Wallflower: a Q&A with Kathy Kienzle

Wallflower: a Q&A with Kathy Kienzle

Photo: Stagehand Don Hughes captured this image of Kathy's harp in the airport x-ray machine at Glasgow, Scotland during our recent European Tour.

This month we’ve invited guest blogger and Minnesota Orchestra fan Mandy Meisner to interview Principal Harp Kathy Kienzle in advance of her upcoming solo on Sept. 29-Oct. 1. As Mandy notes: “It’s always the quiet ones that can surprise us the most. And the harp is one of them.”

Some instruments have all the luck. Made to be the Life of the Party, they dazzle us over and over again. Take the trumpet, for example. Elegant in design, it is simply arranged in a slender metallic loop with a bloom at its end, sporting three measly keys that disguise a five octave range. And the sound! Its confident, clear explosions transport you to fields of glory and rooms of royal ceremony. Or, it can lull you in the calm, raspy threads of jazz that hang in the air like smoke. The trumpet conjures up a personality that is charismatic and powerful. Gutsy and triumphant.

Then, there are other kinds of instruments. The kind that are so ingrained in our cultural psyche, we easily forget their significance. One in particular blends in the background, ever present and quiet—as Wallflowers tend to be. Rather than being the Life of the Party, it demonstrates a subtle, hypnotic ability, requiring remarkable skill and strength of the player. Hearing it crowds our heads with all things feminine, evoking images of slender outstretched arms, of upturned demure faces. Its sound brings us inside the chambers of gilded chairs and velvet benches, where poetry is read to the genteel and elite. Thanks to consistent type casting over the years, it is doomed to be played atop generic white clouds, eternally strummed by cherubim and seraphim, its true splendor suffocated by our ignorant, sweet notions. Forever delicate and polite.

This instrument is the harp.

We all come to accept and understand a convenient definition of ourselves and of others. It’s how our brains work to parcel out the multitude of different kinds of people and ideas in the world. Yet we also—at least sometimes—long to break the mold, to redefine our labels, to shock and defy with creative expression. Composers, with their musician partners, have been doing just that since the dawn of man. The harp is among the oldest instruments on record and therefore, to the public, may have the most constraining molds to rebel against.

So what, then, is the harp all about? Which music can properly showcase its versatility? And who are the people who play it? In an attempt to break some of our deep seated (and misguided) ideas about the harp, I interviewed the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal harpist, Kathy Kienzle, to help set us straight.

Wallflowers can often persuade us to hear a different tune, if we only care to listen. 


Thank you so much for this interview! I’ll confess, I don’t know much about the harp and probably represent a lot of other people out there in my unfamiliarity. And it’s not an instrument played as much as, say, the violin or cello. What was it about the harp that made you want to study it? What first impressions did you have of the harp?

Kienzle: I first saw and heard the harp played when I was 6 and I was fascinated both by the sound and the way it looked. My (future) harp teacher played at our church every Christmas and Easter. I was extremely lucky that even though I grew up in a pretty small town, there was a wonderful harp teacher who had had lessons in New York and Paris with some of the finest harp teachers in the world. I studied with her for 11 years before I went to college.

I’ve listened to a few harp concertos now (beyond just Mozart’s for flute and harp…) to get a better sense of the instrument. As a layman, I perceive that the variety of colors of the music are coming from the orchestra, not the harp. The harp (to me) has a very consistent sound: a pure, clear quality that even when playing dissonant chords still rings so true. Do you ever wish you could express something really dark and “un-pretty” on the harp? Is there a (dark) harp piece out there that is really striking?

Kienzle: People often say that the harp is very soothing and calming to listen to. It also has a reputation of sounding “pretty” (it’s often used in commercials for that purpose) and for being a very feminine instrument. This drives me crazy! It’s very difficult to move, and also takes a lot of strength to play. So yes, I like the idea of showing listeners that the harp can express something dark and dissonant, or at least something different than “pretty.” The Ginastera Harp Concerto I’m playing with the Minnesota Orchestra at the end of September is one of those pieces. It is dissonant, but I wouldn’t say it is dark. It shows off the harp in a very rhythmic, technical, exciting way. And there are many pieces written for the harp in the 20th and 21st centuries that are dark, dissonant, and even contain ugly sounds. Composers are now exploring the outer limits of the instrument.

