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find: Music Canada

Alison Vardy  

harpist, Canada.

I think that there's probably a musical instrument that best fits each one of us. I feel very lucky that I found my fit, even though it wasn't until I reached my thirties. My parents provided me with piano lessons for many years and this training was of immense practical support in my self-directed study of the folk harp. I enjoy practising, and if I don't, I leave it for another day. My most intense joys in music have been when playing for myself and discovering new melodies, harmonies and rhythmic patterns. Then there's the fun of sharing it!

Now, when I teach others I'm facilitating, encouraging and hopefully inspiring, as much as instructing. The capacity to learn is already's just the will to apply it. The bottom line is enjoying the process of learning and playing the harp (or whatever instrument) for there's no end-point where you can say "There, I´ve made it." Good thing there isn't; I would have lost motivation long ago.

There are no insurmountable obstacles to learning to play the harp. There are people with physical disabilities, very elderly, very young all who get a great deal of pleasure by learning and progressing at their own rate and to their own goals. Harps come in all sizes and types, from small lap harps to huge pedal harps. They can be strung in wire, nylon or gut in single, double, triple or crossed rows, all with varying tensions and hence tones. Chromaticity can be achieved by pedals, levers, brays, pegs, or not at all. There are medieval harps, renaissance harps, Welsh harps, Spanish harps, African harps....need I go on? Then of course there are the related zithers and psalteries. The common elements that unite the family of harps are a triangular frame, one side of which is usually a soundbox with strings threaded through it. There is an ongoing search for the holy grail -the perfect harp. Long may it continue for it keeps innovation alive.
Traditional music for the harp is a big topic. When speaking European of course there are centuries of Scottish, Welsh and Irish music for harp -much of it being transcribed only now, for it was originally an oral tradition. In Spain, the cross-strung harp was an important instrument during the Baroque period and before. From Spain and Portugal it reached the Americas and was further adapted and blended with immigrant African music to create the highly syncopated infectious joropos, salsas, galopas etc.
When I started playing the harp there was a dearth of published music for the harp. Now, with a growing population of fervent folk harpers, there is plenty and always more emerging. You often won't find it at your downtown music store, but speciality sections are turning up. If on the internet, consult the Harp Page -a starting point for all harp hopefuls.

I had no predilection for the harp until I met Andy Rigby while hiking up Mount Ruapehu in New Zealand. Andy wasn't carrying a harp in his knapsack, but he had whistles, flutes and a guitar sticking out from his bedroll. My husband Stephen and I were on year-long biking/working holiday to the Antipodes and we later visited Andy in Melbourne. That was my first experience of putting my hands on a harp. It was an Aoyama folk harp -and I was enchanted. Every time I passed by I had to give it a stroke and I was soon turning down invitations to go out, preferring to stay back and play the harp.
A year later when we emigrated from Canada to New Zealand (1984) I purchased a second-hand Celtic harp from now well-respected luthier, Kim Webby in Whangarei. It arrived in its box a week after we moved to Gore, a small rural town in the lower end was then 8 months pregnant and received lots of harmonics fit nicely against the bulge of the little harp's soundbox. I can still remember the great excitement I felt unpacking this beautiful instrument, made of oak and spruce. Along with the harp came an instruction book "Teach yourself to play the Folk Harp" -a near-classic now, written by Sylvia Woods who runs a harp shop centre in California. Carefully reading the text over and over and examining the two photographs minutely to check for hand position, I taught myself to play.
Of course there were set-backs. Initially I was too diligent and practised in a cold room for hours while the baby had the room with the coal fire (New Zealand homes are not centrally-heated, often poorly insulated, and Gore is COLD in the winter!). I started getting tendon strain in my wrists and had to stop playing for 6 months. I found a teacher in Dunedin and managed to correct my technique over the two brief lessons I had with her before she moved to Wellington. The town of Gore is known for it's brown trout fishing and its annual Country music Festival. In the 5 years I was there I met no one else playing Celtic music -and certainly not the harp! My instrument was welcomed however and my first-ever "gig" was for the Society of the Hearing Impaired!
In 1990 we moved to Dunedin (Gaelic for Edinburgh) which had a thriving folk club full of musicians who strummed, bowed and/or warbled Celtic music. I became involved on the New Edinburgh folk club committee and was soon performing in a couple of ensembles as well as organising concerts for local and overseas artists. I was still pretty isolated as an instrumentalist, for there was only one other harpist I knew of in Dunedin and she preferred a strictly Celtic repertoire. For a time, I was a member of "Blarney Rose", a 7 -member Celtic music group. We produced a commercial cassette tape and dubbed ourselves the "Irish light orchestra of the south". (because of our ever-expanding numbers).

