The harp is perhaps the most virtuous, angelic instrument of them all. In the bible, they are played in heaven and presented to saints by Jesus. In orchestras, they are often plucked by straight-laced ladies in calf length skirts.
Thanks to Madison Calley, this reputation could be about to change.
Madison is leading the way for a new generation of musicians who are making the harp hip. Her Instagram posts playing pop and R&B covers, juxtaposing the classical instrument with modern music and provocative outfit choices, have gained her 528,000 followers and counting. She has landed gigs at the 2021 Grammys alongside rapper Roddy Ricch, the 2020 commencement address which also featured Barack and Michelle Obama; she was recently signed by Apple’s forward-thinking record label Platoon, and is working on her debut album.
Madison and her harp have experienced the full scale of emotions. She has played since she was eight years old, and studied the instrument at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Then, after college, she quit playing for four years because she was frustrated with the constraints put on her by some in the classical music community. But now based in Los Angeles, mixing with a young and creative crowd, she has rediscovered her love for the instrument and is doing it her way, breaking down barriers as a Black woman at a time when less than 5% of orchestral musicians in the US are BIPOC.
Here she describes her complex connection with her instrument, and how she hopes to use her experiences to help other budding musicians have a more harmonious relationship with their craft. She’s not entirely angelic, but she could be the divine intervention that the harp, and the wider orchestral community, needs.
When and why did you start to play the harp?
When I was about four, I used to frequent this restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, near where I grew up, and they had a harpist there who would play Disney songs, and I was just mesmerized by this. I told my mom right then that I wanted to learn to play the harp. She did some research and when I turned six, I began piano lessons, which is pretty common to learn before harp, because they’re very similar and a piano is an easier way to learn music theory. Then after two years of piano, I started harp lessons when I turned eight. It wasn’t really until I was around 10 or 12 that I realized it was not a common instrument to play. And there was some social conflict because kids can be mean and I did get picked on a little bit, with kids calling it a weird instrument. But older people, like my parents’ friends, would be really fascinated by it, so that helped. And then I ended up going to Carnegie Mellon University for music.
So did you play in a traditional orchestra at college?
Yeah. The way their music program was set up was you have your one-on-one private harp lessons, and then you also have to fulfill an orchestra credit. So I was in two orchestras, the string orchestra and the wind orchestra. And honestly, those orchestras were the reason that I decided in college that I didn’t want to pursue music as a main career. I just found orchestra to be quite boring as a harpist. You end up spending most of your time counting measures just to play two measures of notes, and then you’re counting again. At school they don’t really present any alternative, cool options as a solo musician. So in college I was just questioning everything, and thinking, “I don’t think this is what I want to do with my life.” So I ended up getting another degree in business, and I stepped away from the harp right after I graduated.
So what did you do instead, and when and why did you come back to the harp?
I started taking a few acting classes on the side, and I also had a knack for fashion, and I’d been studying fashion since high school. I just knew I wanted to live in LA and do something creative. So I moved to LA, I started a fashion blog, and I started designing for my own swimwear line, and I was taking acting classes. And through that industry, I met Willow and Jaden Smith’s manager, and it was mentioned to him that I played the harp, and he was like, ‘That’s so cool. I’ve never met anyone that plays the harp.’ Then a year or two later, in 2018 I think, I got a call from him and he told me that Willow had an acoustic set coming up, and he asked me if I was interested in performing. I had shipped my harp out here to LA, but I hadn’t touched it for four years. But Willow was such a cool talent, I didn’t want to turn it down. And something I had always been told when I first moved here was, “Just show up.” So I said yes, and we ended up having three rehearsals at her house, and I got to meet the whole family, which was really, really cool. It was my first time really playing R&B on my harp. And I had such a good time, it opened a whole new door for me that I didn’t know was possible. So after that, I started playing around with some other R&B classics that I had always loved. It sounded so cool, and suddenly I was having so much fun playing my harp again.
I had already started building a social media following for the fashion stuff, so I thought I’d post a harp video to see how it did. It just really took off, and I gained around 50,000 followers on my first one. Then I did an Alicia Keys cover that Alicia ended up reposting. That was game changing to me. Alicia has been one of my biggest musical inspirations since I was a kid, and she started following me too. Then when the pandemic hit, I decided to use this time of solitude to really dive into music and just see what can come of it. I grew more than 400,000 followers in 2020, signed the record deal with Platoon, got to perform at the Grammys and the Latin Grammys, the BET Awards, and all these amazing things happened very quickly.
You’ve already answered this to some extent, but what can we do to make playing these traditional orchestral instruments feel more accessible to a broader range of people?
I love that question and it’s something I ask myself all the time, because I’m really passionate about teaching as well. One of the biggest problems is that it’s very expensive to take music lessons, so not everyone is able to afford it. So we need to find ways to create more programs in the inner city communities to make it more accessible.
The other thing that I’ve been working on with my students is talking to them, and getting to know them, to find out what they like to play and what they like to listen to. I was never asked, “What music do you enjoy listening to? And how can we incorporate that into the music that you’re playing?” It was just, “Here’s the classical repertoire you need to play.” So with my students, we make a list of the songs that they love, and as I teach them theory and basic music reading skills, I also incorporate some of the arrangements of songs that they listen to. And it gets them so excited, especially my younger students. I have a student who’s six, and she loves Beyoncé, so I started finding some Beyoncé songs that she can play at her level. And she’s just so excited to practice and to play, and that was something I never really got to experience as a kid.
What else keeps you happy and healthy?
Meditation has been life-changing for me. I did a really cool feature with a meditation app I love called Headspace, where they documented my whole process. I start my day with a meditation, and it has helped me establish routine. Every day as a self-employed musician is different, and it’s always an adventure, but I do find it important to have that routine in the front part of my day. And I have a gratitude practice I have started incorporating too, which helps put me in a positive state of mind, instead of being anxious about what is lacking in my life. I’m also big on working out, I work out maybe five times a week, and if I’m not working out I’ll always go for a walk in the morning. Getting that sunlight sets you up for a better day. And I also eat a very clean diet.
Obviously the stereotype of the harp is an angelic instrument, while your image on Instagram is a little less angelic! Do you think that juxtaposition is part of what has worked so well for you over the last year?
A big thing for me is remaining authentic to myself. I was always a bit of an outcast and rejected by the harp community because of my dress choices or the type of music that I liked. The harp community is very conservative, and the rules I was taught for recitals included no nail polish, and dresses or skirts have to go below your knee. You can’t have any heels more than two inches. It was just very rigid. So I just wanted to do it my way. I’ve always been very comfortable in my skin, and enjoy taking care of my body and practicing self-love. And in turn that has played a part in the success I’ve achieved, because it also confuses people!
Madison plays with Roddy Ricch at the 2021 Grammy Awards
You must also be very proud of breaking down some of the barriers you have, to open up this music to a new group of people… Tell us how that feels?
It has been such an interesting journey. And I can’t say I planned all this out this way. I get emails and messages from other musicians that are in university to study music, saying they relate to my message, that they feel like they don’t fit in, and that the classical community is so rigid, and they’ve been trying to find their own voice. So I’ve got a lot of musicians thanking me for making them feel like it’s okay to go your own route with whatever instrument you’re playing. And so that is very rewarding. I also get a lot of messages from minority women saying their daughters or their sons have seen my videos, and they really want to play the harp. And that’s really special because I never really had any Black musicians that were playing the harp to look up to, and if I had it would have shown me way earlier that I can love this instrument in my own way.