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SUBURBAN DIARY

Is that harp music coming from the driveway?

Bessie Madden (left) and Emma Leng played during a socially distant "harp camp" held by their teacher, Judith Kogan, outside her home.
Bessie Madden (left) and Emma Leng played during a socially distant "harp camp" held by their teacher, Judith Kogan, outside her home.Aaron Wolff

For most professional musicians, playing music is when they feel most alive. It engages the whole being — intellect, body, and heart. It’s how they best express love, anger, humor — even confusion. As the saying goes, music steps in where words fail.

Playing to an appreciative audience, the emotion is reflected back in a life-affirming loop. All the sacrifices made to achieve a satisfying performance — the investment of time and energy and passion — seem worth it.

Most musicians will tell you their “peak” musical moments occur when playing with others. The synergy, the harmony, the intimacy, the one-plus-one-equals-way-more- than-two, has the potency of discovery, revelation, concordance — thinking and feeling in sync. It’s powerful stuff.

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So you can imagine how for musicians, the pandemic — when they can neither make music together nor for audiences — has caused an existential crisis. Even before considering issues of how they’ll pay the rent.

I’m a Juilliard-trained harpist who teaches privately and coaches harp ensembles. During the lockdown, all my private teaching moved online. The ensemble lessons couldn’t. For those, the musicians really need to be in the same room. Synchronicity isn’t possible on online platforms. It’s virtually impossible to play “together” from different rooms.

At the start of private lessons during the lockdown, I always asked students how they were faring. I often asked what was hardest during that surreal time. The nearly-universal response: “I miss my friends.”

Two months in, the isolation was clearly taking its toll. The burdens and folly of trying to do regular school online were stressing the students’ already-taxed psyches. And little by little, their summer plans — vacation, camp, travel, recreational sports — were evaporating. The persistence of the coronavirus rendered them off-limits.

Days were getting longer, weather warmer. The coronavirus curve was actually flattening. Sympathetic and frazzled parents were desperate to create some structure and social encounters for their kids.

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For our harp ensembles, the truncated semester left unfinished business — music only half-learned, nothing performed. And truth be told, I missed those ensemble sessions, surrounded by students drawing magical sound out of multiple harps, teaching what I had so lovingly been taught when I was their age.

That’s when I got the idea for harp camp.

The governor announced that we were allowed to emerge from our homes if safe social distancing and other health protocols were observed.

So for five weeks, harp ensembles met on my driveway or covered front porch to relive the pleasures of being and playing together. Some students brought their own harps, benches, and stands; some used mine. Harps were placed on pre-positioned mats at least 6 feet apart. Every session began with hand sanitizer.

For many, it was a first encounter in months with peers.

Neighbors and passersby, drawn to the incongruous sound, craned their necks to gaze through the bushes or up the driveway. Phones came out to document the scene.

During breaks, we talked — socially distanced, of course — about unexpected upsides to the lockdown. The older students talked about how they’d gotten closer to siblings, shed “toxic friends,” and appreciated relief from the homework grind. The younger ones played harp-themed games: inventing goofy lyrics to knotty rhythms in a jazzy tune we were learning, making glitter-glue paintings to illustrate the central character in “Greensleeves.”

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And the music? There’s something intoxicating about making music outside. Wind can wreak havoc with music on the stands, and the sun can beat down oppressively. But all of us forgot — for a time at least — about the horrors of the pandemic. Outside, the sound of a harp ensemble seemed to emerge from the trees and grass and flowers, like in a fairy tale.

Almost always, the birds sang along.

Judith Kogan is a freelance writer on music and culture. A professional harpist, she has performed with the Metropolitan Opera. She can be reached at kogan.judith@gmail.com.

Judith Kogan held a socially distant "harp camp" outside her home so that her students could play together in an ensemble.
Judith Kogan held a socially distant "harp camp" outside her home so that her students could play together in an ensemble. Aaron Wolff