Noah Brenner is the University of Oregon’s first Celtic harp performance major at the UO’s School of Music and Dance.
You can learn a lot about a musician when you watch him carry his instrument. Flute or tuba, violin or bass, a musician who looks comfortable with his instrument is comfortable with his instrument. When Noah Brenner travels long distances on foot, he uses a homemade backpack to carry his Celtic harp—an instrument that’s almost as tall as he is. The metal skeleton of the pack is fashioned from the remains of two separate external-frame hiking packs. The shoulder straps are attached to the frame, which rests on his back. A second metal rectangle is attached to the bottom like a shelf. This is where the harp rests, wrapped safely in a green cloth case. Once secured to the frame, the heart-shaped instrument leans flat against his back. “Everyone thinks they are very clever and that they’re the first one to think that it looks like wings,” he says. Others have asked if the bulky pack was a tent or a surfboard. He’s even been asked if the bundle on his back was a kayak. “Usually people ask me about it, which is kind of cool.”
Noah is the first University of Oregon student to major in Celtic harp performance. There are other harpists in the music department, but Noah, who also plays viola and sings, is the only student whose primary instrument is Celtic harp. The major was fashioned for him by his university teacher and mentor, Laura Zaerr. A harpist herself, Zaerr worked with the department to approve Noah’s specialization in this area of music performance, which Noah had to petition for during his junior year—when all music majors declare their specializations—before the administration would consent. He started the program in fall 2005 and graduates this spring. “So, I am officially a Celtic harp performance major: the first and hopefully not the last,” he says. “To say that I could do it means that there’s a possibility that somebody else could do it.”
He has close-cropped facial hair and a full head of brown curls. He is passionate about his music but doesn’t let his music define him—it is just one piece of his personality. In a small office in the music building, he talks about his harp and his career as a solo harpist. He is sociable, well-spoken and rather jittery. While he talks he reaches out to his harp, as if to start playing, but then thinks better of it. He sits in a tiny first-floor office in the music building, a room barely larger than the average prison cell, which serves as a practice room for UO harpists. Along one wall there is an upright piano; along another there is a bookshelf; and in the corner by the door is a desk littered with miscellaneous office supplies and papers. But most of the floor space is reserved for the harps. In total, there are five harps in the room, and among them is Noah Brenner’s own Celtic harp.
Brenner started playing the harp when he was five, but his first harp was purchased before he was born. His mother was visiting the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, and there, amidst the fossils and museum displays, a harpist named Sylvia Woods was performing. Noah’s mother was captivated by the sound. She decided that someday she would buy a harp of her own and learn to play it. Shortly after Noah was born, his grandmother passed away and his mother inherited his grandmother’s earthly possessions. With this inheritance, his mother purchased a lap harp and a plot of land in Crestone, a 90-person town in South Central Colorado.
Here, in this Rocky Mountain town, Noah’s mother tried to teach herself how to play her lap harp. She used an instructional book written by Sylvia Woods—the woman whom she’d heard at the Tar Pits. But she kept her hobby a secret. “She just didn’t want to play for anyone,” Noah says, “She just enjoyed playing for herself.” When Noah was five he asked his mom if he could take piano lessons. They didn’t own a piano and their budget didn’t give them much room to purchase such an expensive instrument. “But it was really important to my mom that I do something,” he says. She went in her closet, pulled out her lap harp and her Sylvia Woods book, and entrusted them to Noah. Stick with this instrument for one year, she said, and then we can find some way to teach you how to play piano. “So I did that,” he says, “and then I didn’t want to play the piano.”
Noah was hooked. The harp felt natural for him, so his desire to learn piano was overpowered by his connection with the harp. Soon he was performing his music for others. In terms of technique, he is self-taught because no one else in Crestone knew how to play harp. While he continued to teach himself, eventually switching from a lap harp to a floor-size instrument, he also studied music theory and viola with music teachers. When he reached the end of his high school years, he searched for a university where he could study Celtic harp. “For one thing, harp in general is not terribly common but not too hard to find,” he says, “But Celtic harp: Where am I going to be able to actually study that?”
Noah explains that many musicians might view the Celtic harp as a starter instrument, training wheels for the concert harp. This mentality irks him. “It’s not a lesser instrument, it’s not a stepping stone and it’s not the half-way harp. It is a different instrument.” The harps are different sizes: the concert harp is much larger and looks more ornate. The frame is more than five feet tall and generally has 47 strings. At the base of the concert harp there are seven adjustable pedals that alter the pitch of the strings. Unlike the Celtic harp, the concert harp has a substantial repertoire of music, and large-scale music performance opportunities are more available for concert harp players. “I have to clarify when I say I play the harp; that I mean this one because the assumption is not this one.” Since attending the UO, Noah’s learned how to play the concert harp, but he still prefers his Celtic harp.
