I’m a harpist and I’m currently playing with the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra. I come from a musical family. Both my parents are musicians and my brother and sister as well. My mother plays the cello but she primarily writes children’s musicals and Christmas nativities. My Dad plays piano and sings and teaches music in a high school. So growing up I was always surrounded by music, both classical and a lot of folk music at home.
I don’t really remember when I started playing the harp, but the story is I played the piano from about the age of two or three because there’s one in the house, and I’d try and play songs that I’d heard. I used to go and watch the ballet with my mum and apparently I was trying to pick out some ballet tunes on the piano and then we watched it once on TV and there was this big harp cadenza – it was Swan Lake or Nutcracker or something – and I loved it. I think my Mum suggested I should try the harp. By chance, a colleague of my Dad played the folk harp in the clarsach society, and so we got in touch and from there I got my first little rental harp.
I was five when I started the clarsach (folk harp). I started the pedal harp when I was 12. I was taking lessons in Newcastle, my hometown and after 5 years, I was at the point where it would be good to start taking it more seriously if it was something I wanted to pursue after school. I knew of a great harp teacher at City of Edinburgh Music School at Broughton High School, Isobel Mieras, and so I auditioned there and got in. My brother and sister also successfully auditioned there, so my whole family moved up to Edinburgh.
I was there for three years before transferring to St Marys Music School where there was also a great clarsach teacher, Catriona Mackay. She plays with Fiddler’s Bid. She’s fabulous.
It felt very normal for me to be in a Music School actually. It felt right even aged eleven at Broughton. You have the music school which is about 50 students I think and then you have the rest of the school which is a 1000 maybe, so you really have your school life and music life which is this little bubble inside of the main school. There were quite a few harp players there but also a lot of other musicians. We were always doing Edinburgh competitions and stuff. And that was always fun. I didn’t ever feel pushed into anything.
I was ambitious but just really loved playing, always, even when I was in primary school. I’m always very late for everything in general, but apparently I would be sitting playing and my Mum would be like “Emily, you have to stop, you have to go to school”. It could have been a school distraction technique as well!.
I always loved performing. I remember my first concert, I must have been about 5 or 6, playing in school talent night. It was in a church hall so there was a stage with curtains and I remember being behind them and feeling a little nervous, and I had my buddy, a year 6 student, an older student matched with the youngest, and I remember her saying something reassuring. I always liked doing the concerts, doing the competitions. They were a really good focus and aim.
At St Marys Music School, it also felt totally normal. I already knew a couple of people there, and obviously it’s very small. I really loved it and felt completely at home.
At that point my family moved back to Newcastle and I stayed on as a boarding student. At that time, I’d done National Youth Orchestra of Scotland already and was sort of used to going away from home and just doing music and being with my friends. I thought it was great, suddenly you are studying and playing all day, and then you’re surrounded by all your friends in the evening. So we played together a lot, and I met some great friends there.
Catriona, my teacher, was wonderful. She is so interested in bringing out your natural musicality. Obviously you’re developing technique all of the time – when you’re 14/15 learning good technique is crucial – but it was so much more. She is primarily a folk musician but she plays and teaches pedal harp wonderfully. I think the folk tradition really helps a lot towards getting the pure character of the music.
I remember working on pieces and Catriona saying “You have to remember you’re a folk musician as well as a ‘harpist’, so you can’t forget to bring out a specific character or think of it only as an etude”. She was giving me the confidence to bring it out on the instrument what was hidden in the music.
I don’t like to think of myself as an artist. Maybe I’m naïve but I sort of go along and I do what I do and don’t start thinking of it as an egotistical thing in that “Oh at this point I’ve become an artist or I’m becoming an artist”. I think you always have to strive to be the best and most honest musician you can, but you can’t start thinking about yourself in terms of how successful you think you are, that’s not the point at all.
