“It is God’s instrument. It is the most addicting instrument I have ever played; the most soothing, and at the same time exciting. Come along, I will help you get addicted too!
Vanessa League of Tucson is talking about the harp, which she builds, plays and teaches people how to play. My own favourite encounter with a harp goes back to a performance by Ossian Ellis (now 92), the foremost artist of the Welsh harp. That was at the University of Waterloo in Canada in the 1970s.
League recalled with fondness a time in Munich in 2017. She had been invited to perform there, but something wonderful happened during a rehearsal at the place she was staying. “The music went out over the quad, and an elderly gentleman came as close as he could to listen. That was my favourite concert: to a single person. I love to play – I don’t care if it is for one or a thousand.”
The harp has ancient antecedents. The god of music, Apollo, is often shown with a lyre, which resembles a small harp. Archeologists have found harps and lyres dating back to 3500 BCE in Sumer, the location of modern-day Iraq and Kuwait. Paintings found in south Asia depict harps that may be even older. In Christian mythology angels were often shown playing the harp which, as League stated, emits a very soothing sound, at once calming and entrancing.
She studied Performance at Kansas State University and began teaching in the Peoria, Illinois area upon arrival there in 1989. The year 2006 was a critical year in her relationship with the harp. She built her first that year, and “I played it at a wedding in October, just 3 months after I learned how to play it.” But that merely whetted her appetite for more.
“I was highly motivated to teach, and by July 2007 a local restaurant in Peoria that featured harpists called to ask me to play. So miraculously I was playing professionally just a year after I began.”
The 35-pound harp she performs on now was built in 2011. “I have made 20 harps, some as studio harps. My goal is to make harps for the common person – for centuries it was only available to the rich.” League says she can design harps to the specifications of the owner, the intricacy of design and carving being a major factor in the price. Once a harp is complete, she has the satisfaction any artist gets who completes a painting. “I can says ‘this is my artwork: I did the decorating myself’.”
The harp she plays on, like the ones she can build for a client, are not the large harps that one sees at a symphony concert. Those have 7 pedals and an intricate mechanism in the harp to connect them with the strings. The harps she makes rely on what are called “sharpening levers” located along the top of each string. “It is easier to throw a sharpening lever than have to throw a pedal quickly, but other things are easier on a pedal harp,” she explained.
League coquettishly says she is “an addict and a pusher” but only in the best way, as she continues on her mission to bring the heavenly instrument to the widest possible audience.
To consult on having a harp made, hiring League for a performance, or to engage her as a teacher, visit the website:
or send her an email:
photo by C Cunningham