My Teacher Mona (written by 3 private students)
Mona Terry is a performer, therapeutic musician, musical community organizer, and harp instructor located just outside of Seattle, Washington. In her forty-year career as a musician, she has impacted thousands students. Mona learned the harp as an adult, and uses that experience to help other adult learners in their journey. She plays both the pedal and lever harp, and has had three original compositions published in The International Folk Harp Journal. In addition to her teaching and performance acumen, she is also a certified therapeutic musician. Mona contains every quality that you would want in a harp teacher; talent, teaching experience, and a warm supportive personality. But Mona pushes beyond where many harp instructors go by intentionally introducing her students to the rich diversity of harp music and harp related instruments from around the world. By encouraging us to learn from the heart, she teaches us that each of us is already a musician.
As a seasoned teacher, Mona was accustomed to offering weekly, structured, in-person lessons. However, when Seattle became an early epicenter of the Coronavirus pandemic, Mona transitioned all of her in-person instruction to online teaching, using both FaceTime and Skype. She knew that the lack of face to face connection could negatively impact her beginning students; the steep learning curve required for beginners to advance requires a level of sustained enthusiasm that can be hard to transmit remotely. So she developed the idea of emailing out “energizers,” short online video clips of harp performances, to her students once a week between lessons. Through careful curation and a musical lifetime spent seeking out harp and harp related musicians representing diverse cultural backgrounds, Mona emailed out video examples of the Koto, Lyre, Kora, Paraguayan Harp, Yaal, Celtic Harp and a large performance art installations.
Three of Mona’s beginning harp students, Lori, Carmel, and Lynnzee, were moved to share how they continued their lessons throughout the lockdown phase of the Coronavirus pandemic, and how Mona’s unique approach to teaching has encouraged them to continue working hard despite being cut off from regular in-person connection.
Lori is a seventy-five-year-old visual artist who has been playing the harp for a little over a year. “About a year and a half ago, I decided I needed to make music. After a life of very low-level instruction, I had played, rather badly, violin, piano, guitar, and ukulele. I was always singing with friends and in choirs. But the last twenty years were filled with other things. Finally, while looking for a new way to make music I remembered how much I enjoyed messing about on the harp with my cousin who had taken it up. Then, the final impetus came from my friend Carmel, who had started lessons and was very enthusiastic about her teacher, Mona Terry. She brought her harp to a Christmas dinner and convinced me to try it. I was quite reluctant to say the least. And even after I met and began lessons with Mona, I was reluctant to jump in with both feet. Hanging around the edges of things was more my style. But supportive encouragement from both Mona and Carmel spurred me on.
When I started my lessons with Mona, I had only a basic knowledge of music. I could read simple music, and that’s about all. What became pretty clear to me early on was that if I wanted to play the harp with any comfort at all, let alone mastery, I would have to abandon my satisfaction with scratching the surface, and dive deeper. Mona has been patiently and happily pushing me off the deep end!
My harp practice has pretty much gone on as usual during the pandemic quarantine. Our lessons though, are now done via FaceTime. The experience, while not as rich as being together with our harps in the real world, works amazingly well. I so appreciate Mona’s ability to make this cyber-transition and to keep us engaged and growing. There certainly are days when the overall atmosphere of uncertainty and strangeness has descended and made me unable to concentrate and focus fully on just about anything, including my playing. That is discouraging. However, as I’ve been experiencing the joy of composing some of my own songs, the Pandemic Pall has inspired me to write a new, rather plaintive, one. And probably will inspire more before this is all over! In any case, I am quite aware that I am luckier than many of my friends and colleagues during this time because I have an interest that can give me pleasure and solace that I can do at home, any time, without a mask!