I’ve had several helping hands from the Dewar Arts Awards. I believe I was 13 when they gave me a grant to buy my first pedal harp. I couldn’t have done anything else without it. It’s so necessary to have your own instrument. When I was at Broughton they had a pedal harp there, so I could practice in school, but then you come home in the evenings and can’t practice any more. And when you have limited practice time at school and then you come home at 3.30 or something and you can’t do anything for the rest of the day, the. It really affects your progress. Having that harp, it was everything.
"I would say if there’s something that you love to do, then don’t let lack of funds stop you. The Dewar Arts Award was amazing for me. You can’t give up without trying and there are people out there who want to help."
I was able to practice more and develop my relationship with the instrument. I guess at 13 I wasn’t thinking so much about how I could bring out specific colours or sounds, I was just able to get so comfortable with the harp and know so well how it felt to play.
When I was deciding what to do after high school I was talking a lot with Catriona, and also Helen Macleod who was also my teacher during my final year at St Mary’s. She was really great helping for auditions and preparing me very well. I was also talking to Francis Cummings, the Director of Music at St. Mary’s during my time there, and then obviously my parents, about what I should do.
I was considering moving to London, so to Royal Academy, Royal College or Guildhall. However, I found it a very different world, the London harp scene from the Scottish harp scene. London felt much more disciplined and not as free as I was used to, and it’s the freedom that I love.
I auditioned and got into all of them and was deciding where to go and in the UK it’s December, all of the auditions are in November and you find out late December.
I had applied to Juilliard at the same time. There was a recording of a Ginastera harp concerto I heard and it was Nancy Allen playing. I found out that she was the teacher at Juilliard and from there I started contemplating applying there. The night the application was due I was on the phone to my Mum saying should I apply or not and she said “Oh just apply and at least you’ve got an option.”
As an international applicant, you can send a recording along with your application, so I did that and then they got back in touch and said yes, the teacher says come and audition but we only have 6 places in the Harp studio and 1 space free next year. So I went to New York for the audition- It was a flying weekend, arrived on Saturday, auditioned on Monday, went straight to the airport and back to school the next day.
And I got in! I had had a lesson with Nancy Allen whilst I was there for the audition and she was amazing; quite similar to what I had had before in the sense of expressing yourself rather than following a strict programme of pieces, but strict in terms of being absolutely, unequivocally prepared, and she was hugely encouraging.
When I started at Juilliard there was me and one other first year undergrad and then everyone else were Masters students, but we would all have harp classes together. The standard of the school in general is terrific and being with so many fantastic peers is so inspiring, and you’re getting lessons from other teachers as well; world-renowned musicians. And what I also loved is that you had the dance and drama departments. First of all just watching the shows is unbelievable and then you could work with them and do all sorts of collaborative projects!
Studying at Juilliard would have been absolutely impossible without the Dewar Arts Award. It costs around $30,000 a year for tuition, plus housing and living. As a Brit, I couldn’t get a student loan from America and because I was studying in America I couldn’t get a student loan from Britain, so I had to somehow fund the entire four years without bank assistance.
So it would have been absolutely impossible. I got some support from other trusts too – Murraybeith, Waddell Trust and John Younger Trust – plus a scholarship from Juilliard and I was a Julius Isserlis Scholar of the Royal Philharmonic Society, but Dewar was my constant.
I credit Nancy Allan, my teacher with a lot of my development. She was perfect for me. She makes sure everything is in place and absolutely secure, and so you’re extremely well prepared all the time-being completely secure on the strings becomes almost second nature. But she doesn’t interfere with what you want to say musically. It gave me a lot of confidence to know that, unless what I’m doing is far too far out or ‘wrong’, she wasn’t going to tell me to change what I was trying to say.
When you’re very secure on the instrument and are getting to exactly to where you need to be logistically on the harp (it’s a huge instrument) and super solid, you can be so free just to play music.
