The curly-headed cherub strumming away on a harp is a time-honored icon. Try and consider Valentine’s Day without the sight of Cupid, his bow and arrows at rest for the moment, offering up a musical interlude. But what if Cupid had been allowed to grow up, pack on layers of muscle and play lacrosse and football, grinding out yards on the gridiron in front of cheering spectators. Would he still play the harp? And if so, what would he look like?
He would look like Nathaniel Horwitz, a 16-year-old junior at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.
On Sunday, Jan. 6, beginning at 4 p.m., Nathaniel will give a recital at the Vineyard Haven Library. The concert will include versions of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, the introduction to Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin, Ground in F by Henry Purcell, Greensleeves and a personal composition called Snow on a Summer Day.
Nathaniel began playing the harp when he was about seven and his parents suggested he should play a musical instrument. His first choice was the drums. Pick again, his parents said.
Nathaniel remembered hearing a harpist playing at a street fair in Washington, D.C., where they lived at the time and chose this instrument. His parents readily agreed, happy with the idea of some melodic strumming rather than a torrent of window-rattling drumming.
The harp was an original choice, not the usual flavor of guitar, trumpet or piano. At the time it was not exceptionally arresting visually. After all, a small boy seated in front of a harp, his fingers delicately working the strings, seems automatically to release heavenly sighs.
But consider the sight now, particularly on a summer day in August when Nathaniel finishes up football practice and hauls his petite grande harp to busk on the streets of Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven. Some days he doesn’t even change out of his gym shorts and football jersey.
“There are a lot of questions [from passersby],” he said. “It’s kind of an unusual mix.”
There was a time when some of those questions, or rather comments, came from his buddies from the playing fields.
“In the beginning some kids said stuff but then they saw me on the street making more in an hour than they make for a full day,” he said. On a good day, Nathaniel can bring in about $140 in an hour or two. He started busking after seeing others play guitar or violin in the street and thought, “Wow, that would be cool. After that it was a short leap to paid gigs. I’m pretty sure my first non-street performance income was a birthday party.”
Nathaniel now performs regularly each summer at weddings, receptions and cocktail parties. He plays mostly classical music at these events and has a repertoire of 10 or 11 pieces including “The Little Fountain, a kind of showy piece with a lot of movement at the base.” He admits the harp is a “relatively difficult instrument.” The type he plays has 40 strings. To put it in layman’s terms he referred to it as being like “a vertical piano.”
He takes lessons from Sandra Atwood, a professional musician, and practices a few hours a day, squeezing in the time at school before football or lacrosse practice. “Football is a huge time commitment,” he said. He only began playing two years ago as a freshman, but already this year started varsity for many games, including the Nantucket nail biter. “I feel like I’m playing catch-up to all the guys who have been playing since middle school, so I’ve already started a relatively intense off-season training routine for next year because I’d like to be a bigger asset next season, seeing as it will be my last,” he said.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much crossover between sports and the harp, Nathaniel said, except for maybe a little weight training while lugging the harp around between gigs. They can weigh up to 70 pounds. Asked if he worried about the possibility of injury to his income-producing fingers while playing sports, he said no.
“The only injury I have had was a minor wrist injury playing lacrosse,” he said. “But my mom worries about it,” he added.
It could be worse, though. He could have gone back to his first choice, the drums.
Nathaniel Horwitz will perform at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 6, at the Vineyard Haven Public Library. The concert is free.