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Teen-age harpist gaining recognition

Eileen JoyceFourteen-year-old Chiara Coombs plays the harp at her Nevada City home on May 6.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Chiara Coombs’ harp stands about a foot taller than she does.

“We have a station wagon it fits in,” said her mother, Kasandra Green.



When she sits to play, Coombs has to stretch to reach all the Concert Grand’s 47 strings and seven pedals.

But that doesn’t stop the 14-year-old Nevada Union freshman from coaxing cascading rhythms from the cumbersome yet delicate instrument that can soften the hardest heart and make the saddest soul sing.




“I like the sounds you can play on the harp,” said Coombs at her Nevada City home last week before playing a classical arrangement by Handel.

Aside from her musical talents, Coombs is like any other 14 year-old.

She likes to talk to her friends on the phone a lot, her mother said, rolling her eyes.

But Coomb’s knack for music has won her local honors and earned her national recognition for her mastery of one of the oldest of all instruments, documented in Mesopotamia as early as 3,000 B.C.

Coombs took first place in Division 5 of Music in the Mountains’ annual Young Musicians Competition in April and has been selected as a finalist every year since she started competing in the fourth grade.

She’s one of 16 young harpists from around the United States invited to attend the prestigious Young Artists Harp Seminar this summer in Savannah, Ga.

She’s good friends with legendary harpist Derek Bell, co-founder of The Chieftains, the world’s foremost Irish folk ensemble.

Bell asked Coombs to accompany him on stage as a warm-up act for his sold-out concert at St. Joseph’s Hall in Grass Valley in 1998.

“I was kind of scared because people like know him around the world,” Coombs said.

When she was 10, Coombs released her first recording, “From a Child’s Harp.” The cassette sold 500 copies, which helped pay for her last Italian-made pedal harp.

The recording is being released on CD to help fund last fall’s purchase of her new Concert Grand harp, which cost $15,500. (To get the CD, call 470-9235.)

In November, Coombs and her parents flew to the Lyon and Healy harp factory in Chicago to choose from the four Concert Grands in stock.

“I picked the one that sounded the brightest and loudest,” Coombs said. “Some harps I’ve played sound kind of deadened, but this one sounds really lively.”

Mastering the harp requires much discipline, but Coombs doesn’t let the daily practice lessen her love for music or dampen her creative spirit.

Coombs is a perfectionist about honing her musical skills, said her mother, who teaches violin and piano.

“She plays very well and exactly, and she practices till she gets it.”

But Coombs said the creativity comes intuitively.

“I think some pieces can be boring,” she said. “But when you add the dynamics and put your feelings into the piece, it becomes very beautiful.”

Coombs said she’s not sure if she’ll pursue playing the harp professionally when she gets older.

“I’m just going to keep practicing and try to get as good as I can and see where it takes me,” Coombs said.

After all, she’s only 14.


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