Harping on the prairie


The harp is one of the oldest instruments known. The Psalms of King David were composed for harp, and harps have been found in ancient tombs in Mesopotamia. But despite its ancient heritage, it’s not easy to find instruction.

Since last spring music students at Southwest Minnesota State University have had an opportunity to study harp with a master harpist.

Rachel Brandwein graduated from the University of Michigan, studied at Julliard, spent a year in Paris and received her doctor of musical arts degree from Stoney Brook University.

“The DMA is a performance degree, in my case for harp,” Brandwein said. “I come from a musical family. My brother is a world class pianist. I started piano when I was 4 years old, and I think my parents wanted something different for me. They found me harp lessons when I was 10, and I liked it. It’s really fun.”

Brandwein teaches at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, as well as freelance performing, and somehow finds time to come to SMSU to give harp lessons to music majors and private lessons in Marshall.

One of her first students was Professor John Ginocchio, chairman of the Department of Fine Arts and Communication and director of bands.

“It’s an instrument that shows up in band music, but generally you don’t learn much about it in band,” Ginocchio said. “I took harp to learn about it so I’d be more familiar with how it works. The harp is a very different way of making music than other instruments I play, so progress is slow. But I am making progress.”

According to Brandwein, the harp is one of the few harmonic rather than melodic instruments, meaning it can play several notes at once to make chords.

“We don’t have to be accompanied, though we can be,” Brandwein said.

It is played with eight fingers rather than 10, because the little finger is not quite strong enough to pluck strings at normal tension.

Brandwein came to SMSU every Tuesday in the spring semester and presently comes every other week.

“When I first started in spring I had 13 students, that’s huge,” Brandwein said. “Now I have four students for credit and eight private students.”

Ginocchio said he hopes SMSU can persuade Brandwein to keep giving lessons.

“It’s very unusual for a program to offer harp,” Ginocchio said. “It’s wonderful Rachel is willing to come down.”