Student harpists enchant with soothing, magical melodies

Vassar harpists and Adjunct Artist Jeannie Kern Chenette organized a cozy concert in the Rose Parlor featuring the smooth serenades of South America. Courtesy of Jon Chenette

The most pivotal decision in any musician’s career is their choice of instrument. That initial feeling of attraction to the instrument sparks the desire to continue exploring the music it can make. The musician is instantly transported into the world of melody and rhythm the moment their fingers touch the keys or their bow caresses the strings. For Melanie Carolan ’23, her call to adventure was the harp. After watching videos of other musicians playing the harp, she fell in love with the beauty of the majestic instrument, with its gentle strings and the graceful chords. Four years later, Vassar community members could hear her continuing passion in an intimate harp concert that marked the end of the semester, with friends and family coming together to enjoy the serene sound of her beloved instrument.

Music filled the cozy Rose Parlor in Main Building on Thursday, Nov. 21. The warm lighting and the snug setting spotlighted the harp positioned in the center of the room. The magnificent instrument, with its powerful presence, seemed to take up most of the small space. The snug size of the crowd facilitated an atmosphere of comfort, carving a deeper connection between the audience and the musicians. She played alongside other student harpists at Vassar, with songs originating from Columbia, Paraguay, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. In her introduction to the event, Adjunct Artist Jeannie Kern Chenette discussed the style of music her students were performing that night; the pieces were initially inspired by numbers from South American dance repertoire. “I was delighted when all my students, ranging from first-semester to accomplished players, were willing to learn complex dance rhythms and present them for others,” Chenette later commented in an email correspondence.

The students performing that night ranged in experience. Some had been playing since high school, while others had only just started to learn this year. Having this variety of players made the atmosphere more inviting, building a positive, supportive environment. Despite this wide array of experience with the harp, each of the musicians presented a short piece that instantly came to life as soon as their fingers touched the strings. Each song had an energy of its own; some were upbeat and catchy while others were smooth and glistening. Each distinct melody engulfed the room with peaceful notes and alluring harmonies. Listening to the harp in person made the instrument and the music powerful—much more powerful than listening to a recording. Being able to experience the harp, seeing the students work with the elaborate strings and hearing the captivating music, illuminated the passion that Carolan and the other musicians have for their instrument.

The concert gave the audience a glimpse into the work of students in Chenette’s studio. Harp is just one of numerous instrumental studios open to Vassar students, regardless of whether they study music more broadly. For the student harpists who had begun playing in high school, Vassar’s music program provides a space to continue exploring their passion. “In college, it’s just so much easier to spend time on extracurriculars,” Carolan commented, reflecting on how her relationship with the harp has changed. “I can devote more time to practicing the harp, where in high school, I would get home at like 4 p.m. and then do hours of homework.”

Although the harp may not be the most standard musical instrument to pick up and learn, its beauty and elegance make it unique. With its large size and intricate strings and pedals, the harp often stands out against instruments such as the flute or the violin. Carolan articulated the harp’s allure: “It’s such a fun instrument. I always say it’s like a piano turned on its side.” But the harp, like all other instruments, serves as an escape from the chaos of daily life. “Playing harp can bring a sense of calmness and joy, and also an appreciation of how the body and mind work together effectively. Most of all, it can bring a great sense of joy into your life,” Chenette enthused. “When students come into the harp studio, they can leave their busy campus lives outside the door and immerse themselves in musical endeavor.”

So, no matter how stressful or hectic college life can get, the student harpists can always find refuge in the harp room at Skinner Hall, a space that allows them to immerse themselves in the calming world of music. The Rose Parlor concert was a way to welcome others into it as well. “It was interesting… to listen to a new kind of music,” Haru Sugishita ’23 commented afterwards. In essence, the harp concert was about inclusivity—from its intimate venue to its soothing melodies, it comforted both the musician and the listener.

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