The last photo Brittany Hallahan has of her dad is a picture of pure joy—a day that dawned not only tragedy, but later, hope.
After years of piano lessons and her first year of harp lessons on a rented harp, Brittany’s dad bought her a harp of her own.
“He was so happy opening that harp crate,” Brittany said.
Later that day, her father died in a plane crash.
“My legacy for him was to continue to play,” she explained.
Brittany grew up in a musical family. Around the age of 5, Brittany’s dad took her to a concert. She was mesmerized by the orchestra’s harpist.
“I told my dad, ‘That was the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard,’” she said.
That concert jump-started her lifelong path as a harpist, beginning first by learning to read music while taking piano lessons, leading to that first harp delivered on their south Florida front lawn, and driving her west to the dude ranches and mountains of Colorado and, eventually, Montana.
How a girl from Boca Raton, Florida, ends up in Montana is a tale somewhat commonly told: girl visits the West, falls in love with mountains, clear air, and big skies, and commences to finding a way to make a living here so that Montana is no longer a place to visit, but a new home.
For Brittany, it was a family trip to a dude ranch in Colorado the year she turned 13.
“The whole experience blew my mind,” she explained. “Here were people living in the West. That Wild West culture was fascinating. It stuck with me.”
Later, she found a way back, working a summer at The Ranch at Rock Creek near Philipsburg.
“That was the best summer of my life. I decided to make a life permanently in Montana,” Brittany said.
In 2015, she moved to Missoula.
“I loved the idea of moving to a new place, being independent,” she explained. “I was really into the idea of self-sufficiency. Montanans are tough and resilient. They are full of state pride.”
A lifetime of traveling opened her eyes to the perspective of the West, its culture, and its people. It also gave her an idea for a business: playing her harp for hire. There aren’t many harpists in Montana and of those, fewer who provide music for events such as parties and weddings.
Over the years, Brittany graduated from her first harp to a concert-style pedal harp—a harp well-suited for orchestra halls that required a dolly and two people to transport—not the most convenient for a harpist playing weddings in the mountains of Montana. Brittany now plays a folk harp made by Dusty Strings Company in Seattle. It’s a smaller harp, easier to carry (about 30 pounds once in its case).
It’s got a unique sound, too.
“It’s a crisper, lighter sound, almost punchy,” Brittany said. “It’s easier to tune. The nylon strings are more durable.”
A portable harp is helpful when you’re playing at Blodgett Overlook in Glacier National Park or along a river’s snowy banks in winter.
“It’s nice to combine work and play,” Brittany said.
Because harps are not often played at events in Montana, Brittany lives for the chance to go above and beyond with her music. And because there’s a bit of a stigma attached to harp music—old-school sound, more traditional—Brittany is able to astound listeners with something they’ve never heard.
“I really enjoy the element of surprise,” she explained. “I love to play pieces people don’t expect. They find themselves humming along. There’s a connection between the audience and my music that makes for a really unique experience.”
Brittany’s played the theme song from The Lord of the Rings as a bride walked down the aisle and has seen children’s faces light up when she plays “Let It Go” from Frozen. Her repertoire includes music by Ed Sheeran, Elvis Presley, Elton John, and songs from The Greatest Showman and The Phantom of the Opera. She loves to take requests, anything to make someone’s event out of the ordinary.
While playing “Canon in D” at an event, a couple thanked her for sparking a memory from their wedding years prior—they’d never heard the popular wedding song on the harp.
“People just don’t see the harp. I want to give them a special experience,” she said. “There’s not just Bach or Beethoven for the harp.”
Brittany serves on the board of the Big Sky Harp Society, a group of harpists who aim to spread awareness and appreciation for the harp throughout Montana. It’s through these connections that Brittany has volunteered to play for events at hospitals and hospice centers in addition to her weddings and events business.
“My ultimate hope is that more people can have an opportunity to hear harp music more often,” she said.
As her business grows, she hopes to expand her volunteer reach as well, serving retirement homes, hospitals, and churches.
“There’s a little bit in harp culture for everyone,” Brittany said. “There’s something special in adding that to the community, just how it impacted me when I was younger.”
Brittany can be found on Instagram @bigskyharpist or online at www.bigskyharpist.com.
“I love to play pieces people don’t expect. They find themselves humming along. There’s a connection between the audience and my music that makes for a really unique experience.”