On a brisk and blustery Sunday afternoon, winds blow the late autumn leaves through a quiet neighborhood in Beaumont’s West End. Outside a house on the corner of a calm intersection, dulcet tones float gently on the breeze. Inside the cozy home sits Rachel Clark, a 15-year-old Lumberton resident, plucking the strings of a 95-year-old Wurlitzer Semi-grand harp under the watchful gaze of her private instructor, Dr. Charlotte Mizener, owner of the aforementioned harp and a tenured professor for Lamar University’s music department. Rachel reaches out with skilled fingers, deftly finding the notes of Handel’s Harp Concerto in B-flat major across the 46 strings of the instrument, which utilizes pedal action to change the pitches of the strings and has a range of six and a half octaves.
Although just a teenager, Rachel not only plays the harp for enjoyment but also applies her skill to assist local charities and to ease the suffering of loved ones.
Musically inclined, Rachel first picked up piano before starting her training on harp.
“We have a piano,” related Sharon Clark, Rachel’s mother. “My husband’s dream was to get a baby grand, and our old piano would not stay in tune. So after Hurricane Rita, he worked a lot of overtime, and I said, ‘Go get it. We don’t want to wait until your 80 for you to enjoy it.’”
“He was a church pianist,” Rachel chimed in.
“That’s right,” her mother agreed. “One day we had come home from church and he was in the house with Rachel, who was 5 years old at the time. I came in and he said, ‘Walk over to the piano. She is playing the song from church.’”
Sharon said sure enough, as she listened, Rachel was playing the hymn by ear. Sharon said that is when she and her husband realized Rachel had a gift for music.
After discovering Rachel’s innate abilities, Sharon put her in piano lessons, which prepared her for her transition to harp.
“Piano theory is important for playing harp,” Sharon said. “You have to take piano theory to learn the harp.”
Rachel picked up the harp sometime in early spring 2010 and started practicing that March.
“My sister Debbie heard a harp recording and said, ‘OK, I want to play that.’ So she got a harp, and she decided she didn’t like it,” Rachel remembered, adding that the cost of a harp is often something that could cause difficulty for someone wanting to learn. Harps can cost from the hundreds to many thousands of dollars, depending on the type, age and quality of the instrument.
Three and a half years later, her skills have blossomed, and at times Rachel plays solo and with a women’s ensemble. She is highly sought-after to play church functions, private social gatherings and charitable events. She has played at the annual Hope Center Gala and at a Gift of Life breakfast event in Mid-County. Rachel said she found it moving to play at the charitable events, but the performance she finds most memorable and of which she is most proud was a private performance for a dying friend.
“A friend of ours was supposed to come to our house one night because he wanted to hear me play the harp – Mr. Black,” Rachel recalled. “He had a stroke that day, so he couldn’t come. He never woke up, but we brought the harp up to the hospice and I played for him.”
While Rachel played, her mother said, Mr. Black regained consciousness and attempted to communicate with his loved ones who were staying with him at the hospital. Residents lined up down the hallway, tears welling up in their eyes.
“It was very moving,” Sharon said of the experience. “I am still moved thinking about it.”
“He died the next day,” Rachel said, but not before he got his wish to hear her play.
Rachel practices often at home on her own harp, a Lyon and Healy Prelude 40, a 40-string lever harp, and she aspires to one day own a pedal harp similar to her instructor’s. She is saving up for one now, but it will probably take some time considering pedal harps range anywhere from approximately $12,000 to upwards of $20,000.
“It’s always easier to play here (at her instructor’s house),” Rachel said. “The best thing about it (the Wurlitzer harp) is that it has pedals instead of levers. It is much easier, and it just sounds better.”
Rachel’s advice to young musicians who aspire to greatness? Not surprisingly, it came from her music instructor.
“I think it was something Ms. Mizener told me: ‘A perfect cupcake is better than a sloppy layer cake.’ She told me that so many times. It means learn a few measures perfectly instead of a whole piece sloppily.”
Anyone interested in music lessons on a variety of instruments should call the Mary Morgan Moore Music Department of Lamar University at (409) 880-8144 for a referral.