We Celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month

Each year, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15, by celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Four Latinx harpists, Vincent Pierce, Juan Riveros, Elisa Torres and Maria Luisa Rayan share stories of their love for the harp, the legacy that helped to form their passion and inspiration for the next generation of Latinx musicians and music lovers all over.  Explore their stores that span generations.


Vincent PierceWhat would you like to share with aspiring young harpists and musicians?

Young people have the world at their fingertips in a way no previous generation has.  The capability for self-expression for younger generations is amazing.  I would encourage younger people, especially musicians, to own their identity, and to bring that identity into their music making.  Don’t be an influencer, be influential – hone your craft and use your art to represent yourself, because someone like you needs to see themselves represented by someone like you.

As a harpist, what experiences had a great impact on you?
When I was a senior in high school, I lost my mom in a car accident, while my parents were on their way to see me perform in the TMEA (Texas Music Educators Association) All-State Orchestra.  I was Principal Clarinet in the Philharmonic Orchestra that year, and we were playing Pines of Rome.  That beautiful clarinet solo, a nightingale singing for its partner at night on the Janiculum, is very meaningful and symbolic for me.  After a lengthy and difficult lawsuit surrounding the accident, the settlement we received is how I bought my first harp – a Lyon & Healy Salzedo.  I have always felt like this strange series of events not only made a future as a harpist possible for me, it gave me the sense that I am doing exactly the right thing in my musical career.  On a happier note, it was while playing in that group at TMEA that I played a harp for the first time!  Former AHS Concert Artist, Sadie Turner, was in the same group, and she let me play her harp.  I went on to start playing the harp at 19 and the rest is history.  How cool is that?

Another life-changing experience I had was directing the public school harp program in Ector County ISD in Odessa, Texas, for five years.  Many of my students came from backgrounds similar to mine, and I was able to connect with them in a profound way.  My time there taught me that I was capable of more than I realized, and how deeply satisfying teaching can be.  I’m now pursuing my DMA at UT Austin with Delaine Leonard, and while it was incredibly hard to leave my kids in Odessa, I wanted them to see the importance of always striving to make themselves better, to keep learning, and that sometimes you have to make sacrifices to pursue your goals.

What Latinx figures have inspired you?

I try to look to the broader world of music for inspiration, in addition to the harp world.  Two major players on the world stage that I look up to are Lin-Manuel Miranda and Gustavo Dudamel.  I love how Lin-Manuel has, with such tremendous success, become a voice for people of color and of various socio-economic backgrounds, while telling a story that is for everyone.  Casting George Washington as an African-American man was a groundbreaking choice – and a positive, affirming way to make minority voices heard while unifying our present and our past.  Gustavo Dudamel, and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra especially, are incredibly inspiring.  The energy and passion they bring to their performances is just astounding.  Knowing how El Sistema has changed so many young people’s lives through music brings me so much joy and hope and watching them play with such enthusiasm and intensity moves me in the most profound way.  And now that Dudamel is conducting one of the world’s most famous orchestras, he is showing those young musicians what they are capable of.

What other information about your experience do you think would benefit a reader?
Sometimes change is very difficult.  For me, starting the harp at 19 was a huge identity shift.  Leaving my position in Odessa was incredibly difficult and a little scary.  But it’s in these experiences that we grow the most.  If you feel that something is right for you, even if it’s off the beaten path, go for it.  It may not be easy, but if you persevere through challenges and doubt, you’ll have a sense of pride in your accomplishments and confidence in who you are.  And you’ll have some really great experiences along the way!


Juan RiverosWhat would you like to share with aspiring young harpists and other musicians?
I feel that learning to play the harp, or any instrument, is truly a never-ending journey.  No two days playing an instrument feel the same – every day is a new opportunity to grow and evolve with your craft.  I love feeling that every day is a fresh start – a new opportunity to discover something new in my technique, repertoire, or personal love for music.  Playing an instrument at any caliber and level allows us to explore some of the purest human emotions through a medium that is so beyond human.  Loving your instrument is important, but one also learns so much love through playing an instrument.  It’s easy to love the harp, but the more time you spend with the instrument, the more you grow to connect with the instrument.

