Ruth Corry: 'Music has power to help people in their greatest need'
Belfast harpist Ruth Corry has played with renowned tenor Alfie Boe and at the funeral of actor James Ellis, but performing for hospice patients gives her particular joy, she tells Lee Henry
Harpist Ruth Corry is recalling what she considers to be the highlight of her young career to date, the launch of her debut album, Memories and Melodies, last month, and she comes alive with the recollection: "The whole evening was like a dream, it was just magical."
Surrounded by family and friends, Ruth decided to launch the 12-track disc, which features six original compositions, at the picturesque Orange Tree House in Greyabbey, a venue that has special significance for the 26-year-old.
"It's one of my favourite venues in Northern Ireland," says Ruth. "Definitely one of the best in the country. The acoustics are beautiful and the location is just gorgeous, right by Strangford Lough.
"It's such a fantastic place to perform in, so I just had to have my album launch there. And I'm so glad that I got to share the experience with the people I love the most. It's a night I will never forget."
Ruth's album launch was made all the more special as it was the culmination of almost 20 years of intense hard work and dedication. "Learning the harp," she says, with evident understatement, "is not easy."
Anyone who has attempted to master the ancient middle-eastern instrument will no doubt agree. Having first plucked a harp string aged nine, Ruth spent her teens perfecting her form, memorising scales and won the Grace Nugent Cup and the Senior Canon Gillfilan Cup in the process.
A former pupil at Penrhyn preparatory and Strathearn grammar school in her native Belfast, she subsequently graduated from Durham University as the first Irish harp player to study music there, achieving a First for her performance of Handel's Harp Concerto and other pieces during a daunting final year recital.
Since then, Ruth has performed in a host of prestigious venues, shared the stage with the likes of popular opera singer Alfie Boe - "He was really lovely, really friendly" - and made a solid living doing so.
While there have been many pros to travelling the world playing beautiful, haunting music, however, Ruth admits that the life of a professional musician is not all glitz, glamour and gorgeous evening dresses.
"I had a wee bit of a scare flying home from Malta in March 2016," she recalls, flinching. "I was coming home after playing my harp out there for the St Patrick's Day Celebrations and I hate to even think about what happened next!
"I had paid extra for my harp, a Larry Fisher from Winnipeg in Canada, to come out separately as outsize baggage, so I got quite a shock when it crashed into the barrier on the luggage belt. Thankfully, a stranger quickly retrieved it as I ran over and it was all okay in the end."
Given that her first harp, a Starfish from Scotland, cost in the region of £1,400, Ruth was understandably relieved to discover that her prized and much more expensive Larry Fisher came out of its case intact.
"I still have my first harp but I saved up all my money while performing at various weddings and such over the years to buy my Larry Fisher and I treasure it greatly," she adds. "Had it been broken that day, I'm not sure I would have been able to hold it together stood there at baggage collection.
"But these are the kinds of things you just have to deal with as a professional musician. It is a dream to be able to play my harp for a living. I never really imagined it as my career. Being self-employed can be challenging and stressful but it makes me really happy to be doing what I love, so I work hard and put up with things like dodgy airlines."
Ruth grew up off the Belmont Road in east Belfast along with her three siblings - sisters Sarah (32) and Emma (34) and brother Peter (29) - and always relied upon the support of her parents, Brian and Susannah, both 64, as she developed her love for playing music.
"My dad got quite interested in Irish music and started learning the bodhran and now plays the uilleann pipes too," she adds. "My grandpa played the harmonica and was very encouraging. My brother and sister were more sporty, but my sister Sarah played flute and piano and we would have played a lot together."
On trying out the harp, however, Ruth was immediately hooked. She remembers falling in love with the enchanting, emotive sound of the instrument.
Inspired to learn more, she needed no prodding to practice.
"Mum says she never had to tell me to, as I would always want to play," Ruth laughs. "I grew up playing mostly Irish traditional music, learning by ear. I love learning new music as well as writing my own pieces for the harp. I think it is a really exciting instrument to play.
"My parents' support means a lot to me. In the early days, they drove me all around Ireland for lessons, festivals and weddings. My first teacher, Janet Harbison, moved to Limerick to set up the Irish Harp Centre, so I used to travel there a lot at weekends and for summer schools. When I was at university, I chose to major in performance, and my parents came over for my final recital. I just hope I can make them proud in my career."
At Durham University, Ruth naturally studied for a degree in music, writing her dissertation on the revival of the Irish harp, and subsequently completed a PGCE in Primary Teaching. While working in Durham's Chorister School, she performed in every conceivable venue, from Durham Castle to St John's College Chapel and most points in between. It was a time of great discovery.