I won fifth prize at the USA International harp Competition at the end of my third year at Juilliard. The repertoire list and preparation is huge – you’ve got to learn two hours of music by memory and be able to play it all at your highest possible standard within a one week period. That was a huge focus for the year. That, plus all of my classes, orchestra and chamber music and modern music made my time at Juilliard unbelievably busy.
"You have no space to be nervous or let insecurities get in the way. You have to go and do a good concert."
My final year was focused towards auditioning for the Orchestra Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s basically a position where you get to play second harp in Berlin Philharmonic for two years whilst having lessons with their harpist, Marie Pierre Langlamet, and playing chamber music with the other academists. I successfully auditioned in Berlin in March 2014 which was actually perfect timing as I would graduate from Juilliard in May of that year.
I spent my final summer after graduating at a huge music festival in Aspen where I focused on learning orchestra parts. I got back to the UK from Aspen mid August and I’d been told that my contract in Berlin was starting on 1 September and I think the day after I got back I got a message from the harpist going “Oh, just so you know, your first rehearsal is on Wednesday because you’re coming on tour with us.” So I was like “Alright, ok, it’s Friday so I better move to Berlin”. So that started very fast there.
I was terrified but at the same time, you’ve got a job to do. There is no space to be nervous, and so, it was Simon Rattle conducting the first project. It was the season opening of Berlin Philharmonic. I was actually really lucky because we were playing Stravinsky’s ‘firebird’ and there’s lots of versions of it but this was a version with three harps in it so I was playing the second harp part which has a few small solos.
I thought “Oh God, I just want to sit at the back and play along. I don’t want anyone to hear me”, but it’s amazing; that orchestra is incredible, honestly. They are unbelievable but coming from America where you have to be extremely precise in the first rehearsal, boom, boom, boom, concert done, to here, it was like “What on earth is going on?”. It was just so musical obviously but passionate and not careful at all, really pure music making. So we did that concert and the next day we went off on a European tour. Insane really.
That year in Berlin gave me so much confidence. I think mainly, as I said before, you have no space to be nervous or let insecurities get in the way. You have to go and do a good concert. It’s not about you. It’s about the whole orchestra concert and how it sounds together and how you make music together.
When you’re in the academy it’s quite geared towards you going for auditions and trying to get a job in an orchestra, but there are not so many for the harp. But I had three that I was doing in the space of six weeks. First it was the MET Opera in New York and then the Radio Symphony in Berlin and then the final one was Bavarian Radio Symphony. A few years before I had seen Bavarian Radio play in the Edinburgh Festival and they were playing Mahler Two and I was so amazed by this orchestra and this concert.
I got to the semi finals in the MET and then Berlin was a no-go and then I think I had about a month to prepare for the Bavarian Radio in Germany. They’d been auditioning for harps for seven or eight years and never taken anyone, and I remember the night before the audition I was staying in this hotel and thinking “Oh should I just cancel?” I had so much respect for this orchestra, I thought I just don’t want to make a fool of myself. I don’t care if I don’t pass the first round – you do three rounds in a day – I don’t care if I pass. I just want to play well. I don’t want them to laugh at me. You don’t get rehearsal time with the pianist, you just go in and play. We had to play the Mozart flute and harp concerto and I was happy. I thought “Oh I made too many mistakes but I don’t think overall it was too bad”.
Four of us got through to the second round and we played the Debussy Dances – I had learnt it many, many years ago at St Mary’s, so it was a piece I was super comfortable with. From there, I got through to the final where we played the slow movement of Mahler 5, which is sort of harp movement, with the orchestra, as well as other solo orchestra excerpts.
And somehow, I won! So in November 2015 I moved from Berlin to Munich, and now I am half way through my trial period.
I would say if there’s something that you love to do, then don’t let lack of funds stop you. The Dewar Arts Award was amazing for me. Beforehand, getting a pedal harp seemed impossible, and then there was Juilliard. I was so happy to be accepted to study there, but without the funds I could never have gone. You can’t give up without trying and there are people out there who want to help. You don’t know until you try.