In 1993, Andy Rigby visited us from Australia, bringing with him a Paraguayan harp on which he performed in a series of concerts throughout New Zealand. This new harp with its very light-weight construction, low-tension strings and brilliant tone totally captivated me. Before the year was out I managed to enrol in harp-making workshop run by Andy, and build the Paraguayan-style harp I now perform on, as well as attend the first ever Australian Harp Festival.
I returned to New Zealand with a new harp and some resources from one of the guest artists at the Australian Harp Festival; Alfredo Rolando Ortiz , one of the world's most-recorded performers on the Paraguayan harp. Over the next couple of years I worked on building a whole new repertoire of rhythmic, syncopated (Latin) and original music. I discovered (and am still discovering) the vitality and excitement of matching varying rhythmic patterns and melodies in two hands.
My real passion is improvisation and my ever-extending goal is to be able to play a piece in a dozen different ways; communicating vastly different moods by altering tempo, rhythm and harmony. As a solo instrumentalist it's vital that I can provide variety in order to captivate and hold an audience. I like "living on the edge" ...not really quite sure what my fingers will play next!

In 1996 I applied for, and was awarded, a Creative New Zealand Arts Grant to attend the International Folk Harpers Conference in Olympia, Washington. Over 400 delegates attended, primarily from the United States and Canada, but also representing Australia, England, Japan and various countries in Europe and Latin America. I was honoured to be asked to perform at one of the dinners and presented two pieces that I would later record on my CD, Harping On. It was a tremendously exciting, exhausting time with non-stop workshops, concerts and impromptu music sessions. The highlight for me was playing alongside Alfredo Ortiz in the foyer of the conference hall. The only thing more beautiful than one Paraguayan harp, is two Paraguayan harps!

Back in New Zealand I had a growing number of harp gigs, performing regularly at festivals, markets, weddings and other community, private and corporate events. I met a wonderful friend Ana Good, a professionally-trained soprano, and together we organised a small but very successful tour of smaller communities in the South Island. We even performed in a Winery cave in the foothills of the Southern Alps. The natural reverberations in that underground cavern was awesome.

When we departed New Zealand in December, 1997 it was because of my worsening allergies in the southern damp and a desire to return closer to extended family in Canada. My CD, Harping On, was recorded in the summer of 1997 as a tribute to all the fine people in New Zealand who were my musical mentors, colleagues and supporters. Before leaving Dunedin, Ana and I recorded 50 minutes of our harp and voice program in the wonderful acoustics of Marama Hall at the University of Otago. I hope to make this recording into a CD some day. I'm also working on another CD, which will be primarily solo harp and at least 60% original compositions.
Since returning to Canada, we've taken up residence in the small town of Sidney, just 25 minutes north of Victoria, B.C.'s capital city. We're located mid-point among many of my family members and close enough to 2 large centres to make music a viable livelihood.(I hope!) For the first time in my harp-playing experience, I have other folk harpers within hailing distance and I'm enjoying partaking of workshops and harp circles that were previously unavailable to me.

My future goals and dreams? To continue to become more improvisational and free-flowing in my playing, to expand my repertoire into other other cultures - ie. Sephardic music, Greek, Balkan etc. - to visit Paraguay and attend the Latin Harp Festival - to make a living at what I love doing. Intermediate to that I am applying for performance at Festivals, concert tours, school performances. This is to balance the background music I already provide at weddings, conference, tourist facilities etc. I am in the early phases of establishing myself as a working musician in Canada and there is much ground to be covered in marketing my music with integrity and respect.

My CD, Harping On is a compilation of my favourite tunes from when I lived in New Zealand, and includes 5 of my own compositions. Celtic, South American, Spirituals, American Folk and even a Bette Midler piece (Beneath Wings) are all performed on solo harp. (either Paraguayan or Celtic harp) Just under an hour in length, it was digitally recorded through 3 studio microphones has a wonderfully clean but warm, natural sound. People love it and are coming back after buying for friends, to purchase for themselves! I have no corporate distributor thus far and sales are made after performances and gigs, from local retail outlets and over the internet. A recent CD reviewer (Monday magazine, Victoria, B.C., Canada) wrote; "Vardy exploits both harps' capabilities well, moving from contemporary tonality to medieval modes and back. Her original arrangements even cross over into the black spiritual and pop genres. Overall, Harping On is a rhapsodic journey -sound in continuous motion."

Short clips from each track on the CD can heard on the website at:

The CD can be ordered and paid for over the internet or you can write, email or call me with an order. Prices are: Canadian $20 plus $3 for postage for the first CD. If ordering 2 or more CDs the postage is waived. US$15 plus US$3 for postage for the first CD. If ordering 2 or more CDs the postage is waived.

Contact Alison Vardy, 102 - 9906 Resthaven Drive, Sidney, B.C., V8L 3E8, Canada
tel: (250) 656 5985, email:

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