our harpist in the hills
by jennifer hetrick
a cleveland transplant to boyertown’s earl township, betsy scott chapman wears many proverbial job-hats in her life, but one that makes her a unique and seasoned asset to the area is her musical role of harpist.
chapman relocated to bally in 1983 and bought her home in boyertown just six years later.
in 1988 is when she took up the harp as an adult, having wanted to learn it as a child but knowing she would be seriously limited in finding a harp and also an instructor in her hometown back in the 1960s.
“i thought the sound was beautiful, and you don’t have to be really good but can still sound good when you play it,” chapman says with amusement.
“secondarily, i’m a big fan of fantasy and science fiction books, and harps are always in them,” chapman adds. “in those books, harps usually have magical powers, and they’re always in tune—in real life, they go out of tune every time you move them.”
she ordered her first-ever harp from a mail order catalog and found a teacher in wyomissing, and there her studying began.
chapman currently owns five harps; each one is all its own for her different purposes, or at least that’s what she says she tells herself to rationalize having such a number of them. a few months ago, she had six but sold one.
“the earliest sort of pictures that we have of a harp-like instrument are from about 3,000 b.c. from the egyptians in tombs and caves,” chapman elaborates. “we know it started from something like a hunting bow— the old ones were c-shaped with one string, and some then had two or three strings.”
but in contrast, “harps taking on the triangular shape better known today showed up in celtic countries a few thousand years later, able to hold more strings and with greater tension,” she says.
chapman has performed harp music in a variety of countries in different parts of europe, living in france and studying the practice of the instrument there in a conservatory in the early 1990s.
a history buff on the harp through and through, chapman also plays the piano, clarinet, flute, and guitar. she dabbles in percussion and sound effects as well while working at the tri-county performing arts center & village productions in pottstown.
“my dad used to play piano; he could play anything you wanted to hear, but only by ear,” chapman notes. “he never took lessons until after he retired at the age of 62, and he played the piano and organ up to right before he died.”
“i think everybody's a musician,” chapman says. “you just have to find how.”
figuring harpists are few and far between in this area is a bit of a throw-off too, as chapman can name six others in a 10-mile radius who either consider themselves performers or play the harp for themselves and their families.
an unexpected gem of a shop for harp enthusiasts is harp planet in macungie, where chapman is a patron and says the owners are internationally renowned for their dedication to all things harp.
today, chapman holds a heartfelt affinity for celtic harp music and considers it something genetic, as her ancestors are from scotland. a lot of her original pieces often end up sounding celtic, and sometimes she wondered if she was writing already existing music, but her teacher assured her that the sounds were new and uniquely hers.
“when i write music,” chapman says, “it comes to me almost fully formed.”
( photograph by amy strauss )
while she’s at cocktails parties where guests behave stuffily, she’s known to jolt their senses a bit by straying from her regular batch of tunes, instead breaking into song with led zeppelin’s “stairway to heaven.”
she also incorporates radio hits from the past few decades sometimes, including firehouse’s “love of a lifetime,” aerosmith’s “don’t want to miss a thing,” and coldplay’s “clocks.”
“i like to have fun and not necessarily be the harpist people expect,” chapman reveals with a laugh.
she even has a cup that says, “it’s not all curls and chiffon,” an ode to seeing value in the harp well beyond antiquated stereotypes.
“in england in 1603, harps were banned because they were felt to be dangerous,” chapman explains. “it was believed that they were inciting the people to rebel, which is not really the vision we have of the harpist today.”
one component of her harp-playing that is invaluable on the local level is her hospice work.
chapman is often brought into the rooms of those who are dying and struggling to let go amidst their fears in nearing the end of the life they’re used to calling their own.
“it's clear—there's a lot of scientific evidence that harp music helps to reduce pain,” chapman says. “it helps to increase oxygenation levels in blood and control blood pressure.”
chapman plays harp persuasions at the pottstown memorial medical center two mornings each week and is on-call for hospice needs, serving an important and much-needed role in the population for those who are suffering and dying; in this, she says she is grateful to be able to help people pass over more peacefully than if they were without the gift of a harp’s ways on tired souls.
“i hope that people start thinking of the harp in the larger sense, besides looking at it just as pretty background music,” chapman concludes.
to find out more about chapman and hear samplings of her music, visit her website at www.betsychapman.com.