Harp Angel on a Mission
The doctor projected her due date around January 1, but she was determined to break out of that bubble before the new year! She was kicking, tossing, turning, contorting--too restless to ignore. Then, on the night of Christmas Eve eve in 1992, she made her early debut in North Hollywood, California.There she was, staring up at me with her quarter-sized eyes of curiosity. When I cuddled my newborn for the very first time, I wiggled all her fingers and toes, twirled her hair, and tried to gaze into her soul hoping to uncoil the mystery that would be her life journey. What would she grow up to be? Probably something my finite mind could never imagine. In the beginning, there is this vast expanse of hope that the little one we birth into the world will discover a path that is already mapped to a remarkable destiny.
“Angelica” seemed to be the ultimate name for a holiday angel, born just two days before Christmas. After carrying her internally for 9 months, she had felt much bigger on the inside than on the outside, as she now resembled a 5-pound “burrito” swaddled tightly in the pink and blue hospital blanket. The next morning, before I’d even gotten use to the idea that she had emerged, the hospital was packing my things to move me out and make way for the next expectant mother to deliver her December blessing. We had anticipated at least two more weeks before her arrival, so we had no time to organize or shop for basic supplies. Luckily, 7-year-old Maya was getting a drink-and-wet doll for Christmas. We had to raid her gift for doll diapers that were a perfect fit for her teeny, baby sister.
Commandeering The Baby
Maya was always Daddy’s Girl so anytime he got within a foot of the new baby, she commandeered Angelica for herself. His quality time with the baby was limited to late-night snuggles after Maya had drifted off to dreamland. Maya was already a skilled flutist, and Dad had trained in all band instruments as a music major, so it was ineludible that Angelica would share their love of music.
Trying on Instruments
She was nearing 4 years old and about the size of the walking doll her grandmother had given her for Christmas when we began "trying on" instruments for size. I remembered seeing a video of young children in Japan playing pint-sized violins and thought it might be the right fit for her. So we rented a 1/16 size violin, an instrument so tiny that it could almost sit atop a knick-knack shelf. We were living outside of Atlanta, Georgia, at the time and none of the teachers I contacted wanted to take on a child so young. Then I ran across an ad for a Suzuki Violin Program, established by Sinichi Suzuki.
I distinctly remember her first day as the “littlest violinist” in her class. When teacher Dan asked her to balance the violin using only her chin, I closed my eyes and clinched my teeth in fear, bracing myself for the sound of that rental instrument crashing to the floor. But, as I dared to sneak a peek out of the corner of my right eye, I was amazed to find that she was doing it—perfectly!
Pretty soon, she displayed the stamina to play “Twinkle” about 2,000 times in a row until it was mastered. It was then that I knew she was embarking on a musical quest that not everyone has the drive to complete.
Gradually, Angelica began to gravitate away from rote playing to actually reading the notes. She was well on her way to becoming an accomplished violinist when we happened to view a video of a girl named Elizabeth Smart (who was a young kidnap victim) playing the harp. Mesmerized by the beautiful sounds, it sparked Angelica’s imagination. Never mind that she had countless unfinished art projects in her room, her closet, under her bed, and in her mind. Now she wanted to add something new and tremendous to the collection. Oh brother, we thought—another passing fantasy! As a parent, you hate not to allow a child to explore a positive new interest, if you are able. We figured it was a phase that would pass quickly, so we decided to give our usual 2-month rule—assuming she would take on this gigantic endeavor, get bored and move to the next big idea. When we wondered early on what this young child would become, harp was not in the mix!
Plucking the Harp Strings
We rented a beginner lever harp and found an instructor who was a rare African American professional harpist. Angelica began to apply her musical knowledge of stringed instruments to her new percussion instrument. Monica Hargrave helped Angelica make the leap from 4 strings to 22, and methodically guided her through the function of the levers to adjust the strings to sharp or flat.
Harping on the Finances
After her two-month trial passed and she was continuing to advance on the lever harp, we felt a big “Uh-Oh” coming on. A major stress test for the family wallet was approaching. It was time for her to graduate up to the larger, more advanced pedal harp, and it was quite distressing that we couldn't find a rental. That meant we had to buy a pedal harp, which can have a price tag similar to one for a car! We nearly went into sticker shock, but an inheritance left by her grandparents provided most of the money needed to purchase a 44-string used harp. I’m sure they were celebrating with the angels in heaven.
