Sunday, October 5, 2014

A conversation with Emily Granger, Harpist

The Heritage Philharmonic is celebrating it's 70th Anniversary this season. Our upcoming concert is devoted to the music of France, and features harpist Emily Granger. Here are the details:

Join us for the first concert of the season!

  Music of France

Saturday, October 18, 2014, 7:30 pm

Tri-City Ministries

4500 Little Blue Parkway

Independence, MO 64057 

Gounod     Ballet Music from Faust

Ravel     Pavane for a Dead Princess

Debussy     Danses sacrée et profane

Saint-Saëns     Morceau de Concert

Bizet     L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2

Emily Granger, harp soloist

Emily grew up in the KC area, and began studying the harp when she was 12 years old. She is returning to KC as a performer for the first time since she graduated from Park Hill South High School. Emily currently lives in Chicago and is a member of the Chicago Harp Quartet. She is a graduate of the prestigious Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. I was very happy to be able to speak with her recently and learn more about her career, as well as the challenges and joys of being a professional harpist:

TH: Did you start out playing the harp?

EG:  Actually, I started out studying piano...that was my first instrument. I gave a “go” at jazz piano, but that was definitely not my calling. But I do play a little piano. In fact, I just got keyboard for my apartment so I can keep working on my skills.

TH Where are you from?

EG: I’m from Parkville, MO.  I graduated from Park Hill South after three years. I did my first year of undergrad work at the University of Michigan. And then I transferred to Indiana. IU has one of the most respected harp studios in the country.

TH: How long have you been playing the harp?

EG: Since I was 12….so 13 years.

TH: How did you get started playing the harp?

EG:  I somehow got it stuck in my head that it’s what I wanted to play. I had a Celtic music CD from my cousin that I remember listening to in the living room with my mom, and asking her about the instruments. And there was a lot of harp on it, as there is in a lot of Celtic music…and it just got ingrained in my brain that I wanted to do that. I had never seen a harp before in my entire life. I had no idea what a harp looked like or what was involved in playing the harp. And so for a year, I begged my parents to let me take harp lessons. And I told all of the teachers at school that I was going to play the harp in orchestra next year. And they all just kinda laughed at me...”OK, yeah, sure you’re gonna play the harp…right.”  I must have been very persistent because after a year my parents found a harp teacher in the area…in Lenexa, KS…and that was my first time ever seeing a harp, at my first harp lesson. And the rest is history!

TH: Did your teacher provide you with a harp?

EG: Yes, she rented me a little Celtic harp.

TH: Are there different sizes of harps?

EG: Yes there are many different sizes of harps, especially when it comes to lever harps…Celtic or Irish harps…those vary in size greatly. What I play on now is a concert grand pedal harp. They are very standard…47 strings, and it has 7 pedals that change the pitch of the strings. This is what most concert harpists play.

TH: How is it tuned?

EG: The harp is tuned to C-flat major. Each string is a note….C-D-E-F-G-A -B …etc…and the pedals have three notches that change the note from flat-natural-sharp. So for example, the C-string can be C-flat, or C-natural or C-sharp, depending on where the pedal is.

TH: Wow, so not only do you have all 10 fingers and thumbs going on 47 strings, you have both feet as well in action on 7 pedals?

EG: Yes, except we don’t use our pinky!

TH: No pinky?

EG: No pinky, correct (laughing).

TH: So it’s a lot more complicated than just fingers on strings…I don’t think most people realize how difficult an instrument it really is to play. The pedals actually perform a very important function.

EG: Very important. You can be playing all the right strings, but if your pedals are in the wrong place you end up playing wrong notes.

TH: When I think about pedals, I also think about how busy an organist is with both hands and both feet going at the same time.

EG: Exactly!

TH: When did you realize you wanted to be a professional harpist?

EG: I think I knew in high school that’s what I wanted to do. I spent a couple of summers in Michigan at the Interlochen Arts Camp, and that was where I first realized there were other kids my age who were just as passionate about their instruments…and that there were harpists that were better than me! (laughing)!

TH: Tell about the logistics of being a harpist. How do you get the harp to your gigs?

EG: I stick it in my car and I drive. I have to have a big car and it has a lot of miles because I’ve driven all over the country with it, harp in tow.

TH: What about harp maintenance…is it sensitive to humidity and temperature?

EG: Yes, but lucky for me being in Chicago, I live a mile away from the world’s largest harp manufacturer, Lyon and Healy. That’s where my harp is from so if anything goes wrong, I can just zip over there and drop it off and they’ll take care of it for me. I get my harp regulated by a harp regulator twice a year. There are 2000 moving parts inside of the harp that can get just slightly off and cause a buzz, or will cause the intonation to go out… for example the F-natural could be in tune, but the F-sharp  could be out of tune…just one particular string. So they go though and make sure every string is perfectly in tune.

TH: So do you have to tune the harp yourself…or do they do it for you when you take it in?

EG: I tune the harp myself every single day.

TH: That seems like it would be a time consuming job?

EG: (laughs) It is. People may notice in rehearsal or at a concert in between pieces, I may be tweaking a couple of things because it fluctuates.

TH: How important are posture and ergonomics?

