Medgina Maitre had never touched an instrument before she arrived at Philadelphia High School for Girls.
Then, during her freshman year, she heard an announcement that would change her life: The school was offering free harp lessons for interested students. And suddenly, she saw herself differently — as someone who could master that imposing, ethereal thing.
"The harp is such a beautiful instrument — I just wanted to try it," said Maitre, 17, now a junior at Girls' High who recently played at the Kimmel Center with the All City Orchestra. "Everything you play on it sounds majestic."
Despite years of tight budgets and some schools' lacking music programs entirely, the district now offers harp lessons to Maitre and 29 other students citywide through a nonprofit partner that aims to introduce the instrument to children who would otherwise not have access to it. The little-known program is largest at Girls' High, which has eight students and the district's only group harp class — and a tradition of producing world-class harpists.
Years ago, the school system owned and maintained multiple harps at schools throughout the city. But as programs withered, the harps fell into disrepair. Enter Elizabeth Hainen, the principal harpist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and founder of the Lyra Society, a nonprofit started to raise harp awareness. Hainen raised funds and brokered a deal with Lyon & Healy, the acclaimed Chicago harp maker, to trade some of the battered harps for new ones. (A new harp costs at least $20,000.)
And suddenly, the school system was in the unusual business of training harpists again.
"It's rare in any school district in any country in the world — it's not easy to come across a harp," said Elizabeth Steiner, executive director of the Lyra Society.
Frank Machos, the district's executive director of arts and academic enrichment, said the program is especially meaningful to the city and the school system, which is amid a reboot of its arts education programs.
"When we can expose kids to such a unique experience, and to scholarship opportunities, and to the orchestra, we love that," said Machos.
The program started out small in 2012-13, with four students at one public school, Girard Academic Music Program, taking private lessons funded by the Lyra Society. This year, 30 students at GAMP, Girls, Masterman, and Central High Schools, and Kearny Elementary in Northern Liberties are taking lessons thanks to the Lyra.
The lessons are serious, said Steiner, herself a harpist and former student of Hainen's who teaches the program at Girls' High, now in its second full year.
"We like it to be fairly rigorous," she said. "We like to give them the same instruction we all receive as professional harpists."
One Philadelphia harp student has gone on to minor in harp performance in college, but many are simply hoping for a lifelong skill.
"We're not aiming to create a fleet of professionals, but we are aiming for exposure and access," said Steiner. "It changes the game — it gives you a bit of an identity. You never know who could be waiting for the right opportunity."
That was Steiner as a child growing up in Seattle, she said. Steiner had been studying piano when her mother gave her a CD of harp music performed by Ann Hobson Pilot, a Girls' High grad, an African American woman who went on to become principal harpist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was a revelation for Steiner, who eventually attended a school where a volunteer harp teacher provided lessons.
"I didn't know a woman of color could be a harpist," Steiner said of seeing the Pilot CD as a girl. "I remember seeing her face on the CD and thinking, 'OK, I can do this.' "
Now, the Girls' High students realize they can do it, too. The eight give up part of their lunch period daily to cloister themselves in tiny practice rooms with scuffed off-white tiles and years of student scribbling on the walls. Some have private lessons — also free — in addition to the group class.
Junior Jermoyah Parkinson, who had played the violin for years, found herself drawn to the harp when she heard lessons were a possibility at Girls' High. During a tryout, she plucked a few strings, and loved it. She has attended Hainen's Harp Colony at the Curtis Institute and has taken a harp home through a Lyra program for diligent students.
"When it's quiet at my house, I love to play," said Parkinson. "I love the sound, how it fills the house. My baby brother loves my lullabies."
Before Bryahna Martin played, she had never seen a harp close up. But she had ideas about it.
"I'd hear harp music on different shows, and I loved it," said Martin, 16, a sophomore. "It's so lovely — calm and smooth. When I'm in the harp room alone, it's so great. I'm just there with this beautiful sound that I'm making."
Jocelyn Miller can hardly believe where the harp has taken her already — she's played at the Curtis Institute and at multiple Girls' High functions; the school's harpists, officials said, are go-tos for performances when you want to impress someone.
"I love the sound," said Miller, 16, a sophomore. "And I love the opportunities that come along with it."
Pilot, Girls' High Class of 1961, agrees completely. She had piano experience prior to Girls' but thought she might take up the flute at the school. None were available, so she moved on to the harp.
The rest is history, including an acclaimed career as a harpist and teacher, a PBS special chronicling her story of being a trailblazing African American female harpist, and worldwide accolades. She is one of three well-known professional harpists the school produced.
"Girls' High meant everything," said Pilot, now 74 and living in Florida. "It was where it all began."
Now, with the addition of the Lyra classes, the school hopes to carry on that harp tradition, said principal Parthenia Moore.