CERYS REES INTERVIEW
Ever fancied trying your hand at playing something other than guitar or piano? If so, Driffield’s Cerys Rees might well be the person to inspire you, for she is a renowned harp-player, having mastered what at first sight looks to be a “near-impossible” instrument to play. Here, in an exclusive interview with “Pulse” author Steve Rudd, Cerys chats about her passion for all things harp-related…
Hi Cerys, how are things, and how has 2016 treated you so far?
I’m good thanks – and this year has been great!
How old were you when you started playing the harp, and how easy did you find it?
I started playing properly in 2006, when I was about 7. I wouldn’t say that I found it easy straight away, but I’ve played the piano since I was 3, so that helped with the overall learning of pieces. You don’t really learn a proper technique until you’re at Grade 3 or 4; you just need to get the basics right first, such as having your fingers pointing down, and your thumbs pointing up, when placed on the strings.
Is it painful to play until your fingers get used to it?
It’s not painful to play at first, because you more or less play pieces with only one or two fingers. For my Grade 7 exam, I played a piece called “Fire Dance” by David Watkins, and that left my fingers in shreds! I had to practise with my fingers taped up, so I didn’t completely ruin them and cause too much pain. Before I discovered that trick, the piece left my fingers throbbing! Now my fingers have toughened up; occasionally, the skin will break, but it causes no pain. The only other time I’ll get blisters is if I have time off playing, such as in the summer holidays. Coming back to the harp, it takes a couple of weeks for my skin to toughen back up.
Have you received formal lessons, or taught yourself?
I actually started the harp because my sister’s friend had been learning it. At their Christmas party in 2005, I had a little go at plucking the strings. After that, I had lessons for a year with our friend, but she moved schools to start her GCSEs. In 2006, I started lessons with Rachel Dent. I still have lessons with Rachel, and she’s definitely the best teacher I could have!
Do you have any tips for new-starters?
I’d definitely say keep practicing! And, if possible, always find several recordings of the piece that you’re playing so that you can really understand the piece. That way, it’ll help you know what it’s supposed to sound like. Also, recording yourself, then listening back to it, is a great way of practising and improving. I think the most important thing, though, is to perform; this helps build confidence in your playing. If you have a performance that doesn’t go so well, you mustn’t let that put you off; you should just look back and think about what went wrong so you can improve upon things next time!
Earlier this year, you played “in support” of former Welsh harpist Claire Jones at Bridlington Spa. How did that opportunity come about, and how did it feel to be up on stage in front of so many people?
I first met Claire when she played a concert at Toll Gavel Church in Beverley. She also met my teacher there. I’ve played with Claire Jones twice. Last year, she came to Bridlington Spa on another tour. During the tour, she contacted local teachers in search of students who might like to play with her. My teacher gathered a large ensemble of harps, and we played a traditional piece called “The King of the Fairies.” Then, earlier this year, Claire asked my teacher again for someone to “support” her. My teacher thought of me, along with my duet partner, Hannah Higson. Personally, I don’t find performances that nerve-wracking anymore; I’m used to performing, as my piano teacher holds concerts every year. In the past, I’ve played to larger audiences. For example, a few years ago, a Welsh male voice choir came to Driffield, and I was asked to perform with them at the Rugby Club, along with their more formal concert at the Parish Church. There were about 350 people in that audience.
More recently, you’ve played at the National Eisteddfod in Wales! How did that go?
I was placed 3rd in the 16-19 class. Both my teacher and my parents encouraged me to enter, as it was deemed fitting because of my Welsh heritage. I didn’t go there with the idea of winning in mind; I just wanted to perform and show my capabilities, so to be placed was a lovely surprise. I played a piece called “The Minstrel’s Adieu to His Native Land” by John Thomas, a Welsh composer. The piece comes with a poem, which tells us about a minstrel who is dying, but who says that he will hang up his harp in the Great Hall so the next travelling minstrel may take it down and play it, thereby ensuring that his music is passed on. John Thomas is definitely one of my favourite composers; he really captures the story in his music with his beautiful melodic lines and decoration. I’m actually using this piece as one of my pieces for conservatoire auditions. Performing it in the Eisteddfod gave me a great practise opportunity.
Are you hoping to make a living from making music?
I’m currently in the process of applying to conservatoires, where I want to study the harp. I absolutely adore being in orchestras (I’m part of the East Riding Youth Orchestra, and I’ve played with the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra this year), and, hopefully, one day I will be in a professional orchestra permanently. I would love to be able to play for ballets, as ballet works are my favourite, especially Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.” I also love working with children, and I know studying at conservatoires will provide me with many opportunities, along with lots of advertised work with programmes involving teaching children. So, whatever job I end up with, I will somehow incorporate music into it. I think my life would get too boring if I didn’t have the harp in it somewhere!
So what’s next for you on the competition and performance front?
My next competition is the “East Coast Young Musician” competition in November, which is held in Bridlington. Then, after that, I have a couple of competitions in February and March 2017. I’m also playing at Burton Constable Hall for their “Mulled Wine and Mince Pies” evening on Friday 2nd December.