JoAnn Dickinson Ford played harp with the San Diego Symphony from 1960 to 1972, back when they rehearsed nights and weekends and you could hold down a day job somewhere else. (She also served as president of the American Harp Society from 2004–2006.) “Orchestra conductors were always saying that if you tune an hour before a concert, by the time it’s time to play, you’re out of tune — because of all the people coming into the room. It can go out so easily.”
It’s just one of the many ways a harp can turn on you. Soundboards can warp from the 2000 pounds of pressure exerted by the 47 tightened strings. Even if the boards don’t crack, the shift will change the way the strings touch the disks, making tuning more difficult. And a string can break, of course, necessitating a trip into the guts of the soundboard to attach a new one. Sometimes, even the metal rods that run up the column can break, and when they do, things get complicated.
“There are 2000 parts to a harp, and a lot of them moving,” says Ford. “I had a pedal rod break two days before a major recital. I could have used my teacher’s harp, but you get so used to your own. I had to drive up to Los Angeles to get [a replacement] rod. Then I had to take the harp apart, pull out the base, take the [pedal] springs off, put in the new rod, and put it all back together. And you still don’t know if it’s right until you’re doing those turns of the screw at the top. I was lucky — it was right. My husband teases me, saying that I can’t fix things, but I can fix my harp.”
So much potential for heartbreak, and for an instrument that gets few chances to shine in an ensemble — is it worth it? “You have to be dedicated to your instrument,” says Ford. The drive comes from within, often right from the get-go. “Most of the time, I think it’s kids, asking their parents to play.”
“My dad wanted me to play violin, but I didn’t like it. One day I was at Thearles, which was this big music store downtown, on the corner of Seventh and Broadway. Lots of people took lessons there” — Ford took piano — “and they had all kinds of instruments. Up on their balcony, they had a harp display, and I kept begging my mom” for lessons. “Later, I learned it was not a playable harp but only a kind of model.”
Happily, Ford’s mother, Louise Dickinson, later met Mrs. Blanche Campbell, who lived four blocks away from their Point Loma home and happened to own a pedal harp. “You could count the harpists in San Diego on two hands,” marvels Ford, “and Mrs. Campbell said, ‘Your daughter can come over and play if she wants to.’ She was very generous. For two years, starting when I was ten, I stopped at her house every day on the way home from Loma Portal Elementary School and practiced for two hours.”
She attended Pomona College in 1952 and met her future husband in the orchestra during her freshman year. “It was his mistake, asking out the harpist. For three and a half years, he carried my harp up and down a spiral staircase for rehearsals.” (Her father, who perhaps had less choice in the matter, needed a wooden case and a special trailer to drive the harp from here to there. The advent of the SUV has made things easier on the harpist of today.)
At Pomona, Ford studied under Dorothy Remsen, harpist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Ford also taught herself string bass so she would have something to do in the school’s beginning orchestra.) Remsen was a student of Grandjany, and so Ford studied in that style until she returned to San Diego.
There, she came under the tutelage of San Diego Symphony harpist Gertrude Peterson Hustana. The Symphony “needed a second harpist,” recalls Ford, “and she was getting me ready for that.”