A harp concert that challenges stereotypes
Singapore’s Katryna Tan is one of Southeast Asia’s leading harpists

A harp concert that challenges stereotypes

Often played by sirens and seraphim in myths and early religions, the harp and the harpist are often associated with elegance and poise, producing seductive arpeggios that convey a sense of otherworldliness. But while beautiful, these strong associations mean that the instrument has become a little typecast.

Directed by Katryna Tan, Viva Rave’s The Duality of Harp at Esplanade Recital Studio seeks to set the record straight. The ensemble of harpists – all former students of Katryna – will perform works by J.S. Bach, Debussy and Rodrigo that show off the instrument’s shimmering charm. Pieces by Andrès, Calcraft, and Singapore’s own Charmaine Teo and Jonathan Shin, reveal a darker intensity.

Presented in a live concert interspersed with audio-visual effects, The Duality of Harp announces Viva Rave’s mission to break down barriers between artists and the general Singaporean public – encouraging greater art appreciation in the community.

Awarded the prestigious Young Artist Award 2005 by the National Arts Council, Katryna has performed in France, the US, Canada, Taiwan and Malaysia. She is a composer in her own right and has a great reputation as an inspirational teacher, sharing her secrets in her book, Unleash the Musician in You. She founded Rave Harps Academy to train students in Singapore and Malaysia.

In celebration of Teachers’ Day on 3 Sep, The A List spoke to Katryna and one of her protégés, Viva Rave player Loh Jia Hui, about challenging stereotypes and the teacher-student dynamic.

How do you challenge the stereotypical view that the harp is good for imbuing music with an ethereal, mystical feel, but isn’t an important instrument in its own right?

Katryna Tan: The harp has often been linked to celestial sounds and gentle flowing arpeggios. We challenge this notion with a concert programme of ‘light’ and ‘dark’; the second half featuring themes of anxiety and fear, and the shrilling chorus of cicadas. This is achieved with special effects – pedal slides, thunder strikes, and bowing – coupled with the intricate harmonies produced by all nine harps playing together.

What qualities make a musician suited to learning and playing the harp?

Tan: With seven pedals to manipulate, the harp requires good motor skills. Having said that, I believe everyone can enjoy playing the harp, which touches the soul of almost anyone who tries it. The harp is one of the rare instruments where sound is directly produced by the plucking of strings with our fingers. The physical contact, with the harp leaning on our bodies, sends vibrations and harmonies directly through the player. Something magical just happens!

Do you see your role as teacher being more than just about instruction on technique? 

Tan: We have to inspire students by opening the world of music to them; going beyond technique to instil musical passion in their hearts. This passion will stay with the student throughout their life. Beyond that, I act as a mentor to help students realise their potential and guide them to find their musical pathways.

How physically challenging is it to master an instrument with seven foot pedals and so many strings it has almost the range of a piano?

Loh Jia Hui: There is never a dull moment when you play the pedal harp. Challenging? Sometimes. Fun? All the time! I think the added factor of having to adjust your sharps and flats with your feet makes it feel like you have more hands. You can do more, but you also have more to coordinate. Harpists are excellent multitaskers!

How important is it to have the right teacher to guide you through the learning process and help you embark on a professional career?

Loh: Having the right teacher is really one of the biggest advantages any student can have. Katryna has not only taught me the harp but also the importance of being prepared and paying attention to the details – life lessons which are all essential to becoming a professional. More importantly, to me, she lives out the things she teaches so authentically in her own life that I can’t help but aspire to be like her.

What life lessons has learning the harp to a high level taught you? 

Loh: So many, really. Two of the most notable ones would have to be that we always want to strive towards perfection – clean sounds, perfect pedals… the right tension on the strings. Demanding this from myself helps me grow beyond myself and become better each day. Second, there is always, always, room to improve!  Even after a good performance, it’s so important to examine ourselves to see how we can improve. We stop growing when we stop wanting to be better, so, keep looking for ways to improve!

Watch the online streaming performances of VIVA RAVE – The Duality of Harp on 4 or 5 Sep here.

Replies were edited and condensed for clarity.

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