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Sounds like an angel
Despite its size and price tag, many children are attracted to playing the harp
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Chloe Holden, a fifth-grader at Mount Vernon Elementary School, practices on her pedal harp, which has 47 strings and weighs 90 pounds.

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Harpist Elizabeth Bennett, 16, plays her favorite piece by the French composer Carlos Salzedo.
Many children envision heaven to be filled with winged angels who pass eternity playing their harps of gold amidst an endless sea of fluffy white clouds.

That vision struck Chloe Holden, 10, when she was just a toddler. She became enchanted with the harp before she even learned to read.

"She was probably 2 years old when she saw an angel playing a harp in a picture book," said Kim Boyd, Chloe's mother. "When she was 5, she wanted to read up on harps and wanted to look at books."

But Chloe never laid eyes on a real harp until she took a family trip to Dollywood when she was 8 years old. The gentlemen monitoring the harp exhibit at Dollywood even let Chloe test her little fingers out on the harp's 47 strings.

"I asked him which one was C and asked him which way goes higher and lower," Chloe said. "It was a lever harp and it was just very easy. I thought they were very beautiful."

After seeing the harp, Chloe continued to ask her mother for harp lessons. Boyd said she then set out to find a teacher, and finally located harpist Martha Burwell with Preparatory Music at Brenau University. Chloe began taking lessons with Burwell in early 2007, and was ready to make a public performance later that spring.

"She started off with a bang," Burwell said. "She really wanted to practice a lot and really worked hard. She had a lot of desire to get really good."

The Mount Vernon Elementary School fifth-grader, who has yet to reach a height of 5 feet, practices on a 6-foot tall pedal harp that weighs 90 pounds and has 47 strings.

Despite the calluses that have formed on Chloe's nimble fingers, she said she practices for at least 30 minutes every day. Chloe said her goal is to be a harpist in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

"I guess it makes me really happy to play the harp," Chloe said. "I like the way it looks; I like the way it sounds; and I like the way the strings feel even."

Burwell said she taught more than a dozen harp students at Brenau before she retired last year. She said not only are harps and harp teachers rare, but a full-sized pedal harp can cost as much as a mid-size car, as much as $50,000. This can deter many parents from steering their children toward the instrument.

Lisa Handman is Chloe's new harp teacher, and has been teaching harp lessons in Alpharetta for the past 11 years. Handman said the number of young harpists she teaches has increased over the years, from two pupils in 1996 to 15 students this year. She attributes the increase to the growing socioeconomic group in the area that can afford to learn the pricey instrument, and also said she believes some children are intrigued by the harp because it's something a little more diverse.

"It's not like all the girls playing flute in school, or the boys playing trumpet or drums," Handman said. "It gives them individuality. I always liked as a child playing something different."

"That's one cool thing about the harp. Everywhere I go people are fascinated by it," said harpist Elizabeth Bennett, 16, who is regularly hired to perform at wedding ceremonies and receptions.

Bennett began learning to play the harp when she was just 3 years old. Bennett said her mother initiated music lessons on various instruments for her and her six siblings as a part of their home-school education.

"It seems like I've always been playing," she said. "I know a lot of girls, different age groups, that play the harp. It's kind of a girly instrument because you always associate it with angels."

Like Chloe, Bennett said she's toying with the idea of making a career out of harp playing. But Bennett said she's interested in becoming a harp therapist, who is hired to play harp for medical patients in an effort to calm their nerves.

"It's very good for the mind," she said. "If I'm ever upset or anything I just sit down and play the harp because it soothes me. I can put almost anybody to sleep with the harp."

Bennett advises youngsters interested in playing the harp to first find a good teacher, and to then rent a lever harp, which has about 36 strings, rather than a full-fledged concert grand pedal harp, which has 47 strings.

Catherine Rogers of Atlanta Harp Rental said of her 15 clients, 13 harpists are younger than age 18 and currently rent lever harps. She said renting a lever harp is a wise step for parents with children interested in the instrument. After learning the basics on a rented lever harp that carries little financial commitment, children can advance to the difficulty of the pedal harp, which is used in orchestral performances.

"It's kind of like ice skating," she said. "It looks easy, but there's more to it than that."

Handman said she recommends children take one year of piano lessons and learn how to read before beginning harp lessons. She said age 7 is often a good time to start playing harp, because the instrument requires a child of some stature to be able to play it and a person of patience to master its complexities.

"It's difficult to play with four fingers on each hand and move the pedals with your feet," Handman said.

Despite its costly price tag, the harp may hold an advantage for parents: unlike a violin in the hands of a young violinist, the harp does have an angelic ring to it.

"The harp is a forgiving instrument," Handman added, "because everything sounds great."


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