Pianos are nice, but for 8-year-old Leah Kidwell of Dayton, Ohio, there was nothing quite so fascinating as the harp.
“To a little girl, there wasn’t anything more beautiful or magical than the look and sound of that harp,” said Kidwell, now Leah Kidwell-Fernandes of Clifton Park. “I was absolutely mesmerized. My piano kind of fell by the wayside, but there really wasn’t any love lost there. I had no great yearning to play the piano.”
Nearly 30 years later, Kidwell-Fernandes still loves the harp and plays it on a regular basis, at church gatherings, weddings, corporate functions, political fundraisers and other various musical venues. This Christmas Eve, she will perform at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady, where she and her husband, Chris Fernandes, have been members for the past seven years.
“I do a broad mix of things, so that keeps it interesting,” said Kidwell-Fernandes. “There aren’t a lot of us who do it professionally in the area, maybe four or five of us, and since I’m a freelancer I get a number of groups who call on me when they have a harp part. I do a lot of weddings and orchestra gigs, so I can get pretty busy Fridays through Sundays.”
There was a time, however, not too long ago, when Kidwell-Fernandes put away her harp due to a bad experience at Northwestern University, where she ended up getting a degree in English in 1997.
“I went to Northwestern because they had a great music program there, but I encountered a conductor with a really abusive temperament, and after two years of exposure to him my confidence waned and waned, and in time it just vanished,” said Kidwell-Fernandes. “I did not play for seven years. It was a painful time and I just couldn’t handle looking at the harp. I couldn’t talk about it for a long time. So I switched my major to English, which I had always liked. But it wasn’t my first love like music was.”
Happily, in 2003, two years after moving to the Capital Region, Kidwell-Fernandes returned to her harp.
“I eventually got to a place where I was so unhappy not having music as part of my life, that I had this tremendous void and depression inside of me,” remembered Kidwell-Fernandes. “I think I had to hit bottom, so to speak, and then muster up whatever sort of fighting spirit and tenaciousness I had inside of me to take it up again. It took five years to really get my chops back, to get the agility back in my fingers and get that strength built up again. It was an arduous process.”
Back on track
Kidwell-Fernandes said her return was helped greatly by her faith.
“I felt like I had some kind of sense that I was called to take up this instrument again, and I had this sense that there was this presence helping me every day,” she said. “It gets quite discouraging starting back up again. What used to be effortless was suddenly now a struggle. It was hard work because I had to carefully build up those skills again, and my faith definitely played a big part in that.”
It was also her faith during her time away from music that took Kidwell-Fernandes to seminary school, where she earned a master’s of divinity from Yale University.
“I went in part to see what was beyond the bounds of the more fundamentalist tradition I was raised in,” said Kidwell-Fernandes. “I enjoyed my time there very much, and I seriously considered the ministry and ordination at one point, but I guess in the end I felt like music was the thing that I had to get back to and pursue.”
Her early religious experience came at the Church of God (Anderson, Ind.), a small non-denominational church popular in the Midwest that was founded in 1881 by Daniel Sidney Warner.
“There are about 200 denominations that are called Church of God, and this one distinguished itself by being based in Anderson, Indiana,” said Kidwell-Fernandes. “It’s much more evangelical and revivalistic. That’s the tradition I grew up in, but there has definitely been an evolution with my faith. It continues to evolve these days, and I think that will always be there.”
She and her husband ended up becoming members at First Reformed, she says, because of a concert rehearsal that brought her to the Stockade neighborhood.
“My husband and I had been on a long shopping venture since we came to the area,” said Kidwell-Fernandes. “We had visited a number of churches, and probably could have gone to any one. But I went to an orchestra rehearsal there one night and thought how we hadn’t tried this one yet. We went back on Sunday morning and liked it very much. As they say, the rest is history.”
Go-to harp player
Rev. Bill Levering came to the First Reformed about a year after Kidwell-Fernandes, and is looking forward to her participation in this year’s Christmas Eve service.
“She’ll play here every couple of months, and the mastery, the majesty and the mystery of her harp playing is just perfect for Christmas Eve,” said Levering. “She is also a wonderful, gentle spirit without being retiring. She’s a strong person with artistic vision, and I think the divinity degree she got reflects a deep interest in important things.”
Brett Wery of the Schenectady County Community College Music Department has worked with Kidwell-Fernandes on many occasions, including the Capital Region Wind Ensemble.
“That’s a group made up of professional musicians, and she is my go-to harp player,” said Wery. “I am also a composer, and I got excited about writing for harp, which is very hard, because I have this wonderful harp player in Leah. We don’t get too many harp players. There’s only a few in the area, and if it wasn’t for Leah, I’d be pretty hard-pressed.”
Wery also used Kidwell-Fernandes when he was conducting the University at Albany orchestra a few years ago.
“I was looking for some community players to sort of be ringers for that group, and somebody told me to contact Leah,” said Wery. “I did, she came in and was obviously head and shoulders above the rest of the group. But she was also very helpful and so generous with her time. She’s a very sweet person on top of being a good musician.”
Kidwell-Fernandes has taught lessons at various times, and does see herself getting involved in teaching later in life. Only serious students need apply, however.
“It’s a huge investment, and it’s an investment for the entire family,” she said. “I can remember begging my parents for a harp when I was a young girl. I think I drove them crazy, but they were willing to do it and willing to lug it around for years.”
Harp and other considerations
The Lyon and Healy concert harp Kidwell-Fernandes has now can run as much as $20,000. Her model has 47 strings and weighs around 80 pounds. It’s a far cry from her very first harp, which was actually purchased for her by her grandmother.
“My mom’s mom was living with us, and she was my patron in many ways,” remembered Kidwell-Fernandes. “She started me off with a student harp when I was 8. By the time I was 12, I had grown tall enough and progressed enough that I needed another harp. My parents figured by that time it was OK to invest in a concert harp for me. But it’s more than just the harp. You have the harp dolly you have to worry about, and you always have to carry a special music seat that’s appropriate for the harp, and a music stand, and nowadays you often need an amplifier. When you go out to buy a car, you end up buying a car that fits the harp.”