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Ray Geaney: Learning to play harp has brought much joy

A memento I retain, of my long past youth in Ireland, is a certificate of the Royal Irish Academy of Music confirming that I passed its “Local Center Examinations With Honors” relating to piano playing. To this day, I remember the thrill at receiving these results – in hindsight a very modest accomplishment, certainly not deserving of any commencement speech.

Nevertheless, I remember my music teacher being “over the moon” because for her it was a reflection of her teaching competence. Music practice for me was never a joy; being a child of two demanding parents, not doing so was never a pleasant option.

Over the years, due to career, work and family commitments, music was a low priority; my piano ability changed from that of a learning curve to a forgetting one.

Nevertheless, I could still perform a reasonable rendition of classical pieces such as Chopin’s “Polonaise Anthem” as well as a smattering of Irish jigs and reels. During my GE assignment in Amsterdam, Holland, I had the pleasure of meeting Billy Joel’s father, Howard, himself an accomplished pianist who worked with me and tried without much success to further my interest in music.

Thereafter, GE transferred me and my family to Dundalk, Ireland. There, attending a concert recital, I fell in love with the Celtic harp. I placed an advertisement in a Dublin newspaper and received an unusual offer: price agreed, the owner would sell me the instrument provided I travel the 40 miles to his house by car and bring a large blanket to cover the harp so as not allow it to suffer from extreme cold during the trip to its new home. As directed, I purchased the instrument, superbly handcrafted by the owner, a self-described incurable alcoholic.

Familiar with music notation, and reluctant to commit lesson time for my new musical treasure, with some success I taught myself to play the harp. But over the years I regretted never taking formal lessons; that issue always loomed in the recesses of my head.

Fate intervened. Last year, viewing donations to the Catholic Campus Newman Center at the University at Buffalo, I discovered a music teacher who offered to donate to the church the money that would be paid for instruction in a select series of instrumental lessons – including that of the Irish harp. I jumped at the opportunity, availed of the professional lessons.

This year June 13, the 150th anniversary of W.B. Yeats’ birth in Sandymount, Dublin, Ireland, will be celebrated by a series of harp recitals at a different location during each full moon – two in July, coinciding with that month’s two “blue moons.” Yeats is widely considered to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.

A highlight of the year will be Yeats Day on June 13, which will be marked by a four-day celebration in Ireland and abroad. Coincidently, I met my wife in Sandymount and my own birthday is also June 13.

Recently an unwelcome guest visited me in the darkness of night. Fortunately my wife, noticing I was suffering a stroke, called an ambulance, which transported me immediately to Gates Vascular Institute, where I received prompt diagnosis and superb treatment. I remained there for two days before discharge and return home.

Convinced of my full recovery? My ultimate test: I pluck the strings and effortlessly enjoy playing my treasured harp.