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Category — Inspiration & Influence

On my teachers: Mr. Schultz


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Of my four main private music teachers, I studied with Mr. Schultz the longest. My brother and I started piano lessons with him when I was 10, and I remained in his studio through high school. Our previous teacher, Helen Taverniti (who many years later I learned was once Janos Starker’s accompanist!) had retired and passed all her students to him. I remember her saying, “All the teachers are shaking in their shoes because Willard’s in town.” She was talking, of course, about his respected teaching ability; but I had it in my mind that this new teacher was a scary person.

“Scary” doesn’t accurately describe Mr. Schultz. He never raised his voice, threatened, or anything like that. But he expected hard work, whether or not your sights were set on Juilliard. There were weeks (when I didn’t practice like I should have) that I entered the studio shaking in my shoes. Like all good teachers he could distinguish between inability and laziness; and when the latter was the problem, he’d simply say, “Take responsibility,” and leave it at that. It was enough.

Like most kids, I never fully appreciated my teachers until years after leaving the studio. Thinking back, I’m amazed at the level of care Mr. Schultz showed his students. He tracked the repertoire of each of us to ensure we’d study a variety of music while in his class. He regularly made “mix tapes” off old LP’s of the pieces we were learning, often including program notes or journal articles. (A longtime college professor, he read broadly and owned an impressive library.) In addition to weekly lessons, he’d hold monthly studio classes where we’d play and discuss our current repertoire. Dreaded back in the day? For sure. But despite my lack of appreciation at the time, these gatherings profoundly impacted my development of musical taste, introducing me to now-favorite composers and works.

He especially loved the lyricism of Brahms and Schumann. He wasn’t an active performer by the time I met him, but he’d often be practicing the Symphonic Etudes or Intermezzi when we arrived for lessons. Though he wasn’t a particularly emotive person I could sense his excitement when entrusting us with some of these composers’ works. A highlight for me was learning the first movement of his favorite concerto, the Schumann a minor.

When I was thinking about going into music, we discussed different schools and paths. But he also told me that he never tried to convince students to consider music as a career. “Only do it if you really love it,” he warned, “because it’s very, very difficult.”

Despite the difficulties, I’d estimate he’s been going strong for close to 60 years now. The fruit of his labor isn’t primarily a large discography or concert programs. Rather — if you walk into his studio, among the first things you’ll notice is a wall filled top to bottom with photos of students; many inscribed with the same phrase: “Thanks to an inspiring teacher.”

(Photo)

September 14, 2011   No Comments

Happy birthday, Claude Debussy!


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Today is an important day. First, it’s my mom’s birthday. Happy birthday, Mom!

It’s also the birthday of one of my favorite composers, Claude Debussy. His music actually made me want to practice in the early part of high school because it revealed a world of sound and color unlike anything I’d heard or studied before. I think my piano teacher figured this out quickly and assigned me a fair amount of Debussy. One of my favorites was his piano prelude Voiles (which means sails or veils):

As a harpist, I’ve gotten to also play his wonderful chamber and orchestral music as well. The ending of La Mer, when the brass section emerges from storm of strings, is one of those lump-in-the-throat moments for me.

If you’re on Spotify, here’s a playlist of some of my other favorites.

Do you have a favorite Debussy work?

Edit: A nice list of favorites on Reddit.

August 22, 2011   1 Comment

Inspiration & Influence: Creative Collaborations


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My undergrad program included a couple required classes in career management. We covered the usual topics: creating press packages, applying for grants, and even schmoozing. But we also spent a fair amount of time discussing programming and the changing nature of classical music.

Most of us students were nearing graduation and realizing the increasing difficulty of making a living in classical music, at least through traditional means such as orchestra jobs and teaching posts. Our instructor and guest speakers urged us to think creatively — to reimagine venue possibilities, collaborations, and repertoire choices.

But while we all felt the truth of what these arts professionals were saying, we also harbored skepticism. Was “reimagining” just a trendy term for playing light classics in a bar instead of a church or coming up with cheesy arrangements of top-40 hits?

