Could you tell us about how you started playing the harp?
For a long time, I couldn't have explained why I chose the harp – one day when I was six, it suddenly felt like my destiny. Looking back, I think the media I absorbed as a child was my main influence. The scores of films like Disney's Beauty and the Beast and The Nightmare Before Christmas are etched into my brain, having watched them repeatedly in my early years. These two films in particular featured prominent harp parts I can still recall in excruciating detail.
I think the sense of magic the harp brings to orchestral music, and the way that was utilised in those films made playing the harp seem like the most obvious choice in the world.
I expressed my spontaneous interest in the harp to my Mum, who arranged for me to attend a course called Mini Music at Hindhead Music Centre. It was a weekly class designed to teach young children about the instruments of the orchestra – each week we would learn about a different instrument and have a chance to try playing it for ourselves. The course was run by harpist Ann Hughes-Chamberlain, and so naturally week one was an introduction to the harp. A year later I was allowed to start lessons with Ann, and I never looked back.
You have created an incredibly unique career path for yourself. How did you go about it?
Much of my career path has been the result of a desire to explore music outside of the classical sphere. I have always had broad musical interests. It puzzled me for years, trying to understand how I could bring my harp playing into that when my opportunities to learn and perform were so classically focused. Growing up in the 90s and 2000s, there was almost no sheet music for the harp available outside of Classical or Folk, and information about harpists performing other styles of music was hard to find. In sixth form college I had classes with a composition teacher who told me about a transcription job he was working on, and that was when I realised, I could play anything I wanted to if I could work it out by ear. I began transcribing music from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time the following year for fun. Quite a lot of this early work would eventually make it onto my album Song of Time in 2020.
Social media was just emerging as I left my teens and entered my twenties. People were trying things out when it came to promotion, there was no set formula yet. It was exciting, anyone could become a viral sensation overnight just by posting a video, and that was new. After I completed my Master’s at the Academy, I wanted to have a record of some of my final recital programme, as I'd commissioned a piece for it (La Belle Noiseuse by Dominic Sewell), and I'd arranged another myself (Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by JS Bach). So, I got a few friends with cameras and recording equipment together and we hired a local church to film both pieces. When I posted the videos to YouTube in 2015, to my surprise, the views of Toccata quietly snowballed for a year or so until I reached 1000 subscribers and was able to monetise my channel. I thought I'd keep making videos after that, because by that point I'd arranged so much music, and it seemed like YouTube would be a great platform for sharing more of my work. Over time I found I enjoyed the process of theming my videos with set dressing and costumes more and more, in addition to having the immense freedom to choose the music I wanted to perform without restriction. Eight years, almost 190,000 subscribers and over 27 million views later, I’ve arranged and performed some of my favourite music across a wide spectrum of genres, I’ve released an entire album tribute to one of my favourite video games, and I’ve met and collaborated with some fantastic musicians from all over the world. I feel very fortunate to have gotten here.
How do you approach a new arrangement? Is there a certain genre or piece that you find particularly challenging?
My mission statement with arranging always starts with authenticity. Can this music be adapted faithfully, retaining the energy of its original setting whilst also lending itself idiomatically to the harp? Often things that don’t seem immediately idiomatic can be worked around with extended effects, percussion, and prepared strings. I try to stay open minded, but of course there are a few areas where I have to say no or change my approach – fast, repeated notes are a particularly tricky culprit, but I like to think there is usually a way to make it work.
When I was first arranging, everything was for solo acoustic harp, and that obviously has its limitations. Metal and rock quickly becomes difficult to replicate when you can't do fast repeated notes or chords, and the lack of a good substitute for bends (that you can do with one hand!) often leaves guitar solos lacking. On the other end of the spectrum, John Williams' film scores are a tall order for various reasons, not least due to the pace of modulations!
Saying all of this, now that I've produced multi-track arrangements and moved more into effects with electric/electroacoustic harps, I'd be more confident to say that almost any adaptation would be possible...provided I had unlimited channels and time.
What advice would you give to someone who would like to venture into the digital world to share their work?
Firstly, try to be consistent; posting once per week, fortnight or month at a regular time appeases the algorithm! Secondly, make sure you're creating things first, and sharing them second. It is so easy to fall into the trap of scrambling to find things to share for the sake of it, but you'll find if you keep doing it that way, you probably won't love what you're creating. I think it's important to try to be true to yourself, or you'll run the risk of creating content just to please people (trust me, it doesn't feel great).
If you're creating music, recordings and videos, and you also happen to document it in a way that you can share on your chosen platform(s), then you'll be having fun, and keeping that as the priority for yourself. Even if you just stick a camera on in the background while you're recording, practising, setting up or whatever you're working on, there's your content. You can decide how much of yourself, or which parts of yourself, you want to share with people online. It doesn't all have to be perfect, it just has to be you.
What are you most proud of in your career?
It goes without saying that I'm proud of Toccata. I could never have imagined that a video I shot in a church with a few friends would hit 10 million views on YouTube. It is gratifying to think that so many people appreciate an arrangement that reimagines Bach in a way they weren't expecting. It was honestly an achievement just to find a way to make it playable, and to be able to perform it to my own satisfaction. The world it opened up for me on YouTube changed everything, so I will always be proud and thankful that I made the choice to share it. Toccata was also used in a feature film, Triangle of Sadness last year – another wonderful item ticked off my bucket list in seeing my name crawling by in the credits.
Getting my silver play button from YouTube is another highlight, not just because it's an honour to have reached 100,000 subscribers, but because of what it represents. Being a musician online has allowed me to have such creative freedom and has facilitated many of the things I'm most proud of having had the chance to do. Amongst these is the solo I performed on Impulse Voices, the second album by Plini, an Australian guitarist who I've greatly admired since I first heard one of his demos in 2012. A short video I made about one of my favourite childhood PC games, Black & White, led to a remote recording job where I finally got to record harp parts for a video game soundtrack, another item high on my career bucket list. You just never know who will see your video post and say, that's the person I need for my next project, as long as you have the courage to share what you do.
Being able to work online has also pushed me forward as a composer, an area of my work that historically I've been really shy about. During the pandemic, Chroma Duo commissioned me to write a piece for harp duo, Odyssey, and we were able to workshop the piece entirely on Zoom. Having dealt with those restrictions made it all the sweeter to finally meet Chroma in person, and to see them perform the world premiere of Odyssey at the Buxton Festival the following year. It was an emotional moment to hear my music brought to life by Chroma in the same room. I'll remember that concert forever.
You’re adjudicating the PoppyHarp Competitive Harp Festival. Can you tell us a bit more about the premise of the festival?
The PoppyHarp festival started as a local annual event in Warwick for harpists of all ages and abilities, to create performance opportunities in a friendly setting and allow entrants to get feedback from a guest adjudicator. Since the pandemic, the festival has been conducted online, expanding its scope to accept entrants from around the world via video submissions. PoppyHarp founder Fran Barsby and I have known each other since we were beginner harpists together, so it's very special for me to work with her as the adjudicator for her festival so many years later.
Have you got any projects coming up you’d like to tell us about?
This year I'm releasing my first solo EP of original music, entitled Syzygy. It's a trilogy of three songs for solo harp which pushes the limits of what I can do as a soloist as far as my hands will let me, and tells a personal story of rebirth, growth and empowerment. I'll be recording Odyssey this year too, to release as a second EP. Chroma Duo are also performing Odyssey in 2023, starting with a lunchtime recital in Bristol on 9 February.
Photo Credit: Chloe Isherwood