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Talented seventh-grader a volunteer hospice harpist

Talented seventh-grader a volunteer hospice harpist

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Maria Bunkers' harp weighs at least as much as she does.

The small, slender girl is dwarfed by her 6-foot tall, 85-pound harp as she maneuvers it, with a little help from her mother, into a hallway at Hospice of the Hills in Rapid City.

Maria is a 7th grader at South Middle School, and a volunteer harpist at the hospice house and other health care facilities in town.

"I always like playing here," Maria said. "It makes other people happy and that makes me happy."

Talented 12-year-old harpists are a rare thing, says Lillie Pendleton, a Rapid City harpist who has been Maria's teacher for two years. One that plays for dying hospice patients is an even rarer breed, Pendleton said.

"A lot of people don't think about going in there, because they find it very depressing. Not Maria," said Pendleton. "It's been great, her doing it, because it's nice to see people giving back to the community."

Hospice nurse Cindy Stocks said patients and families love the music that Maria makes for them -- from classical pieces to Beatles tunes and Disney movie songs. One of her current favorites is "A Whole New World," from the animated movie "Aladdin." On a harp, even "Eight Days a Week," sounds like an angelic requiem.

"The families just love it. They love it," Stocks said. People sometimes come out and sit in the hallways when she plays, but the heavenly sound filters throughout the facility.

"Isn't it lovely? I love the way the sound just sort of resounds through this building," Stocks said.

Music is an important part of end-of-life care, she said. "We use music a lot here. They say the hearing is the last sense to go, so the music is just sort of relaxing and soothing ... music is very comforting for them."

Heather Bunkers doesn't know where her daughter's affinity for the harp comes from, but she suspects it will be lifelong love.  "She's a natural. She has a gift for it," Bunkers said. 

Like many young elementary students, Maria wanted to play the drums. Because of school band policy that requires drum players to read music, she tried the violin at first, but it wasn't the instrument for her. 

"I like the way it sounds, but I just didn't enjoy playing it," Maria said. 

It was love at first sight, however, when she first laid eyes on a 24-string lever harp in Haggerty's Music store.  She confessed to her mother that she'd always been interested in the harp, but had assumed the expense of the instrument would make that an impossibility. 

A small, starter harp can easily cost $3,000 and larger concert harps are in the $15,000 and higher range, an investment that most parents might hesitate to make in a young music student. In this area, it is impossible to rent a harp, so parents must borrow or buy one.

"Her father took some convincing," Heather Bunkers said. But even Matt Bunkers was soon sold on his daughter's talent and committment with the harp.

"She's very talented," Pendleton said of her student. "She seems to catch on rather quickly and she's very self-confident, especially for a 12-year old. She's got a drive that you rarely see in kids that age. I love giving her pieces that are too hard for her."

Pendleton lent a harp to Maria before the Bunkers bought a small 36-string harp for Maria. But her musical skills quickly outpaced the limitations of that folk harp and in April of this year, the Bunkers traveled to the Venus Harp factory in Chicago to bring home her Venus Premier Concert Harp.

Its curvaceous triangular shape is made of hard maple wood, The sounding board and resonating chamber that follows the plane of the strings is made from Sitka spruce. The harp's strings, which can be metal, nylon or cat gut, are strung from strips of beech wood. "We had not planned to have her move up to a pedal harp so quickly ... but she was quickly outgrowing the lever harp musically," Pendleton said.

"It was truly a once in a lifetime experience that we will always cherish," Heather said of Maria's visit to the harp factory, where Venus Harps owner Walter Krasicki, Jr., gave her a personal tour. "She got to see every step of production."

Like Maria, her harp is a mixture of art and science.  With its graceful lines and golden scroll design on the sounding board, Maria calls her harp a "work of art." But she also likes the engineering of it. With its 46 strings and 21 pedal positions, she can create a virtual orchestra of string sounds.

"I also like all the mechanisms of it, all the work they had to put into it to make it work," she said.

She'll play the harp for the rest of her life, Maria says, but the straight-A student wants to be a veterinarian, not a musician.

She expects to help pay for college by playing harp at weddings or other special events, something she's already doing at age 12. She also plays for her church, Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, and various venues. 

"Yesterday, she played at Westhills Assisted Living. She always comes home energized from playing at medical facilities because she feels so good about affecting their day in a positive way. If she didn't go to these people, they would not have the opportunity to experience the beauty of live harp music. As usual, the people there yesterday had not seen or heard a harp except for through Maria," Heather said.

Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect the correct name for Jeff Bunkers.

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com

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