I love the YouTube snippets that Mona sends to us each week. She calls them “energizers”. They’re always interesting and inspiring. It’s great fun to become acquainted with so many kinds of stringed harp-like instruments. They’ve all been so different, it’s hard to think of one that touched me the most. I loved, and was practically moved to tears by, the video of Deborah Henson Conant playing and singing The Nightingale. (Found at youtu.be/DkK_VddMD44). But the most recent, a video of a fellow named William Close playing his huge installation “Earth Harp” really got me! (found at youtu.be/LM673gRMTdo). I loved the pure physicality of it. It made me want to dance around the living room with my harp!”
Carmel is a 38-year-old with chronic lung disease. The harp is her first instrument. She has been playing for about one and a half years. “In my early thirties I was diagnosed with a life-threatening lung condition. My life changed suddenly and dramatically, as I began spending weeks at a time in-patient in the ICU of my local hospital. After surviving like this for several years, I decided that I needed to start making life goals again, even though I had no idea where to start. I’ve always been attracted to very large instruments, a somewhat comical contrast to my relatively small frame. I can’t say exactly when I settled on the harp. I just know that I felt lost and directionless, and deciding to learn to play the harp gave me a reason and a purpose.
One thing that Mona and I talked about early on was how she was a certified therapeutic musician and that I was interested in exploring therapeutic use of the harp in medical settings. The true irony is that I feel like our lessons just as often serve as a form of therapy for me as they do instruction on how to play a musical instrument. I have learned so much about myself through this process that I otherwise would not have discovered. For example, I have learned that there can be joy in making mistakes. If I play the wrong note, who cares? It’s just one wrong note. I have learned that learning itself can be kind and gentle. If I’m unprepared for a lesson because I am feeling unwell, Mona shifts the focus of the lesson onto what would feel supportive to me. I have a tendency to place a hyper-focus on the rules of music, and Mona often tries to get me to loosen up a bit and shift my focus onto the ‘play’ part of playing music. Just last week in our lesson she dared me to part my hair on the other side of my head to practice getting out of my comfort zone and creating a space for creativity to come in. By studying with Mona, I am not just learning how to play music, I am learning how to interweave music with the process of my own liberation.
The Coronavirus pandemic is particularly dangerous for me due to my chronic lung disease. I have been inside my house since March. Right at the beginning, Mona gave me a new piece of music to learn, Fires at Midnight, which was written as a teaching tune during the foot-and-mouth epidemic in southwest Scotland in the early 2000’s. Something about this tune got me right away. Playing it felt almost curative. I played it every time that I felt a wave of anxiety, which meant that I was playing it several times a day most days! As my feelings about the pandemic have shifted, I have transitioned to practicing songs of world peace.
The energizers that Mona sends out have been particularly delightful during this time. My favorite was a recording of herself and her sisters playing an original piece that she composed for Let the Strings Speak LOVE Concert in 2019 (more information can be found at letthestringsspeak.com). In this clip, Mona plays the harp while her twin sister plays the violin and her younger sister plays the cello. I have two sisters, and knowing the role that music has played in Mona’s family helped me to connect to this piece on many different levels.
Lynnzee is a 17-year-old High School senior who was very confident with the bass cleft because of her time playing a brass instruments. She has been playing the harp for about six months.
Since I was young, the harp was always an instrumental goal of mine. In my third year of high school, my parents gave me the option of either getting a car or a harp, so of course I chose the harp! Next, I started to look for a harp instructor. I went to a garden party at my mother’s work and met three amazing harpists. One of them suggested Mona Terry and gave me her contact information. Since I’ve started lessons with Mona, I’ve felt overjoyed about learning the harp. It has been a real dream come true. I have noticed that my patience and focus have grown as I have been learning to play the harp. My passion for the harp is strong!
Since being in quarantine my learning experience has changed to FaceTime lessons which has been great, thanks to Mona’s gifted teaching ways. I prefer to have in person lessons with Mona because I learn better and feel Mona’s energy and it inspires me.
In all honesty all of Mona’s “Energizers” are unique and it’s hard to choose just one that I like the most, but I feel I resonate with the Brian Boru performance in the church in Ireland (found at https://youtu.be/pjFv3RjcKBk).