FEBRUARY ~ Presentations
I can finally present my Hygge Serenades: 4 solo pieces for harp.
You can hear them HERE
Teaching is still a major part of my life, and I suspect it always will be. I’m proud of all my pupils, whatever their successes, disappointments, age or level. I enjoy sharing my knowledge and seeing what they can achieve under my guidance.
Ten year old Mel started harp lessons with me in January 2023, inspired by her sister Millie, who is twelve years old and won at the Wales Harp Festival last year. We decided to enter the Harp Competition at the Manchester Harp Festival. The only category for Mel was the Open Class and we were thrilled that she became one of four finalists.
The aim was to perform contrasting pieces suitable for her level, and to prepare every aspect to the highest standard. I have seen so many competitions where players are given pieces far above their level, and not even fully prepared. Often there is not enough attention to details, such as stage presentation: from introducing the programme to accepting the applause. All these things matter.
On the day Mel was match fit, ready and looking forward to performing at Stoller Hall. At no point had we discussed ‘winning’ or the ‘prize’. It was all about the music.
She was highly complimented by the jury, including the renowned harpist Anneleen Lenaerts. I was overjoyed with the comments on how professional she was, and how beautifully she played. That was already enough for me, and the story could end there, with a delighted teacher and a happy pupil.
In fact, Mel won the first prize of £500, kindly donated by Salvi Harps. Yet, this was no magic wand. It was the result of a carefully worked out plan that anyone can achieve, and what all teachers should follow. That’s not even the end of Mel’s story.
The next day we started new pieces: slowly and carefully again, working step by step. The journey continues.
JANUARY ~ Serenades
The year ahead will be full of new tunes, and what better way to start than by introducing one of my new compositions. I was delighted to be invited to write a piece for the Harps North West JaNEWary Challenge 2024. Harpists, sign up at harpsnorthwest.org.uk for more info! The sheet music is free and, with the help of Mary Dunsford, there are video tutorials to guide you through it note by note. There will also be a live Zoom session, where I will join in and give you the background behind the tune, as well as to introduce my new collection of pieces, to be launched on January 16th.
Midnight Lullaby is perfect for anyone wanting a gentle serenade. It’s from my new booklet - Hygge Serenades. They are pieces inspired by the Danish art of Hygge, which is that feeling of atmosphere, cosiness and contentment.
I will be on the road again with the Hallé in a series of Viennese concerts in Hanley, Manchester and Bradford. It will be a feel good programme, including the Blue Danube and Korngold’s Straussiana. To round off January, there will be performances of Debussy’s gorgeous l’apres midi d’un faune in Manchester and Gateshead; and in between more preparation for some interesting projects. Stay tuned!
DECEMBER ~ Carolling on!
It is a full and varied diary at the moment, as I take over some Principal Harp performances at the Hallé Orchestra. The last month of the year is of course all things Christmas, from the famous Nutcracker Cadenza to Christmas Cracker Concerts. Playing the music from The Snowman is always a delight. Youngsters and people young at heart will come along to watch and listen as we play along to this iconic film at the Bridgewater Hall.
I am looking forward to performing again with the Blackburn Cathedral Choirs at then magnificent Blackburn Cathedral. Benjamin Britten's The Ceremony of Carols is a true masterpiece for the harp repertoire and one of my favourite works. No festive season is complete without it.
🎄 Wishing everyone a peaceful Christmas 🎄
NOVEMBER ~ SING!
The dark nights roll in, as we have now left British Summer Time. But I’m taking it as a great opportunity to huddle on the sofa and catch up with various things. I’m currently listening to my latest CD collaboration. Three Choral Psalms is a new work for harp and choir by Martin Ellerby. It’s a valuable addition to the repertoire for harp and choir, and I highly recommend a listen to this exquisite music. The offer to take part arrived when I was extremely busy with other projects, and my initial reaction was to decline. But when I started playing the music, I knew that this was something I had to accept. It was recorded during socially distanced times and features the Kantos Chamber Choir directed by Ellie Slorach. It has also been the start of an extraordinary collaboration journey with Martin, with more joyous music in the pipeline.
More choral music is on the music stand this month. Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms is a tour de force work for full orchestra and chorus. The reduced version for harp, organ and percussion is demanding in a different way, and is a popular choice for Choral Societies.
The lesser known Otčenáš by Janáček is a setting of the Lord’s prayer for harp, organ, tenor soloist and choir. Plenty to do to keep me practising!
Happy November! 🎃
OCTOBER ~ Support
A harpist recently told me that she hadn’t got much experience in orchestral playing, but ‘knew how an orchestra worked’, so the work would be easy. For me, it was a strange observation. You can learn the notes and listen to recordings, but nothing can compare with the experience of countless hours of rehearsals that working with different orchestras and conductors brings. It’s a huge learning curve.
Take Daphnis and Chloe by Ravel. This is one of my favourite works and I’ve done the complete ballet many times. This month’s concert with Sir Mark Elder sees me digging out my harp part. It shows years gone by of meticulous preparation, and the knowledge gathered from working with other musicians. And there will be more to do, so that I am totally ready for that first downbeat.