This was only 6 or 7 years ago, but it’s amazing what has happened since that time. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and IMSLP have gone from nonexistence or infancy to revolutionizing the way we get information and music. The difficulties for classical musicians that were emerging when I was in school have increased faster than most of my classmates and I expected.

There is no question that trying to make a living as a classical musician is tough nowadays. But despite the difficulties, I believe there is a lot to be excited about. Creativity often flourishes within limitations. Classical musicians are reimagining ways to engage audiences while respecting the art form — and creating new art in the process.

Simple Measures

This past Friday I attended a refreshingly unusual chamber music concert presented by Seattle-based Simple Measures. The originality of the experience lay not so much in the musical choices but in the interweaving of other artistic disciplines such as live dance (some pre-choreographed, some improvised) and projected visual art:

One of my favorite collaborations was the opening sequence, which began with video footage of a train ride through changing landscapes. The audio faded into the polyrhythmic pulse of Nico Muhly’s A Hudson Cycle, a piano solo with a quietly haunting intensity:

I especially appreciated how each piece in the program felt connected to the next, despite extreme contrasts in mood and subject matter. George Crumb’s dramatic Vox Balaenae, complete with prepared piano and amplified instruments, transitioned naturally into the contemplative serenity of Arvo Part’s Spiegel em Spiegel with help from a few well-timed dance moves and tasteful lighting. Also on the program: a set of Renaissance pieces (found on IMSLP) and Ravel’s Piano Trio.

Not every part of the program was equally successful. A couple sequences attempted to combine music, dance, and video, which was too busy and ended up distracting from each of the elements. But on the whole, the concert experience was well conceived and interesting both for professional musicians and first-time concertgoers.

The Art of Time Ensemble

Another example of a group that is reinventing the classical music genre is Toronto-based The Art of Time Ensemble. One of their many creative concert themes is “Source and Inspiration,” where new works inspired by a classical piece are performed back-to-back. For example, the ensemble commissioned six new pieces to be written based on Korngold’s Suite for piano, two violins and cello, including this new work by singer-songwriter Danny Michel:

Also check out their live staging of The War of the Worlds and a fantastic cover of The Beatles’ Oh, Darling, featuring Steven Page.

(Top Image)
(Simple Measures Image)

June 7, 2011   No Comments

Inspiration & Influence: Competitions


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marathon

This past weekend, my brother Joe won Google Games Seattle with a few of his computer science friends. He scored a new smartphone, but didn’t even bring me back a sticker. Where’s the sibling love?

Anyways, as he was describing the puzzles he and his teammates had to solve, I was thinking about how different his competition was from those in the music world. Figuring out the winners for Google Games was as easy as seeing which team finished solving the puzzles first.

Alas, in the music world, it’s not a matter of who can play their Chopin etude the fastest (well . . . ok . . . maybe sometimes it seems like it is). The person who hits the most correct notes isn’t necessarily the winner.

There’s that whole matter of Personal Interpretations. You never know what the judges might like from one day to another. Have the same panel listen to the same competitors playing the same pieces two days in a row, and they very well might choose a different winner each day. I can understand that, because I am not exactly the same each morning. My general tastes may stay the same, but what moves me today might leave me cold the next.

Then there’s also student-teacher politics, personal repertoire likes and dislikes, and all those other things that make music competitions so messy.

For some, the nonexistence of a perfectly fair way to determine a winner of a music competition is reason enough not to enter any. Furthermore, even winning a major one hardly guarantees a successful career these days.

While I don’t think competitions are necessary for everyone pursuing a musical profession, I do consider competitions among the most memorable and influential experiences in my own artistic development. Among the most important lessons I’ve learned:

Higher standards of excellence

Everyone who enters a competition wants to win (if someone says they don’t, they’re either lying or crazy), and that naturally whets a desire for excellence. Yes, we’re supposed to try our best at everything we do. But what competitions can do is help us realize new levels of “best.” Competition preparation has taught me to listen more carefully, to be tougher on myself, and to find ever more efficient ways of ensuring consistent accuracy.

