In the Practice Room with Phoebe Durand McDonnell ’19
May 6, 2019
Conservatory Communications Staff
The accomplished harpist experiences a world of influences, without even leaving Oberlin.
Oberlin Conservatory harpist Phoebe Durand McDonnell '19 is accustomed to travel. When her harp goals outgrew her small hometown of Bar Harbor, Maine, she began making a six-hour commute to Boston for weekly lessons. Now at the end of her undergraduate studies, with a newfound passion for historic harp that she discovered in Oberlin, McDonnell is ready to take her studies even farther from home as a Fulbright Student in Geneva, Switzerland, this fall.
How do you plan to spend your Fulbright year overseas?
I will be participating in a master's degree program at the Haute école de musique de Genève, studying historic harp performance. My focus is Baroque harp, which was used generally from the 1500s to 1700s. It’s a crazy instrument! The modern harp that I play now has pedals to change keys, but the Baroque harp has three parallel rows of strings—the outer two rows are tuned diatonically, and the inner row is tuned to the half-steps and slightly offset, so for sharps and flats you reach into the inner row. I’ll be learning how to play the instrument and studying Baroque music.
What motivated you to apply for a Fulbright in the first place? What inspired this particular project?
During my second year at Oberlin, I found a replica of a Baroque harp in a locked practice room on the third floor of Robertson Hall. Nobody actually knows where it came from or why it’s at Oberlin, but I was completely fascinated and started playing around with it. During my junior year, I took an Intro to Historic Performance class with Professor David Breitman, and he and my harp teacher, Yolanda Kondonassis, worked together to bring historic harpist Dr. Maria Cleary to Oberlin when she was playing in Cleveland. I had a couple of lessons with her and discovered it was possible to play historic harp professionally—I was completely hooked! I started looking into a Fulbright because historic harp isn’t taught in the U.S. I had the chance to study with Maria again at a festival in the Czech Republic last summer and quickly realized I love her teaching style and musicality. Soon after, I wrote my Fulbright application to study with her in Geneva.
It seems the sky is the limit when it comes to collaborative performance opportunities here in Oberlin! What have been some of your most memorable collaborative experiences on campus?
I’ve worked one-on-one with composers, played a contemporary harp duet, and hauled my harp across campus to play at a contra dance. (The sky is the limit, for sure, but maybe a more realistic limit when there is no elevator available is the third floor of J House for a “waltz night”!) In the past month alone, I have played in the film score project of a composer friend, performed with the orchestra in a section of four harps, and presented a piece with a friend on my senior recital that we’ve been planning to play together since we were 16. Every collaboration is equally unforgettable and close to my heart!
Let’s talk about your work with Oberlin’s Indonesian Gong Ensemble. Before the Salvation Army Learning Zone project, had you had many teaching/community outreach experiences like that?
Bang on a Gong is fabulous! I’ve always loved working with kids and feel very strongly that access to music is incredibly important. I drove six hours one way for lessons throughout high school and was able to do that since I was homeschooled and my parents were incredibly supportive. But I’m from rural Maine, and I know firsthand that not everybody can make that work. Since I first started performing, I’ve given a “this is how the harp works!” spiel before my concerts and always let people of every age try the harp if they want to. I became involved in “Gamelan and Community Engagement” at its inception two years ago, and have worked with Professor Jennifer Fraser through every change, experiment, and success! Go to their concerts. Get involved. It’s a fantastic program.
You are a fourth-year student, ready to graduate. What are some of the ways that Oberlin has helped you to grow?
I think every student here says this, but Oberlin is such a unique place. In a conservatory environment, it’s easy to feel pressured to do your best, always, no matter what the physical/mental consequences. But at Oberlin, we’re forced to get out of the practice rooms and interact with our peers who are not doing music. I’m an odd conservatory student in that I came to Oberlin because I also loved the school as a whole, not just the conservatory. I think my time with the college students (I’m co-chair of the contra dance club, I’ve taken more college classes than my degree requires, and I love ExCos) has inspired me in my music. When I see friends doing what they love and excelling in fields I never could, it makes me realize that every career path is important. We should all do what we love and do it well.
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