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Finding Hope in the Harp

February 27, 2013

Photo credit: CBS

When you think of the harp what images come to mind? Heavenly angels strumming away? Or perhaps ornate dinner parties reserved for the wealthy? A program in Atlanta is changing these perceptions and harnessing the power of the harp in new and exciting ways.

Elisabeth Remy Johnson, principal harpist of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and Roselyn Lewis, a long time public school music teacher have created a program that provides harp lessons to low income students. The Atlanta Urban Youth Harp Ensemble works with young people who overcome major disadvantages to master the instruments complexity, earn gigs and qualify for college scholarships putting themselves in position for professional music careers. The harps are donated and the lessons are free to any and all students who are interested.

It’s an unusual marriage. Common perceptions would suggest that the harp would be a hard sell in an urban environment. But the program is working!

What draws people to it, is that its just so rare and unique. And you know, these kids, they want to stand out. They want to make a name for themselves. So, they come to try their hand at it – Carolyn Lund, artistic director and full-time harp instructor with the program.

Over the ensemble’s 12-year history, 450 students have “tried their hands” at the harp and the success has really started to turn some heads. The situations of the students vary, but they share one common trait: Fearlessness. These are students who are willing to take a risk and try something unique.

The rarified world of performance harpists is mostly white and female. In the Atlanta Urban Youth Harp Ensemble, the majority of participants are African-American males.

A lot of people aren’t expecting, first of all, a male,” one student said, “And then when they see an African American male, they’re a bit hestiant. But I think we’re breaking [those] barriers

What began in 2000 as two students learning from Elisabeth Remy Johnson, has grown into a program of 60 students learning from a salaried artistic director. The progress that group has made is remarkable!

One of the very first students to complete the program, Mason Morton, went on to enroll for his masters at Boston University and now has a gig teaching harp to six middle schoolers in Boston Public Schools.

A true testament to the power of music to change lives and build community.

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