By BETHAN ADAMS
Straight, blonde hair, precisely parted and brushed to the side, lies on her left shoulder. Her rosy lipstick surrounds a white-toothed, continuous smile, and her hands emphasize her words with strong fingers, fitting for a harpist. She opens and closes her hands, demonstrating the proper technique of how to play a harp. Harpists pull, not pluck, the strings.
25-year-old Ashley Collins, who calls Gulf Shores, Ala., home, and is trying to make a name for herself in Peachtree City, began playing the harp at 13 years old. Her parents urged her and her six siblings to play instruments, including her twin sister, who chose the piano. Collins felt drawn to the harp. Three years later, she found herself on a Greyhound bus, traveling 16 hours to Nashville, Tenn., to live with and take lessons from harpist Carol McClure for a week. She did this every month until she went to college.
“It was amazing, because that’s not something my teacher offered to everyone,” Collins said, who was terrified the first time alone on the bus, but never got tired of the traveling. “It was a weird thing, but [McClure] saw something in me and she wanted to encourage that in me.”
During the weeks in between traveling to Nashville, Collins caught up on schoolwork and practiced. As a self-described perfectionist, Collins had to learn how to relax when she made mistakes or couldn’t focus.
“When I first started playing–I would have my little brothers–I would make them play around me, with their toys and stuff to distract me while I was performing and while I was practicing, and that helped me learn how to focus a little more,” she said.
That tactic has served her well, as people often approach her in the middle of her performances to take her photo or ask her questions.
The harp has opened many opportunities for Collins, who has been to India, El Salvador and Ireland with her instrument.
India particularly stretched and tested Collins.
She said protecting a large pedal harp from travel-wear was difficult, but said it surprisingly never broke during the six months she was there.
“Harps are very dear to me, and they’re very delicate, and most people didn’t know what was inside the big box that was traveling, so they weren’t delicate and they weren’t gentle [with the harp],” she said. “The hardest thing for me was calming down, because I would freak out.”
At one stop at an airport in India, Collins noticed that the men unloading the luggage were piling bag after bag on top of the big box holding her harp.
“Like, hundreds and hundreds of kilos on top of this harp,” she said. “It was like 60 bags on top of the harp, and I was freaking out. I was trying to crawl through the [airport] carousel, and all these Indian men are staring at this little white girl screaming at them in English, which they don’t understand.”
She played mostly Bollywood tunes in India, and has branched out from her classical training by improvising her own melodies and learning pop and folk music.
One of Collins’ favorite songs at the moment is “All About that Bass” by Meghan Trainor, but she also loves soft, romantic ballads. She began to learn other genres after she began to feel boxed in with her classical training, and felt like she couldn’t connect with as many people by playing only classical songs.
“I think you need to [play] what people want to hear,” she said. “I like classical music and I throw it in the mix, because I want people to be exposed to that because it’s amazing, but I also know how to play random things that people don’t expect. You want to be shocked.”
Collins believes music connects people. In El Salvador, Collins said a little boy heard her play the note, “C,” and he started singing with her, matching each note she played.
She let him pull the strings, and he picked out different notes to match his singing.
“He just knew that this was music, and he put two and two together…We couldn’t speak a word to each other, not a word, but he knew music,” she said. “That was the coolest thing.”
Her early training as a harpist brought her to DePauw University in Indiana on a music scholarship, where she spent five years earning a music performance degree with the harp, as well as another degree in theater, and slowly trained herself to speak with a mid-western accent because no one could understand her native, southern tongue.
Collins was one of two harpists in her class, and one of four students who graduated with the double degree.
“It was a lot of hard work–it was so much hard work–because I would be in class for eight hours every day, and then I would have a couple hours of homework, and I also held down a couple jobs while I was doing that. So, I didn’t sleep a lot,” she said. She plays a few, smaller, lever harps, using levers on the side to change the notes.
Her investment instrument, however, is a six-foot tall pedal harp, which has seven pedals at its base to change the notes.
Collins has begun planting seeds in Peachtree City, but says it takes musicians two years to become established in an area.
For now she’s letting metro Atlanta know of her presence by word of mouth, playing at events and at Market Days in Newnan. She said she resolved to use her degree with the harp after graduating, and from Gulf Shores to Nashville, El Salvador to Ireland, India to Peachtree City, the harpist is carving out her own way as a musician.