A few months ago I mentioned my first Principal Harp job with Northern Ballet Theatre. It was a huge shock to the music community when it was recently announced that they won’t be using a live orchestra for their touring productions.
Apart from the fact that many of these musicians have given their working lives to the company, I am also thinking about the dancers. How disheartening for them to now perform to a tape. There will be no individual tempos, no time to breathe in the moment. They will be machines, at the mercy of a click track. The joy will gradually fade for them.
The musicians themselves have no full-time contract, but are 'expected to be available’ for productions. Some are now relying on food banks due to this loss of income. In recent news there are now cuts to English National Opera and Dartington Summer School is in jeopardy. You cannot beat the thrill of live music, yet it is being steadily and surely stamped out of our lives.
What can we do? Sign petitions, raise awareness, buy tickets to keep music live!
SEPTEMBER ~ Preparation
The start of September means preparation for the 12 months ahead. Lesson plans are finalised for the Academic Year and harp parts all marked up for the orchestral season. The space I gave myself in August refreshed my focus and reminded me not to be drawn back to some aspects of my old way of life, which would be so easy to do. Doing less has already brought me more of what brings me joy, and I am excited to see how my new ideas develop.
But first, some familiar projects which I am thrilled to return to. The first autumn highlight is the opening concert for the Hallé Season, performing Mahler’s 9th Symphony with Sir Mark Elder.
I will be Guest Tutor for the Harps North West residential weekend at Higham Hall, alongside the Irish harpist, Luke Webb. It’s my third invitation there and I am looking forward to returning to this beautiful Lake District location.
AUGUST ~ Gratitude
As I start this month, I am feeling grateful for many things:
The fixers who have employed me to take part in some incredible concerts.
My wonderful pupils who work so hard in their lessons.
Colleagues who support, collaborate and inspire.
Here are some of my favourite moments from recent months.
My husband Steve enables me to have this crazy schedule, and does all the behind the scenes work that most people never even know about. All essential for the success of my varied working life. I’ve promised him annual leave this month, and no harp moving. Take a break, Steve!
August is an opportunity to re-set, and I am looking forward to catching up with friends, exploring the countryside and quiet time to prepare for the musical year ahead. The 2023/2024 season is diverse and brings together different areas of my life as a performer, teacher and composer. Some projects, 2 years in the planning, will come to fruition. There will be new directions for me and I need to be match fit ready for them. It is all too easy to keep going without taking care of one’s physical and mental health. Society and social media tell us that we have to be ‘doing’ all the time. But in fact, there are no medals for being on show constantly. It is time for reflection and silence. See you in September!
JULY ~ Dance
The month kicks off with a programme of dance pieces with the Hallé. My induction into the world of dance came when I was appointed Principal Harpist for Northern Ballet Theatre, based in Leeds. From there I also performed with English National Ballet, Scottish Ballet and even the Kirov Ballet, on their visit to Manchester. But it was at N.B.T. that I remember two productions which were quite extraordinary in their vision and power. The first one when I joined in 1987 and worked with Christopher Gable and Gillian Lynne on A Simple Man: a ballet celebrating L.S. Lowry, with a beautiful score by Carl Davis.
And then the outstanding performances of Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev. I must confess that I could see a little of the stage for this show, and many a tear was shed. They are bringing back this original production in Spring 2024. Beg, borrow, steal a ticket - you will not be disappointed. I’ll be there in the audience and able to see the whole stage for the first time. It’s going to be quite a moment.
My last orchestral concert of this season will be Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and Rachmaninov’s The Bells at the Royal Albert Hall in London. There is something very special about entering this building. You really feel the spirit of so many iconic performers. Then outside, seeing the Promenaders in a snake-like queue going down the Queen Elizabeth II steps, waiting to access the discounted tickets. Once inside, they stand in rapt attention for the duration of the concerts, focusing on all the notes we play. In the interval they chant in perfect time to remind us that volunteers will be there with their yellow buckets, ready for donations to designated music charities. Keep Music Live!
JUNE ~ Celebration
On my music stand this month are three Oratorios by Sir Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom. All three are for two harps and with many pages to learn quietly and carefully in my practice room. Then it will be about 46 hours of rehearsing and performances at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.
Conductor Sir Mark Elder has long been an enthusiastic cheerleader for Elgar’s music, and during his 20+ year tenure at the Hallé has championed so much British music. We’ve been introduced to many unfamiliar gems by Delius, Bax, Vaughan Williams, and premiered several works by current composers.
He is undoubtedly one of those rare conductors who has really worked at understanding the harp, and its role in the orchestra. Often he balances the orchestra so that the harps can be heard, rather than getting us to play loudly all the time. This is a complete breath of fresh air to us. We’ve played in the centre of the orchestra, and right in front of him next to the front desks. We’ve walked on for the second movement of Symphonie Fantastique, and then walked off again! There has never been a dull moment.
I feel very lucky to have experienced such brilliant music making with him. Here’s to a great celebration year, as he leads us through his final year as Musical Director.
