Rebecca Anstine Smith, 32 and principal harpist for the Kennedy Center Orchestra in Washington, D.C., likens her hour-long lessons with Alice Chalifoux to “a shot of B-12.” Elisabeth Remy, a 14-year-old from Massachusetts who has been studying with Chalifoux for five years, says the teacher “really gets you psyched up—you can’t believe how with-it she is.” Laura Smithburg, 25, a pro from Cleveland who studies with Chalifoux year-round, raves that her instructor “understands how to play from the bottom up.” Alice Chalifoux herself, however, puts her calling in far simpler terms. “I’m lucky—I like what I do,” says this grande dame of the harp. “It would be ghastly to have some crappy job.”
That is a problem the spirited Chalifoux has never had to face in all her 80 years. She logged 43 years as principal harpist of the Cleveland Orchestra before retiring from concert play in 1974. For almost 60 years she has taught the harp, and since 1961, with only occasional backup, she has been the entire administration and faculty of the Camden, Maine, Summer Harp Colony, which the New York Times has called “the harp center of the universe.” Chalifoux numbers among her protégés the principal harpists of many of the nation’s leading symphonies, including those of Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco and Philadelphia. Yet after some six decades of dishing out instruction, she embraces utterly unknown pupils with the same enthusiasm she gives the stars. Every summer they come to Camden from such far-off spots as Amarillo, Texas, New Hope, Pa., and Tel Aviv, 51 of them all told, in vans and station wagons bearing their padded, stringed cargoes, yearning for musical enlightenment. Chalifoux does not disappoint them. Zesty and frank, she is still giving lessons from morn till night, still pluckily harping on her view that this ungainly, long-stringed contraption is an instrument of power and almost limitless variety and not, as image sometimes has it, a mere plaything of the angels.
This summer afternoon in Camden, a picturesque fishing village turned tourist haven, Chalifoux (pronounced “shal-li-foo”) is giving her eighth lesson of the day. “With a glissando, start slowly,” she urges a heedful pupil in the studio of her large, comfortable, brown-shingled house overlooking the Atlantic. “Once you start too fast—oh, boy—you sure as hell can’t slow down…. That’s it, Becky,” she adds, tapping her pupil encouragingly on the shoulder. “But make it relaxed. A relaxed sound is a carrying sound.”
Chalifoux maintains her demanding pace with the same relaxation she preaches, moving through the long days as serenely as the buoys bobbing in the bay outside her window. She is tiny and slightly stooped but light on her feet, and at afternoon’s end she seems as fresh as she did munching her bowl of Nutri-Grain at 7 a.m. Her final pupil of the day is Xiao Lei Zhang, who, with almost no English and $40 in her pocket, appeared in Cleveland from Shanghai four years ago. She had come to study with “Miss Chalifoux,” who twisted some arms, got her new charge a harp, and helped Xiao Lei get a scholarship at the Cleveland Institute of Music, one of three area schools where Chalifoux takes pupils from fall through spring. She is just as ready to help her Camden students, and her nonprofit Colony is open to any harpist, great or small. “Miss Chalifoux will even go to where they live [students room in local homes] and fix their harps,” says Xiao Lei. “She’s just a warm-heart person. Got my drift?”
“She could cut down,” says Chalifoux’s daughter, Alice Rideout, 43, herself a former harpist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. “She’s a big cheese in the harp world, and she could screen her students, take the very best and charge them enormous amounts. But she won’t. She wants to teach everybody.”
That is not to suggest that Chalifoux is a pushover. She has pursued her long career with feisty determination, and when she toured with the otherwise male Cleveland Orchestra, she was famous for using her harp case as a dressing room. Some of her fellow musicians, so the story goes, once locked her inside as a joke, and the next night she got back at them by changing in the open. In fact she was never locked in, but the story is still told as evidence of her spirit.
Chalifoux grew up in Birmingham, Ala., with music all around her. Her father was a violinist who studied in Paris and, after breaking his wrist in a bicycle accident, moved to Birmingham to run a music store. Her mother was an amateur harpist, but Alice says that as a kid she herself was “too busy raising hell” to give the instrument a tumble. At 12, however, she began taking lessons from her mother, and after six years they wrote the great harpist Carlos Salzedo for advice on how Alice should proceed. He invited her to study with him at the renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
“I had never heard of Philadelphia,” Chalifoux recalls, but before she knew it, she was there with Salzedo, a pioneering musician and composer bent on redeeming the harp from its image as, in his words, “a decorative instrument played by sickly princesses.” Chalifoux agrees that the harp was in a sorry state. “Harpists were very bad musicians way back yonder,” she says, “and about all they had to play was hearts-and-flowers.”
Salzedo changed all that by composing and arranging pieces to show the instrument’s versatility. He also developed a new, big sound, robustly and aggressively played. “I always say,” Chalifoux notes, a bit defiantly, “that angels play trumpets, not harps.”
On graduation from Curtis in 1931, Chalifoux promptly won first chair in the Cleveland Orchestra. There she thrived under the withering stare of Maestro George Szell, the last of the great tyrannical conductors. “Fortunately I’m nearsighted,” she jokes, “so I couldn’t see him.” At about this time, Salzedo, a demanding, dapper Basque given to such maxims as “the harp is to music as music is to life,” founded the Summer Harp Colony. For the Colony’s first few years, Chalifoux was among the Camden faithful, giving up her summer-long retreats in 1937 when she married John Rideout, an industrial designer who died in 1951. But her association with her mentor continued, and when Salzedo died in 1961, he left his school, summer home and mission in her hands.
In recent years, a touch of arthritis gave Chalifoux what she calls “an excuse” to finally quit practicing. “But that’s okay,” she says. “I have so many good students, they should do all the work now.” “All the work” is overstating things badly. On a recent evening Chalifoux coached a harp trio through two hours of performing, then, while they packed up, hopped into her station wagon and set off for the Bangor airport, 90 minutes away, to pick up a new student. Midnight found her at the wheel, zipping back home with her pupil. “Uh-oh,” she said, abruptly easing upon the accelerator as she spied a police car. “Hope I don’t get pinched.” She didn’t slow down for long.