on general music history and theory and another on her major (harp) and her cognate (Arts Management), 1 solo recital, and finally… the dreaded dissertation.
“I’ve seen a lot of grads get really overwhelmed and stressed trying to finish up their document while moving/ starting/ or searching for a job and I decided I would keep my base for another year and have time to concentrate on writing, practicing, and searching for a job. So that’s currently my exit strategy!”
I don’t envy her having to write the document, but her topic is so tasty that I can barely contain my excitement at the prospect of reading it upon completion!
Harp performance and the perception of the instrument in American culture through films in the 1920s- 1940s, tracing the origins of vaudeville acts that featured the harp and musical comedy through to the films of the Marx brothers.
The next few years of Molly’s life might be taken up primarily by writing, studying and working… but you know what they say about all work and no play…
Before I saw Ginger and Spice perform in Atlanta this summer I really had no way of understanding what exactly it is that they do. Sure… I had seen the Pink Panther video… but that only scratches the surface of their performance.
Remember that blog from a few weeks back about recital programming? If the goal is audience engagement, Ginger and Spice has figured out the formula for success. Along with harpist Ann McLaughlin, G&S present a program that doesn’t fit into the traditional recital mold but presents the harp in a fresh and exciting way for audience members of all kinds.
What makes them so special?
One word. Fearlessness. They sing, dance, play the harp in ways that would make your teacher cringe, include ridiculous costume changes, and do basically all of the things that we are traditionally told are unacceptable in the serious music world. I think that is what I like most about them.
The coolest thing? It was all born out of a studio class project. Pause… repeat… a studio class project. Now… let me take a moment here to talk about how immensely cool this is. Dr. Anne Yeung at UIUC assigns her studio to draw names each week to create teams that will present a “Freelance Project.” Yes, that’s right, she assigns her students to create real-life project-based presentations (hello real life preparation!!!!)… this makes my entrepreneurial heart sing!!!
I asked Molly what she thinks makes G&S is so special:
Two harps playing together is always an impressive sight, but Ann and I posed this exact question when we decided to keep playing as group and started designing a full show. What would we have to offer that would get an audience to come see us? If we were sharing the bill with three other harp duos, why should people come see us versus other duos? And honestly, our whole shtick of the four-hands-one-harp, singing, and general silliness came from us improvising and just having fun in the practice room.
So when we designed our full 90 minute “Ginger and Spice Show” (premiered in October 2015) we wanted to incorporate a lot of the elements that we always loved about theater into our show while featuring the instrument we loved and playing it in as many different ways possible. We thought that a lot of times recitals can feel like there is this barrier between the audience and the performer and we really wanted to break that down and offer audiences a glimpse into the world of the harp and to be entertaining. We also have such a fun time performing together that it gives us a great dynamic on stage and that’s something I think audiences really pick up on—we play very well off of each other.”
Ginger & Spice in concert:
Remember what I said about singing, dancing, and costume changes? I wasn’t kidding. Check out these pictures from their performance at the AHS in Atlanta conference this past summer.
I didn’t know Molly could sing! When I think about singing in public I experience the sudden surge of anxiety that came along with being called upon in undergraduate aural skills classes. But when I asked Molly about how she had managed to incorporate singing into her arsenal of entertainment she said this…
You know, it’s kind of funny because I get this comment a lot when we perform for audiences that know us as harpists only and the singing always surprises them. I have always been a little ham—as a kid I would “entertain” my family after dinner by singing on my ketchup bottle microphone—so I’ve always loved putting on skits and anything theatrical. Apparently, even as a toddler I would sing myself to sleep if my mom’s lullaby wasn’t enough for me. I grew up watching a lot of musicals on film: Singing in the Rain, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, and of course anything Disney. So singing showtunes was commonplace at my house. I also started in the Suzuki Method on harp where singing and aural skills was always encouraged to really internalize the music so I was always singing.”
Even a childhood ham has to start somewhere though…
I had a few bouts of nervousness that would flair up when we would sing in public. We started small at background gigs throwing in a tune that we would sing and play every now and then and gradually it became less scary. Having someone to sing with and the instrument I am comfortable with made it feel safer to perform. I think the most challenging thing is to get used to singing into a microphone—that extra amplification adds that extra level of vulnerability that you have to swallow in order to not get shaky breath support.
When we put on our full show, I was particularly nervous to sing “Let it Go” in front of a bunch of people including a lot of trained opera singers. I just had to embrace that they were there to support us and wouldn’t judge me too badly (hopefully). I think that’s where most musicians get into our own heads. It’s like the nerves when you perform for only harpists since that crowd knows what you’re doing and will probably notice mistakes more than a regular audience would—it’s the same mental game with singing.
Each time we performed our singing numbers it got easier and easier to do because it began to feel as natural as playing. A few challenges with costume changes and microphones have kept us on our toes, especially with the Frozen medley (that blonde wig, man—struggle times).
I always love talking to my audience and if I can get a laugh, I feel like we are on the same page and its less of a me-versus-them environment. In the Frozen medley, I get to sing Olaf’s “In Summer” song, which besides being an adorable song, it offered me to a chance to do a little dance (something I am WAY more anxious about than singing—I am NOT a dancer—that’s why most of the smooth dance moves in the show are done by Ann). I felt like I was able to really step into the character of Olaf and eventually Elsa—I wasn’t Molly the harpist anymore, I was a silly little snowman who longed to experience summer weather. The costumes also help with that transformation mentally and physically. Once you’re in the Olaf outfit, it’s a character and there is less vulnerability.
I think this kind of mental preparation can be transferred into musical performance as well. If you can embody the character of a piece as if it were a theatrical role you were studying then it’s less like you are someone trying to perform a difficult work—you become a part of the work and don’t have to fight the music if you are a part of its identity. “
Did I mention Molly also composes?
Check out “Showtime Suite” for three harps, percussion, and fedoras
Showtime Suite is essentially a variety show for three harps. It is a through-composed piece comprised of four movements titled: 1. Lights up. House Down. 2. Blackout 3. Low-lit Tango 4. Finale. Inspired by my theatre background as a lighting and sound technician and as a backstage manager, Showtime is an expression of different performance energies and various stylistic influences enhanced with lighting design, percussion, and props.”
Molly O’Roark is someone to keep an eye out for. She’s a stellar player who will be a huge asset to wherever she ends up!! I leave you with one of my favorite things on the internet, Molly’s 2013 commencement speech at the Eastman School of Music…