Gemma Campbell plays both harp and cello — two instruments larger than she is

Published 4:04 pm Friday, March 29, 2024

Gemma Campbell started piano lessons when she was 5, but her dream has always been to play the harp. Despite challenges, the 18-year-old McNeese State University sophomore is living the dream. Currently, she is the only student at McNeese majoring in cello and harp, and there is no other place she’d rather be.

“I remember plucking the balusters of our staircase when I was a child, pretending it was a harp,” Campbell said. At age 11, she saw a lap harp in a catalog, and asked for it for Christmas. When she lost her tuning key, the perfectionist in her couldn’t continue. That’s when her mother, Lindsey, decided it might be time for lessons. Campbell was 13 and taking piano and dance lessons at the time.

“I totally want to. Let me at it,” she told her mother. “I thought I was in heaven when I saw that beautiful concert grand harp.”

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Life happened. The pandemic quashed lessons. Then the Campbells evacuated, and stayed in Cypress, Texas after the hurricanes. Homeschooling lessons continued without missing a beat, but Campbell and her siblings weren’t able to take music lessons. One of them plays the violin and the other the piano. No, it doesn’t run in the family, according to LIndsey Campbell. “I don’t play; I just pay.

Campbell’s father, Bruce, does the harp heavy lifting. Sophia – that’s the name of her harp — weighs about 90 lbs. People tell the petite five-foot, three-and-a-half inch Campbell that she should play the piccolo. She rolls Sophia around on a dolly and Tuba, her cello, is twice her size.      

“I was going to an audition for a McNeese scholarship and I signed up for harp, but I didn’t see cello on the list,” she said. She called her professor and he told her “just go with tuba.” When she showed up for her cello audition, she announced that she was there with her “Tuba” and the name stuck. She received scholarships for both.

Once the displaced family was back in Southwest Louisiana and Campbell was happily enrolled at McNeese, she hit another snag. McNeese lost its harp teacher. Gemma wanted to major in harp, but she didn’t want to leave McNeese. McNeese didn’t want Gemma to leave, and found Rebecca Todaro, a professional harpist in Baton Rouge, an International Harp competitor in 1995 who loves chamber music and wants to share the beauty of the harp with new audiences.

Campbell paints when she’s not practicing or in school, and teaches piano to students ages four to 19. From Todaro, Campbell has learned a lesson she shares with her piano students. “My harp teacher has told me that something sounded pretty good, and it didn’t sound like I wanted it to. That bothered the perfectionist in me. When you feel that way, when you’re playing and it doesn’t feel quite right, take a break, re-collect your thoughts and come back.”

The next step in Campbell’s dream is working for the diocese, and if that doesn’t come to fruition, she’ll enroll in St. Thomas, Houston’s Catholic University, to learn sacred music.