By now you may have read the news that harpist Mason Morton and his group Sons of Serendip will be competing in the Semifinals of the popular TV show America’s Got Talent. (Watch them perform.) The show will be over soon enough, but whether they win or lose I’m pretty confident harpists will be hearing a lot more about Mason. I caught up with him a few days ago to find out more about what he does. Prepare to be inspired!
Q: Wow, you have really catapulted to fame recently with your group Sons of Serendip who is currently performing on America’s Got Talent, but you have definitely honed your chops as a classical player. Can you tell us about your background and teachers?
Thank you for your kind words! I feel blessed by the current success on America’s Got Talent. I was born and raised in Atlanta, Ga. I come from a non-musical family. I was actually introduced to classical music through the harp. I grew up listening to 60s and 70 soul music which is still very close to me today. I’m actually listening to a little Motown as I work on my questions.
I began playing piano at 11, but had to give up lessons because of the financial burden on the family. However, at age 12 my chorus teacher Roselyn Lewis asked, “Would you like to learn to play the harp for free?” I just heard ‘free’ and said yes to the opportunity. I had never seen a harp or even heard of one aside from the Bible.
I began the harp in Dec. 2000 with Elisabeth Remy Johnson as my first teacher. Since then I’ve been very fortunate to study with teachers that were or are principal harpists of orchestras. I’m eternally grateful for all they taught me! I’m also thankful to the Shepherd School at Rice University where I received my bachelor’s from Miss Paula Page.
I also had a memorable time studying one summer with Rita Costanzi in Vancouver. She really helped me to see how FUN and musical a performance can be for both the harpist and the audience. I also briefly studied with Barbra Poeshl- Edrich at Boston University (BU) who was a joy to work with.
However, I really value my time with teachers: Nella Rigell (Principal harpist of the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra) and Ann Hobson Pilot — whom I received my Master’s from at BU. It is Rigell and Pilot who have believed in me through thick and then. They have helped me to develop my confidence behind the instrument and move toward my full potential.
Q: How would you describe what you do with your group? Who comes up with the arrangements and how does the harp fit in?
As the harpist of Sons of Serendip (SOS), I describe what I do as contributing to “our sound.” We’re known for playing beautiful pieces that calm and sooth the soul. I always try to develop parts where the harp can be heard first of all (haha), but most importantly I aim to add something special to the piece and listener’s experience through playing: harmonics, a motif, lush chords, and of course the occasional gliss.
SOS pianist, Cordaro Rodriguez, is our arranger. He transcribes the chords because he has an excellent ear and can transpose to a new key immediately. Once he gives me the chords I develop the harp part. In addition, we discuss ideas for themes and chords that could really help drive a particular piece. If it were left up to me, I would play all M7th or 9th chords He helps deter me from doing that.
I feel the harp fits in our quartet quite well. I think of what we do as a contemporary chamber group or ensemble. I like to think, maybe Debussy or Ravel would’ve come up with this ensemble setting if they were alive today. Like Ravel, I try to make the harp fit in an ensemble where it is heard and offers something substantial.
Q: What do you do when you’re not playing on America’s Got Talent?
When I’m not on AGT, I’m practicing haha. In addition, I’m teaching harp to middle school students at Timitly Middle school in Roxbury, Ma. I’m also working on a Performance Diploma at BU. Furthermore, I’m part of Trio Notturno—a classical music trio, Claffin Hill Orchestra, and I also gig and do weddings. In addition, I like hitting the gym and hanging with friends.
What do you think it takes to make it as a harpist today? What advice would you give someone 10 years younger than you?
In my opinion to make it is as a harpist today, it takes having an open mind and taking a risk. Play pieces that are outside of the norm. Take a chance! We all love the music of: Tournier, Faure, Ravel, Salzedo, Grandjany, etc. However, we have to meet the general audience where they are musically. While I may not play Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” right away, I think the general public like what is familiar to them. Playing a little pop music will spark their interest. They’d say, “I didn’t know the harp could do that?!”
My advice to someone ten years younger than me is you can! Despite what people say or where your current playing ability is at the moment, you can achieve your dreams.
In addition, be patient and become your best friend by feeding yourself positive self-talk and thinking. Most important of all, don’t compete with anyone but yourself. The main person to defeat is that little negative voice in our own heads. Once we do that, our individual paths to success will reveal themselves.
Q: What advice would you give someone 10 years older than you?
My advice to someone ten years older than me is to get on social media! Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the rest is where it’s at! This is the way you can build your own brand/niche and market yourself. We’re all afraid to go into the public at first, but do it anyway. On social media there are enough people to follow you and support you.
Additionally, “today” most people want someone they can relate to. Social media helps folks know you’re a human being. Believe it or not, people would like to see a picture of your dinner lol.
More importantly, make a way for yourself! Once again take chances. Look for a manager. Learn to think like a business person. Remember: Someone will like you, someone will support your music. BE BRAVE! It is our duty to bring our dreams to fruition
Q: What’s next on your agenda when AGT finishes?
In short, I do not know exactly. However, on my docket are: completing my degree at BU, and continuing my teaching, orchestra and trio commitments. I will also continue to perform with SOS! But how far we go in the show and how that would change my life, I have no idea. I aim to look on this uncertainty with assurance.
Q: Anything else you want Harp Column readers to know about you?
I would like for Harp Column readers to know that I love y’all! Thanks so much for the support and it’s such an honor to be featured in this prestigious publication. I hope this is the first time of many. Now, I guess I should go practice. Well, let me check Facebook first.