Reflections on My Harpers' Escape
by Debbie Brewin-Wilson, co-founder of the Harpers' Escape
on staff from 1993-2016
(Debbie standing among her 2015 beginner group)
I remember very clearly having the idea for the Escape. I was attending a harp weekend and I was in a session where a beginner was not being treated very empathically, shall we say, by the instructor. I heard, as clearly as if someone whispered it in my ear, “You and Kathy could do this. You could do a workshop for beginners.” I even turned around and looked over my shoulder to be sure, but nope—no one was there.
As I often try to do when I get these so-clear messages, I tried to dismiss it. But the idea wouldn’t go away. So I called you to float the idea by you, and you mentioned that Dennis knew someone who ran a B&B in Cape May. After you spoke with her, the idea seemed to take off. Dennis and Brad gave logistical support with computers and music-writing programs and child-wrangling so we could work our day jobs and plan our new harp adventure. And before we knew it, there we were, that first night in Cape May at the first Escape, pairing up perfect strangers to go share king-sized beds. And then, we were lying there in our own shared bed, awake most of the night, not knowing the other person was also awake, worrying! But we made it through. We gave a mini-concert in the B&B on Saturday night, and a couple wandered in who had been walking by and heard the music. Afterwards, you and I were wide awake and we walked on the boardwalk, talking about the weekend. We both felt that we were onto something. And so we were.
But I don’t think I realized what we were onto until we moved the Escape to Spring Lake and set up the first concert at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. Cajoling people to play was difficult, but we did our best to be supportive and encouraging. The audience response was so enthusiastic, I couldn’t believe it. I remember how audience members sort of rushed the “stage” afterward to speak with the harpers and ask them about their harps. I remember how happy the harpers were and some were almost giddy, having played in front of others and received that kind of response.
We also began to see “alumni” showing up in Spring Lake, so the idea of keeping the weekend comfortable for beginners while challenging more experienced players took shape. And that challenged us to grow as teachers and musicians, trying to keep up with the folks who were showing up, expecting to learn from us! It also meant adding more teachers to help keep the group sizes small enough to be effective as our numbers grew.
The years in Ocean Grove are the ones tinged golden in my memory. Clark and Margaret Cate of The Manchester Inn went out of their way to welcome us, feed us, keep us caffeinated, and keep us laughing. They let us take over the inn, move furniture, play until the wee hours—it was great. I think the momentum for the weekend really built there, and I began to realize something else was happening, something I hadn’t expected: We were helping to build a harp community.
Not only were alumni returning, but friendships were forming at every Escape, people were meeting up to play when they returned home, and they began asking for another weekend to be added during the year. We were willing to meet people where they were in their harp journeys and help them figure out where they should go next and how they could get there. While not everyone who has attended an Escape went away happy, I do believe that everyone who was willing to enter into the spirit of the weekend and take a risk by pushing him/herself into unknown territory learned and grew from the experience. And many of them returned, year after year, and they helped to build the community even more, welcoming the “newbies” and offering encouragement.
I went off to seminary, following another clear message I received, and so I stepped back from organizing but loved continuing to teach beginners and be part of the Escape community. Thanks for letting me do that! It’s been an amazing experience and I am so thankful to have been part of it. As a teacher/mentor/cheerleader for beginners over the years, I have found two things extremely gratifying: helping people to find their voices through their harps; and helping to build a supportive harping community.
I believe we’ve helped to put a little more love and connection into the world by taking that chance all those years ago by offering a different harp experience for people through the Harpers’ Escape. I’m so glad we did it!
--Debbie, October 11, 2016