Mental strength

Competitions push your mental strength at every stage: Planning your preparation. Learning and memorizing the repertoire. Practicing and performing. The actual competition. Even processing and pressing on post-competition — win or lose — takes mental tenacity. Learning to handle the level of concentrated focus a competition requires will benefit you in many areas of life.

Appreciation for new / different music

My philosophy is to only enter competitions if I like most of the required music. But often, especially with bigger competitions, the repertoire list will include works that are unfamiliar or even completely new (i.e. written for the competition). As a result, sometimes you’re forced to live longer with certain pieces than you might normally choose. In some cases this extra time fosters deeper understanding and appreciation for a different style of music.

In other cases . . . well, you’ll always feel like you’re looking for gems in a trash heap; and making the best of that is a whole art in itself!

May 17, 2011   No Comments

Inspiration & Influence: Reminders


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reminder

Today started out as a Murmuring Monday.

The type of Monday where I wake up groaning because the bad dream was true — the weekend is over. The type of Monday where I sin all the way to work, worrying about all the things to do this week.

I tried to write a blog post during my lunch break. Actually, I tried several times, but deleted them all. Turns out complaining and self-pity make writing about gratitude and inspiration pretty difficult, not to mention hypocritical.

I needed a good dose of the Gospel. God gave me two.

First, Romans 1 was my reading for today. Verse 15-16 jumped out at me:

So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

It’s clear from the opening verses of the chapter that the recipients of the letter were already believers. Yet they still needed the gospel preached to them. I am no different.

John Piper writes:

Notice that verse 16 does not say, “The gospel . . . is the power of God to bring about faith and salvation.” It says, “The gospel is the power of God for [unto] salvation to everyone who is believing [present tense in Greek, signifying continuous action].” In other words, Paul’s point here is not that the power of the gospel creates faith, but that, for those who have faith, the gospel brings about salvation. So the point is not that the gospel is the power for conversion to faith; the point is that the gospel is the power to bring about future salvation through a life of faith.

The tense of the verb “believe” here is crucial. It signifies ongoing action, not just the first act of faith when you were converted . . .

So the point of Romans 1:16 is that you don’t have to be ashamed of the gospel, because it is the only truth in the world which, if you go on banking on it day after day, will triumph over every obstacle and bring you to eternal safety and joy in the presence of a holy and glorious God.

(Source)

Second, this Sandra McCracken song surfaced on my playlist — a fitting prayer with the above verses fresh in my mind:

Petition

Father whate’er of earthly bliss
Thy sovereign will denies
Accepted at Thy throne of grace
Let this petition rise

Let the sweet hope that thou art mine
My life and death attend
Thy presence through my journey shine
And crown my journey’s end

Give me a calm, a thankful heart
From every murmur free
The blessings of Thy grace impart
And make me live to Thee

You raise your hand to still the storms
That rage inside my head
Revive my heart with gratitude
Love quell my doubt and dread

Give me a sure and rested soul
From every fear relief
The spirit’s power and presence mine
To ever comfort me

Give me a sure, a restful heart
From every fear relief
Thy spirit’s power and presence mine
To ever comfort me.

Give me a calm, a thankful heart
From every murmur free
The blessings of thy grace impart
And make me live to thee.

(You can hear the song here.)

Amen. Only hoping in the gracious God of the gospel can truly transform Murmuring Mondays into Thankful Tuesdays.

(Photo)

May 9, 2011   2 Comments

Inspiration & Influence: 9/11


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twin lights for twin towers

Like many Americans, I sat glued to the news last night as President Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden. It was one of those surreal “I’ll-always-remember-where-I-was-when-I-heard” moments, just like that morning nearly a decade ago that embedded bin Laden’s name on American consciousness.

I was 17 on 9/11. The events of that day have influenced the adult lives of my generation, from the way we travel to how we understand shock and fear. I never imagined how I would feel upon the death of bin Laden, and hours later I’m still sorting through the emotional complexities.

