The Role of a Lifetime

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Alison Reese is editor of Harp Column. She is a freelance performer and teacher in West Michigan. Email her at areese@harpcolumn.com.

The value of role models in a good musical life

How many times have you sat down at a gig and let out a big sigh of relief as you begin because playing the instrument is the easiest thing you’ve done that day?

It doesn’t take long at this instrument to realize there is far more to being a musician than what first appears. Being a harpist is about so much more than playing arpeggios and glissandos. In fact, there are many days when it seems like playing the notes is the simplest part of the job.

On any given day, a harpist has to negotiate a list of tasks that ranges from artistically transcendent to mundane, and the trickiest things you deal with aren’t, “What’s the best fingering for this measure?” or “Which edition of the Handel Concerto should I play?” but “How can I find the motivation to practice this music?” or “How will this decision affect my professional reputation?” The hardest parts of being a musician won’t be explained in any college classroom or method book. The nuances of being a musician are best taught by example, by a role model.

But what makes a good role model—a good musical role model, that is? It’s so specialized, so specific. Being a musician is undeniably intertwined with everyday life and personal identity, so it’s critical for aspiring harpists to see a positive, healthy example being lived out in front of them.

We asked Kela Walton to dive deeper into this topic for us in “What Makes a Musical Role Model” on pg. 18. As you will see in the article, harpists feel passionate about their role models, and when they talk about why they chose a particular person as their musical role model, their reasons go well beyond the harp bench.

Broadway harpist Laura Sherman says her role model Mary Brigid Roman showed her how to be in the world in every sense of the word. “To this day, I pattern my days around these key concepts that I learned from her…”

Angelica Hairston, who heads up the vibrant Urban Youth Harp Ensemble in Atlanta, says she works every day to emulate the high-quality artistry, professionalism, direct honesty, and kindness she learned from her role model Ann Hobson Pilot. Perhaps most importantly, Hairston says her role model’s influence helped her become the person she is today. “She taught me that it was okay to be myself.”

Baton Rouge professional harpist Rebecca Todaro says it was the consistency of the example her role model and teacher Bette Ross provided that kept her on the straight and narrow both musically and personally. “Simply being a stable constant in my weekly life allowed me to absorb musical expectations and habits to establish an accessible pattern of living.” she says. “[Her] generosity and kindness cemented many musical habits in my psyche that I lean on daily.”

That’s the beauty of role models. Their example is one that helps guide us in both life’s everyday moments and in major decisions. We should count ourselves fortunate that so many in our community give selflessly beyond what is expected to show others a path worth following into a musical life. Musical role models don’t get paid. They don’t get fame or recognition for the invaluable role they play in the lives of young harpists. They live and make music honestly, authentically, and generously, and that is a model all of us can follow.

Alison Reese is editor of Harp Column. She is a freelance performer and teacher in West Michigan.

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Editor of Harp Column, freelance harpist, private teacher, hot yoga lover, and grammar geek.

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