June 30, 2017
By Laura Billings Coleman
Harpist Hannah Flowers is having serious fun following her passion for traditional music all the way to Ireland.
Hannah Flowers admits it might have been the taffeta ball gowns and wind-machines behind Celtic Woman that first fired her fascination with the Irish harp at the age of 10. But after the month of lessons her parents gave her as a Christmas present, she knew she had discovered something deeper. “I don’t know what it is about this instrument, but there’s no substitute for it,” she says. “Right away I was hooked.
Classically trained, with a background in piano and violin, Flowers first came to the Center for Irish Music at age 16, eager to take part in the Advanced Youth Ensemble. “I’d been playing from a book of traditional harp tunes that I thought was Irish music—but then I came here and I found out what traditional Irish music really is,” says Flowers, who soon found that learning to play by ear and singing in the sean-nós style transformed her approach to music. “As a classical musician, you get up, you perform, you bow, and if you make a mistake you feel horrible. But being part of an ensemble at the CIM and playing music just for fun was really great for me. It taught me to be a better listener, and I think it also teaches you that you’ll never really arrive at this idealized version of the musician you’re supposed to be. It’s better to just keep moving forward.”
At age 20, Flowers has fast-tracked her way through high school and an undergraduate music degree using a flexible home-school schedule and Minnesota’s post-secondary education option to follow her passion for Irish music nearly full-time. Competing at the Midwest Fleadh Cheoil in both harp and song, Flowers earned a chance to compete in the All-Ireland Fleadh in Sligo in 2014. Along with CIM instructor Mattie Ernst, Flowers spent a year as an apprentice to Ann Heymann, a Minnesota-based artist renowned for her work reviving the ancient Gaelic harp. In 2015, Flowers won a coveted Next Step Fund grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council that allowed her to study at the Scoil na gCláirseach in Kilkenny, returning home with tunes and techniques she shared in a special performance at the Celtic Junction in January. Last spring, she traveled to Northern Ireland as a Young Ambassador for the Friends of St. Patrick, exploring how common music can be used to break down barriers.
“You hate to use the word ‘serious’ to describe a young musician like Hannah, because it doesn’t sound like fun, but in fact, she’s got a wonderful positive energy, and as a performer, she’s just unflappable,’’ says CIM instructor Dáithí Sproule. “It’s wonderful to see young people at the Center for Irish Music who are taking the music seriously, and wanting to go deep into it, because to me that’s the most fun of all. The more serious you are, the more fun it is, and I think that’s something Hannah has discovered already as a young artist.”