Q and A with Anya Garipoli

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Ever heard of speed dating 20 harps? Neither had we until we talked to Anya Garipoli about her experience at the 2019 Lyon & Healy Awards, held last month in Chicago. Garipoli, a senior at the Oberlin Conservatory, was one of only three harpists from a field of 54 to take home a prize. With a large pool of performers, competition was fierce at the biennial contest. Read on to find out how Garipoli stayed focused before she performed, celebrated after she found out she won, and speed dated 20 harps.

Tell us a little about how you prepared for the Lyon & Healy Awards.

I always start preparing for something by listening to it a bunch of times to get it in my ear and understand the path the piece takes. After that, I don’t listen to it anymore while I’m learning it, because I don’t want to internalize someone else’s interpretation so much that there’s no room for my own vision. I always begin by learning something super solidly and slowly—it’s the “boot–camp” phase. During the boot–camp phase, I pay strict attention to everything notated in the music, not just the notes! I try to absorb everything about the music. Even though I’m playing solidly and slowly, I try to always stay conscious about the dynamics, articulation, and phrasing. I definitely struggle to be patient in this phase because I want to increase the speed to make the music sound like I envision, but I try to stay in the slow and solid phase for however long it takes until the muscle memory starts kicking in. That’s when I ramp up the speed, increasing the metronome a few clicks at a time. Then I test myself without the metronome occasionally to see how fast a speed I can maintain, and also check for rushing.

When I ramp up the speed, I shift my focus from the technical to the musical. This phase is kind of like the reward for your hard work boot–camping the notes and technique. At this point, the technical aspects of the pieces shouldn’t feel like a burden/struggle anymore. I focus on musicality—exaggerating dynamics, phrasing, and finding the perfect mood for each moment in the piece. I love this phase of preparation, because it’s simply FUN! There’s always more you can do with the music. I try to make each note meaningful!

When I’m in the memorization phase, I start by creating sections for the pieces. I usually title the sections, because crafting a storyline or having descriptive adjectives that remind me of the sections helps me know exactly where I am in the music. I have pedal diagrams at every section because find it valuable and comforting to know that I can start in many places in the piece.

Lastly, once the memorization is pretty solid and I have a clear musical vision for the piece, I try to perform in front of people as much as possible before a competition. I try to replicate as much as I can about a performance, including the feeling of nervousness and excitement that I get before performing on a stage. I booked some concert halls at Oberlin in the weeks leading up to the competition, and played run–throughs of the repertoire in my competition clothing for my teacher, friends, and acquaintances. Having people in the room and wearing your concert clothes completely changes how it feels to run through a program because you’re not just playing for yourself anymore. I always want to create something special and connect with the people listening, and it pushes me to the next level. It also helps me figure out what sections are not as solid as I thought with memorization, and I can go back and focus more on those sections.

What was it like surrounded by 50+ people all playing the same rep as you? What approach did you take to stay focused?

It was both intimidating and exciting! Most people were very friendly, even if they were nervous, so it was a good atmosphere. It was great catching up with some fellow harp friends that I hadn’t seen in a while! This was actually the first competition I’ve done where I didn’t have my own harp with me, so I had to pick a harp to perform on. Everyone who didn’t bring their own instrument was required to be at a harp–choosing session where there were 20 harps in a bunch of rooms on one of the floors of the factory. We all lined up outside rooms that had harps inside to try. The people running the competition set a timer for five minutes, and every five minutes, we switched harps that we were testing and moved on to another room. It was definitely intimidating because you could hear everyone while they were testing out the harps. When I was waiting outside each room for my turn to try a harp, I had no choice but to hear whoever was currently in the room playing. Everyone sounded amazing! There were so many talented players at the competition.

It was definitely a struggle to stay focused. I actually plugged my ears at times, or put my earbuds in and played pop music I like to distract me. When I was practicing and warming up and there were other competitors in the rooms on either side of me, I decided to play loudly and slowly. Playing loudly and slowly helped me warm up in the limited time I had, and creating a lot of volume right next to my ears helped drown out the other competitors’ playing. I’m glad I played slowly because it made me feel less self–conscious and less competitive, and shift my focus to truly warming up. Playing slowly helped calm and center me. I wasn’t trying to “outplay” anyone else around me. I knew when I got out on stage with adrenaline pumping that speed wouldn’t be an issue.

How did you feel about your performance? Any takeaways or reflections, now that it’s behind you?

I was pretty nervous to go on stage because I had just come from warming up, where I heard  other people also warming up who sounded amazing in the rooms next to mine. I kept telling myself, “It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be meaningful.” I was literally chanting it in my head over and over up until the moment I walked out on stage. It was my mantra! When I was on stage, I focused on steadying myself and not taking any crazy risks while I was getting settled into the music. I just tried to be as musical as possible. I focused on my dynamics, phrasing, and tone. I tried not to overthink and stay in the present moment, trying to simply appreciate having the chance to perform beautiful music for others. I knew the judges had already listened to 21 versions of the Nino Rota and the La Presle—I was almost exactly halfway through the competition. I wanted to create something meaningful and memorable, because if it touches people, that’s the performance people will remember, no matter how many talented players there are!

I absolutely love the your mantra, and it sounds like it worked! Did you do anything fun in Chicago in your downtime or afterwards to celebrate?

Yes! I was actually staying with a friend from Interlochen Arts Academy, the boarding school I attended junior and senior year of high school. He goes to school in Chicago, so he was my own personal tour guide! We saw the Cloudgate sculpture (aka “The Bean”), and we went to the Art Institute. The Art Institute was amazing! We saw a ton—contemporary art, the Impressionist section, the Renaissance section, and more. The weekend of the harp competition was also St. Patty’s Day weekend, so we went downtown and saw the Chicago River dyed green! The whole river was a neon green color! It was a sight to remember! We also took an afternoon to visit Chinatown where we got some delicious dim sum. The friend I was staying with lives in the Boystown neighborhood, so after the winners’ reception, it was a lot of fun to celebrate by going out and dancing with him and some friends!

I know you’re a senior graduating from Oberlin this spring. What’s next for you? Any summer plans?

I can’t believe graduation is so soon! These past four years have flown by. I will be continuing on with my schooling, doing a Professional Studies Certificate, but I’m still deciding which school to choose! As for this summer, I’ll be in Santa Barbara, California as the harp fellow for Music Academy of the West. It’ll definitely be busy! Jennifer Higdon is the composer in residence at Music Academy of the West this summer, and I’m also super excited to be working alongside the London Symphony Orchestra and experience their partnership with Music Academy!

Thanks so much, Anya! To learn more about the Lyon & Healy Awards, visit www. lyonhealy.com.

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About Author

Stephanie Gustafson Amfahr is a harpist and teacher based in Houston, TX. Currently principal harpist with Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, she is also a co-founder of the Houston Youth Harp Ensemble, young artist with Da Camera of Houston and on faculty at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, MI. She started writing for Harp Column in September 2017.

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