A day before their much-anticipated winter concert, one of two performances held each year, a dozen or so of the more than 60 members of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble gather for rehearsal at Drew Charter School. For an entire hour, they make runs through “Havana,” the Latin-inspired pop song by Camila Cabello. It was adapted especially for them by the group’s artistic director, Angelica Hairston.
One. Two. And, Hairston begins, raising her arms to mimic the rhythm of the beat. She does this, stopping and starting until she is certain they know every note, every harmony, every inflection just so. Satisfied, she takes a break, and her charges, members of the combined high school ensemble, launch into individual practice.
Roselyn Lewis beams as she looks on. She can hardly believe it’s been 18 years since she introduced her first two students to the harp. Eighteen years. The program has grown to eight different ensembles in grades six to 12. That’s pretty impressive given the number of music programs that have disappeared from the nation’s classrooms just, say, in the past five years.
The idea to start the ensemble found Lewis in 2000, when a friend telephoned to inform her that Elisabeth Remy Johnson, principal harpist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, wanted to start a program teaching children how to play the instrument but didn’t know quite how to accomplish that.
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Lewis, who’d been teaching music for 30 years in the Atlanta Public Schools, was at predominantly African-American Brown Middle School in the city’s West End that fall and agreed to meet with Johnson. By the end of their talk that day, the women, along with Brown’s principal, agreed to implement an after-school program at the school with Johnson providing an hour of instruction one day a week
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“I thought it was a great idea because the sheer cost of the instrument and lessons was far beyond anything my students’ parents could afford, plus the exposure it would give them,” Lewis said. She believed it had the potential to significantly impact the gender and ethnicity of the harp world.
She selected two seventh-graders — a boy and a girl — from her chorus, and Johnson arrived the following Monday with her harp, the likes of which Lewis’ students had never seen.
“When the children saw the harp go down the hall, they were curious,” Lewis said.
When she explained it was a musical instrument, Lewis said her students clamored for a chance to play.
“I quickly realized that I needed to find more harps,” Lewis remembered. “I’d ask people who I thought would donate money to purchase one, but I was not getting anywhere.”
Then one Sunday morning at Friendship Baptist Church, Lewis shared her dream with her dentist, Dr. Marla Coleman Holloway, and the dentist’s mother, members of the same church.
What do you need, Ms. Roselyn? they asked her.
I need a harp.
How much does it cost?
Stop by the house after church and get the check, they told her.
After church that same day, Lewis ran into Billye Aaron, wife of baseball legend Hank Aaron, and told her the same thing. Aaron’s answer was the same.
Come by the house after church and get the check.
“The next day, I went to work with $10,000,” Lewis said.
She used that 10 grand to buy two lever harps and added four more students to her small after-school program. When Johnson wasn’t there, Lewis stood in, reviewing what the harpist had taught the week before.
Through some mix of circumstance, Lewis had a chance meeting with Nancy Hamilton, head of AppleCorp, and somehow their conversation meandered into talk about funding and nonprofits. Urban Youth would soon become a fiscal agent of AppleCorp and then in 2004 its own nonprofit.
About that time, the program moved from Brown Middle School to the nearly opened Carver School of the Arts, and Urban Harp became part of Pathways to Success, funded by the nonprofit Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. With a $150,000 grant it received from the foundation, Lewis purchased five additional harps and hired a teacher. The Links Inc., a community service organization, bought a harp. A North Carolina woman donated one.
Lewis added on a day program and a free summer residential camp at the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, a private college preparatory school located in the Appalachian Mountains. For an entire week, 35 students studied music theory and history, and took harp lessons. On the last day, they celebrated with a rousing noon concert.
Four years later in 2007, the economy went south and so did the camp. The $25,000 needed to fund the venture had dried up.
That same year, however, Lewis got a new infusion of cash from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulton County Arts Council and Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs. She added an after-school program at Drew Charter and slowly transitioned the program there full time.
Drew offered Urban Harp a fine arts auditorium, a dedicated classroom and leadership support it hadn’t had before.
“We really liked being here,” Lewis said, “and they appreciated the partnership and the value we bring.”
By then, Johnson had long since left the program, but Lewis’ fears that Urban Harp might shut down hadn’t materialized and they wouldn’t.
“These children were so interested and doing so well, it had to continue,” Lewis said.
Case in point? Mason Morton, who when he graduated from high school, received 11 harp scholarships and went on to get degrees at Rice and Boston University, where he studied with Ann Hobson Pilot, then principal harpist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He now teaches harp at a Boston middle school and performs all over the country with Sons of Serendip, fourth-place winners from season nine of “America’s Got Talent.”
Lewis, 71, is convinced there are more Mason Mortons to come.
Peyton Rodgers, the senior from Atlanta. Jabari Freeman, the sophomore from Ellenwood. Or Sage Harrison, the Atlanta middle schooler.
All of them have in them the talent to become principal harpists, but it might not have happened had it not been for Johnson and Roselyn Lewis, who retired in 2007, and their teachers, Angelica Hairston and Molly O’Roark.
Before I saw Urban Harp for myself early this month, a reader told me the ensemble is one of Atlanta’s best-kept secrets.
She’s absolutely right. They are.