I began playing the harp at age 11 and have never stopped loving the instrument.  Growing up, I was always enticed by the art of mariachi in Mexican culture, and even considered joining a high school mariachi group in Dallas.  Being in touch with one’s own culture can create very exciting opportunities for discovery with one’s own instrument – I admit I haven’t learned as much Hispanic/Latin American music as I would like, but incorporating your own background into your craft can be one of the most rewarding and exciting projects.  In preparation for this past year’s USA International Harp Competition, I programmed my own Concert Fantasy on the famous Pajaro Campana folk tune from South America, using the piece as an homage to my Hispanic roots, as well as a medium for introducing this popular piece to the Western concert hall.

As a harpist, what experiences had a great impact on you?

I had the incredible honor of being a member of the National Youth Orchestra’s tour of South America in 2017.  Not only was it an accomplishment after preparing for months on the excerpts, but to be an ambassador of the United States’ musical youth and perform amidst my own cultural roots was truly a unique and unforgettable experience.  We performed in Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia, and I loved being immersed in the South American cultures, sharing Mahler’s First Symphony and a newly commissioned work, Apu-Tone Poem for Orchestra, by Gabriela Lena-Frank, a Latinx composer who is devoted to incorporating traditional melodies from South America into contemporary and innovative compositions.

As a harpist, other experiences that have greatly impacted me include my educational foundations (the Interlochen Arts Academy with Joan Raeburn Holland, and the Cleveland Institute of Music with Yolanda Kondonassis), attending the world premiere of Ms. Kondonassis performing Jennifer Higdon’s Harp Concerto, and preparing for and competing in the most recent USA International Harp Competition.

What Latinx figures have inspired you?

When I first started studying the harp, I greatly admired harpist Nicanor Zabaleta, and have since continued to appreciate his contributions for the harp community as a figure who shed light on the harp’s versatility, especially with Spanish music.  I’m also inspired by Alberto Ginastera – I love the consistency of South American motives, melodies, and rhythms across all of his repertoire.  One example of this is the ascending “guitar” figure that exists not only in the cadenza of the Harp Concerto, but is found in many other of his works, such as the Danzas Argentinas and Guitar Sonata to name a few.

What other information about your experience do you think would benefit a reader?

One thing I have found to be vital to one’s growth is inspiration.  Everyone finds inspiration in different places – I personally have found it in my educational environments, and in exposure to incredible musicality and pedagogy.  I am always inspired after my private lessons – not only because I love to play the harp and the journey I‘m experiencing as a harpist, but because I have had amazing teachers who nurture and inspire their students.  The goal shouldn’t be for just technical perfection and getting all of the notes right – instead, I aspire to be musically captivating, create moments of storytelling through the music at the harp, after being so inspired and moved by hearing others do so.  Exposure to incredible music making will only benefit one’s ear, and in turn, inspire and nurture one’s own playing.

I have been so lucky to have experienced everything I have as a harpist, and truthfully, all of the experiences have been fruits of labor from not only myself, but from those around me as well.  It does truly take a village, and I’m so grateful for everyone in every community I am a part of for their support and guidance along the way.
Learn more about Juan Riveros.


Maria Luisa RayanWhat would you like to share with aspiring young harpists and other musicians?

The first thing that comes to mind is discipline and following one’s heart.  I think these two elements make a good combo.  Discipline encompasses a lot of rational use of the brain and following one’s heart brings in the emotions.  Also, honesty and kindness.

As a harpist, what experiences had a great impact on you?

The most important experience that comes to my mind is when I had the opportunity to play at the World Economic Forum in Davos.  That event changed my life significantly.  The World Economic Forum is a well-known event that takes place every year in January in the dreamy town of Davos, in Switzerland, where heads-of-state, economists, politicians, thinkers and philanthropists get together, brainstorm, and try to come up with solutions to worldwide problems and issues.  My teacher in Argentina, Elena Carfi, had me audition for a special event that the Forum had planned.  It was a concert to benefit UNICEF, and the committee was looking for six prodigies from around the world.  I auditioned and was selected along with five other kids from Europe and Korea, all of them pianists and violinists.  There I was, coming from a far away country in South America, playing this big instrument, not fully understanding what this was all about.  I had just turned 11 two months before and I played in a packed church with all these important people with whom I had no idea who they were or what they were about.  The presenter of the concert was the famous actress Liv Ullman.  I played on a harp provided by the late Swiss harpist Emmy Hurlimann, who became my godmother.  She took me under her wing, gave me lessons for the next couple of years, made me a member of the World Harp Congress, told me I should study with Susann McDonald, and gifted me my first harp.  At the time, that is how everything went.  I understood that experience to be a big deal and I also understood that I had been very lucky.  Now as I look back, I truly grasp how much that experience changed my life.  At the time of the concert in Davos, I didn’t even own a harp.  I used to practice on 100 plus-year-old harps that still exist at the school of music in my hometown.  I remember I would be able to practice half an hour per day, if even, no weekends, and no harp for three months during the summer.  So, a few months after the concert in January, when I received a harp in Argentina as a gift, it all seemed like a fairy tale.  I started to practice like crazy – did I practice!   Every time the weekend came and my sisters were having playdates and having fun, I was having fun with the harp and they knew they couldn’t count on me!  Still to this day I continue with this love for practice.  The other amazing development from this concert in Davos, thanks to Emmy’s recommendation, was the beginning of lessons with Susann McDonald at the age of 13.  She gave me knowledge that was absolutely invaluable.  I am forever grateful to her.

