Harp shooter

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The glaring sun burned in the still, humid air.  The clouds had fled. The bugs had not. Courtney Hershey Bress was starting to sweat in places under her helmet and harness.  She laid down in the hot sand and looked at the rows of targets in front of her, and beyond at the pine-covered hills around Columbia, South Carolina.The loudspeaker from the range tower blared, “Ready on the firing line.  Commence firing.”

With hands that flew over the strings of her harp, she flicked the safety lever off.  With eyes that focused on pieces for harp by Debussy, she aligned the sights of her assault rifle with the target.  She squeezed the trigger.  The target fell.  And the next one.  And the next one. All that mattered here was that she could shoot.  The Army qualified her on her first try.

Days later, she sat alone, in the middle of the night, on the edge of a foxhole she had dug.   She remembered the hours spent as a child sitting on the living room floor at the base of her mother’s harp, listening to her play.“Mom, I want to play the harp,” her voice echoed in her memory.

TRIBUTARY

How did you end up in the U.S. Army?

HERSHEY BRESS

My teacher at the Eastman (School of Music, Rochester, NY) had posted an audition for the U.S. Army Field Band.  I looked at it and said to myself, “Right. Me in the army? Yeah, right.”She saw me looking at the audition posting and came out of her studio and looked at me and said:“Courtney you are taking that audition.”“No I’m not.”“Yes you are and you are going to win it.”Which I did.So one week after I graduated I was in basic training at Ft. Jackson, SC, which was quite a wakeup call.  It was in the heat of the summer.  They treated musicians just like everyone else.  I had to go through all of it.  I was very good at riflery.  I qualified right away and they were shocked.  I had shot air rifles at summer camp growing up so I was a pretty good shot.  I actually liked that part of it.  I struggled in other areas, but not with the rifle.Somehow I made it.  It was the worst eight weeks of my life.  Men I have talked to about basic training say for them it was more fun.  But for women it affects them emotionally more.  I had horrible nightmares when I got out.  But now it’s comical.  If I ever have a dream about the army now it is very comical.   I’m glad I did it.  I was in for three years.

TRIBUTARY

Were you based in Washington, D.C.?

HERSHEY BRESS

I was based at Ft. Mead in Maryland right outside of Washington, D.C.  There are three premier bands in the army.  The Army Band is the DC band.  Then there is the Army Field Band.  They are the touring band and do all the PR.  Then there’s the West Point Band.The field band tours the U.S. three times a year so I’ve seen 49 out of 50 states and been to almost every town you can think of.  And I’ve played in the best concert halls and some real cow barns.The army really trained me for being in an orchestra.  I learned to sight read very well, which is very hard to do on the harp.   I played several concertos every year on the road where we did not have time to practice.  I would just show up, warm up and go out there to perform.  We had arrangements for the concert band to accompany me as the soloist.

TRIBUTARY

 So you played more than just John Philip Sousa marches.  Did you have to sit out for the march selections?

HERSHEY BRESS

 No, I played a ton of marches but the arrangements for harp were horrible.   I edited every single one of them.  There is not a lot of band music written for harp so it can be hard.  We played all kinds of music though — popular, marching, classical — everything you could think of because it was PR and meant to be fun.

TRIBUTARY

They couldn’t talk you into re-enlisting after your three years?

HERSHEY BRESS

My dream always was to be an orchestral harpist so, as my enlistment came to an end, I started taking auditions with various symphonies.  But I decided I should get my masters.  So I called a teacher I knew in Chicago who teaches at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University.  I auditioned for her and got in, got a scholarship and moved to Chicago.I auditioned for the Chicago Symphony to get on her substitute list (she was and still is the principal harpist).  While working on my master’s I played with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago which is a training orchestra and with the Chicago Symphony whenever I was needed.  I was very poor financially but it was a great year.At the end of that year a job opened up here with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.  I still had a semester left on my master’s but the school said if I would come back and do a big recital they would give me the few credits I needed to finish.So, I moved to Denver and I’ve lived here for more than 10 years.  Colorado is a dream come true for me.  I started skiing out here when I was three.

TRIBUTARY

You have been the principal harpist for the Colorado Symphony for those 10 years.  What led you to seek orchestral work?