Watching the elation of New Yorkers last night reminded me that humanity longs for hope, justice, and redemption. We celebrate things that give us an imperfect, temporary pictures of those ideals. Bin Laden’s death offered a sense of symbolic, but hardly complete justice. Even as I feel gratitude in knowing that some due punishment was rendered, I also feel grief in remembering the horrors that made this death so enigmatic — and, on an even bigger scale, that we live in a world where sin and death are ongoing realities.

The world is not as it should be. Today’s flood of news is a sober reminder of that fact. My rejoicing should not be in the death of one man today; but in the blessed hope that a perfectly loving, perfectly just God controls the universe.

This is not the end of the story.

***

Last night, I dug up a couple of pieces of music that captured my conflicting emotions over what was happening. Thought I would share:

John Adams, On the Transmigration of Souls

http://youtu.be/O3S2ezeaO3w

John Adams created this haunting, other-worldly piece as a “memory space” for what happened on 9/11. (Background here and here.)

John Mackey, Aurora Awakes

One of the pieces the UW wind ensemble played on our tour of Japan last year. It always struck me as tremendously hopeful.

(Photo)

May 2, 2011   No Comments

Inspiration & Influence: There is a Fountain


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William Cowper

One of the hymns I’ve come to love in recent years is William Cowper’s There is a Fountain. It’s a beautiful expression of grace and redemption that also vividly captures the costliness of salvation.

The words penetrate all the more deeply when you consider the man behind them. One of England’s most popular 18th century poets, William Cowper suffered for most of his adult life with paralyzing depression and insanity. He was saved during a stint in a mental asylum, where his caretaker was a strong Christian.

Even following his conversion, Cowper suffered from a recurring nightmare that God had rejected him and attempted suicide several times. One bright spot in his life was his 30-year friendship with John Newton, who served as Cowper’s pastor for many years. John Piper writes of their relationship:

Newton saw Cowper’s bent to melancholy and reclusiveness and drew him into the ministry of visitation as much as he could. They would take long walks together between homes and talk of God and his purposes for the church. then in 1769 Newton got the idea of collaborating with Cowper on a book of hymns to be sung by their church. He thought it would be good for Cowper’s poetic bent to be engaged.

This book of hymns became a collection known as the Olney Hymns. There is a Fountain, written after a particularly severe bout of despair, is one of Cowper’s best-known contributions.

Cowper was acutely aware of his unworthiness and “vile” nature. Yet he clung to the truth that Christ’s blood was powerful to cleanse him — and, indeed, all sinners — of all “guilty stains.”

Sojourn Music has a beautiful version based on the traditional tune by Lowell Mason. I also love Red Mountain Music’s updated melody:

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.
Washed all my sins away, washed all my sins away;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.

Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.
Be saved, to sin no more, be saved, to sin no more;
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.

E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.
And shall be till I die, and shall be till I die;
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.

Then in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy power to save,
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.
Lies silent in the grave, lies silent in the grave;
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.

Lord, I believe Thou hast prepared, unworthy though I be,
For me a blood bought free reward, a golden harp for me!
’Tis strung and tuned for endless years, and formed by power divine,
To sound in God the Father’s ears no other name but Thine.

(For more on William Cowper’s life, I highly recommend John Piper’s biography.)

April 18, 2011   No Comments

Tom A Mar (9/16/26-4/10/11)


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Since hearing of my grandfather’s passing yesterday, I’ve had this one memory on constant replay. It’s a hot, rare-blue-sky Seattle day and he’s standing under a tree, laughing and shaking water from his arms and hair. I can’t recall the occasion. I have no idea how he got wet. But it was probably funny because he’s surrounded by a group of people laughing right along with him.

That was the kind of thing Yeh Yeh liked: laughing, especially with others.

He loved people and was a true “life of the party.” A waiter most of his life, he had a way of putting you at ease and striking up conversations anywhere. Whenever we’d visit him in Sacramento, we couldn’t walk into a restaurant without someone calling out, “Hey! Tom!” Most of the time he’d end up knowing half the clientele, and off he’d take us on the grand tour of introductions and hand-shaking.

