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Memories of Life as a Busker

Entry #2

Before I get into writing busking stories, I thought it would be good to tell the story of how I got my Celtic harp, which was the harp I played for the majority of my busking.


My sister and I learned to play the harp together when I was 16 and she was 14. The only way we could afford to buy a harp was by pooling our resources to pay back a generous family member who lent us the money to buy it. When I was 20 and needed to move out of my parent’s toxic household, I had to bring a harp, but I couldn’t take our harp from my sister, and I could not afford to buy one for myself. I had a sense that something would work out, because I was certain that moving away was the right decision for my wellbeing, and I could not move without a harp to take with me. I had a strong feeling that if I put myself out there around harps, one would come to me.


Soon after deciding I would move once I somehow got a harp, I got an email advertisement about a harp expo in Arlington, VA, which was only a three hour drive away from my hometown of Lynchburg. I felt a strong compulsion to go even though I was terrified of driving, especially into a city, which I had never done. I was also a brand new driver and had totaled my first car a month earlier, and had only just replaced it. The drive was harrowing, but thanks to a borrowed Garmin, I made it.


Being in a room full harps is exciting. Everywhere you look there is so much beauty, and every instrument has its own style, sound, and character. Though when there are that many harps so close together, it’s a precarious situation. If one falls, it could take the others down like very expensive dominoes.


I walked around the hotel ballroom talking to the people in the booths and playing their harps, but the harp I really wanted, the Fisher Celtic harp, was not represented there that day, disappointingly. But when I came to one booth in a corner, there were these Celtic harps that looked nearly identical to the Fisher harp. I began to play one and felt an immediate connection with the instrument. The strings were perfectly spaced, it was lightweight but well-balanced against my shoulder, and the tone was silvery. It had graceful and delicate lines, and the woodwork was gorgeous. The maker, Rick Kemper of Sligo Harps, was watching me play and came to talk to me. I recognized him because a couple times he had visited the antique harp restoration shop in Lynchburg where I had been a mechanic for four years. When I told him that his harps reminded me of Fisher harps, he explained that he had worked for Larry Fisher and had helped come up with some of his designs. He mentioned that he had an antique harp he was looking to have restored and was willing to make me a harp for a very affordable fee if I restored his antique harp and helped him build mine. I could not believe what I was hearing, but I agreed.


Over the next few months, I drove back and forth to Silver Spring, MD to help build my harp and to restore his antique harp. Those drives winding along 495 north as the sun rose, listening to BT's This Binary Universe at full volume were like a dream. I not only was getting the harp I always wanted, but I was also helping build it! Everything was customized- the wood, trim, hardware, strings, and adjustments to the design. The harp is made of Bubinga (the back of the body is gorgeous burled Bubinga), which is a tropical hardwood from Equatorial Africa. It is so hard, that when drilling holes for the tuning pins, we had to stop every half inch to let the drill bit cool off because the wood started burning from the friction. Though I chose the wood mainly for its beauty (and because the first harp I ever saw in a catalogue was made of bubinga), its hardness and dense grain would prove resilient to the elements and the dangers of bumps and scratches associated with the constant moving of being a busker. All the hardware except the tuning pins is gold plated, and when the Truitt levers engage the strings to raise their pitch a half-step, the tone is pure and clean. It is strung with fluorocarbon strings, which are a thinner, more durable substitute for gut strings and have a clear, bright tone.


My harp was finished on September 11, 2009. As Rick Kemper was just finishing installing the strings, I was cutting off the old pedal leather on the antique harp with a knife when I slipped and stabbed the webbing between my left thumb and pointer finger. It was a serious enough injury that I couldn’t play my new harp properly for a couple weeks.


Five months later, I moved out of my parent’s house with this instrument I didn’t know would end up keeping me alive. The whole series of events that had led to receiving the harp felt so miraculous and benevolent that I felt I was truly being watched over. Before moving, I wrote the following on the bottom of the harp, not realizing what it would come to mean to me:


Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your Heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. -Matthew 6:25, 32-33


On some of my most difficult days busking, I turned the harp over and read that to remind myself that if God could bring this instrument into my life in the miraculous way he did, he would make sure I had what I needed to live in the moment. This is a lesson it may take my whole life to learn, and so I'm grateful for this concrete reminder.


#harp #harpist #busker #busking #sligoharps #harpbuilder

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