Aces of harpsJul 29, 2021 12:46PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Valentina and Andrés Ramos have stellar skills in plucking, strumming, glissing, pushing, knocking and telling stories. The Greenville siblings – she’s 12, and he’s 13 – are award-winning harp players.
“Music is not just plucking notes,” said their mother, Jennie Hon.
“It’s creating a story,” Andrés said.
“Every note is a word,” Valentina said, “and the markings are grammar and punctuation.”
Valentina’s résumé already includes 28 awards for playing the harp and piano. Andrés’ résumé includes 11 for playing the harp. Both have earned scholarships and invitations to play at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall.
“We really want to share the story of how we coped in the lockdown,” Valentina said, adding that they are particularly pleased that they participated in Zoom recitals for retirement communities and created a 31-minute video to better showcase their work for those especially vulnerable seasoned citizens. “We also want to inspire other young musicians and bring joy and hope to the world.”
“It has been a year of finding independence, discipline and empathy for these two youngsters,” Hon said in a post by the Sanford School, where her children just finished seventh grade.
Grit, tears and blisters
Valentina’s first competition was in Philadelphia on the piano, when she was 9, just two years after she started lessons. “I felt I was going to ‘America’s Got Talent,’” she recalled.
They did well in multiple local competitions, until the pandemic moved the process to livestreaming or on video. On the plus side: That opened up more competitions, including ones organized in France, Slovenia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan and Switzerland. On the minus side: “They’re more difficult, because a judge can rewind and replay and zoom in to check your form,” Hon said.
“As their mother, I can attest to you that it is not without grit, tears of determination, many finger blisters for Andrés and Valentina to achieve the results of today. To be able to expand on their music to comfort others during the pandemic was an unexpected blessing,” she said.
“Winning a couple of competitions can be perceived as being lucky,” she said. “That’s why we have continued to enter more competitions with challenging requirements. We want to prove we have what it takes. (For example, learning a repertoire of multiple pieces chosen by the judges or playing contrasting pieces from different periods to show diverse skills.)
“We are proud to have been one of a very few winners from the USA. Many competitions have had up to 23 countries participating.”
Playing the harp has led to “a lot of suffering because of blisters,” Hon said, noting an ice bath sometimes helps with blisters. By contrast, a heating pad helps muscles relax. Sometimes, while waiting to perform, both heat and ice are in play.
How it all began
The music room in their house now has two harps, an extended upright piano and an electronic baby grand piano with computer connections and recording functions.
The black lever harp is a Troubadour by Lyon & Healy, 5-foot-1 and 38 pounds, with the 36 strings covering five octaves and a Sitka spruce sound board for what Hon called “a crisp full sound.”
The gold pedal harp is an Iris by Salvi, 6 feet tall and 86 pounds, with 47 strings covering seven octaves and a “richer” sound. The Iris dwarfs the players: Andrés is 5-foot-3, Valentina 4-foot-9.
A lever harp has levers that control sharps and flats, one for each string. A pedal harp has seven pedals, with three levels for all the sharps and flats.
Their love of the harp began when Valentina was 9, and she asked Natalia Varlashova, her piano teacher and a harpist, to try the harp. That Christmas, their parents, Hon and attorney Marcos Ramos, bought the first harp.
Hon asked Andrés, who was learning the guitar, if he wanted to try the harp as well. Of course.
Varlashova continues piano lessons, and they now work on their harp skills with Anne Sullivan.
School comes first
All three family members emphasized how school always comes before music.
And even though they want to share their music as a message of hope, they’re not that talkative about it at school. “We don’t want to come across as bragging,” Andrés said.
“They know we play music, but we don’t talk about the competitions,” Valentina added.
At Sanford, Valentina and Andrés take English and French together, and they’re both in the chorus.
They have music lessons two hours a week. They work in practicing when they can, and they feel that classes moving online has given them more time to develop their music.
They used that time to create performance videos, with Hon as director, writer, editor and lighting technician, effectively what she called “a one-man band.” Go to https://youtu.be/-Gcdl8K_aGw.
Queen Elizabeth and Joe Biden
Both siblings prefer classical music when they want to listen to music. “And Yanni!” Valentina said, adding that they’ve seen him perform as well.
Outside of music, Andrés enjoys playing Minecraft, learning about global history and governments, playing tennis and creating Lego architecture.
Valentina enjoys eating, cooking, playing tennis, reading and playing Roblox.
Once travel is easier, they look forward to fulfilling performance opportunities won in their competitions, Valentina in Slovenia and Andrés in Carnegie Hall. And they’re dreaming beyond that.
Valentina said she would like to perform for Queen Elizabeth II. “Maybe I could cheer her up,” she said, referring to the recent death of her husband, Prince Phillip.
“Any president at the White House,” Andrés added. “Mr. Biden, if you need me, I am available. Call me!”