He possessed a quick wit that manifested itself in jokes, but also in more “life-changing” turns of events. My favorite story revolves around his middle initial, “A,” which he chose for himself along with his English first name. The A didn’t stand for anything, which at first wasn’t acceptable to the immigration officer.

“Well, what about your old president? Harry S Truman? The “S” didn’t stand for anything,” Yeh Yeh shot back.

They let him keep the A.

He lived simply in the same pink house on Arvilla Drive for as long as I can remember. Things remained remarkably similar from visit to visit – the smell of Chinese food in the kitchen, the sound of Chinese opera from the living room. One thing that did morph over the years was the grandkid “cheat sheet” that he kept on his refrigerator, listing our English names, Chinese names, and birthdays. Up until the last couple of years when failing health made speaking difficult, we could always expect a birthday card and phone call from him. If we weren’t home, he’d leave his rendition of “Happy Birthday” on the answering machine.

We didn’t live nearby, so the phone was our main means of keeping in touch. All the conversations — including our last one a couple weeks ago — started the same way:

“Hellooooo, Ruthie…how you doing? You got a boyfriend?”

I miss that already.

April 11, 2011   7 Comments

Inspiration & Influence: Carlos Salzedo


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Get a bunch of professional classical harpists in one room, and watch the conversation gradually move to musical heritage. Where did you go to school? What method did you study? Who was your teacher?

I know such discussions happen within other instrumental families too, but harpists seem especially fond of them. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have to talk long before discovering mutual musical ancestry. In the harp world, forget six degrees of separation. It’s more like one or two. Because we play an instrument that has existed in its present form for only a couple centuries, today’s harpists are all just a few generations removed from the original pioneers and innovators of the instrument.

In my case, that pioneer is Carlos Salzedo. It’s a name that I’d never heard before starting harp; but since Salzedo hit my radar screen he hasn’t left.

*****

Carlos Salzedo was one of those ridiculously talented artists whose interests went far beyond the harp. At age 16, he earned the premier prix from the Paris Conservatoire in both harp and piano, a feat still unmatched. He co-founded the International Composers Guild, an organization dedicated to promoting new music, with composer Edgard Varese. Fascinated by architecture, he collaborated with Witold Gordon on the art-deco design of the Salzedo model harp, manufactured by Lyon and Healy since 1928.

Salzedo was also close friends with the famed Polish ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, a connection that fostered Salzedo’s lifetime interest in instrumental aesthetics:

[Nijinsky] once complained that Salzedo did not make enough show with his hand movements. A harpist’s hands should be like a dancer’s toes, said Nijinsky: “Of all the instrumentalists, you are the one to be looked at when you play.” Salzedo formalized hand movements into a series of flowing gestures, tells his students to emphasize esthetic as well as musical qualities. Says he: “Good looks are an important requisite for an aspiring harpist.”

(from Time magazine)

*****

My first assignments as a harp student were to read his Method for the Harp and to begin his Conditioning Exercises. I liked this as much as the average beginning student likes reading method books and doing exercises; and I knew nothing of his colorful life. So my initial impression of Salzedo = boring, strict pedagogue.

Then I heard his music, and realization hit. I was wrong. Salzedo wasn’t boring and strict.

He was CRAZY.

While listening to a recording of his piece Scintillation, I knew I’d never heard harp music like it — angular, percussive, occasionally angry. It wasn’t love at first listen, but I was intrigued. Realizing that the instrument was capable of a lot more than imitating waterfalls and magic spells planted the idea that harp-playing could provide much more than an after-hours ear massage.

In the years since being shook up by Scintillation, I’ve come to regard Salzedo like that distant relative you feel you’ve met because you’ve heard so much about him. Both my undergraduate and graduate school teachers — Judy Loman and Heidi Lehwalder — studied directly under Salzedo, so they’d share anecdotes during my lessons and occasionally I’d run across his markings while studying their old scores. Getting to study Salzedo’s own compositions with them moved me from curious skepticism to true appreciation of what he did to expand the harp’s palette.

