Beth Colpean - Harp
My first memory of the harp was watching my mother play. She is a terrific harpist, performer and most notably a teacher. To be honest, I was more interested as a child to go through the purses of the waiting mothers or high school students! When asked by these same people “are you going to play the harp when you grow up?” it was always an emphatic “No!” However, things seem to work out in ways that are unpredictable. After all, I have been listening to the harp my entire life.
I came to the harp like most harpists, through the piano; I was probably 4 or 5 when I first began playing the piano. I recall having to practice 30 minutes every day before school, and every Saturday morning going over flash cards for note recognition (before I was allowed to play outside!). I was hardly a stellar student in those days. Around the same time, I took some lessons with a promising high school student of my mom’s. I clearly remember playing—and performing—Hickory Dickory Dock complete with knocking on the sounding board, and other sound effects perfect for the song. After this student moved on to college, I continued to play piano, but did not pursue the harp again until I was in High School.
I might be in the minority in saying that I truly loved High School. My older brother was on the drum line in Marching band. I wanted to play in marching band too but I didn’t have an instrument. I briefly played the flute in 5th grade, but only for 1 year. I tried to re-learn it well enough to audition for marching band my freshman year but it was clear I wasn’t any good. My mom suggested I play the bells because I could at least read music.
The bells are what led me to the harp. My High School band director needed an extra marimba player to play a piece in the Concert Band. It was a harp part. At the first rehearsal, I had trouble getting all the arpeggios and asked him after rehearsal if he “expected me to play all the notes!” (probably not the best thing to ask a conductor…) I told him it would be easier to play it on the harp. Surprised, he asked where I was going to get a harp, and I told him that we had one (or 3) at home and I could get my mom to help me with it. Each High School band concert from that point forward, had at least one piece with harp.
My mother was thrilled that I took an interest in the harp. That summer I spent 3 weeks studying harp at North Carolina School of the Arts, and the following summer I spent the first of 16 summers, in Camden, Maine where I first met Alice Chalifoux, the former Principal Harpist of the Cleveland Orchestra, a position she held for 43 years.
My relationship with Ms. Chalifoux changed my life. She was the toughest woman I had ever met. She could be kind, yet demanding, never one to sugar-coat anything. That first summer in Maine, I started over on the harp; she taught me from the ground up. After I confessed that I didn’t bring a metronome with me, she insisted that I borrow one from another student and said “I should have sent you home the day you got here!” She could be mean at times too (I love my metronome still to this day). But she and I got along brilliantly and our relationship grew over the many years until her she died at age 100.
Upon graduating from High School, I accepted a full scholarship in harp to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and because I was the only harpist, I had to learn how to play in orchestra. There is no hiding when you’re one-on-a-part. The orchestra director at the school spent plenty of time in the practice room with me “teaching” me how to follow him, a necessary skill for orchestra.
After earning a Bachelor of Music in Harp Performance from SMU, I pursued my Masters in Music from The Cleveland Institute of Music, under Chalifoux, and continued to take lessons from her each summer in Maine in conjunction with participating in other summer festivals including: The Pacific Music Festival (Sapporo, Japan), National Repertory Orchestra (Breckinridge, Colorado), and Tanglewood (Lenox, Massachusetts). In July 2000, I was invited to perform in a distinguished alumni concert at Tanglewood’s acclaimed Festival of Contemporary Music.
Prior to coming to Grand Rapids, I was the harpist with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, a position I held for 2 years. While there, I spent every opportunity to travel around Southeast Asia and Australia. Most of the excursions I did by myself and would hire a driver to show me sights where ever I went. Looking back, I’m not sure I would have the guts to do that today! At the time though, it was amazing: the culture, the sights, the people. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Professionally, I grew as a player. I did a fair amount of recording projects and worked with some incredible guest artists.
I left Singapore without a job. I knew that if I signed a new contract with the SSO, I may never come back to the states. I moved home to Seattle, Washington in February 2000, and auditioned for the Grand Rapids Symphony in July the same year. I was thrilled that I won the job!
After 17 years as the GRS harpist, I am now a mother of 3 girls, Molly (8), Macy (7) and Marie (5), and married to a wonderful man, Brandon (who is an excellent harp mover!), for 10 years. Molly has started taking harp lessons from me but so far, she is the only one interested in music. Macy is a lover of cooking, and Marie is obsessed with hockey.
I am constantly reminded of what a great city Grand Rapids is and what a joy it is to work with some extraordinary musicians and individuals. It is a place I am proud to call home and I’m amazed at how life works.