Chromaharpist Mina Kim Choi is preparing for her biggest concert event thus far.
Gathered with others around collapsible tables in a meeting room at Kings Park Library, Choi and fellow Korean-American chromaharp players practiced their repertoire for Saturday’s 40th anniversary celebration of the Burke-based library. The Korean Gloria Chromaharp Group members are regulars at the library, where they rehearse and hold jam sessions, mostly on gospel standards.
Jamming out on a chromaharp sounds a bit like playing the inside of a piano or maybe even lower pitched Hawaiian ukuleles. The chromaharp is a variation on the autoharp, which is also played by members of the group. It can be purchased for under $300, but is not a common instrument. Chromaharpsists are not a part of a symphony setting. You likely would not see one during a rock show or in a jazz club. They don’t march with a band.
“Some people add a strap, but we’d rather sit down, put the footrest up. There’s no marching,” Choi jokes. “This is predominantly for the old people. It’s one of the easiest [instruments], like the guitar. And it’s fun because you can hit a chord and sing along.”
The chromaharp resembles a cross between a guitar and a harp. A 21-string soundboard is cradled against the player’s chest. Below the strings are buttons that when pressed change the key and chord sounded by the instrument. Players wear three picks on their fingertips — one on the thumb, index finger and middle finger. Music indicates which finger strums, with “M,” “T,” “I” as well a multi-finger strumming. It’s a lot to take in, but the real purpose of the autoharp is to allow voices to soar above it in harmony.
In this, the Korean Gloria Chromaharp Group, composed of about ten members who are all Korean-American women, have bonded and created a musical family. The group has been together for about two years.
“We like to sing together… It’s team work, bonding, relaxing and enjoying,” said Fairfax resident Young Sook Kim, who took up the chromaharp about 18 months ago.
On Tuesday, the Korean Gloria Chromaharp Group gathered at the library to rehearse music for the library’s anniversary. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1959 classic “Eidelweiss” from the musical Sound Of Music is a real crowd-pleasing piece, especially during performances at area nursing homes where the group volunteers to play about once every two months.
The nursing home crowd is easy to please, Burke resident Abigail Lee said.
“They’re always like ‘Come back,’” she said. “I recommend [the autoharp] to a lot of friends. I played piano, but didn’t for 10 years, and it was hard [trying to pick up again]. The autoharp is easy.”
The Korean Gloria Chromaharp Group is composed of members from three area Korean Christian congregations: the Washington Central Presbyterian Church in Centreville, Pilgrim Baptist Church in Fairfax, and Full Gospel First Church of Washington in Alexandria. The group formed through the churches.
Many of the players, like Lee, have previous music experience on other more tasking instruments like piano or violin.
“It’s easy to handle and for — especially older people who haven’t handled an instrument before — there’s no fear in taking it up,” said the group’s music instructor, Grace Kim, a Fairfax resident whose comments were translated from Korean by Choi.
While the group is open to anyone who wishes to play, so far the instrument has only drawn women players, mostly of the over-50 crowd.
“It’s easy to handle, but it’s also challenging depending on the player,” Choi said. “We have a grandmother [around 80 years old] and her seven-year-old granddaughter who play together outside of the group… We have a woman who drives all the way from Germantown, Md., because there aren’t that many good teachers.”
Community members have the opportunity to see the Korean Gloria Chromaharp Group perform at Saturday’s 40th Anniversary of Kings Park Library celebration, which begins at 10:30 a.m. The chromaharpists will begin playing around 11 a.m. Kings Park Library is located 9000 Burke Lake Road in Burke.
For those interested in learning more about the chromaharp or lessons, Grace Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org