Pedals to the Metal
Angelica loved her new instrument, which had twice as many strings as her lever harp, in addition to 7 pedals for adjusting pitch. The sweet, relaxing sounds of the harp wafted through the house. She began spending many hours a day at her harp, experimenting with new sounds and techniques. She would often rise early to practice before school. Her devotion began paying off, when she auditioned for the highly prestigious Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Talent Development Program. The TDP identifies musically-gifted school-aged Black and Latino classical instrumentalists to help prepare them for careers as professional musicians.
When the roster was published, Angelica was astonished to see her name on the list! The honor enabled her to begin studying with the principal harpist of the ASO, Ms. Elisabeth Remy Johnson, who indoctrinated her into the Salzedo method. It is a very dramatic style of lifting the hands off the strings to produce a full, rich sound. Angelica considers this a turning point in her musical voyage.
Cabin in the Woods
Being a member of the TDP afforded Angelica the opportunity to attend prestigious summer music camps, beginning with Interlochen in northern Michigan. We were apprehensive about her leaving home for a 6-week camp so far away from Atlanta! But the fact that other TDP students were also attending eased our minds a bit. Her dad delivered her safely to the cabin she would be living in with several roommates.
As an 8th grader, she was certainly able to dress herself and make sure she didn't miss meals. But fixing her hair was another story, especially since the bag with her hair accessories was late in arriving. We cringed a bit when we saw photos of her online wearing some pretty creative updos, but we were encouraged that she was adapting to her new surroundings and paying more attention to her repertoire than her hair.
Orchestrating the Hours
Angelica was thrilled to be among a select few African American musicians to successfully audition for the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra! She played alongside three other harpists rehearsing some daunting classical arrangements. She soon got used to the blistered fingers and chiropractic hitches that came with practicing three hours on weekdays, in addition to the four-hour rehearsals on Saturdays. We started to worry that her grades would suffer, but she was so intuned to the music that we were reluctant to try to break or even loosen the grip. We just prayed for it all to work out.
The Little Harp
Her fellow harpists nicknamed her "The Little Harp," because she had only 44 strings, so she wasn't able to hit the highest notes. This was very hurtful, not only because we were scrambling financially just to keep her on the “little” harp, but also because she was the only minority harpist and she was struggling to fit in. It was time for her to trade up to a concert grand harp, which has 47 strings. We had no idea how we were going to pay for a larger harp, even after a trade-in of her current harp. The TDP helped level the playing field by pitching in to pay the difference.
Piloting a Lofty Future
The following summer, Angelica traveled to the Tanglewood Summer Music Camp, outside of Boston. She met lifelong friends and a teacher who would change her life's perspective. Her name is Ann Hobson-Pilot, the first African American musician to play for a world-class orchestra—the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "She shattered a myth for me," Angelica says. "She was living proof that I could make it to major stages and have a career that has national and international impact shaping the course of historyl!"
To work with a harpist who looked like her and who had reached the ultimate goal locked Angelica's compass in the upward direction. She spent two superb summers in Tanglewood, studying with Ms. Pilot, who incidentally had also taught her teacher, Ms. Remy Johnson. She affectionately referred to Angelica as her "harp granddaughter."
Angelica was afforded many opportunities to perform in the U.S. including with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Nashville Symphony, Montgomery Symphony and the Daytona Solisti Chamber Orchestra.
In addition, she studied abroad and performed in Powell River, British Columbia and Lake Como, Italy.
A Royal Invitation
Angelica traveled to several colleges around the country to take a lesson from different harp instructors. Just as we had tried different instruments on for size, she was “feeling out” renowned harpists for the best fit for college! One of the conservatories she visited was the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. This is a school so prestigious that it only accepts the number of students who can fit into an orchestra, and only holds auditions for vacancies of instruments that are needed in a given year. Angelica's lesson at Curtis was conducted by a warm, beautiful Salzedo master named Judy Loman. They clicked right away and she invited Angelica to come study with her...in Canada! Ms. Loman said she was leaving Curtis to teach exclusively at the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.
Angelica's reaction was typical of that of a lot of people of color, "Are there black people in Canada?" "Of course there are," I told her, "we just don't know any of them." I remembered reading stories of runaway slaves crossing the border into Canada to gain their freedom. O.K. but, it's so far away from home, she feared, and it’s cold there! But she agreed to have a second lesson with Ms. Loman, in Toronto. It was one of the most beautiful cities we had visited. Our first impressions were it was so clean — a mixture of modern and old world — and so cold! The day we visited was a miserable one -- it was sleeting and -6 Celsius. But she had a good lesson and was able to find a place to stay within three blocks of the school. The clincher was the scholarship, a full four-year ride at RCM!