Salzedo truly believed in the orchestral tonal range of the harp; and he worked tirelessly to familiarize not only harpists, but other musicians and composers with the instrument’s capabilities. “No other musical instrument, except the pipe organ,” he wrote in the introduction to his Method for the Harp, “offers such a wealth and variety of musical color and effect.”

And out of everything I’ve learned as part of Salzedo’s lineage, this is one of the main points I hope to pass on to my own students and audiences. I don’t want to take away any of their enjoyment of typical “harpy” music — hey, I still have a soft spot for it myself.

But I also hope they walk away from a lesson or concert thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know the harp could sound like that!”

April 4, 2011   No Comments

Inspiration & Influence: Harpo Marx


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harpo marx

When someone first learns that I play the harp, the typical reaction is, “Wow, I’ve never met a real live harp player before!” People don’t often have an image or person in their mind to associate with the word “harpist.” Once in awhile, I’ll get the “Like King David?” response, or “Oh, my aunt’s neighbor’s cousin’s niece played the harp…I think.”

And every so often, someone will exclaim, “OH! Like Harpo Marx? I love Harpo Marx!”

*Pause.*

“Was Harpo Marx really a good harpist?”

I tell them that Harpo was a genius — an unconventional one, for sure. But a genius. Last year, I did some research on Harpo as part of my master’s degree, and the more I learned about him the more my admiration for this zany comedian/musician grew.

harp on the wrong sideHarpo was largely self-taught and spent his first two years as a harpist playing with the harp on the wrong shoulder. He realized his mistake after seeing a picture of an angel in a department store window. He played his harp tuned much lower than the normal pedal harp because his first instrument (purchased for $45 by his mother, who thought her family needed to add “class” to their act) was so terrible that the strings would have broken if tuned any higher. He could never get used to “conventional” tuning, even when he had a decent instrument.

Harpo couldn’t read music and learned all his repertoire by ear. Extremely dedicated, he typically spent two to three hours a day practicing. After 8 years of soloing onstage, Harpo attempted to get formal training from (according to his autobiography Harpo Speaks) a harpist with the Metropolitan Opera. The harpist was evidently too fascinated with Harpo’s technique to teach him anything. Harpo did take some lessons with well-known harpist Mildred Dilling, whom he met by chance in a music shop. She introduced him to Bach, Mozart, Ravel, and Debussy but never tried to change his way of playing.

By all accounts, Harpo was as affable offstage as he appeared onstage. Extremely good-natured, he was well-liked by all and the “favorite uncle” amongst his many nieces and nephews. He married actress Susan Fleming in 1936, a happy union that last until Harpo’s death in 1964.

Comedian George Burns said of Harpo’s family life, “One thing [Harpo] said to me that was so, so nice… He adopted four children, you know. So I said to him, ‘When are you gonna quit? How many children are you going to adopt?’ He says, ‘I’d like to adopt as many children as I have windows. So when I leave, I want a kid in every window, waving goodbye.’… I think that was about the greatest marriage that I know of, Susan Marx and Harpo.”

Harpo was extremely generous, giving many benefit concerts for orchestras around the US (under the name Arturo Harponini). His two harps were also donated, per his will, to the nation of Israel after his death. He was also a talented painter and played the piano and clarinet (also self-taught skills).

Harpo loved being onstage and was clearly a natural performer. The Marx Brothers’ career spanned more than 40 years in vaudeville, movies, and TV. They made 14 movies as a team. In addition to his movie solos, Harpo also made numerous concert appearances around the world. He also guested on TV shows of Red Skelton, Donald O’Connor, Ed Sullivan, and Lucille Ball:

Despite his extensive performance experience, he often suffered from stage fright. So he developed an onstage thought process to calm down, which went something like this:

“Oh, my God! I have to play for all these people. Hey, wait a minute! I’m up here and they’re down there. If there’s someone out there who should be up here, let him come up and play the harp. But if someone were out there who should be here, he would be here. But he’s not! I am. I guess I’ll play the harp.”

And so he did.

March 27, 2011   3 Comments