MACHESNEY PARK -- Nanette Felix started playing harp at age 10 after she envisioned an angel guiding her to do so.
The principal harpist for the Rockford Symphony Orchestra, for which she has played since she was 20 years old, said the sounds she creates on her many harps are "heavenly" and "healing." Her favorite harp is a 6-foot-2-inch, 95-pound Concert Grand by Venus Harps.
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Yet if you want to hear Led Zeppelin's rockin' "Stairway to Heaven" or a country song by Rascal Flatts at any of the local eateries where she plays monthly, she and her harp are happy to oblige. "It can be loud, brittle, harsh; I can beat on it like a drum," she said of her harps and their sounds. "I can make it sound like a piano, I can make it sound like a guitar." Her latest CD is jazzy: "Classic Yuletide Jazz," which she sells at farmers markets, including in Beloit, Wis.
And if you'd like to learn more about the history of harps for your local Rotary, church or school function or want to learn how to play the comparatively expensive stringed instrument, give her a call.
Last year, Felix secured a grant from the American Harp Society to give harp lessons to students at Allegro Academy in Rockford. She helped build two small harps for the school. Felix also rents harps to players.
"It's absolutely a passion," the married Felix said of her full-time harpist career.
So, what's it take to be a good harpist?
"You have to be versatile, self-motivated, and you have to practice," she said.
How much she practices depends on the event, she said. For a Rockford Symphony Orchestra concerto last March, where she was featured as a soloist, she said she practiced many hours a day for a year.
The vibration of the strings on her harp as she plays resonates to create sounds. She touches the strings with her fingers, not picks.
Felix said she treats her various-colored harps of different kinds of wood "like babies. When we're traveling, I don't let it get too cold or hot," she said. "It affects the tuning." She services her harps regularly and changes the strings constantly.
While Felix is focused on harps, one of her favorite annual functions has little to do with the instrument.
While she will play patriotic pieces on harp at the Rockford Symphony Orchestra's July 3 Independence Day Spectacular concert at Bengt Sjostrom (Starlight) Theatre at Rock Valley College, a walkie talkie is the instrument that will make her day.
During the "1812 Overture," the event's finale, Felix stands backstage and counts measures and watches conductor Steven Larsen. When the time is right, she radios to the person setting off fireworks.
"If it's in the wrong spot, it's my fault," she said.
Otherwise, "it goes kaboom!" And that, too, is a heavenly sound for Felix.