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Harp On

Stephanie Gustafson talks BR Symphony Orchestra and much more

While splendid, the harp is often an instrument many of us have only seen in movies or at some of the finer events we’ve attended, but for Stephanie Gustafson, it has been a part of her every day for over 20 years. DIG sat down with the Houston resident to discuss her impressive career and passions for what Gustafson calls a unique and diverse instrument. 


Gustafson’s spirit effortlessly mirrors the elegance and poise of her chosen instrument while allowing her bubbly demeanor and witty personality to shine through. Originally from Chicago, Gustafson’s love of music has allowed her to move around the United States and even Chile, acting as principal of a Santiago orchestra for a season. While currently in Houston, Texas, she lends her talents to numerous organizations in both Texas and Louisiana in addition to teaching weekly private lessons.  


She is an individual whose driven heart continues to push her towards new and eclectic frontiers while genuinely supporting and encouraging others along the way. Here’s what Gustafson had to say about her journey:  


Tell me a little about yourself. I know you are a part of quite a few organizations; what’s a typical day/month for you like? 


One of the best parts of being a freelance musician is that no day is the same; it keeps me on my toes! On any given day, I could be teaching lessons, practicing for an upcoming concert, coaching my youth harp ensemble, rehearsing with the BRSO, performing at a wedding, writing articles for Harp Column (for which I am the news editor), or playing a concert with my chamber ensemble (the newly–formed Lagniappe Trio, with BRSO principal flutist Rachel Taratoot Ciraldo and principal violist Chris Lowry). Generally, nights and weekends are extremely busy, as most performances and gigs happen then, but days are often spent practicing, rehearsing, writing, and doing my own administrative work. 


How did you get into the harp? How long have you been playing? 


I actually started the harp when I was five. It’s a bit unusual to start that young, but I was mesmerized by the instrument after seeing a woman, Shirley Lukey, play at my church. A few years later, she decided she wanted to teach her grandchildren how to play, and let my parents know she was interested in taking on a few other students. The rest is history! Mrs. Lukey was the best teacher for a young student, and my 13 years of weekly lessons with her were an incredibly formative experience. And, as someone who currently teaches a 5-year-old student, I am now more in awe of her than ever. 


Tell us a little about what it’s like playing in an orchestra/symphony/opera. Are there any differences? What’s it like playing in a group versus solo? 


Obviously one of the biggest differences between orchestra and opera playing is the being on stage vs. in the pit. When you are part of an opera orchestra, your main responsibility is to connect to the voice on stage and to help him or her express their musical line. As much as I love being on stage, there is something incredibly special about playing opera. You get to see the creative genius of set and lighting designers, customers, chorus members, and so many others, all work together to tell the audience a story. It is truly the total art–form. 


Solo playing is a totally different experience. You (for better or worse!) have complete control over what you convey to the audience. Performing as a soloist is really exciting and empowering, but I have found that my true passion lies in playing with a large ensemble, whether it be opera, ballet, or orchestra; there is nothing like being part of 90–piece ensemble working together towards the same goal. It is the most rewarding experience to be surrounded by so many musical colors, and I am regularly moved by the skills of my colleagues. 


Tell us about your relationship with music; what does it mean to you? 

My entire life has been centered around music, so this question feels nearly impossible to answer. I think especially when I decided to try to create a career around this thing about which I am so deeply in love, my relationship with music changed—it is hard to separate my earnest passion for the harp from the obvious need to make a living, so sometimes, to be honest, my feelings about music can be complicated.  


That being said, the most powerful emotions I have ever experienced have been when I was making music, my deepest friendships have started as the result of a musical collaboration or shared musical interest, and it has been a constant source of comfort and refuge during times of darkness. Music is my purpose.    


 What are some of your future goals? 

The past two years, I was a young artist fellow with Da Camera, a music organization in Houston that gave me the opportunity to play chamber music in museums, hospitals, and schools. Now that I am no longer in the program, my main goal has been to find a way to play more chamber music. As I mentioned earlier, I have recently formed a trio with two extremely talented Baton Rouge musicians, Rachel Taratoot Ciraldo (flute) and Chris Lowry (viola), after performing as part of the Lamar Chamber Series (a partnership with BRSO) this past February. We have a number of exciting concerts and outreach projects scheduled for the coming months but are hoping to continue to get more established over this season, so that is a major focus right now.


Photos Courtesy of Stephanie Gustafson 


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