What are the most difficult and the most fun aspects of performing the Ginastera Concerto?

Kienzle: Probably the technical aspect is the hardest part of this piece, and the scariest. This includes very complicated pedaling. My feet are almost as busy as my fingers. What’s most fun about performing this, is that the piece shows off the harp in a very different way. It has lyrical moments, but is also very rhythmic and exciting.

OK, I’m going to ask a question you probably get really, really tired of being asked: How much of a hassle is it to transport a harp? How much does it weigh? Does it require a special vehicle or special attachment?

Kienzle: Concert grand harps weigh between 81 to 92 pounds. Yes, it’s a hassle to move it. It’s very top heavy, so it’s extremely awkward, especially if the harpist is short. There are now lots of vehicles that will hold a harp. A lot of us have mini-vans, so we can get a lot in the car with the harp, but a harp will actually fit in a Prius!

I grew up playing the flute. Right or wrong, I view the flute as more of a feminine instrument than a masculine one. I have the same bias for the harp. In elementary and high school years everywhere I looked it was only girls who played the flute. But then you get to the college and professional level, and the top positions are absolutely dominated by men. Is there a similar arc for the harp?

Kienzle: Yes, many more girls are attracted to the harp than boys. I have had maybe 4 male students out of 100 (total) over all my years of teaching. I think it may be getting a bit better now. At the college level it’s about the same, but at the professional level it is more equal (men do not dominate.) Of the 10 major U.S. symphonies right now only one has a male harpist. In Europe it is a bit different, because up until a few years ago women were not allowed in some symphony orchestras, especially in Germany and Austria. This has now changed.

Is there a challenge to get the next generation of harpists interested to study?

Kienzle: Not at all. There are many, many students studying harp now. I teach Suzuki harp, so I have students as young as 5. I just had a student graduate high school who started with me when he was 5 years old. I will have 5 students at the U of Minnesota this fall.

Musicians are susceptible to specific kinds of injury. What is a harpist susceptible to, and what do you do to prevent injury?

Kienzle: Harpists are susceptible to tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, etc., etc., etc. It’s a very awkward instrument to play. When I was younger I didn’t think or worry much about this. Now I have learned I have to really pace myself. I can’t practice for hours and hours like I used to. Warm-ups and specific stretches are extremely important. I also see a chiropractor regularly and sometimes see a massage therapist and physical therapist.

People can readily see the harp is a unique instrument. What is unique about it that is not so readily noticeable or observable?

Kienzle: Most people don’t know about the 7 pedals, one for every note of the scale, and that we get all our sharps and flats by changing the pedals. Also a harp does not get better with age, as bowed string instruments do. The pressure of the strings on the wood is so great, that eventually they pull apart or crack, and have to be rebuilt.

You’ve been with the Minnesota Orchestra since 1993. Have you seen an evolution in the MO audience over the years? Why do you think that is?

Kienzle: The biggest change in the audience is how they were before the lockout compared to how they are now. I would say that also is true about how the musicians relate to the audience. During the lockout, when the community did not have our concerts to attend, except the monthly ones we produced ourselves, the audiences were starved for orchestral music. Now they seem to appreciate us much more than before, because they realize how much they missed us.

Likewise, on the musicians’ side, it is easy to get used to going to work, doing our jobs, and going home, without even acknowledging how important our audience is to us. That has totally changed too. During the lockout we started going out into the lobby before and after concerts and chatting with the audience. This has continued after the lockout. We now know how much the audience means to us. In the industry the edge of the stage is called the “fourth wall” and we are much more determined to break through that and make connections with our audience.


Want to hear for yourself what the harp can really do? Kathy Kienzle will be playing the colorful Ginastera Harp Concerto on Thursday, September 29 (11am), Friday, September 30 (8pm), and Saturday, October 1 (8pm) at Orchestra Hall. Details & tickets »

Mandy Meisner

Mandy Meisner believes in the power of stories and that we all have important ones to tell. She is a regular blogger on Fridley Patch, and is nationally published on several different syndications.

A graduate from the Perpich Center for Arts Education, she considers being a guest blogger for the Minnesota Orchestra a dream gig! This would be followed by a close second to blogging about really good food. OK, and wine.

She lives in the Twin Cities.