Tugging the Harp Strings


Harpist Kristi Flake plays not only the music one might expect—classical—on her large, 47-string instrument, but she plays a little jazz and blues, too.

Music is an undeniable part of Mississippi's culture, so much so that the state brands itself the "Birthplace of America's Music." Mississippi transplant Kristi Flake wants to add another element to the Magnolia State's rich musical heritage: the harp.

When Flake, 31, moved to Jackson last August to attend Wesley Biblical Seminary, she became the state's only active professional harpist. Mandy Mangrum, who is also based in Jackson, has recently joined her.

"It was really fun to come to an area and fill the need of a harpist," Flake says.

The harp is the oldest stringed instrument, and most cultures have some variation of it. The modern concert grand harp has 47 strings and seven foot pedals, and harpists play the instrument with both hands and both feet. Music played on the harp has a different feeling than music played on other instruments, with its light, whimsical and airy sound.

"I think people don't realize how versatile the harp is," Flake says. "People so often hear it at the symphony or ballet and just hear the same type of music. You can play any style. I love playing jazz and blues."

Born and reared in Dallas, Texas, Flake started her musical endeavors on the piano at age 8. Even then, Flake knew she wanted to continue cultivating her musical knowledge and decided she wanted to learn at least one other instrument.

Thanks to a school system with a strong arts program, Flake began to play the harp in the fifth grade when she was 11.

"I was fascinated by it. I knew I wanted to play, and fortunately, I have a very supportive family," she says, laughing.

Flake started her professional harpist career in high school. Her childhood piano teacher was also a church organist, and Flake played weddings in the Dallas area with her.

In 1997, Flake received a music scholarship to study with renowned harpist Gail Barber at Texas Tech University. Although Flake ended up majoring in history, she studied with Barber throughout her collegiate career and played both professionally and in the Texas Tech ensemble.

Flake is well versed in many different genres of music, including classical, swing, jazz and Celtic. She never thought she would make a career of playing the harp and considers herself lucky to be able to do so.

"I think if you have musical talent, you're going to express it some way or another, whether you make a living doing it or not," she says. "I'm fortunate to be able to do this professionally and earn money doing something I enjoy and I love."

Flake's favorite part of being a professional harpist is the reactions she gets at events—whether it is words of encouragement or thanks, or being able to play along with jazz pieces at more informal events.

"You get blisters on your fingers; you get tired," Flake says. "But when you get that feedback, it encourages you to keep playing."


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