The beginning….

This particular journey started back in February last year (2009) when I heard that there was going to be a new harp competition in the Netherlands. I had never performed solo in the Netherlands and really wanted to – there’s a terrific buzz about the harp there and superb harpists, musicians and teachers such as Erika Waardenburg, Ernestine Stoop and Petra van der Heide. Gwyneth Wentink, an incredible talent of my own generation, who I have heard perform many times and deeply admire, was a student of Erika’s and is now an international soloist – as it turned out, she was also to be a member of the jury for this competition! But knowledge of the jury remained secret until day 1 of the competition.

I have studied with Erika Waardenburg on a few separate occassions – initially a one-off summer course in Devon, then a private study weekend at her studio, then an even more inspiring Springcourse in 2009 at her home. It was on this three-day course that I met Remy van Kesteren, who impressed me with his playing and also with the fact that he was actually the founder of this competition in the Netherlands. Although he now had a large committee made up entirely of students like himself. He is also an extremely funny and lovely person to be around!

Starting the music….

A piece that I love but have struggled with, Faure’s Une chatelaine en sa tour…, appeared as the compulsory piece for the first round of the contest. A work that requires a sostenuto melodic line throughout, has complex pedalling that should be silent despite the difficulties of reverberating harmonies, uses delicate textures and calls for a personal interpretation is surely an excellent choice for a set piece. There could be no harder test than this. With Erika’s encouragement on Springcourse, I gained a new focus and confidence with the piece. She shared many ‘tricks of the trade’ with me, for example, enharmonic realisations of parts where the pedalling was stopping the flow of the music. In general, the course boosted my confidence and helped me to feel a part of things in the harp world, especially having been out of formal education for so long.

As well as Erika Waardenburg, I had lessons with many wonderful harpists and musicians in the UK. Without the support and guidance of the following people, I would not have felt equipped to even compete, let alone to get to the final stage and win a prize:

Thank yous….

Daphne Boden

My teacher of 8 years from age 11. Daphne also kindly gave me a lesson and hosted a delightful soirée at her house to give me the opportunity to perform my competition repertoire!

Alison Nicholls

My teacher from the age of 19 to 26, whose words of guidance are always with me. I could write so many paragraphs about everything that Alison has taught me but all I will say here is that every time I play, practice and perform, I feel as if she’s there with me. In particular, I thank Alison for the fact that I now rely on things like triplet scales and dominant sevenths in contrary motion, in place of panic-fuelled practising!

Charlotte Seale

I am indebted to Charlotte for her generosity with time and advice. After my initial edit of Thomas Hewitt Jones’s ‘Shades of Grief’ that I commissioned in 2009, Charlotte found hundreds of ways to make this hugely challenging work playable, and then beautiful. Her musical ideas are as astute as her quick eye for an enharmonic translation (or ten!) that can reduce the pedal movements dramatically and also allow freedom for the musical line.

Helen Sharp

Helen gave me two in-depth lessons that completely transformed my interpretation and ability to play Spohr, Faure and Prokofiev! I would recommend that anyone has lessons with Helen and I very much hope to have more myself. Helen was also really generous and her advice brightened the atmosphere in my practice room for a long time after each lesson!

Lucy Wakeford

My lesson with Lucy on the Ginastera Concerto was totally invaluable. Lucy covered everything, in depth, in one session that focused my mind, gave me confidence and really pushed me to accelerate my learning of the piece. Every fingering, pedal move and phrase mark was alive in her mind and she shared everything with me. It really fired me up for the final fortnight of preparation and I am so lucky that she made time for me. Every word of hers was with me on the day of the final, as well as in my practice.

Susie Summers

Susie and I worked together in a few sessions (and one practice performance at our old school, kindly organised by Nan Ingrams) on the Ginastera Concerto. Susie is an outstanding pianist and is currently working as a piano accompanist at the Royal College of Music and also for BBC Young Musicians. She is a wonderful, sensitive and perceptive musician. Being accompanied by Susie was far more than just running through the music – her phrasing of the orchestral lines and her brilliant realisation of the orchestral textures at the piano really affected how I played the concerto. This part of my preparation was essential and I was so lucky to work with Susie as she really immersed herself in the music with me, making it an unforgettable experience. I was to realise just how very special she is when, before the final of the competition, each finalist had a run-through in front of the conductor. This was with only a piano accompanist, as opposed to the rehearsal we had already had with the orchestra, so that he could colour-code on his score which finalist was doing what! I knew the piano part so well from working with Susie that I wasn’t put off (especially as the accompanist was far from Susie’s level of perfection) and was therefore able to make the most out of the session with the conductor.

Anna Tilbrook

Anna is an exceptional piano accompanist who specialises in song accompaniment. She was recommended to me by my friend and colleague Harriet Adie – I had to phone Harriet immediately after my lesson with Anna, which my fabulous soprano duo partner Helen Winter attended too, to say thank you for putting me in touch with Anna! It was an inspirational lesson.