Thirty-eight strings stretch from the base of his Celtic harp’s chocolate-brown frame. The taut lines span across the open center and pass through a metal sharpening lever which is the size of a child’s pinky finger. At the top frame, small metal pegs secure each string to the frame. Like keys on a piano, the strings are grouped into octaves. All the red strings are the same note but are part of a different octave; the same goes for all the blue strings. The rest of the strings are either white or clear. The metal levers and pegs are just part of the assemblage which not only keeps the harp strings attached to the frame but also influences the strings’ pitches.
A tweak here and a turn there adjust the sting’s tension and thus its pitch. With the flip of the sharpening lever an F note becomes an F sharp. For some songs, he adjusts the levers then ignores them for the duration of the piece, but for other songs he needs to flip the levers to change keys as often as every few seconds.
In the UO practice room filled with harps, Noah demonstrates the differences between the Celtic and concert harps. He takes a seat on a small bench and tips the harp back towards his torso. The harp balances on the back two legs of its stool and the edge of the harp’s frame rests on his right shoulder. With his left hand on one side of the strings and his right hand on the other side, his fingers skim across octaves then pluck the desired strings. A captivating tune floats from the harp’s hollow sound-box and fills the small room. On the Celtic harp, the song gives the room a different sense of place; it feels more warm and comfortable, as if the room is filled with friends and family. When the piece is done he skims his palm across the strings to mute the melody’s final echoes. “Something, to me, in the sound is more subtle with the Celtic harp. It’s not just a note,” he says. “Sometimes concert harp, to me, can sound impersonal and distant. This harp sounds like it’s right here with you.”
While the warm glow continues to drift around the room, Noah steps over to a concert harp and prepares to play the melody again. He adjusts some of the pedals located at the base of the harp to turn natural tones into a sharp note or a flat note. He sits on a different bench, but this time the harp stays flat on the ground. Once more, he places his right hand on the back of the strings and his left hand on the front. His hands play the same melody but the sound is different. The music is beautiful, yet the notes sound fixed and make the space feel more formal. “The concert harp is more consistent over its whole range—all the notes are the same,” he says at the end of his demonstration. While some people may prefer the concert harp for this very reason, he prefers the Celtic harp because its sound is different. “I don’t know why, necessarily, I would want inconsistency, but it makes it more real. It makes it more human,” he says. The Celtic harp also feels more personal to Noah because he can repair and maintain his harp without much assistance—the pedal mechanisms of the concert harp are harder to repair without help from an expert. “I feel like I am less scared of messing with my instrument,” he says. “It’s mine; we can actually interact.”
Noah Brenner spent a year establishing residency in Oregon before he started school. During this time, he earned his income as a solo harpist. At first he played at a cafe. Then he decided to showcase his talent at the Saturday Market. Eventually, his name was circulating around Eugene and he started getting gigs for weddings and parties and cultural festivals. Though he didn’t make much money at some of these events, it was positive publicity. He says that people began to call him to offer performance opportunities, and now that Eugene knows who he is, he has an easier time fitting performances in his already hectic academic schedule. “While I’ve been in school I’ve had time, though not a lot, to do gigs,” he says. “But I certainly don’t have time to chase them.” School has helped him expand his skills and learn to play better, and this pursuit for knowledge is what drives his studies. “I don’t need the piece of paper that I’m going to get in the end. I’ll be happy to get it; it’s a sense of completion,” he says. “But that’s not my motivation.” While many undergraduates need their degree to get a job, Noah is already performing and implementing his talents. His academic motivation is different because he is already a paid harpist.
After he graduates he’ll have more time to perform and teach others about the Celtic harp. Many of his past gigs presented his talent as background music—his music created atmosphere but wasn’t the main event. “Something that’s always important to me is showing the different sounds that the harp can make,” he says. Brenner emphasizes that the harp can do more than whimsical arpeggios and grand crescendos. He combines storytelling and music to create a more personal experience with the audience. Sometimes he’ll play a song which is accompanied by a story, but sometimes he tells the story just to teach the audience about his instrument and the music he plays. “I really like engaging an audience and creating a world they get to come into for a little while,” he says. When he is done with school, he plans to create a solo performance line-up featuring a wide variety of music, from classic Celtic melodies to arrangements fit for Tango. “Pretty soon I’m going to plan on creating a really good show,” he says, “Getting visible so that I have a name that exists outside of the music building and those who organize events.” With a pluck of luck and some self-promotion, he and his Celtic harp will draw crowds to a solo concert. Background music is a good gig, but, as the first Celtic harp performance major, Noah Brenner looks forward to preparing and organizing performances that will showcase his musicianship. “When I graduate I will actually have more time to actually be a musician,” he says.