16-Hour Road Trip
We packed our old van to the brim, harp and all, and started out on what seemed like the longest road trip ever in the tightest confines imaginable. The van was so loaded that when we got to the border and the agent took our passports, he had to open the van door to see my head jutting out from behind the instrument. We dropped Angelica into a whole new world, of which she had never dreamed. She met a number of people of color, but she was one of only two black Americans at the school.
Those four years seemed to pass quickly, as Angelica gained her stride, made new pals from all over the globe and excelled in class. She even joined a gospel choir to use that beautiful voice that she had seldom raised in song since her childhood in church.
Unrest at Home
While studying for her degree in Toronto, some tragic, racially-charged events were occurring at home: the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
"The heightening of racial tensions were being exposed...the narrative of people of color and how the media portrays people's understanding of what it means to be a member of a marginalized community." It was very sad and disturbing to Angelica, who felt the need to find a way to use music to help heal and unify broken communities.
When she completed her studies in Canada, we were fascinated to witness another miracle as a new door opened for Angelica. She received a Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellowship from Northeastern University in Boston to pursue a masters degree in Music Industry Leadership. "It was during my time at Northeastern that Professor Margo Saulnier helped me define what it looked like to put my passion to work and take action to create a more inclusive classical performing arts field. She encouraged me to stop talking about my passion and to do it." Angelica began to do extensive research on the low percentage of minority professionals in the fine arts field, with plans to use that information to find ways to address the inequality. She found that only 4.2% of U.S. orchestral musicians are black or Hispanic and those orchestras perform a mere 1% of selections composed by people of color.* The numbers were so low, she could hardly believe it. But she quickly realized that this was the life that she lived. Even the audiences failed to reflect the diversity of the communities that they serve.
*League of American Orchestras Racial/Ethnic and Gender Diversity in the Orchestra Field
Challenge the Stats
Angelica decided that day that she would "Challenge the Stats" (the title chosen for the mission she was about to embark upon)! Being an MLK Fellow, she was able to fund the idea and make it a reality.
The funding allowed her to snag a venue and stage a concert which featured young professionals of color at the beginning of their careers in classical music, ballet, opera and spoken word. She even had a young filmmaker assemble a short documentary about social consciousness in the classical music world.
The concert featured a prelude by a group of Black and Latino elementary string musicians. The Challenge the Stats musicians played to a very diverse audience, of which many members had never before witnessed a live classical concert. It is Angelica's desire for the world to see people of color in a setting that contrasts with the images so often shown in the media.
What do you do after collecting your master's degree in Music Industry Leadership? You search for a way to "lead."
Angelica found that opportunity as the Artistic Director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble, an inner-city program that provides free harp instruction to middle and high school students from underserved areas of Atlanta.
The job allows Angelica to unwrap a world of music to promising young students of the community and increases the visibility of those musicians so that they can serve as role models for others.
Strumming Up Opportunities
Angelica continues to be a trailblazer, receiving a grant from NPR's "From the Top" to keep pushing her passion for social change. She will stage a "Challenge the Stats” (CTS) concert and panel discussion in 2018 in Atlanta, which will feature a commissioned work by a black composer. Also, she will establish a website to serve as a resource for musicians of color and music organizations to network and talent search.
Excerpts from Angelica's performances in Daytona Beach -- a solo, and a concerto with the Daytona Solisti Orchestra
Some of us are born to make a difference, and Angelica is one of those special people. When babies are born, we can only imagine what they can achieve, and hope that their lives will serve a bigger purpose and that they will answer to a higher calling.
Keep a watchful eye on the classical stages and music halls of the world, as a movement is underway to introduce diversity to a whole new audience.
Angelica performing Henriette Renie- Piece Symphonique
Share your thoughts
1.Have you attended a classical concert lately, and if so, did you take note of diversity on stage and in the audience?
2. What are suggestions you may have to increase diversity and inclusion in the classical arts field?
Video story on Angelica Hairston discussing how she is using her God-given talents, and working to make a difference in the field of classical music.
By the way, that was not an iguana; it was her pet leopard gecko, Pierre.
© 2017 Your Cousins