by Len Lear
Most young people who want to play a musical instrument choose the guitar or the piano. Last on their list, if it makes the list at all, is probably the harp, but if they listened to the angelic sounds of Mindy Cutcher, they might move the harp to the top of their list.
Mindy, 45, who teaches the harp for the Chestnut Hill Music Academy, has been teaching the harp to children and adults for over 20 years. Also the principal harpist for the Pennsylvania Ballet, Mindy is much in demand as a performer. She has played with the Baltimore, Delaware and St. Louis Symphony Orchestras and Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra. Mindy has performed on The Tonight Show and with such notable names as Josh Groban and Anne Hathaway.
“I was on The Tonight Show in 1988,” said Mindy, “while I was still attending Oberlin Conservatory. My teacher, Alice Chalifoux, was interviewed and brought her best students from Oberlin and The Cleveland Institute of Music. (Ed. Note: Google Alice Chalifoux, and you can see the interview and performance on You Tube). Whoopi Goldberg was one of the other guests.” She also played a concerto with world-famous violin soloist Joshua Bell while performing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Originally from Jarrettsville, MD (north of Baltimore), Mindy earned a Bachelor’s of Music in harp performance in 1990 from Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. “My teacher in high school was the Principal Harpist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and had a glamorous life,” she explained. “I really wanted to be just like her! I wanted to play the harp when I was 5 and begged my parents for lessons. They finally gave in, and I started the harp at age 12.”
Cutcher moved to Philadelphia in 1996 after a long contract with a cruise ship. She wanted to be close to New York, but six months later she won the PA Ballet audition. “I can’t believe that I have been playing with the PA Ballet Orchestra for 16 years,” she told us last week. “That means I have performed over 400 Nutcracker performances!”
For many years Mindy studied with Alice Chalifoux, Principal Harpist with the Cleveland Orchestra from 1931 to 1974 and, for many years, its only female member. Chalifoux, a graduate of Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, died in 2008 at the age of 100.
“I studied with her all through college,” said Mindy, “and also in Camden, Maine, in the summer, where she had a harp colony. Alice was an amazing teacher. She was very strict about playing with the correct technique. Her expectations were high, and you did anything to please her, even if it meant practicing five hours a day.”
In her own teaching, Mindy emphasizes the “Salzedo” technique. (Carlos Salzedo was the founder of the harp department at The Curtis Institute of Music, and he had his own way of teaching.) “His technique follows the natural movement of the player’s body,” explained Mindy. “We play with certain gestures, have good body alignment, especially with the wrists and elbows. This allows us to play freely and without pain, but also for tone production. Alice Chalifoux studied with Salzedo at Curtis, and he willed his property in Maine to her that she used as a harp colony.”
If she had to do it all over again, would Mindy play the harp, or would she play another instrument or do something not connected to music? “I can’t imagine playing another instrument,” she said. “When you have been playing for 30-plus years on one instrument, it becomes a part of you.” (Mindy has had students who continued to study the harp, but none who have become full-time professionals.)
Since most musicians have a difficult time making an actual living and paying the bills, what does Mindy think are the pros and cons of a career in music? “With music, every day is different,” she said. “One day it is a wedding, the next is a duo harp rehearsal, and the next is a ballet performance. I love the variety and the challenge. I don’t love the downtime. Some months are crazy busy, and others, like January, are very slow.”
Would she advise a young person who has a demonstrated musical ability to pursue a career in music? “Absolutely, but only if they have the talent and the drive. I would advise most students to continue with their music studies, maybe minor in music or do a double major. It’s a hard business, so practicality is important.”
Mindy lives in nearby Oreland with husband, Steve, also a musician (jazz saxophone) and two children, Jeff (piano and sax) and Jane (flute and harp).
For more information, visit www.harpbyrequest.com.