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Harpists make sweet music in Indiana contest

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Shake Jaymee Schmuck's hand and you immediately notice her rough, leathery fingertips, such calluses that you'd think she spends her days roping cattle.

But these well-worn hands have a far more delicate task. For hours each day, they dance like five-legged spiders across the 47 taut strings of a harp, making music as beautiful as it is complex.

Schmuck's passion for this infrequently seen instrument has brought her here from Arizona, joining 36 other harpists from across the world to compete in the USA International Harp Competition, which began Wednesday and runs through July 15.

The winner of one of the premier contests in the harp world is given a recording contract and debut concerts in London, Paris, Tokyo and New York City. The winner of the last competition — it's held every three years — is now the principal harpist for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

"It's kind of a celebration just to be here," said Schmuck, who is finishing her master's work at the University of Arizona. "I feel like I've already learned so much just getting here."

Being accepted into the competition is only the first step. Contestants then spend about two years memorizing and practicing the required pieces they'll play before the judges. The grueling, two-week competition involves solo work as well as performances with an orchestra.

"We say this is the harp Olympics of the world," said Susann McDonald, creator of the event and head of the Indiana University School of Music's harp department, the largest in the world. "We really launch a harpist into a major professional career as a solo artist."

Getting here is no easy task.

"It's a difficult instrument," McDonald said. "A lot of harpists sacrifice a great deal to play."

Concert harps stand roughly 6 feet tall, weigh about 90 pounds and can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000.

They have 1,800 moving parts. Along with constantly plucking and tapping nylon and metal strings with the fingers, a harpist uses both feet to control seven pedals, which make groups of strings produce sharp or flat notes.

Today's ornate harps have come a long way from the instrument's humble beginnings. Prehistoric cave paintings suggest that some musically inclined hunter long ago plucked his bow string and liked the sound it made. More strings were added, and eventually the bow was making music.

Jessica Zhou, a 24-year-old Chinese harpist studying at the Juilliard School, has played a concert harp for 14 years. She practices a minimum of four hours a day, coping with the calluses, blisters and occasional tendinitus that plague all professional harpists.

But it's worth it to her to cradle the handmade wooden instrument, to feel the vibration of the strings in her shoulder.

"I think the harp is a very natural instrument," Zhou said. "I like the fact that I can actually pluck the strings with my own fingers. It's very expressive."