EG: Very important.  I suffered from tendinitis at a very young age and there was actually at a point in my career when I worried for a little while that I was going to have to quit. …it was just so bad. I was seeing a physical therapist twice a week, an acupuncturist once a week and going to see a message therapist once a week.  This went on for many years…it would flare up and down. I ended up having a cortisone injection in my wrist. And I met with a hand surgeon because they could not figure out what was causing me so much pain. But thankfully the cortisone injection has really helped. So I am very conscious about my body when I am playing…and even when I’m not playing. I am doing the right stretches, taking frequent breaks. The biggest key for posture and pain management is relaxing…..being able to know how to relax those tiny little muscles in your hands, your wrists, your forearms, your shoulders…..I am constantly thinking to myself “relax”. I still go and see a message therapist about once a month to work on my back and shoulders. I also go to the gym and work on strengthening.

TH: What do you sit on when you play?

EG: I have a really nice, cushy piano bench.

TH: A friend of mine is a guitarist, and he has to maintain the fingernails on his right hand in a special way because he uses them to pluck the strings. Do harpists pluck the string with their fingernails?

EG: I use the fleshy part of my fingertips, not the nails. So I keep them nice and short.

TH: Are there any particular harpists who have been influential in your development?

EG: Definitely. My teacher Susann McDonald at Indiana University is one of the most well-known harpists in the world. She’s literally taught everyone. She taught at the Julliard School for many years and has students in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, National Symphony, and Detroit Symphony. Getting to study with her was just incredible. She changed my life and my playing. And it’s been incredible to stay in touch with her over the past couple of years since I’ve been out of school. My harp quartet played a big concert this past summer. Lyon and Healy, the harp manufacturer I told you about, had their 150th birthday festival this summer. They invited the biggest names …the biggest harp soloists in the world… to come and perform. And they invited my harp quartet to come perform as well. It was a huge honor to be invited to perform at this festival. Miss McDonald was there….she came to hear us play. It was really incredible…to show her what I am doing after school. Another big influence in my life has been Sarah Bullen, the Principal Harpist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I studied with her at Roosevelt University. I earned my Master’s degree there with her. She is an in incredible woman….she is such a powerful force when it comes to playing the harp. She’s just got it figured out. She was in the New York Philharmonic for many years before she won the job with the CSO and has played with the best conductors and musicians in the world.   Spending so many years playing in the best orchestras in the world… being surrounded by that sound…she has this incredible sense of style and character. She’s able to hear so many details that can take you from sounding mediocre to perfection. In our lessons, I would often play an excerpt for her. She would yell at me (nicely!) to get up and let her play it. I was always blown away by her power and sensitivity. I’ve been so lucky to have such unbelievable women mentors.

TH: I developed this blog to celebrate classical music. Do you listen to it? I know you play it of course, but tell me about your musical tastes.

EG: Being a harpist, we play a more obscure repertoire…solo, chamber etc…and also symphonic works that include the harp. Recently I have been on a quest to start listening to all of the great repertoire that does not include the harp.  (laughing) I’ve been listening to a lot of Beethoven lately….his chamber works and symphonies. And Brahms and Schumann…Schubert…Haydn symphonies too. I love the piano and I enjoy listening to great pianists, Glenn Gould probably being my favorite. I really love listening to the solo piano works of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, two of my favorite composers. I actually have a cat named after Rachmaninoff!

TH: Do you listen to other types of music too? What’s on your playlist these days?

EG: Oh yes. My favorite band is Little Dragon. I am actually going to go see them in Denver right after my last performance in Kansas City. I try to go to a lot of live concerts in Chicago. Recently I’ve seen James Vincent McMorrow, St. Vincent, Jessie Ware, and Sigur Ros.

TH: I am concerned and interested in the acceptance and appreciation of classical music in our society today. What do think about classical music in our world these days?

EG: I am not concerned.  Maybe I should be but I’m not because I think that young musicians like myself and my colleagues that I went to school with are doing interesting things that are speaking to people in a new way. I don’t think this world would exist without classical music, or without music in general. I’m not worried. Classical music is going in a new direction.  I hope that what I have to say through the harp will reach people and get them thinking…or feeling something they haven’t felt before.

TH: I am happy to hear your optimism. My friend Patrick says that classical music is “hip”.

EG: It is…definitely. In Chicago we have concerts in Millennium Park. 11,000 people showed up for a free concert ….of Opera. People recognize greatness...and the best artists… and they want to hear it.

TH: We are so excited to have you come to KC for the concert with the Heritage Philharmonic. How did this come about?

EG: Jim Murray and I met when I was a freshman in high school. I competed in the concerto competition… I played one movement of the Handel Concerto ...the slow movement, and I was one of the winners. So I performed that concerto with the Northland Symphony. Jim was conducting.  We reconnected a couple of years ago and have stayed in touch. He asked me earlier this year if I would be interested in coming back to perform and I said “absolutely!” My passion is performing. There is nothing better for then getting up on stage with an orchestra …its really special.

TH: And you still have family here?

EG: I do.

TH: It will be wonderful for them to come and hear you play!

EG: Absolutely. I have not performed in KC since I was in high school. I am very excited.

TH: I can’t wait. Thank you so much for your time.

EG: I also wanted to say I'm playing 2 solo recitals while I am in the area, one in Clay Center, KS and another at KU.

TH: That's awesome. Have a wonderful time! And thank you for speaking with me.

EG: You are most welcome.

Here is a link to Emily's website:

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what beautiful music! I praise God that I can hear! Emily is both a talented soloist and exceptional performer in her harp quartet! I encourage each of you to buy her harp quartet CD. You won't regret it! Dr. Kathy Bosch