This past Christmas, a 7-year-old Chapel Hill girl gave her first solo harp performance for an international audience.
The girl was Sasha Varchenko, a first grader at Estes Hills Elementary School. The song was “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” her favorite. The audience was her extended family in Russia, watching and listening via Skype.
Even though it lasted only moments and only one girl played, the small concert was the result of years of combined dreaming and working on the part of three girls who each fell in love with the harp at a young age: Sasha; her mother Svetlana Varchenko, 41; and her teacher Leigh Stringfellow, 28.
Sasha was traveling with her family at the age of 4 when she first heard the harp in Bonne, Germany. She instantly knew she wanted to learn to play, but was told her hands weren’t large enough yet. Sasha began learning the piano instead, but never stopped asking for the harp.
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Last summer, when Sasha was 6, Varchenko asked friends if anyone knew of a harp teacher in the area. One remembered seeing an ad in the newspaper.
That led Varchenko to Stringfellow, a harpist in Chapel Hill who is a registered teacher through the American Harp Society. Stringfellow agreed that Sasha was now old enough and accepted her as her youngest student.
Stringfellow’s story is similar to Sasha’s in that she, too, first heard the harp when she was 4. She was at a concert in Seattle to hear her older sister sing in a choir.
“It was a long concert for a 4-year-old, and I wanted to go home the whole time,” she said. “But then the harp came on, and I was enthralled.”
Afterward, Stringfellow says she would listen to the radio and exclaim, “That’s a harp! That’s a harp!” whenever she could distinguish the instrument.
When Stringfellow was 5, she began studying the piano. By the time she was 10, her family had moved from Seattle to Tacoma, Washington, which, coincidentally, hosted the Sixth World Harp Congress in the summer of 1996. One thousand harpists from 35 countries arrived and played 16 public concerts. A newspaper article about the event led Stringfellow to Patricia Wooster, a harpist with the Tacoma Symphony. Wooster, also director of the harp program for the Tacoma Youth Symphony, took Stringfellow as her student and arranged for her to rent a harp for an affordable $15 per month.
Highlights from Stingfellow’s early harp career include her first paying gig at 14 when she earned $60 for playing a church fundraiser and performing “The Firebird” at Carnegie Hall with the Tacoma Youth Symphony. She received her bachelor’s degree in music from Vassar College and is finishing her master’s in harp performance at Appalachian State University. In 2012, she left her marketing job with the North Carolina Symphony to perform and teach full time.
When asked whether Stringfellow is a good teacher, Sasha smiles and says that she makes it fun. Varchenko makes it clear, however, that Stringfellow “does a real job with real results,” teaching her daughter correct hand position and chords and introducing her to increasingly complicated pieces of music.
Varchenko, who admits that she, too, wanted to learn the harp when she was a teenager but couldn’t find a teacher in her small town 100 kilometers outside of Moscow, hopes to expose her daughter to many instruments, including the violin, guitar, flute and drums.
“But since she has asked for the harp since she was 4 and hasn’t changed her mind, I think that’s a sign of something serious,” Varchenko said.
Stringfellow hopes to double her number of students and is accepting bookings for private and public events. You can learn more at her website, http://www.leighstringfellow.com.