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After Hours - Harp is heavenly to health plan ombudsman
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Margaret Marsh
Stephanie Gross
Margaret Marsh

After Hours

Harp is heavenly to health plan ombudsman

By Dan Heuchert

Margaret Marsh's mother gave her the gift of music. When Marsh was a child growing up in New York, her mother made it a tradition to pack up the family and take them to the free Sunday afternoon concerts offered by Syracuse University's music department. It was no small effort; Marsh was one of seven children.

"We used to sit in the balcony and look down at everything," recalled Marsh, who began taking piano lessons at age 4. "My parents did a lot to make music important to us."

She remembers being particularly enthralled watching the harpists and listening to their mellifluous sound. So when she began studying music at Onandaga Community College in Syracuse and found that the school offered instruction in harp, she eagerly signed up. A love affair was born.

She later attended West Virginia University on a harp scholarship, then received a Ph.D. in piano performance and pedagogy from Northwestern University. For many years, she taught piano and harp and performed professionally, including an appearance in the famed Carnegie Recital Hall in New York City.

Though Marsh no longer makes her living playing music -- she has worked as a health benefits financial analyst here since October 1997, and is the U.Va. Health Plan's ombudsman -- she continues to play the harp at various concerts and functions in the area. She has played with symphonies and at shopping center openings, at weddings and elementary schools, at hospices and hospitals, at the University's New Employee Orientation Fairs and with church choirs. Lots of church choirs.

At an unwieldy six feet tall and 70 pounds, her grand concert harp is no easy instrument to haul around town. Her father built her a carrier with wheels, but it still takes an effort to get it in and out of her Dodge Caravan, even with both back seats removed.

"The biggest hassle is trying to get it into churches without wheelchair ramps," she said, "or to get it into the choir lofts." She cringes at the memory of having to watch as volunteers carried the harp -- a new one costs between $12,000 and $20,000 -- up a spiral staircase at one church.

Another memorable performance came back in New York, when she was contacted by a member of a rock 'n' roll band who had written a piece that included a harp part. Would she be interested in playing at a nightclub?

She accepted, then wondered what she had gotten herself into when she arrived to find that the place even had a mosh pit, where patrons slammed violently into one another as the band played. "My harp stunk for weeks from the smoke, she recalled. "It was actually fun."

Usually, though, she sticks with classical pieces.

"It's a very soothing instrument," she says. "It soothes me, as well as the people who hear it.

"It gets you in a quiet place so you're able to relax and remember what's important."

Not surprisingly, given her mother's influence, she particularly enjoys playing for children. She used to make appearances at schools, demonstrating both the grand concert harp, which has 47 strings and foot pedals, and the smaller folk harp

"So many kids are enthralled by the harp," she said, partly because it is so unusual. At one shopping center appearance, "One little girl came up and asked her mother if I was an angel."

Making the transition from the piano to the harp wasn't miraculous, she said, since the music is the same for both, with treble and bass clefs. The hardest part is getting the feel of which strings produce which notes. The C-strings are red, the F's are black, and they serve as landmarks for the rest of the scale.

Instruction, though, is hard to come by. There is a small harp community centered in Richmond, where there is actually a harp supply store, but Marsh knows of only one other regularly performing harpist in Charlottesville: Eve Watters, who plays the folk harp. They refer gigs to each other all the time, Marsh said.

Besides the nightclub appearance, one other performance is particularly memorable.

It came last May 2. She was scheduled to play at Piedmont Virginia Community College, and on the program was John Rutter's "Requiem", which the composer wrote in memory of his son. It is a non-traditional composition, but includes wonderful harp passages.

"It was a very personal requiem, and some of the most luscious music I had played," she said. "It was my absolute favorite piece, and I was excited when a group in town wanted to play that piece."

That morning, though, she received awful news: her mother had died unexpectedly.

"It was a question of whether to stay and play or to go home" right away, she said.

She opted to play. "When we actually played, I was playing for her," Marsh said, her voice thick with emotion. "It was definitely the right thing to do.

"She would have said, 'You made a commitment. You have to play.' Whenever I play the harp now, I think of her."


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