HERSHEY BRESS

I almost avoided it completely.  I was in the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony in high school.  I was terrified! Terrified of performing with an orchestra!  I was pretty good at it. I was just terrified.  The same was true my first year at Eastman.I had to take a year off to deal with some family problems which was a hard period in my life. When I finally got back to school that’s when I really started to thrive.  I won a national competition.  I started auditioning for everything I could.  I played in every orchestra I could.  I never turned anything down. I went on the 1996 tour with the Eastman Wind Ensemble to Japan.This is when I fell in love with what I did; with the instrument; with performing; with wanting to be the best I could possibly be.

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TRIBUTARY

You chose a profession where it is difficult to make a living.  So many people in the arts spend years developing their talent and get little in return.  Why do you do that?

HERSHEY BRESS

You get your own reward.  I get a complete high playing on stage.  It is a thrill.   I love what I do and I am happy.  I may not make a lot of money but I’m happy and to me that’s much more important than money.And, I am immersed in music of all kinds. For me it’s all about emotion — all of your emotions and senses.  Its love, its hate, anguish, death, everything.  Every composer has their own way.  If they had a harder life, you hear that in their music.  One of my favorite orchestral composers is (Gustav) Mahler .  His music tears me apart in good ways and in sad ways.  I get so emotional playing it.  Sometimes it is the most beautiful thing in the world and sometimes I just want to cry.I often get goose bumps while I am playing because I can add my expressions to the composer’s.  When you are learning to play you learn how to hit the right notes, but it is really what is between the notes that counts.  The expressiveness.In my car I never listen to classical music, ever — unless I’m studying it.  I listen to a lot of rowdy music.  I just like to let loose and have a good beat going.  I’ve gotten pumped up for a concert before listening to Hip Hop.  It depends on my mood.For me it’s a lifestyle.  I can’t just turn it off at the end of the day.  I know I need to practice.  Every time I walk past my harps I swear they talk to me, “When are you coming to practice?”

TRIBUTARY

 Do you have a sense that people just don’t care about a community-supported orchestra or are we struggling to find a new formula for their support?HERSHEY BRESSI think it is a struggle to find the right formula and I think we are on the right track now.  We (Colorado Symphony) have new management who are finding a new way for us for the future.  You will see us reach out more, more small chamber performances, smaller orchestra settings, rather than just trying to get everyone to come to Boettcher (Concert Hall).We had a great summer season at Red Rocks last summer.  We were the backup orchestra for Chicago.  For the first time ever, Sarah McLachlan had an orchestra.  We felt like rock stars doing things like that.When I perform outside the symphony orchestra setting, I talk to my audience.   I tell them what I’m doing, what this piece means to me, how the instrument works.  They love the performance because they have related to me.  That is a big part of what we have to change, to reach out and not be formal.The orchestra wants to reach out to do more music education in the schools.   We already do some of that but this coming year our goal is to do more.After a lot of concerts we have what we call a “talk back.”  The conductor and soloist will go into the audience after the performance and do an informal question and answer session.  People can see you are a real person, not just up there performing.

TRIBUTARY

You give private lessons.  What do you tell your students about their future in music.

HERSHEY BRESS

I’ve been very honest with them that the music scene is extremely difficult to succeed in especially if you want an orchestral job.  It doesn’t matter how good you are. It has to be your day.  If you are that good and you fit that orchestra you get that job.  But it is hard.To this very day I get up every morning and I say, I am so lucky that I have my job.  There are so many harpists out there that would like to have my job.  But there are no positions for them.I also tell them when they get to music school they should get a double major.  Then you are not just a harp performance major.  I suggest maybe a music education major as well.  Or, something totally different such as math or science.  You have to make a life for yourself and with the harp you can move into a city, get a good website, start teaching and you can make a life for yourself.  You can freelance.  There is a good demand for harpists performing at various events.

TRIBUTARY

If I wanted to hear some great classical harp pieces, which composers would you recommend?

HERSHEY BRESS

Any piece by Marcel GrandjanyMaurice Ravel.  Introduction and Allegro. Gustav Mahler. Symphony No. 5.  Claude Debussy.  Danse sacrée et danse profane

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He’s made a harp of her breast-bane,
Whose sound wad melt a heart of stane.
He’s ta’en three locks o’ her yellow hair,
And wi’ them strung his harp sae rare.
~ Old English poem.  Author unknown
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RELATED LINKS

Colorado Symphony tickets

Denver’s harp store

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Author: Chas

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