Q and A with Erin Brooker–Miller

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As of this week, we are one month away from the start of the 11th USA International Harp Competition, which takes place July 3–13 in Bloomington, Ind. Erin Brooker–Miller, the USAIHC executive director, oversees it all, from coordinating housing for the competitors to designing the competion’s website. Read on to get a taste of what it takes to create a successful, well–organized international harp competition.

How did you first get involved with USAIHC?

I started working for the USAIHC in February of 2015, with a little over a year before the start of the 10th competition. I was in the first year of my master’s degree at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and had noticed a vacancy in the USAIHC office, located directly across from the harp studio. After inquiring about the position and going through an interview process, I was offered the job. It’s been a wonderful opportunity, and I’ve learned so much throughout my four years!

How has the competition evolved since you started?

I’m proud that we’ve been able to make a lot of changes and developments over the four years I’ve worked at the USAIHC. It is a goal of mine to always be improving the processes of our organization to make the competition as fair as possible. This has manifested itself in small tweaks to our scheduling and adding further clarifications to our judging system. In 2016, I wrote up an assessment document of every aspect of the 10th competition with input from our contestants, jury, board of directors, and audience members. This assessment was then used in discussion at subsequent board of directors meetings and together we came up with a list of recommended changes. With three years in between competitions, it’s easy to forget these little details, but the details are what make all the difference in putting on a successful event, so I’m always referring back to our assessment documents.

There have also been a number of changes during our non–competition years. We expanded our educational Harp Start program to include presentations at libraries, rotary clubs, and kindergartens, in addition to maintaining presentations at elementary and middle schools and retirement communities. I designed and launched a new website in 2017. We hired on a second employee in 2018—our program coordinator, Melanie Mashner. Having two employees has been such a blessing, allowing us to expand our programming (most recently hosting concerts in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Bloomington), boost our fundraising efforts, and get ahead on all of the preparations for the 11th competition.

Given that we’re about a month away from the competition, I’m sure you’re quite busy with logistics. What does an average day look like for you at this point?

Absolutely. As the competition draws closer and closer, my schedule gets increasingly tight. Aside from the never–ending emails, no single day is the same, and I’m often juggling multiple aspects of the competition at once. For example, so far my day has included: gathering the final details and editing our program booklet; finalizing a few outstanding contracts; confirming travel and lodging logistics for our arriving jury members, laureates, and guest performers; making final decisions on host family and contestant assignments; working with our interns to promote the competition; double–checking our lists of materials to prepare when our guests arrive; writing donation acknowledgements; and adding a lot more items to my “to–do” list. Any tiny detail you can think of related to the competition, my team and I are working on it!

My favorite part of running the competition, by far, is finally getting to meet the contestants when they arrive. After months of email exchanges, I love to see the international harp community come together and celebrate our wonderful instrument, repertoire, and musicians.

Of all the competition rep, what is your favorite piece?

There are so many great pieces on the required repertoire this cycle, it’s hard to choose just one piece, but I have to say I’m most excited to hear each contestant’s Bach Prelude and Fugue in stage I.  I think these will be particularly fun to listen to because the contestants had the choice any of the Preludes and Fugues in the Well–Tempered Clavier and we have quite a bit of variety. Typically our stage I repertoire is a set list and doesn’t have any repertoire choices, so this will be a fun way to get some personality from each contestant right at the beginning of the competition!

I’m also really excited to hear our composition contest winner Uno Alexander Vesje’s piece Life is flashing before my eyes and I realize it all started with a blackbird. This is the first piece we’ve ever had in our repertoire to include an electronic/recorded component, and it will be fun to see each semi–finalist bring it to life.

I also have a soft spot for Listz’s Liebesträume No. 3 as it’s one of my personal favorite solos to perform.

What else would you like people to know about USAIHC?

Many people may not know that in addition to the triennial solo harp performance competition and composition contest, we also host an annual concert series and present an educational program called Harp Start to our local and regional community of South Central Indiana. Just this past April, we hosted three HarpyDay Ensemble concerts at venues in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Bloomington. More concerts will be coming up this fall, so keep an eye out for those! Our Harp Start program has been around since 2004 and is offered free of charge to all entities. Through Harp Start, we share the harp with thousands of school children and community members each year!

I would be remiss not to mention that the USA International Harp Competition is a designated 501(c)3 non-profit organization, and that we rely on individual donations to make our programs a reality.  Funding is always challenging, and I find people don’t always realize how difficult it is financially to host the competition. We appreciate gifts of all sizes and every little bit makes a big difference for us to continue making our mission of elevating exceptional harpists to extraordinary heights through performance, new music, and education a reality! Information on how to make a gift to the USAIHC can be found on our website at: https://usaihc.org/donate.

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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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