Future Reflections        Winter 2013

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Triumph at Fleadh Cheoil

by Amy Safko

From the Editor: Amy Safko worked for many years in the field of early intervention. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Medford, New Jersey.

Emily Safko at Irish "Wren Party"When our daughter Emily was four years old, she announced that she wanted to play the Celtic harp. My husband, Greg, is a classically trained pianist. We had thought the piano might be Emily's instrument of choice, but from the beginning it was the harp that she wanted. I think she got the idea when we took her to the Winterthur Museum and Gardens in Wilmington, Delaware. Emily heard a harp concert there, and she was utterly enthralled. She was a pretty hyper kid, but she sat spellbound as she listened to the music.

We found Emily a teacher of Celtic harp when she was six. The Celtic harp is much smaller than the harp played in an orchestra. It has levers instead of pedals, and it is more manageable for a child to play.

At about the time Emily began to take harp lessons, we discovered that she has a rare genetic condition called Stickler syndrome. Stickler can affect many parts of the body, including the eyes, ears, and connective tissue. In Emily's case it caused severe nearsightedness; she started to wear glasses when she was two. We were told that she was at high risk for retinal detachment.

When we went for genetic testing, it turned out that I have Stickler myself. I was born with cleft palate, which was corrected with surgery. Cleft palate is one of the many possible manifestations of Stickler.

One day when she was ten, Emily told us that she was seeing spots, or floaters. we knew this could be a sign that her retinas were detaching. We took her to the ophthalmologist, but he didn't find anything wrong.

Emily Safko with her harpA few weeks later, Emily came home and said that all of a sudden she couldn't see the board at school. People's faces looked blurry to her. It turned out that both of her retinas were almost completely detached. She had surgery on her right eye the next day, and they operated on her left eye a week later. Then the retina of the right eye detached again, requiring yet another surgery. After each operation she had to be completely immobilized for five days. This meant that, with the three surgeries, she spent fifteen days lying facedown without moving.

The surgeries reattached Emily's retinas, but she is legally blind now, and her remaining vision is very fragile. She started to learn Braille in fifth grade, and she uses a cane. The cane is especially helpful at night or when she goes from sunshine outdoors to a dimly lighted room.

Ironically, a few weeks before Emily's retinas detached, her harp teacher started encouraging her to play with her eyes closed. Most Celtic harpists play by ear. In fact, Ireland had a strong tradition of blind harpists in the eighteenth century. At that time smallpox was rampant, and many people became blind as a result of the disease. Music was one of the few professions open to blind people in those days, and many became harpists. One blind harpist in particular, Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), is revered as Ireland's greatest harp master. He composed hundreds of songs that are still played today.

Emily knew about O'Carolan and the other blind harpists, but she still had doubts about her ability to play after she lost her sight. Everything seemed different to her. She'd say, "The strings are all weird." Her teacher was great. She kept talking about "muscle memory," and after a while Emily discovered that her hands knew where they needed to go. She has a very good ear and a good memory. After a week or two she was playing with confidence again.

Emily entered her first harp competition when she was eight. It was a qualifying competition for the Fleadh Cheoil (pronounced Fleah KEEole) which is sometimes called the World Series of Irish music. Before her retinas detached, Emily competed at the Fleadh Cheoil in Ireland two years in a row. She competed in the under-twelve category in general harp and slow airs harp. Slow airs is very challenging because the harpist has to play in the way a vocalist would sing.

The Celtic harp community is very close-knit, and we have made some wonderful friends. When Emily was going through her surgeries, people from all over the world sent us cards and even gifts. It was truly amazing--we heard from people we had never even met!

In August 2012, eight months after her surgeries, Emily competed at the Fleadh Cheoil for the third year in a row. Her goal was to hear her name called out. The judges call out the names of the top three winners in each category, and that's a great honor.

Emily did hear her name called out this time. She tied for third place in the under-twelve slow airs competition. Both of the third-place winners were asked to play again, and Emily dropped down to fourth place. But she had heard her name called out. It gave her great motivation to try again next year.

Emily wants to be a professional harpist when she grows up. For now, though, she's intent on going back to the Fleadh Cheoil next summer. She loves the fun and excitement of being among the musicians she has come to know over the years. And she can't wait to hear the judges call out her name again!

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