…I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
– W.B. Yeats
Music has been a powerful force in my life since I was around six years old and my mother introduced me to classical music, via some story tapes: The Story of Mozart. The Story of Bach. Haydn. Of Handel, all narrated by Arthur Hannes. Along with these tapes, she had “greatest hits” tapes for each of the four composers, except for Haydn. For him we had a tape of symphonies 93 and 94. Mozart was my favourite in those early days. Being the age he was when he began to write his music, I think, gave me a connection with him—although I certainly was not writing music or even playing music at the age of 6.
We didn’t have a lot of music tapes, but what we had I listened to over and over. And over and over. Actually, I’d listen to almost anything so often that it’s amazing some of those tapes are still in working order at all (but they are!). Music was like breath and blood to me, but we were too broke to have a piano, let alone lessons, so I sang, and sang, and sang, because faulty as my voice has always been, it was all I had at my disposal.
As I grew older my tastes changed a little and Mozart was put into a corner because Josef Haydn now owned my heart, with Handel a close second. I listened to “Messiah” so many times I could recite it from beginning to end and sing along with it. The Emperor String Quartet made me cry.
I had aspirations to no end. I wanted to play piano, like my friend Esther, but I only got to play with that at her house. I wanted a guitar like Maria von Trapp, but all I had was a badminton racket. And violin! But all I had was… air. And since I knew I’d never have any of those things, I sang.
I collected and pored over hymnals like my mother looked at catalogues and my friends read romance novels. Esther would sing with me, and we harmonised and switched parts without ever having to communicate that the other one needed to take up the melody. It seemed like it just flowed out of us.
Then a turn came, unexpected even to myself. Thanks (I think?) to Esther’s influence, I’d been repeat-marathon-reading BJ Hoff’s Emerald Ballad series and had a crush on Morgan Fitzgerald. Like, HUGE crush. Like, who wouldn’t have a crush on this giant of a man, with hands like dinner plates, who ducks to enter a door, with wild red hair and a harp slung over his shoulder? The poet, the dreamer, the volatile… Morgan Fitzgerald.
This guy, you guys. *swoon*, went my 15-year-old self.
So, because of the Emerald Ballad, we grew massively interested in all things Ireland. For me, who has always gravitated to imitating male protagonists in any given fandom I have had, the natural result was that I decided I needed a harp, like Morgan. Not wanted; needed.
I’m not sure what made my desire for the harp actually produce something, unlike the violin which my mom dismissed as Not Very Pleasant, and Hard to Learn to Play, or the piano that we didn’t have room for. Somehow I managed to get up the courage to start leaving those kids’ music catalogues open and dropping hints. It’s the only large thing I can recall that I had enough determination about that I actually did let any adults know up to that point.
So, being the ripe mature age of 15 at the time, and completely ignorant of most everything, I proceeded to do a lot of research. There was the option of the harp in the kids’ music catalogue my mom got—that was what put the seed in my mind that “Hey, I could actually buy one of these!”—but I wanted something with more strings than that one had. This research involved writing to a couple of harp places my mom had addresses for, thanks to her interest in Waldorf education. I became dismayed when I discovered that we were looking at a couple grand to fulfill my harp dreams.
Therefore you can imagine my delight to learn that a company called Song of the Sea, located in Maine, had a harp for sale for around $350. It had full levers, a case, 22 strings. It sounded like a great deal. It was called the Heather Harp. It was so PURTY. It was “rosewood and mahogany”! Carved soundbox! Celtic knotwork! SO IRISH AHHHHHHHH.
I chose that one. I named it after Morgan’s first love, Ireland, his Dark Rosaleen: Roisín Dubh. (I learned a smattering of Gaelic from the Emerald Ballad series, see.) (It’s pronounced “ro-SHEEN”, in case you wondered.)
So, I shelled out the money that I had saved up by asking my relatives to donate to a worthy cause rather than buy me Christmas gifts. In February of 1999, my Heather Harp arrived in the mail and I took it out of the box and ran my fingers over the strings.
Instant dreamy movie scene, right?
Wrong. Unless you want to call it Serenade of the Rubber Bands. I was, admittedly, shocked. But, apparently they didn’t tune to ship for fear of string breakage. I got out my new tuner and set to work tuning up according to the instructions. Before long I was playing stuff.
I was 15 when Roisín entered my life, and it was due to her that I found myself butting heads with Authority for the first time.
It would take a book of its own to explain our particular history where churches are concerned, but for the sake of space, I would like to just breeze past all that with this little sentence: we were members of a Mennonite church in northern Idaho at the time. That is all the reader need to know aside from the fact that the author reserves the right to decline comment on this period of her life at any time she chooses.
Unlike the vast majority of conservative Mennochurches, our church permitted the listening to and ownership of musical instruments outside the church sanctuary. Two families owned pianos. No other instruments had ever been asked for.
When my dad ran my harp-buying plan past our bishop to get an okay, the bishop hemmed and hawed. He didn’t approve of instruments at all, but because most of the church was okay with it, no action had ever been taken against them. He seemed under the impression that the harp, being a stringed instrument, was of Guitar Caliber. (Guitar, yanno, automatically equals ROCK MUSIC.) But in the end I was given permission.
After I had tightened Roisín’s strings, tuning them carefully according to the book, I began to pick out harmonies from our hymnals. I found the method in the lesson book that came with my harp to be difficult to understand without seeing it demonstrated, let alone do and master it, so I came up with my own method: about as graceful as waltzing with clodhoppers, but happymaking for me. Esther, who played the piano, and I frequently played Passion Chorale together. It was Bach! It had a lot of harmonious interest! My dad laughed at me when I gushed over its “chord structure”.
I had quickly learned that my sharping levers weren’t so hot. They did not all accurately take me up a half-step, and the tone was pretty awful on the ones that did. However, I lucked out with Passion Chorale, because most of the sharped notes it required were acceptable, if not perfect in tone, without having to retune.
Continue Reading: II – Into the Closet
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