The songs by Schumann, for soprano (or tenor in one instance) with piano or harp accompaniment, are musically and technically very demanding. They are written in a style I am completely unfamiliar with and the writing is essentially pianistic, therefore it’s difficult to make them sound natural on the harp. They were included in the competition programme as set works because they are such a wonderful addition to our repertoire and, as I now know, accompanying a singer is VERY different to a violinist, cellist or flautist. Instead of an imagined story or idea behind the music, there is a real story, told in real words with an expression that must flow from true understanding of the text, the character, the genre, the nationality, the culture and era it was composed in. You are the accompanist not the soloist, there to serve the needs and artistic vision of the singer, but also capable of influencing him/her, supporting and enhancing their performance too. Anna made me tell the stories of the songs in my own words, which revealed my far-too-basic level of comprehension at that time! She also demonstrated some phrases on the piano, which was incredibly revealing and inspiring, and gave me no end of advice that I cherished. Both of the sopranos that I got to accompany in the Netherlands were really amazed by my deep knowledge of the songs and commented that I was leading them in many places and really pushing them to do more with the music. I was delighted, of course! Before my lesson with Anna, I only knew the notes on the pages, not the actual music. I am so grateful for her help and I can’t wait to work more on these songs.

Douglas Hollick

Douglas is a superb harpsichordist who lives near me, in Lincolnshire. He is also an organist, a piano and harpsichord maker and restorer, an expert in baroque and classical rhetoric and a great musician who brings fun to the music of the 16-1800s! I am so privileged to have had a few lessons with him and to be able to hear his beautiful, inventive playing on authentic instruments from around the classical period.

Keziah Thomas

My friend and colleague Keziah gave me a brilliant lesson when we played our competition programmes to each other a week before the Netherlands contest. Her advice on the Faure and Prokofiev I am sure got me my pass through to the second stage of the competition – Keziah’s main advice was not to ‘overcook’ the music by getting too intense too soon. Of course, there are much finer points to it than this, but it was all exactly what I needed to keep me in line just at that time! It also reminded me just how much we should be learning from our friends and colleagues and how great it is to freely give and share tips – there should be no secrets as everyone is an individual and music is not like sport – the winner is rarely the one who reaches the double barline the soonest!

Tillett Trust

I applied to many funding bodies to get help with the costs of having lessons, travelling, attending the contest, putting on practice performances, having my harp serviced and so on. I am delighted to say that eventually, after many negative replies, I had a positive and much-needed YES from the Tillett Trust! Even though I wrote my application only a few weeks before the competition, the board of trustees managed to get together and gave me a £500 grant. I would have NOT been able to get over to the Netherlands without this support, having spent more than what I had in the run up to the competition. I still can’t use my bank card or credit card, due to debt, but it was worth it! Fortunately my 2500 euros prize-money will be on its way to me soon, for which I am immensely grateful. However, even going and competing would simply not have been possible without that ‘Yes’ from the Tillett Trust.

Preparing for an International Competition

After the initial decision to compete comes much planning and preparation, for the journey of a lifetime! Alison Nicholls, who taught me from 2001-2009, has always impressed upon me the necessity for commitment to your ‘programme’ (your repertoire for each round) in the early stages of the preparation. There are bound to be new pieces to learn especially for each contest (set works) so it is really important that most of your competition programme is music that has been a part of your repertoire for a long time. Lists of potential choices can be drawn up and divided into categories – styles, genres, characters, musical periods etc. (Sometimes you may feel that a piece by a baroque composer is actually in a similar mood to a romantic or classical work, therefore not being a great contrast despite being written in different eras. You shouldn’t rule out pieces that you learnt ten years ago, as you can bring so much freshness to them with the benefit of experience.) It is necessary to bring everything together into a really wide-ranging programme that best serves your musicality, as well as providing many inevitable challenges.

When designing my programme, I started working backwards from the final round: The Ginastera Harp Concerto followed by a free choice, compulsory ‘encore’ piece of up to ten minutes in length. This was to be announced on stage by the competitor him/herself. Even at the time of Erika’s Springcourse, I’d already had the idea of following the Ginastera (written in Buenos Aires) with two of the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Astor Piazzolla. At that stage I had got as far as buying Maria Luisa Rayan Forero’s excellent harp transcription and listening to numerous recordings of the pieces by tango quintets, Astor Piazzolla himself and versions for violin and orchestra by Lara St John and Gidon Kremer. Although it was a really appealing link between the Ginastera and the Piazzolla, I asked many people for their advice on the selection and learnt the music so that I could play it to other musicians. I wanted to know whether people thought that the two pieces complimented each other and if the Piazzolla transcription was suitable for the final of an international competition.

I had a couple of unsure reactions and a couple of keen ones, so I worked on the pieces until I could prove that they were a worthy completion to my programme…in the meantime, I had the first and second round programmes to finalise!