MAY ~ Memories
We have witnessed a significant event in history with the Coronation of King Charles III. During his time as the Prince of Wales he personally reinstated the position of the Royal Harpist, last held by John Thomas during the reign of Queen Victoria.
I’ve met him as the Prince a few times, most notably during my visit to Expo ‘92 in Seville, Spain. Hundreds of countries built their own pavilion to showcase their culture, technology and business on the theme of “Age of Discovery”.
Alongside the Morriston Orpheus Male Voice Choir, I represented Wales performing several times to appreciative audiences. Whilst there, I received an invitation to play for a private function attended by the then Prince and Princess of Wales. On being presented to the Prince, I tried out some Welsh on him, and was delighted when he warmly responded. His love of music shone through even then, and is still important to him, as we witnessed in the beautiful musical choices for his Coronation Service.
We are now entering examination and assessment time. I have 2 former students from the RNCM who will be completing their degrees this year. I met Angharad Huw when she joined the Junior RNCM. She then studied with me for 2 years of her BMus course. Teaching Jess Hughes for 3 years on her BMus Course included many wonderful memories: from harp ensemble adventures to navigating Zoom lessons. I wish them both every success and happiness as they start their professional lives.
APRIL ~ Collaboration
April began with a recording of a new Concerto for Clarinet, Harp and Strings. This had been many months in the planning and was an eagerly anticipated date in my calendar. Working with composer Martin Ellerby has resulted in several pieces for harp. On recording his Harp Sonata last summer, he surprised me at the end of the session with this Concerto part especially written for me. The piece is dedicated to his wife, Linda Merrick, who I have known for many years as Principal of the RNCM.
Red light on, and off we went accompanied by the String section of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, conducted by Clark Rundell. It was a focused and fun session. A dream team moment!
Teaching should also be a collaboration. We are there to take our pupils beyond the notes on the page. Not to tell them how to play exactly how we would, but to encourage their own thinking.
I taught Millie Huang privately to start with, before she joined the Junior RNCM. On leaving my time there, I thought I would be following her journey from afar, but after a few months, she decided to return to me for harp lessons, remaining at the College for general music studies. This was a brave decision, but she was convinced, and subsequently convinced me that this was in her best interest. I was delighted when she won a scholarship prize at the Wales International Harp Festival this month.
But there is more to the story. Millie first attended the WIHF before she even played the harp, whilst on holiday nearby. She listened to the competitions and thought to herself “One day, I’d like to play here”. Later she took up the harp, that one day arrived, and there she was.
I hope there was another little girl in the audience equally inspired by all the young performers.
Apart from the reward of winning, a special highlight for her was performing Improvisations by William Mathias, with the composer’s daughter, Rhiannon, in the audience. A special moment for them both.
MARCH ~ Team Work
Playing in orchestras is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my work. I had my first experience while still at school in Wales, facilitated by a conductor who gave me the chance to join the local town orchestra. I remember being surrounded by that rich, full sound, and knowing with complete certainty that ‘this’ was what I wanted to be doing. Little did I know that it would lead me to Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl; tours to Japan and Europe: T.V. and radio broadcasts and best of all, a 20+ year partnership with Marie Leenhardt in the harp section for the Hallé Orchestra.
I enjoy coaching harpists as they start their journeys towards orchestral life. It is always fulfilling to share my knowledge and give advice. A recent highlight was preparing harpists in the City of Birmingham Youth Orchestra as they tackled Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique; one of the most challenging parts in the repertoire, but one they approached with gusto. Bravo! 👏
It was a pleasure to visit St. Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh for assessments and a Masterclass. The school have recently purchased a pedal harp for the first time, which will enable their pupils to progress towards orchestral playing. Great to see a young pupil working my new pedal harp exercises already, and always lovely to get such positive feedback. Thank you!
This month, I have my own set of concerts with Manchester Camerata, BBC Philharmonic, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Manchester Concert Orchestra. From Richard Strauss to Lord of the Rings: from Gounod to a new Concerto; there is never a shortage of notes to prepare for this harpist who began her journey on the stage of the Great Hall in Aberystwyth.
February ~ Action
The orchestral season is in full flow again, and I am enjoying preparing for the month ahead. I have a feast of works by Strauss, Lutoslawski, Debussy, Gounod and Shostakovich.
My teaching studio is busy with students who zoom in from all over the UK, Europe, the USA and early morning calls to New Zealand.
I am also delighted to be continuing my teaching of students at Sheffield and Durham Universities, and from the Junior RNCM. It’s wonderful to have such variety: from complete beginners to advanced level. The appetite for learning the harp has never been so strong. My Power Hours are thriving and it’s wonderful to feel that I am helping others reach their goals. Contact me on email@example.com for more information on what happens in a Power Hour!
January ~ Contemplation
2022 was a year of new projects and exciting life changes.
2023 will see these ventures coming to fruition and finally a chance to embrace my new creative spaces.
The Year of the Rabbit is also a significant one for me and I look forward to what it represents in Chinese astrology: contemplation, calmness and balance.