What Latinx figures have inspired you?

Astor Piazzolla is definitely a musician that has greatly inspired me.  He taught me the importance of roots and being true to oneself.  He started his career as a bandoneon player and tango composer.  He then thought that he should delve into the world of classical music.  He decided to take formal studies and even studied for one year in Paris with Nadia Boulanger in composition, harmony and counterpoint.  When Boulanger asked him what he truly liked doing, he said he liked playing and composing tango music.  She told him he should continue with his passion, and so he did.  He wrote thousands of tangos, toured extensively, and became a musical legend.

While I am not a composer, I feel that growing up in Argentina has given me the exposure to another world of music that I feel close to, and that I like exploring.  This other world of music includes tango, folk, and of course classical.  That is why when it was time for me to choose a topic for my doctoral dissertation, I chose to make an arrangement of the Four Seasons by Astor Piazzolla.  This is how my first publication was born, and along with it, I wrote a substantial thesis after much research.  The publications I have made are arrangements of music I love performing, including my beloved Bach, Debussy, Mozart, Chopin, Satie and Villa-Lobos repertoire.

I was born and raised in Argentina, my whole family lives there.  I moved to the United States at the age of 17 to attend Indiana University and study with Susann McDonald.  I believe I was very lucky with many things, and I also complemented this with a high level of discipline.  Although I am an immigrant, I have now lived in the US more than I have lived in Argentina.  I love being in the US, this country has been very good to me, and I love that I was born and raised in Argentina – I have never felt conflicted with these two experiences, but rather have chosen them to complement each other and enjoy the experiences that each country has offered me.
Learn more about Maria Luisa Rayan.


Elisa TorresWhat would you like to share with aspiring young harpists and other musicians?

Have a professional attitude in everything you do, with honesty, integrity and humility.  Respect and love music and the harp.  Be aware of the countless opportunities that the harp gives you.  Its beauty will probably attract different audiences to you.  Take advantage of this and explore taking the harp outside the practice room or concert hall – go to hospitals, schools, communities in need.  Music has the power to transform.

As a harpist, what experiences had a great impact on you?

One of the characteristics I love the most about the harp is its resonance and vibration.  An experience that I keep close to my heart was, while I was playing at a pediatric oncology clinic, I was introduced to the parents of one of the patients, both deaf.  They touched the harp and were able to feel the music that I was playing.  I can’t describe the feeling of joy and the connection that was built among us in that moment.

What Latinx figures have inspired you?

María Rosa Vidal (1903-2004), first harpist of Puerto Rico and pupil of Mlle. Renié has always been my inspiration.  The dream of María Rose Vidal was to make the harp known in Puerto Rico and she definitely planted that seed in me.  María Rosa taught me and my teachers and contributed in getting harps for the Conservatory harp program in its early stages.  I’ve taken as a personal mission to continue her legacy in teaching the harp.  Today, we have the largest harp community in Puerto Rico, with about 15-20 harpists.  I wish she could be here to see the enthusiasm of these young students.  If there is harp today in Puerto Rico, it is because of María Rosa.

What other information about your experience do you think would benefit a reader?

It’s very important to keep creating projects in your life.  Don’t be limited to one aspect of the harp.  The harp can be used in many genres of music.  Don’t be afraid to try.  I’ve been fortunate to play forms from classical to reggae, and it’s always been an opportunity to learn and grow.

Stay up to date with all new publications, repertoire and books related to harp and music in general.  Create alliances with composers.  It’s important to keep creating idiomatic repertoire for our instrument, and even better, if they aim to reflect elements of your culture in their pieces.

In my experience, the love and passion for what I do has given shape to my life and career.  Every note counts and it’s up to you to make it sound loud and clear!
Learn more about Elisa Torres.