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Making the World More Harmonious: The Mission of Mona Terry & Her Harp

Article from International Folk Harp Journal

Written by Carmel Aronson (beginning harp student)

Winter 2020

While stuck inside during the coronavirus quarantine of 2020, several beginning harp students conspired to write an article about how our beloved teacher, Mona, had kept us motivated and engaged while social distancing. But after interviewing Mona briefly to clarify some small details in the story line, it became clear that the original idea was far too narrow in scope. Mona’s impact on the harp world is so much more expansive than what could be described by this small group of beginning students. So, the first draft was scrapped and rewritten completely.

There is no single story about how one comes to fall in love with the harp. The harp has had many stories and many storytellers since its origin in the ancient meeting lands between Southwest Asia and Northern Africa. Each of our personal narratives adds one more experience to the collective whole. The more stories that we know, the more accurate the telling of our collective passion will be. What follows is the story of Mona Terry, composer, therapeutic musician, harp instructor, heart- centered musical activist, and life changer.

Mona is the eldest of four daughters, although she can claim that title by only four minutes, as her twin sister Lesa was born a close second. She remembers becoming enamored with the harp when she was only five years old. She and her family would attend local orchestra rehearsals because they could not afford to attend the concerts. Mona was intrigued by the harp and always tried to pick out its unique sound. Music was a strong family value, and a way her mother felt that she could best keep her daughters safe and at home. When Mona was nine years old, she began studying the piano under the guidance of her mother. After mastering the piano, Mona furthered her interest in music by learning to play the acoustic and electric bass, pipe organ, and djembe drum.

Despite her early interest, Mona did not have a chance to learn to play the harp until she was forty years old. Living in Iowa at the time, she drove all the way to Chicago to purchase her first harp. The closest harp instructor was another long drive away. After two years of classical study on the pedal harp, she met a mentor, Ron Price, who brought his harp into a hospital to play for the patients. Witnessing this experience changed the trajectory of Mona’s musical journey forever.

Mona next began to learn the lever folk harp for ease of transport, and for accessibility to provide a more personal interaction with the listener. Prior to seeking certification as a therapeutic musician, she played in the hospital’s chapel while the music was piped directly into patient’s rooms. This did not feel right to her, as she could not see or interact with the patients directly, and she was unable to adjust the music to each patient’s unique cultural or religious preferences. Her certification as a therapeutic musician gave her the credentials needed to meet with patients directly. In this intimate setting she began composing harp music for the first time. Sitting directly with patients, noticing the difference that her music had on their comfort level and vitals, she began customizing music based on the needs of the person who was before her. Therapeutic music is experienced vibrationally as well as through sound, and Mona used this therapeutic approach as a way to support ailing individuals reach towards their own homeostasis. To this day she views therapeutic harping as a form of humanitarian service. The emphasis is towards the person in front of you over the formality of a live music performance.

Mona began the teaching segment of her musical career early on. She took on her first two piano students, a pair of sisters, when she herself was only a sophomore in high school. She wanted the two young girls to witness the freedom that music had given her, and to understand that it would be possible for them as well. At the same time, Mona does not believe that being a teacher pertains exclusively to one-on-one instruction. Sometimes teaching is a whole community experience. She raised her two adopted children in a rural Illinois farm town where there were no other music teachers who looked like them. In order to provide a role model for all of the children in the town, Mona decided to bring her harp into the elementary school gymnasium. This inspired her to start a program called “Harp Around the World,” which she kept up for a decade and which reached thousands of students. As a part of this program, she played music from a wide variety of cultures, introducing each song with a story about why she had selected the tune, and how she related to the song. The children were not often familiar with the songs prior to her playing them. Through this program, the children had an opportunity to explore the different musical sounds which originate in different cultures, and also to experience music as a unifying bridge between people.

Beyond her musical training, Mona also holds a degree in Early Child Development. She revels in her calling of teaching children to find that place of harmony — musically and otherwise. Music originating in different cultures or countries may have a unique mode or scale in terms of how it sounds, but how we react to that music, the physiological changes within our bodies as we experience the vibration, that harmonizing is a universal experience.

During the recent coronavirus lockdown, Mona continued to find ways to inspire her harp students to find solace and comfort in music and the learning process. After transitioning to all online instruction, she began sending out short “energizers,” various YouTube clips of harps and harp-adjacent instruments like the koto, lyre, and kora, to keep students actively engaged in experiencing music. After several months of providing the energizers, Mona switched gears and asked her students to each voluntarily supply an energizer for the group. In doing so, each had an opportunity to “travel the globe” from home computer stations, looking for a unique musical gift to share with other fellow harpists.

When I asked Mona how she would describe the musical activism that she does, she said that she thinks in terms of creating harmony. Just as notes cannot be in harmony if they are not in tune with each other, Mona often asks herself what role she and her musical community can play in helping to make the world more harmonious.

Like so many of us, Mona has found her passion in the harp. The harp helped her to discover the power of her creative voice and gave her a way to channel her activism through continuing projects such as Let the Strings Speak, Heart Song Awakenings, and the Resonance, Pacifica Harp Duo. With the harp as her guide, Mona awakens hearts and minds to a more harmonious world.

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