Kevin Riordan: Young harpist reaching far beyond her years

Sixth grader Emily Safko, 11, plays the Irish harp at her home in Medford, Burlington County. In August, Emily, who is visually impaired, won first place in her age group at a music festival in Derry, Northern Ireland.
Sixth grader Emily Safko, 11, plays the Irish harp at her home in Medford, Burlington County. In August, Emily, who is visually impaired, won first place in her age group at a music festival in Derry, Northern Ireland. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 16, 2013

When Emily Safko plays "Traveling Through Blarney," the sound of her Irish harp caresses my heart.

It impresses judges, too: In August, the Medford sixth grader took first place in her age group at the All-Ireland Festival of Music (Fleadh Cheoil) in Derry, Northern Ireland.

"I was so happy," Safko, 11, says, grinning. "My legs felt like jelly, like I was going to collapse."

Instead, she brought home the cup named for Turlough O'Carolan, the harpist and esteemed 17th- and 18th-century composer of traditional Irish music.

The trophy gleams in the front hallway of the home the winner shares with her parents, teacher Greg and social worker Amy, and siblings Livia, 9, and Evan, 5.

"I am very proud of Emily, and how hard she has worked to earn this title," Greg, 52, says, adding that he loves "to hear her fill our house with the sounds of Irish dance tunes and airs."

In the familiar surroundings of her leafy Centennial Lake neighborhood, Emily navigates easily; in crowded public areas, she sometimes uses a white cane.

"Playing the harp has made learning braille easier for her," Amy, 43, says.

Earlier, mother asked daughter if she wanted to disclose her visual impairment. "I want people to know," Emily said.

In 2011, both of Emily's retinas detached due to a genetic condition called Stickler syndrome, which affects connective tissue.

Despite three surgeries, most of her peripheral vision is gone. In low light and without a contrasting visual backdrop, she sometimes can't see the strings of her magnificent instrument.

But the Haines Sixth Grade Center student doesn't linger over what she has lost.

"I want to be an artist and a harpist, and possibly an actress, but not in movies," Emily declares. "I might want to go on Broadway."

The youthful bravado is matched by her work ethic. Emily practices daily and takes weekly lessons, some via Skype and others in person, with harp teacher Alex Boatright of Washington, D.C.

"Emily has decided she wants to play at a very high level," Boatright tells me by phone. "She works hard. She wants to play every day, and she asks me [to assign] very difficult tunes."

Winning at All-Ireland "is a really, really big deal," Boatright adds. "It's a lot more than just playing the harp well."

In an e-mail, Grainne Hambly, a professional harpist and a representative of Fleadh Cheoil, notes that Emily won with a slow air.

This type of traditional Irish melody "not only requires technical mastery of the instrument but also a level of maturity to interpret and play . . . expressively," she says, adding that while she can't estimate how often Americans win, "I suppose it isn't very common."

In 2013, first-place trophies were won by two competitors from South Jersey: Emily, and fiddler Haley Richardson, 11, of Salem County, who won two top awards.

Both girls qualified for All-Ireland with the help of the Delaware Valley chapter of Music and Dance of Ireland (Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, or CCE).

CCE spokeswoman Jackie Kelly, 68, of Cherry Hill says members of her organization were thrilled. Emily and Haley "were competing against the world," she notes.

Emily adores competition - one of the things she loved about soccer, a game she can no longer play.

"But she can play the harp no matter what," Amy says.

As could the man for whom Emily's trophy is named.

Nearly three centuries after his death, O'Carolan is still regarded by some as Ireland's national composer. He was a poet, too. And he couldn't see.


Kevin Riordan: >Inquirer.com

To see video of award winner Emily Safko play the Irish harp, go to www.inquirer.com/harp .


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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