OAKLAND -- Harpist Barbara Imhoff's résumé reads like a mystery.

Piano-playing baseball tomboy gets accepted at Juilliard at age 12, but turns down the offer to pitch as captain of the seventh-grade boys' team. A senior in high school, she "falls back into piano," before heading to UC Santa Barbara. Two years later, a locked door on campus leads to a new love, a career and a lifetime of genre-defying collaborations.

"I was wandering around late at night and saw harps behind a locked door," Imhoff recalled. "I asked, and they gave me a key. I actually moved in there: I had a cot."

Teaching herself to play, Imhoff graduated and was hired by the university as a music theory and harp instructor.

"This is a real 1970s story," she laughed. "It would never happen now."

The 62-year old Montclair resident went on to perform across the gamut: with avant-garde composers, pop performers, symphonies, theater troupes and dance companies.

"It does appear unusual, when you put it on paper," she said.

The pattern of her professional profile stands in stark contrast to the graceful instrument upon which it is constructed.

"It's always been characterized as a difficult, classical, orchestral instrument," she said. "That's why I have started loving to teach. I want to bring harp into people's homes, into different venues."

Recently, Imhoff began offering private harp lessons at the Garden Gate Creativity Center in Berkeley, adding to her classes at Harps Etc. in Walnut Creek.


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"I have my own harp in the (Berkeley) studio, for students to learn on, and information about renting instruments, too," she said.

For musicians looking to purchase a harp, prices range from about $270 for a small, 16-string harp to $10,000 for a pedal model like the one she will have at Garden Gate to more than $100,000 for an elaborate, 80-pound concert instrument.

The beauty of learning to play the harp, according to Imhoff, is the instant gratification.

"As opposed to the violin or the trombone, the harp sounds gorgeous right away," Imhoff said. "None of that screeching and sputtering. Even a beginner can make a lovely sound. And you can pick out melodies, so you can play a simple song in the first lesson."

More than the piano, where gravity assists the playing, a harp requires endurance.

"You're holding your elbow out and hugging the harp with your arms and knees. It's very physical," she said. "It doesn't take strength as much as coordination."

Reading a vertical score, recognizing chord patterns and operating two hands in different but harmonious ways are crucial skills. Imhoff said hand size is immaterial.

"Very small hands work as well as large; what matters is fully opening and closing your hand, even if you play just one note."

Comparing this open-stroke technique to follow-through in a baseball swing, she said it pulls and lifts the fullest sound from the harp. Asked to highlight moments in her eclectic performing career, Imhoff zoomed in on several mentors. Ronnie Montrose, a heavy metal guitarist, taught her to improvise.

"He brought all of his electronic processing gear into my living room, attached my harp to it and said, 'I'm not taking my gear back until you learn to play power chords on the harp!' "

Harking back to her college days behind a locked door, she worked night and day: playing massive, loud chords; learning to overdub; using effects-processing; making harp tracks. Eventually, she began composing new music.

Before Montrose, there was pop star Todd Rundgren, who hired her to record on his "The Want of a Nail" track on the 1989 CD, "Nearly Human."

"He was extremely perfectionist: in control of every aspect. In the studio, there were booths separating all the musicians," she remembered, still surprised by the contradiction between her literalist expectations of Rundgren and the reality.

Closer to home, playing with the Berkeley Symphony under music director Kent Nagano is a favorite memory.

"He was the most gifted conductor. He did pieces in two different time signatures, conducting with two hands," she said.

Still actively performing with "Bindi Society," a three-woman band playing original music influenced by Hindu hymns, Imhoff is eager to continue unraveling the secrets of her chosen instrument with students and audiences alike.

FYI
For more information about Barbara Imhoff, call her at 831-345-5774, email barbaraharp1@gmail.com or go to http://www.gardengatecreate.com/fr_home.cfm.