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By Ellen Milligan
Program Manager & Board Liaison, ArtsFund
Published January 26, 2021

There aren’t many places to store a harp in my 650-square-foot apartment, so my ArtsFund coworkers get to see it in the background of all my Zoom calls. In a time when in-person performances and even museum visits have become a distant memory, the arts sector we strive to support in our day-to-day work can sometimes feel like an abstract idea on the other side of a computer screen. Every so often, though, I catch sight of my harp over my own shoulder and am reminded why the work we do is so important.  

My grandpa built me this harp, but it’s really only the latest in a lifelong series of musical gifts. He has furnished me with musical instruments from the time I was five years old, when he gave me a quarter-size violin. But more importantly, he has inspired a love of music in me through his own utterly contagious passion. He worked as a mechanical engineer for decades but played and built musical instruments in his spare time, hobbies he has continued to hone in his retirement. As a kid I would watch him play bluegrass in his living room with a huge circle of friends on Wednesday nights, many of them people he’d been playing with since my dad was a kid.  

In the thirteen years following the gift of that first quarter-size violin, I seriously studied violin and made my own lasting friendships and memories through music. My formative experiences making music in youth symphonies, pit orchestras, and string quartets are what ultimately led me to a career in arts administration. But like many amateur musicians, I stopped picking up my instrument when I got to college and my routines changed. Years later, my cherished full-size violin (another gift from my grandpa–he traded his best friend a handmade guitar) languishes under my bed most of the time. As an apartment dweller, I feel self-conscious subjecting my neighbors to the sounds of violin etudes. But more truthfully, as a once-reasonably-competent player, when I pull my instrument out after months or–I’ll admit it–years of disuse, and feel my fingers failing me, I feel frustrated. 

This is where the harp comes in. Ever since I found out my grandpa could build folk harps, which are smaller than concert harps and rest on the player’s lap, I had been hankering for one of my own. I figured its soft tones couldn’t possibly irritate my neighbors, it would be relatively compact, and COVID seemed like the perfect time to learn. Its function as a cool piece of Zoom background decor would be an added bonus.   

Teaching myself to play harp via YouTube has been slow going but completely delightful. It’s my job to think about art every day, but the vulnerability and joy of making music myself is something that I had almost forgotten. Strangely enough, it’s also something that lockdown–and my grandpa–have given back to me. Much of my time is spent practicing finger placements, drilling simple exercises, and rewinding my instructional videos to rewatch the same 10 seconds over and over. But when I sit down with my clip-on tuner and feel my body vibrate as I twist all 22 strings of my harp into tune, I remember where that original kernel of passion came from. 

On the day my harp arrived in its crate, I called my grandpa from 1,300 miles away and haltingly plucked out “The Water is Wide” over the phone. That’s a feeling that I can’t really describe. He laughed in delight, told me I sounded great, and then said exactly what I’d been thinking: “I think there was a wrong note in there.” I promised to call him back when I’d learned another song.

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Ellen Milligan (she/her) has worked at ArtsFund for 4 years and currently serves as Program Manager & Board Liaison. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she studied English and French at Ohio State University and spent a year teaching English in Toulouse, France before moving to Seattle. Before joining the ArtsFund team she worked at various arts nonprofits in Ohio and on the West Coast, including three summers at Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival & Institute in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is an avid home cook and aspiring harp player. You can follow her grandpa’s musical instrument building ventures online at milliganwhistles.com, milliganguitar.com, and on Instagram at @milliganwhistles.

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Header image: Auburn Symphony OrchestraHappy Birthday, Beethoven! February 16, 2020, photo courtesy of ASO.

All other photos courtesy of Ellen Milligan.