Two Seniors Reflect on Four Years (Plus) of Playing the Harp Together

Published by Rebecca Goldfine and Adam Bovie
Gillian King ’22 and Joshua Lin ’22 experienced something rare at Bowdoin. The two graduating seniors—who both grew up in suburbs outside of Chicago—were able to share a passion many of the rest of us know little about, as well as practice and perform duets together.
Sheet music for their harp duet
The sheet music for the duo's harp duet, At the Ballet—which combines music from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker and Swan Lake and Ponchielli's La Gioconda. 

Not only has it been unusual to have two harp players at Bowdoin at the same time, “to have two of the best young collegiate harpists in the same year is unheard of!” said Bowdoin Orchestra director and Beckwith Artist-in-Residence George Lopez. “We were blessed to have not only their talent but their grace and commitment to the orchestra program.”

Beyond playing with the Bowdoin Orchestra, Lin and King enhanced the College's musical community in other ways. Lin played with the Bowdoin Concert Band and for a couple of musicals, including the recent Hook, Line, and Sinker. King played harp and piano with student bands. 

“Playing the harp has been a consistent part of my time at Bowdoin and a meaningful part,” Lin said. “For me, music is a way to relax, a way to make other people's days better, and a way to practice my own discipline.” 

King pointed to a recent duet she and Lin performed as one of the highlights of her musical career at college. During the orchestra's final performance of the semester, they played Maciej Malecki's Concertino in an Ancient Style for Two Harps.

Last fall, Gillian King and Joshua Lin performed At the Ballet live in Studzinkski Hall with the Bowdoin Orchestra, and played it again here more recently in the Hall's lobby.

Part of the thrill of actually playing the concerto live in Studzinski Hall was the uncertainty right up to the last minute about whether they would be able to, due to COVID concerns at the time. When they got the call from Lopez that the concert was a go, they were ecstatic. 

“We'd been working on it for a year and a half, and it was really rewarding to play it well in front of an audience,” King said. 

Lin agreed. “That was a worthy highlight. I don't think I ever thought I would play a double harp concerto in my life.”

Lopez also noted that their participation in the Bowdoin Orchestra opened up a repertoire to explore “that was unique and interesting to the players and audience. It was such a pleasure to find music that included harp and sometimes two harps. They will be missed immensely!”

Though music is an essential part of their lives, the students pursued different academic interests at Bowdoin and will be working in STEM after graduation. King majored in math and minored in physics, and will pursue a PhD in biostatistics next year at the University of Southern California. Lin majored in computer science and minored in math, and has accepted a job with support operations for HashiCorp in Chicago. 

From the Harp Capital of the US to a Harp Hub at Bowdoin

Both Lin and King have been playing harp since they were about eight years old—and they both credit this to growing up near Chicago.

Watch Gillian King and Joshua Lin play the harp duet At the Ballet last fall, at approximately ~41:15 minutes.

“One of the best harp manufacturers in the world has a factory in Chicago—hence there are a lot of harpists in Chicago and a lot of harp teachers in Chicago,” King said. Lyon and Healy has been making the instruments in Chicago since the late nineteenth century. 

As teenagers, Lin and King became friendly during their junior year of high school when they attended a summer program at Birch Creek Music Performance Center, in Door County, Wisconsin.

Without knowing the other was doing the same thing, they both applied to and committed to Bowdoin before realizing they'd be attending the same small liberal arts school in Maine. Though unexpected, the opportunity to play with one another has enhanced their musical development (as well as made it more fun).

“It is a huge comfort to know that Gillian is here with me,” Lin said. “As fun as it is to do solo performances and as rewarding as it can be to see the fruit of your hard work, it is also great to enjoy that experience with a friend.”

The mystique and magic of harps

For many, the harp evokes something otherwordly, even a bit heavenly. An ancient instrument, its origins lie in southern Mesopotamia, where the earliest known harps have been dated to 3,500 BCE.

Both Lin and King say they think part of the harp's appeal is that it's relatively rare compared to other string instruments. It doesn't hurt that it “also looks pretty and sounds pretty,” King added.

Lin noted that the harp occupies a certain place in our popular imagination. “As a kid, when I would think of the harp, I would think of dream sequences in TV shows or movies,” he said. “Oh yeah, the harp is dreamy.”

King said it helps to have someone on stage playing with her, since a harp player can feel alone and prominent next to the eye-catching instrument. “It is really scary to be on your own,” she said. “There is just one of you while there are like 3,000 violins! It takes a lot of courage to get up there and potentially play something wrong.”

Lin said he thinks playing duets with King has made him more sensitive as a musician. “I think when you are playing with someone, it fundamentally works on your collaboration and listening,” he added. “When we play duets, I'm more attentive to my volume and dynamics—which I'm paying attention to when I'm playing solo, too, of course, but more so when playing with Gillian.”

Listen to More Music

Throughout their time at Bowdoin, seniors Joshua Lin and Gillian King have played the harp many times for the public. Below are two concerts featuring both musicians (the first video), and Lin playing a solo in the second (hear his solo at approximately 55:10):