A moment that changed me: ‘I threw away the score and all the color and passion I had for the harp came back to me’

A moment that changed me: ‘I threw away the score and all the color and passion I had for the harp came back to me’
A moment that changed me: ‘I threw away the score and all the color and passion I had for the harp came back to me’

Jhe day I discovered a harp for the first time is a memory stored in all my senses. The sound of the strings, the pleasing curve of the neck, the smell of mayflower dancing in the breeze. It was love at first sight, that’s for sure. Unlike the vivid color in which I remember that first meeting, I also remember my parents’ faces turning pale when I announced, “I’m going to play the harp!”

We were at a school fair. My parents had saved and saved to send my two brothers and I to a Steiner school, where the arts and creativity are held on the same level as academic success.

My father was, and still is, an incredibly talented musician. He never said as much, but part of him clearly always hoped that one of his children would be attracted to music. Until the age of 10, I had shown no interest in any instrument, although I regularly fell asleep to the sound of live music coming up the stairs. But when I saw the harp, I knew that was the one. It was such a strong and certain feeling. People often ask me, “Do you play multiple instruments, or just the harp?” What they don’t realize is that I didn’t choose the harp like you would choose a pair of shoes, I fell in love with it. I can’t imagine playing anything else.

My parents’ pale faces reflected their financial fears: why oh why had their daughter fallen in love with the most expensive instrument of all?

They made a deal with me: I could have a cymbala (essentially a cheap lyre), and if I played and showed enough interest for a year, they would save up so I could take harp lessons. Although I didn’t like the cymbal, I did, and played it regularly to prove to my parents that I hadn’t forgotten the harp. A year later, all my dreams have come true. They had rented me a small harp and hired the man I had seen playing at the school fair to teach me.

The first days were happy. I was so proud of every little bit I learned. I felt complete every time I plucked the strings. Then something happened: a score. So, I had to learn this foreign language to be able to continue playing. What was once effortless fun has turned into a constant struggle. My dyslexic brain fed on the beauty of the music, but struggled with the way it was taught. I soon found myself stuck in a love-hate relationship, desperate to keep everything I loved about the harp, but angry at my brain for not allowing me to follow through.

In my teens, my relationship with my harp was as unpredictable as my mood swings. I would spend hours trying to play old harp tunes and weeks staring at my harp in anger and frustration. For my 16th birthday, my parents used their savings to buy me a locally made harp, in the hope that she could sort out my relationship with her.

I was delighted to have a harp of my own. But in the weeks that followed, it was clear that this instrument was sick. First it lost its resonance, then the soundboard started cracking. One day there was a huge bang: the soundboard was out and the harp had exploded.

My parents contacted the harp maker, but there was no response. Eventually, they went to his home, where they met his family. As the harp had fallen ill, so had the harp maker. And the day the harp exploded, its maker committed suicide. We were all in shock. My parents had no choice but to leave empty-handed, all their savings gone in an instant.

For several weeks, the remains of the harp sat at the bottom of our stairs. Nobody knew what to do. It was a pile of broken wood, but also all their savings and a representation of a man’s life. We decided there was only one thing to do: burn it. We started a fire on top of a hill overlooking the River Dart. It was strange to burn something that represented so much. As the flames devoured the wood, we all sat there watching in silence.

Morwenna and her father, Bou Roodenburg-Vermaat. Photography: Image provided

“I guess that’s all about me and the harp,” I told my father. “I wasn’t very good at it anyway. I don’t think I will ever be able to read music.

“It’s not about knowing how to read music,” he said. “It’s called playing music for a reason. Have you ever thought of just playing?

Something about what he said and the emotion of the moment he said it changed everything for me.

“Yeah, but I don’t have a harp anymore anyway,” I said.

Two weeks later, an old, damaged little harp appeared. “It’s not yours,” Dad told me. “We can’t afford it, not after what happened.” But my insides jumped with joy at the sight of him.

There was something ancient and wise in this harp. When I played it, I really played. I threw away all my music and my books. It was effortless again. I started playing by ear and from the heart. I composed new songs and rearranged old ones. All the color and passion I felt at the start came back.

I’ve always been very drawn to old Irish harp tunes, and found that traditional harpists in Ireland never used sheet music – they predate the whole concept. I no longer felt like a failure and an impostor. It was proof that there was more than one way forward.

When I turned 18, this little harp officially became mine and we continued to travel the world. We lived in Australia, where together we seduced my husband, Creag. We made our way through Europe and hiked the Camino de Santiago. We spent evenings with people from all corners of the globe, without saying a word, communicating beyond language. Then, when my harp got too old to handle baggage handlers and airplane holds, Creag made me a harp. To this day, he is a harp maker and I am a harp teacher.

Being good at reading music is not what makes a good musician. So many musically creative people never realize how awesome they are. My musical journey inspired me to create a harp adapted to neurodiversity called Rainbow Harp and a method of composition accessible to all. Earlier this year, I spoke at the World Harp Congress. There I met talented musicians at the top of their game who had let their love for their instrument become a drain on their mental health. Music has the power to express what words cannot. It should be medicine for our mental health issues, not their cause.

Music is so much more than dots on a page. If you feel it, love it and are excited about it, don’t give up. If I had let traditional music teaching techniques deter me from playing the harp, I would have lost a part of myself.

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