Harp and Soul by Mary Muckle

This post was written by Mary Muckle, and placed into the blog by Mary Radspinner. 

From Mary Muckle:  I grew up in a rural farming area outside of the then very small town of Whitby, Ontario, Canada. My first instrument was the piano, taught by Elaine Broughton the organist at our local church. Her passion, not unusual in an organist, was for the Baroque, so that from the beginning I had a firm foundation in contrapuntal music. Much later this foundation was useful to me in arranging ensembles for my harp students. In duets, especially, I wanted both harp parts to be melodically interesting, even independent in character, to encourage the interest of both players in the material.

As a child, I loved to sing. My earliest memories are of belting out “ Good Night Irene” and “ The Ballad of Davy Crockett” in back seat on family car trips. In later years, when I was a student at Berkeley, I sang in early music ensembles and in the University of California mass choir. A highlight of those times was performing for Igor Stravinsky in person his choral work, The Symphony of Psalms. I have still the signed front page of my choral score, framed on the wall of my harp studio.

Back in Canada, I completed a B. Ed. At the University of Toronto and began my professional life in Newfoundland as a music teacher, first in the public school system and later as a private piano teacher. I taught at St. Francis of Assisi School in Outer Cove, which like many maritime elementary schools at the time had a thriving ukulele program. I would spend my lunch hours tuning 25 ukeleles between quick bites of sandwich, for the after lunch classes. I experimented, with moderate success, in replacing broken strings with easily acquired inexpensive fishing line, instead of the expensive commercially purchased strings. My star ukulele player, Daryl Power, grew up to become the bass guitarist in the famous Canadian rock band “ Great Big Sea”. It was for my combined ukulele and recorder classes that I began to arrange ensemble music. This became a life-long interest, culminating in my book,” Harp and Soul – A Harp Ensemble Tutor”, published in 2023 by Afghan Press. This ensemble collection is the result of 25 years of teaching harp in private lessons, group classes and as a director of harp choirs in Ottawa, Canada.

While living in St. John’s Newfoundland, I collaborated as a singer with classical guitarist Eric West. Newfoundland’s island culture is rich in folklore. There are many published collections of Newfoundland folk music for example. For performance, Eric and I drew on the rich musical heritage and languages of the island. I was obsessed by learning and singing songs in Irish and Scots Gaelic. I was fortunate to have as mentor Dr. Allie O’Brien, scholar and farmer, whose grand-parents were fluent in Irish. When the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, edited by G. M. Story, was published in 1982, I wrote a children’s sleep learning song made up of unusual names of animals, gleaned from the dictionary. This song was one of many on a program for voice and guitar, and later a recording entitled “ Lullabies for a Global Village” made for CBC Radio, Newfoundland and Labrador. I was honoured when CBC Radio included my sleep learning song as part of their obituary for G.M. Story when he passed away.

During a family sabbatical year at Arizona State University in 1982, I began harpsichord studies, a passion that eventually led to my harp studies. My first harp teacher was Carla Furlong, in St. John’s. I continued with Katherine Ely in Victoria, B.C. and lastly with Sarah Davidson in Toronto.

The parent of one of my harp students was overhead to remark about me that teaching helped me to stay young. I think this is true for all teachers and performers. Hopefully I have many more creative endeavours to come. My next project is a collection of harp ensemble arrangements, drawing on the folk music of Newfoundland, Labrador and Nova Scotia.   Visit Mary Muckle’s website.