The first stage, from which only 5-8 participants would pass, was a short round comprising of Fauré’s ‘Une châtelaine en sa tour…’ and one virtuosic piece from Prokofiev’s ‘Prelude in C’, Manuel de Falla’s ‘Spanish Dance No.1’ from La Vida Breve and a piece I didn’t know, and I must confess still don’t, which is ‘La Caccia’ by Paganini/Magistretti.

Even though I knew the Prokofiev very well already and loved performing it, I felt that I should at least have the choice between that and one of the others, so I decided to learn the de Falla – I had wanted to learn it for years anyway, since hearing Anneleen Lenaerts playing it on the harp and Janine Jansen playing it on the violin. Once I had started learning it, I also discovered the most incredible rendition on youtube, of a solo castanet player with orchestral accompaniment – very inspiring rhythmically!

This piece is a wonderful concert work to perform. However, my interpretation was changing with every performance and I was enjoying the music so much that I would admit I wasn’t realising all of Grandjany’s suggestions. I was also adding a few of my own details and playing much of it ‘pres de la table’ and in the style of the flamenco guitar. It was too tempting! So, I had the choice of either working out a definitive interpretation that was restrained by the transcription, in order to perform it in the contest, or continue to enjoy it more as a concert work…which is what I chose to do! I also had reservations about how well it was sitting with the Fauré. So, I happily resolved to follow Fauré with Prokofiev and thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the Prelude, having not played it much for a year or two. It felt like an old friend, but also a fresh piece.

My ideas for the Stage 2 programme started with a good feeling due to the relatively high level of free choice. This round gave me a strong incentive to enter the competition and it really inspired me. We could choose a piece from the baroque or classical era, we could choose a contemporary work written in the 20th century or up to the present day, we could also choose which two out of four possible Schumann lieder to accompany.

Thomas Hewitt Jones, a friend from my years at the Royal College of Music Junior Department, had recently written a searingly beautiful musical score for Independent Ballet Wales. Unsurprisingly, the music received rave reviews by the press and public alike. Knowing that Tommy’s music wasn’t just appealing to my own tastes but was also acclaimed by critics, sealed my decision to ask him to write me a solo harp piece. Having followed his incredible progress over the past few years I knew it was only a matter of time before he would become too busy to accept such a humble commission. So, I went ahead and asked him to write me a piece that was 6-8 minutes long, thinking that it may also be suitable for the contest. I only had to wait about a month before Tommy had come up with all the thematic material, which he ran past me in a play-through we had in Dulwich. I loved all the ideas and the whole shape of it. It was clear that it was going to be a really profound piece that would stand out from my other harp music. Tommy writes very chromatically, which is what gives his music such depth and meaning; so I pretended that it would all be playable with no problems, not wanting him to hold back musically! When he emailed me with the first draft, I was thrilled and knew instantly that this was the piece to play in the second round that would really represent Britain in the contest! What I did not anticipate was the amount of hours (definitely over 50!) that it would take just to get through editing, pedalling, re-editing and re-pedalling continually each practice session, to get a final edit. Charlotte Seale’s help with editing the piece was heaven sent!

I had to trust that the new work by Dutch composer Henk Alkema would fit in nicely with what I had already decided on for my programme, even though we only received that piece via email less than three months before the competition.

I decided to start with my classical choice, ‘Variations on ‘Je suis encore dans mon printemps’ by Louis Spohr, which is a really light, fresh piece. After this would be the two Schumann songs – ‘Provenzalisches Lied’ (reminiscent of folk music from the minstrels of Provence, calling to mind the sound of the hurdy-gurdy and country bands in places and blossoming into minstrels’ love-song) and ‘Die Tochter Jephthas’ (the intense, dramatic story of Jephthas sacificing his daughter to God).

Following the passion of the Schumann songs I had to choose whether to go for a complete contrast in mood and play Alkema’s new piece, ‘Forgotten Lore’, or to continue with the darker material and follow Schumann with Thomas Hewitt Jones’s ‘Shades of Grief’. I went with my gut instinct and decided on the order that I thought I would programme them if it was a concert, so I kept the Schumann and Hewitt Jones together. I then had the opportunity to re-tune my 7th octave D bass wire, and my top G, as different semitones for ‘Forgotten Lore’. So, this was my entire competition programme:

First Round

_ Gabriel Fauré – Une Châtelaine en sa Tour… opus 110
_ Sergei Prokofiev – Prelude in C, Opus 12, no. 7

_ Louis Spohr – Variations sur “Je suis encore dans mon printemps" op.36

_ Robert Schumann – Provenzalisches Lied in B flat major

_ Robert Schumann – Die Tochter Jephthas, Opus 95, No.1 in C minor

­_ Thomas Hewitt Jones – Shades of Grief (2009)

_ Henk Alkema – Forgotten Lore


_ Alberto Ginastera – Harp Concerto opus 25

_ Astor Piazzolla – From Quatro Estaciones Porteñas: (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) Invierno Porteña and Verano Porteña (transcribed by María Luisa Rayan-Forero) 


Go to part 3.....