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Tuesday, May 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Young local harpists to show their pluck

Seattle Times staff reporter

Northwest Harp Ensemble


'Round the World: A Celebration of the Harp!

In Seattle: Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 7:30 p.m. Friday. Tickets: 206-292-ARTS, $6 general admission.

In Tacoma: Rialto Theater, 3 p.m. Saturday. Admission: Free. Information: 253-627-2792

Leigh Stringfellow was not yet 4 when she announced she wanted to play the harp after seeing and hearing one at her sister's choir performance.

"We talked about the cello and piano, but that was not going to do," said her mother, who finally consented to harp lessons when her daughter was 10.

Nine-year-old Melody Swen was in preschool when she began asking for harp lessons. Her mother told her harps were for bigger girls and gave her piano lessons instead. Finally, two years ago, her parents relented and she took up the harp.

With the piano, "her face is really tense," said her mother, Julia Swen. "She plays harp, and her face is really relaxed."

Expensive — $9,500 when new to as much as $46,000 — unwieldy, fragile, solitary and hard to master, concert harps, while instruments of beauty, are not exactly every parent's first choice for nurturing a child's musical talent. Nevertheless, the harp can be an irresistible siren, and this weekend 34 students from Pierce and King counties will perform together in Seattle and Tacoma.

Their directors, Pat Wooster, director of the Tacoma Youth Symphony Harp Ensemble, and Alison Austin, director of the Bellevue Youth Symphony Harp Ensemble, are both former students of Lynne Wainwright Palmer, grand dame of the local harp community who founded the area's chapter of the American Harp Society.

Now 84, Palmer began teaching harp in the Seattle area around 1950. She has always advocated that while harps are most often played solo, harpists — especially young ones — need other harpists.

"She put harpists in touch with one another," Wooster said. "When I was studying, I didn't see any other harpists. You didn't get a chance to see other harpists, learn from other harpists."

Unlike other instruments in the hands of novices, the harp is more forgiving.

"It isn't like a beginning violin," Palmer said. "It sounds lovely from the very beginning."

Most harp teachers start kids out around the age of 9, after they've had two years of piano and know how to read music. Others start them as young as 5, playing easier pieces on smaller harps with fewer strings.

Leigh Stringfellow's 90-pound baby grand harp necessitated the family's purchase of a minivan with wide doors and a roomy interior. While her parents still need to drive her from place to place, she can now navigate her harp on her own, schlepping it around on a special dolly, providing there are no stairs.

"It was certainly not something her father or I encouraged," said her mother, Virginia Stringfellow. "A harp is not something you are thinking of buying when you are looking at that little newborn. I've learned to appreciate it."

With 46 strings, seven pedals and levers, the harp is complicated to play.

"The basic hand position is quite challenging for some kids to learn," said Juliet Stratton, a harpist and teacher in Redmond. "It takes a lot of discipline."

It's tough on little hands as well. "Sometimes my fingers hurt," said Melody Swen.

Like playing the tuba in a marching band, playing the harp can be an isolated pursuit. There is usually only one or two — if that — in orchestras, so harp parents and teachers try to arrange ensembles for their children.

Playing with a group also encourages young musicians to improve. "In a group you have to be right on your toes," said Palmer.

At a practice in Tacoma for this weekend's performance, 12 young harpists, all girls, practiced pieces such as Bach's Gavotte in G minor.

Some parents sat through the three-hour practice, helping their daughters move their harps and carry their benches. One father brought a book to read but spent much of the time listening to such pieces as "It's a Small World After All."

Though some notes were off-key or the timing not quite right, the music was magical. "The sound is very soothing," said Wooster. "I've had brides tell me that they were nervous until the harp starts playing."

Sarah Anne Wright: 206-464-2752 or swright@seattletimes.com

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