Harpist Siobhan Kerr, at a Christmas concert she performed a few years back. Photos courtesy Siobhan Kerr

Heaven, harps and motherhood

By  Sheila Nonato, Catholic Register Special
  • May 12, 2024

Harpist Siobhan Kerr hits the right notes in her music and as a mother.

During pandemic lockdowns, classically trained harpist Siobhan Kerr played impromptu harp concerts on her front lawn for her neighbours.

This was an expression of Kerr’s inherent musical generosity, says her mother, Brenda Tozer, 73, who is the musical influence in her daughter’s life.

“People brought chairs, suitably spaced, and had a free concert. I am so proud of Siobhan. She uses her God-given gift freely in many cases,” Tozer said. “She also has started her own harp school (Kerr Harps). What a wonderful thing to be able to pass on to the next generation.”

These sort of performances are part of who Kerr is. As a teen, she often could be found busking in downtown Hamilton. Or outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. She even performed in Ireland for its president at that time, Mary Robinson.

The harp is Ireland’s iconic symbol of national pride and identity: It is seen on manuscripts and Christian stone crosses, dating back to the eighth century.

During the 1800s, the harp became associated with another unmistakable Irish brand: the Guinness brewery.

Irish pubs are like community hubs where people gather to share stories. This tradition continues in Steel Town, where Kerr and other musicians can sing, play an instrument and share a pint on Tuesdays for “Open Mic Irish Music” at Corktown Irish Pub.

Kerr, 45, an organizer of the Catholic Home Schoolers of Halton & Hamilton, started playing the harp at age five. Her musical influence came from her mother, a semi-trained soprano who sang in church while also working as a registered nurse. Tozer used to sing to her Intensive Care Unit patients when she worked at the Hamilton General Hospital.

“I grew up with my Mom singing. My Mom’s voice was very, very powerful in Mass,” Kerr said.

The Tozers, a family of 12, usually sat “at the front of the church because my mom thought it was very important for all of us to know what was happening at the altar,” she said.

Classical music was a staple in the Tozer home, with cassette tapes, CDs and the classical radio station playing regularly.

Kerr’s harp teacher was the late Marie Emma Lorcini, a child prodigy. At 15, Lorcini was the principal harpist with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and played with classical music legends like Igor Stravinsky. Lorcini also originated the harp syllabus for the Suzuki method in 1984, which she taught at the Hamilton Suzuki School of Music.

On the connection of sacred music and motherhood, Kerr said, “The rhythm of motherhood and the rhythm of being a musician is definitely something that I would say connects.”

There are the sharps, flats and crescendos of life that intersect with music and motherhood, all connected by the underlying connection of love and generosity. For instance, Kerr said, the giving of self in motherhood is also like playing an instrument: It is the sharing of one’s self-expression in both, a desire to create beauty, and to play one’s part in our homes for our families and the wider community.

“We came from the greatest woman who is Mary,” who showed us the meaning of life-giving sacrificial love, Kerr said.

It is this heavenly focus, said St. Augustine’s pastor Fr. Scott Whitfield, that listening to classical music like the harp inspires: the soul turns towards Heaven, whether it is during a wedding liturgy or a social gathering.

“With Siobhan, the merit of her playing is found not only in her technique,” he said,  “but in its heavenly effect.”

Kerr said to play the harp requires the coordination of fingers pushing into the strings, and feet pressing on the seven pedals to manipulate the change of sharps and flats. Harps can be massive in size and expense: Kerr recalls hauling her five-foot tall harp on the Hamilton public bus as a teen to play at St. Peter’s Hospital. Her current concert harp is six feet tall, weighing about 40 kg. On cost, a small classical harp can run around $3,000, $18,000 for an orchestra-sized harp, and can go up to $100,000 for the ornate ones covered in gold.

Growing up near her home parish of St. Patrick’s, the Irish presence in Steel Town was seen in the downtown street names, such as Emerald Street, she recalled.

From fundraisers to some donations from her impromptu harp concerts, Kerr raised enough money to record an album of Celtic music in December 2023 called Harp in the Valley, which is available on online music platforms like Spotify. It was recorded at St. Augustine’s, a historic gothic-style church in the Dundas Valley, which inspired the album’s name. Former Hamilton Suzuki School of Music colleague Adam Michael, a member of the Canadian indie pop band Walk Off The Earth, produced her album.

Kerr said the album was a gift for her parents: During COVID, her father, David, suffered a stroke. Her mother battled uterine cancer a couple of years ago.

“During COVID and all those (challenging times), I was feeling this pull: I wanted to put something together that will help my dad and my mom through this, and there will be a piece of me (for them),” she said.

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