When Jermoyah Parkinson first plucked the strings of a harp, she didn’t know it would be the start of her favorite part of high school. The North Philadelphia resident just completed her first semester of college at Bowdoin College up in Maine, but when she returned to Philadelphia for holiday break, she ended up back in the practice room at Philadelphia High School for Girls where she spent so much of her high school career.
She had experience playing the violin, but didn’t feel connected to the instrument. So, she gladly took the opportunity to learn the harp when it was presented (“You mean like the instruments angels play?” she mused).
Parkinson recalled playing the violin at a concert “just to play it” as she had been doing for so long. When she heard a school announcement saying lessons were available for the harp, she decided to go and pluck a few strings.
“Who plays a harp?” she remembered thinking with a laugh.
At callbacks, she learned to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
“That was it, I fell in love with it,” she said. “It’s hard not to.”
Parkinson took classes as part of the Lyra Society’s free educational program, which provides 25 harps and weekly private lessons to 30 students from across the city. The goal of the program is to help the students receive acceptances and scholarships into non-music and music schools.
In her sophomore year, Parkinson got the opportunity to take a master class with Elizabeth Hainen, principal harpist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and founder of the Lyra Society.
“The entire program and process is something that validates everything I do as Principal Harpist with The Philadelphia Orchestra and as chair of harp studies at Curtis and Temple,” Hainen said. “Jermoyah is an inspiration and testimony to our 15 years of serving and changing the lives of young people.”
Parkinson recalled being assigned a song that required her to perform the melody with one hand while using the other to perform a gliss, the motion where one slides their hand across multiple strings to create a harmonious sound – a technique that required “both sides of her brain at full capacity,” she said.
“I had only been playing the harp for a few months, then I learned it and it felt like the best moment ever listening to myself play that piece,” she said.
“Every piece that I tackle and everything that I play for people is like I overcome a personal hurdle inside me,” she said.
Earlier this year, Parkinson graduated first in her class with a 4.5 GPA and a full ride to Bowdoin. She’s studying anthropology and Hispanic studies, which means she unfortunately doesn’t receive music lessons, but she’s been able to get into the school’s harp room to keep up with her practice and will take lessons next semester.
She made the seven-and-a-half-hour drive up north into the mountains for move-in day, and recalled when all 500 members of her class embarked on an orientation hike into the nearby wilderness without technology. Her first time ever hiking, she climbed a 25,000-foot mountain summit, and the view at the top is forever imprinted in her mind.
“Reaching the top was another small thing that you can appreciate in life,” she said.
In the future, Parkinson will perform in concerts at Bowdoin as part of her lessons, and she looks forward to continuing to challenge herself.
“Because of the harp I sit straighter, I walk with purpose, and I always arrive at least 30 minutes before an event starts,” she said. “It has taught me discipline, structure, love, grit and a thousand more qualities that I could go on and on about.”