"I loved living by the cathedral. The music department at university was also on the doorstep of the cathedral. I loved going for runs and walks along the River Wear and going to coffee shops with friends. My family used to visit and my mum especially loved the place."
The thought of moving home to Belfast, however, was always in the back of Ruth's mind. Born and raised there, she finally felt compelled to return and make a go of playing the harp as a full-time profession.
"My last placement school offered me a job, which I did for a year, but I always wanted to move home," she admits. "So, in 2014, my dad and I walked Hadrian's Wall together in the summer and then he helped me move back home.
"I think Belfast is a great city and I love being back with my family. The people are so friendly and my university friends who come to visit feel really welcome. Some of them flew over from England for my album launch and it was lovely to spend time with them and show them more of Belfast and of Northern Ireland as a whole. They all said that they couldn't wait to come back."
In 2016, Ruth was a member of the orchestra that performed at the Waterfront Hall as part of the much-anticipated Titanic Commemoration Concert, which was broadcast on BBC2. A star-studded affair, it featured Alfie Boe singing a poignant version of Bring Him Home from the musical Les Misérables.
"We had a rehearsal with Alfie the day before the concert," Ruth recalls, "so it was nice to meet him before we played together. Then, after the performance, he came to our backstage area to give us all a big hug and for us to have our picture with him. He was so down to earth. It was very special."
Another memorable performance took place two years prior, when the family of the much-loved Belfast-born actor James Ellis requested that Ruth play at his funeral. It was, according to Ruth, a moving, uplifting experience.
"I was still living in Durham at the time and Toto, James' son, flew me home to play My Lagan Love. I felt very honoured. There were crowds of people on the street outside the church and the sun was shining on the day.
"I don't think I had appreciated before how talented and admired James Ellis was. My Dad came with me and we sat near the front of the church behind James Nesbitt. Toto played the theme from Z Cars on his flute and one of James' favourite pieces of music was also playing as people were coming into the church.
"The family were really welcoming and appreciative of us musicians and I was also very kindly invited to the Belfast premier of Toto's recent film, Two Angry Men, at the Strand Cinema, which told the story of his father directing Sam Thompson's great play Over The Bridge in Belfast in 1959."
These days, Ruth finds herself busiest during wedding season, and also has a residency at the Culloden Hotel and Spa, where she plays every Saturday night. "I love playing at weddings," she says. "I get to meet so many lovely people and it is so special to be a part of their special day. I travel all over Ireland and I've played weddings in London and Edinburgh."
Ruth's grandparents both passed away from cancer, as did her aunt, who was also in her 40s when she died, and, as a result, Ruth regularly plays solo concerts at the Marie Curie Hospice in Belfast.
"I really enjoy my time there. There are usually a couple of volunteers making tea and coffee and staff and patients coming and going. Sometimes family members are there too. It is lovely to have a chat and get to know people. They are really interested to hear about my career and the pieces I play for them.
"I started playing in the Marie Curie Hospice last November and I also played for them in Victoria Square at Christmas. Ticket sales for my album launch were in aid of Marie Curie and I was delighted to raise over £1,000. I think music is a great platform to support charities and I enjoy volunteering."
Ruth believes that music has the power to "light up someone's day" and to help people in their times of greatest need. She feels "privileged" to be able to perform for those living with cancer and other debilitating conditions.
She has worked with a range of music therapy organisations since graduating and cites English music therapist Nordoff Robbins as a primary influence in that regard. In 2013, she ran the Edinburgh Half Marathon in aid of Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy.
"I play my harp regularly in nursing homes and many of the patients are often confused and don't always respond when you speak to them. But when I play pieces of music, they often recognise them, and it is wonderful to see them light up and often sing along.
"I am passionate about music therapy. One of my harp pupils became ill a couple of years ago. She was very confused and unable to remember a lot of things although she was still able to play her harp and remembered the pieces I had taught her. I found that really moving and quite remarkable."
When she's not volunteering, playing gigs or writing music, Ruth appreciates a relaxing evening with friends, perhaps listening to music - "It depends on what mood I'm in. I love pop, classical, folk jazz" - or her favourite harpists, such as Ailie Robertson, author of three of the compositions featured on Melodies and Memories.
"That said, when I was growing up, we spent a lot of time as a family in Donegal," Ruth recalls. "So my perfect weekend would be spent there going for long walks on the beach because I love being by the sea. The first track on my CD is one of my compositions, Sunset on Killahoey, which reminds me of Dunfanaghy."
Not that she has a lot of spare time on her hands. At present, it's full steam ahead promoting her debut album, with plenty of gigs lined up and little time to spend socialising, never mind playing the dating game. She might just find the time, however, to spend an afternoon with her little niece Zoe and nephew Thomas, the mention of whom brings a twinkle to her eye.
"I can't believe how quickly they are growing up!"