Just past a small sign for “Wicklund Farm” in Springfield, Oregon, beyond acres of raw beauty and several plowed garden plots, the sun glistens against thirty-eight strings tightly bound within their chestnut frame. On a May afternoon, Noah Brenner brushes the instrument’s strings with soft swoops from his practiced hands. While the Celtic harp radiates a distinctive, romantic sound—but Brenner, twenty-six, is anything but the classic, “cookie cutter” harpist.
Argentine tango, comical tales of reluctant pirates, and upbeat Celtic tunes make regular appearances within his musical repertoire.
“This type of harp feels and sounds personal and present with you,” says Brenner, punctuating his point with hand gestures. “It’s there, it’s real, it’s with you.”
As a Tango instructor through the continuing education at Lane Community College, Brenner regularly breaks classical harp music stereotypes by blending an array of musical genres. And as a performer, harp instructor, sheet music editor, and engraver (a person who completes a special form of music notation), Brenner is as multi-faceted as he considers his harp.
The Celtic harp is an unusual breed of instrument, often confused with the larger and more common concert harp. The challenge with Celtic harp is the shortage of available music for learners and musicians.
“…You often have to write your own music,” says Brenner. “Depending on the piece, I’ll sometimes make additions or modifications so it’s not the same thing over and over again.”
The Colorado native moved to Eugene to study under adjunct instructor and harpist Laura Zaerr at the School of Music and Dance at the University of Oregon. As the first student to ever study Celtic harp performance at the University of Oregon, he is now one of the few active harp performers and teachers remaining in Eugene.
“Not only is [Brenner] highly gifted musically, but he also is an easy person to work with, bringing originality and thoughtfulness to his work,” says Zaerr.
Brenner was first introduced to the instrument after his mom bought a lap harp to learn on her own. While Brenner wanted to play the piano, he was told that a year’s commitment learning the lap harp would earn him piano lessons. After that first year, however, the harp won Brenner’s heart.
Brenner has since learned to play (though would not “claim to play”) the piano, viola, mandolin, clarinet, hammered dulcimer, and bits of guitar and bass.
“I was mostly self-taught on [the harp] for a long period of time,” says Brenner, who was featured in an article for a performance at age six. “The harp is just an interesting, bizarre, and beautiful instrument.”
After graduating in 2010, Brenner has kept busy with harp performances, music and dance instruction, and editing sheet music. He is a regular performer at the Scandinavian Festival in Junction City, Oregon, an event he’s played at since he first moved to Oregon.
From his genuine smile to his worn leather shoes, it’s apparent Brenner stays authentic for all audiences. “I’m just not going to apologize for what I do because what I do is why they keep having me back,” Brenner says.
When he was asked to play at the respected Big Sky Harp Festival in 2009, Brenner was beyond thrilled. The festival marked his big entrance into the harp community, as the event featured harpists he had admired for years (including former instructor Zaerr). There, Brenner was even able to teach a workshop on playing Tango on the harp.
“I really enjoy these concerts,” says Brenner, “And engaging an audience–taking them on a journey to show them the non-‘one-dimensionality’ of the harp.”
While he offers unique performances throughout the year (including weddings throughout the region), his current focus is training individuals in the community to play the Celtic harp. In addition to a weekly studio lesson that is open to all of his pupils, Brenner also offers private lessons for children and adults.
Noah Brenner. (Myray Reames/Flux)
Despite his evident passion, Brenner acknowledges that earning a living can be difficult, let alone entertaining several distinct career paths.
“I want to do these things because they are important, not because I need to make money” says Brenner, who lives on the Wicklund Farm property with five roommates.
Finding that balance, he explains, might be his next goal.
Although any one of his professions–the tango lessons, unique performances, engraving, or harp lessons–could become a full-time career, Brenner chose to do them all simultaneously.
“Performing, teaching, and engraving are very unified,” he explains. “They feel like I’m doing the very same thing from three different angles.”
As he plucks the strings of his harp, Brenner closes his eyes. In this moment, the music emanating from his fingers appears to be his only focus.