“The harp, to me, is fascinating in so many different ways. The history behind it, how it operates and works, how you don’t even have to play it and people are just awed by it.” Nichole Rohrbach then strums her six-foot-tall pedal harp. In one motion, a kaleidoscope of color and light is released from the instruments strings. While this sound does invoke a second wave of awe, after the instruments beauty, Rohrbach can do so much more. She can play an entire set of classical music or a Lady Gaga’s hit singles. Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is one of the most popular songs incorporated into her set.
Rohrbach’s LLC, Harp & Soul, provides a soundtrack for weddings, public, and private events around the country. Rohrbach will play solo, but she offers several options for accompaniment to create a package. “I have colleagues who play a lot of different [instruments].” Rohrbach’s roster of fellow musicians includes the cello, piano/keyboard, violin, viola, flute, guitar, drums and voice. While she says that “the majority of people will do a good combination,” of modern and classical music, Harp & Soul’s requested sets have included an array of genre’s. Sometimes, clients request only Broadway show tunes, country, Disney music, or film soundtracks. “Every once in a while, I’ll have someone come in who is really into classical music and they love Bach and they want all Bach at their wedding,” otherwise, Rohrbach will play a variety of music. She considers her most unusual request, “that actually sounded really cool on the harp,” to be ‘Smell’s Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana.
Rohrbach’s journey to playing the harp began when she was a child. An illustration in a Bible storybook of David playing the harp enchanted her and she declared that she wanted to play the harp. At the behest of her father, a French horn player, she studied the piano and the violin until she reached a certain level of mastery. When she was turning thirteen, Rohrbach received her long awaited gift, a 38 stringed Lyon and Healy lever harp. Her years of musical experience allowed her to take to the harp quickly. Over a year later, Rohrbach played at her instructors wedding and began receiving requests for gigs. She created her own website and volunteered to play at local historical events in Pottstown. There, she gave out business cards and the rest is history.
In addition to performing, Rohrbach is a private music teacher and the secretary of the American Harp Society’s Philadelphia chapter. The unusual choice of instrument brings together a community built on passion and healthy competition. The annual conference consists of workshops, lectures, and performances that unite harpists from around the country. “Harpists are very familial,” says Rohrbach when recalling the other musical communities that she has been a part of.
Technically speaking, the harp is the most difficult instrument to play. “You’re having to worry about pushing pedals and moving things all around, and also where your fingers are and your technique. There’s no free body part,” unless Rohrbach is playing her electric harp. The lever harp, a three-sided royal blue piece of modern art, is half the size of the grand pedal harps and allows ease for travel. She often rents pedal harps in the far away cities where she plays an events.
“The harp is the oldest stringed instrument dating back to Egyptian times,” says Rohrbach. Her artistic prowess with the harp is met with an extensive knowledge of the instrument and how it changed over time. Her choice to study music came from personal experience with instructors who couldn’t explain music from a technical point of view, “why it was written that way, what the structure was, what the common threads were between things.” Rohrbach can pour over books about different types of harps and their functionality and reveal the intimidating instrument to the average person (for example, me). By incorporating theory early into her beginning student’s lessons, she can shepherd them to convert popular songs into music for the harp. “They all want to play things that they hear from the radio,” and Rohrbach takes them through the process of creating their own compositions.
While harps are available in a range of sizes, Rohrbach’s two pedal harps are mammoth and elegant at the same time. They look, at first, like sculptures, then invoke a sense of fascination with their apparent moving parts. Taught, long strings spin silky notes. The warm tone of the wood and gold accents, paired with the instrument’s complex functionality, inspire fascination. While Rohrbach also loves the piano, her enchantment with the harp matches that of her audiences.’ “Having played several instruments, there’s just not anything else like it,” she says.