Music is the great uniter. An incredible force. Something that people who differ on everything and anything else can have in common.Sarah Dessen
I met Emily Granger a bit by accident while nosing around instagram. The minute I saw this accomplished musician who doubles as a hiking fiend, I messaged her that she’s my absolute heroine. She wrote right back to remind me that I’d reviewed her in the Harp Column and we were (sort of) already friends. A superstar American harpist now living in Sydney, Emily hiked the Camino de Santiago, the John Muir Trail, heaps of Colorado fourteeners and New Zealand’s Te Araroa. Patagonia is the destination for her upcoming honeymoon. Now that’s the way to start a marriage! ~alison
Music and Mountains by Emily Granger
I’ve always been drawn to the mountains. Growing up in Missouri, my family took a yearly road trip across Kansas on I-70 to Colorado. The feeling of driving nine hours across Kansas and finally seeing the mountains on the horizon is one of my favorite feelings in the world.
It wasn’t until I spent a summer at the National Repertory Orchestra in Breckenridge, Colorado as a college-aged student that I climbed my first fourteener. I was hooked. I took several trips to Colorado, driving from Chicago through the middle of the night just to get a bit of fresh Rocky Mountain air whenever I could, but always found myself living in the midwest focusing my life on the harp.
I reached a point in my late-20s where my career felt stale. I wasn’t sure where things were going professionally and at the very least I knew I needed a break from the harp. I had a performing tour booked in Australia for a month in September 2015 and decided to spend the following 5 months traveling in that part of the world. My Chicago Harp Quartet-mate, Cathy, suggested I look into visiting New Zealand because of my love of the mountains.
I googled, “New Zealand hikes” and came across the Great Walks. I toyed with the idea of traveling alone and tackling each of the 9 walks across the two islands. The next suggestion that popped up on my Google search was, “Te Araroa – New Zealand’s Trail.” A 3,000 kilometer (1865 miles) walk across the entire length of the country. The timing was perfect. I had exactly 5 months October – March – the optimal time to walk the trail. I had read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild.” I had spent years lugging a concert grand harp around! I could do this.
Long story short – I did it. I walked the entire length of New Zealand in 138 days. I set out by myself after months of training, hours of research and thousands spent on the lightest backpacking gear out there. I met the most amazing couple from Yorkshire the very first day and ended up walking the entire trail with them.
Michael and Lesley have become my closest friends in the world and we share a bond that only other thru-hikers will understand. Two years later Michael, Lesley and I walked the Camino de Santiago across Spain in the middle of winter. We have more plans to meet and hike in (fingers crossed) Patagonia later this year. We have a long list of walks to do, and I am certain we will.
The struggle for me now is finding a balance between my career as a harpist and my love of walking. Thankfully, during my tour in Australia, I met and fell in love with my now fiancé who shares my love of walking and the outdoors. He is a composer and tied to the city as much as I am. I moved to Sydney the same year I finished the Te Araroa.
Sydney has been the best city for me – a massive urban metropolis with 5 million people and some of the top performers in the world, world-class orchestras, opera companies, and chamber groups are abundant and the work as a freelancer plentiful. PLUS the city is sprawling with coastal and bushwalks within the city limits. National Parks are just an hour’s drive away and mountains only two hours by car!
I try to find every excuse to walk. I recently spent five weeks at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Nestled within the Canadian Rockies, I found myself hiking once a week in -20C temperatures and loving the much-needed practice break after spending hours locked away in my studio practicing. I’m looking for more opportunities to bring the harp to the mountains in the future with more residencies and by even creating a sound walk through a National Park later this year with my fiance.
The most frequent questions I’m asked about my life as a harpist/hiker:
Do I protect my hands?
I use some amazing poles Michael put me on to – Pacer Poles. I find these help my hands stay relaxed yet strong while hiking. Totally recommend checking them out!
Can you only take so many days away from playing?
I took 5 months off from playing and got back into shape to play a concert with the Chicago Harp Quartet in 10 days. Challenging, yes. Would I do it again, probably not. I am a big believer in taking breaks from the harp – I suffer from tendinitis and overuse pain in my hands and sometimes rest is the only cure. I have learned though to give myself a good month of getting into shape after taking a significant amount of time off from the harp before a big performance.
Does lugging the harp around prepare you for carrying a pack?
Nope. Nothing can prepare you for carrying that pack around besides carrying a pack around.
Do you take your harp with you?
Hiking, no. I have thought about it but never done it. I did take a trip to Colorado with a little lever harp once. I would climb a fourteener in the morning, come back to my car and camp. Sitting around a campfire playing the harp for fun was amazing and would love to do something like this again.