Harper’s Retreat is back on Grand Manan

Submitted photo Harper’s retreat participant Crystal Brenna Yeo playing her instrument by the water.

GRAND MANAN – Sharon Johnston’s retreat for harpists is back in Grand Manan after a brief hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first retreat in 2016 was a great success, according to Johnston. “I think I had 18 or 20 participants,” she said.

The second retreat went just as well, and Johnston said she was happy with the turn out. While planning the 2020 retreat, it became clear it wouldn’t be possible that year. “Unfortunately, when we planned for 2020, we all know what happened.”

For the first two retreats, the participants, many of whom come from Ontario, stayed in cottages on Grand Manan. Many of this year’s participants have had their accommodations planned for some time, as they continue to look forward to the chance to meet and interact with fellow harpists. “It gives everyone the chance to meet new people who play the harp … it brings in extra tourism dollars,” said Johnston.

This year’s retreat began on July 17 and will run through July 21. Johnston expects to see 14 participants come together on the island. “One from P.E.I.,” she said.

The five-day retreat started off with a fish chowder dinner Sunday evening, followed by two hours of teaching by Johnston each day, and a laid-back Ceilidh on July 21 at Anchorage picnic shelter, 4-7 p.m., for any harpists, local musicians and community members.

She explained that the type of harp she and the group play is a folk harp. Smaller than a pedal harp, many of the retreat participants enjoy bringing their instruments around to different locations to play. “Some participants like to drag out a harp to the water, hoping to call the whales, or something like that,” she said.

The musicians play mostly folk and Celtic tunes, which Johnston says is fitting for the location of the retreat. “(The harp) lends itself very well to Irish and Cape Breton traditional music,” she said.

Johnston holds a music degree in piano performance and has been playing the harp for 25 years. “I fell in love with it (harp),” she said.

She began spending more time on Grand Manan in 2014. “I’m lucky enough to have a family connection in Grand Manan,” she said.

Coming from Goderich, Ontario, Johnston has always enjoyed her time spent in Grand Manan and is happy to spend more of her time there. The community is just as thrilled to have her, and of course, her harp. “Grand Manan has been a welcoming community,” she said.

Johnston runs the Huron Harp School in Goderich, Ontario. Usually, she is teaching 25-30 students ranging in age. “I run a very active harp school … I’ve scaled down a bit because of COVID concerns,” she said. In the pre-COVID world, Johnston had roughly 5-10 younger students, a number she says has gone down since the pandemic. “I start students typically at 6 or 7,” she said.

The harper’s retreat is an opportunity for harpists to meet musicians from all over the country, sharing their love for the instrument, and for music. “Playing the harp becomes a social event,” said Johnston.