The lyrical life and impact of harpist Judy Sullivan Hicks
By Ashleigh Jones
Rich, beautiful harp notes fill the concert hall. The ethereal, enchanting solo echoes throughout the orchestra as two hands glide and sweep across the 47 strings. The audience, transfixed, holds their breath as the music resonates throughout the space.
Then, like a vapor, the music fades—cuing the orchestra’s entrance.
Judy Sullivan Hicks has been playing the harp with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra since 1981. A native of Rochester, New York, she never expected to make a musical life for herself in the South.
Her first exposure to the harp occurred when she attended the New England Music Camp as a child one summer in Maine. While attending, she took harp lessons, an experience that sparked her future dreams.
“My first harp lesson, I just put my hands on the harp and I thought ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,’” Hicks said.
Spurred by her aspiration to be a harpist, Hicks graduated high school from Interlochen Arts Academy, followed by multiple summers at the prestigious Salzedo Harp Colony in Camden, Maine.
She also attended the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado nine times as a scholarship student, where she played with Nancy Allen, harp professor at The Juilliard School and principal harpist for the New York Philharmonic.
“She was such an inspiration to me,” Hicks said
Hicks went on to earn her bachelor of music degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music. After that, she finished her master’s degree under Eileen Malone—a harpist who had a huge influence on her musical expression.
Hicks said she had planned to pursue a doctorate at Eastman, but an audition with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra changed her plans. She tried out, was offered the principal harp position and began what she thought was a temporary transition to a life in the South.
“I was thrilled to come down to Alabama and I was really only going to spend a year here,” Hicks said, “and I really fell in love with Alabama.”
That love kept her in Birmingham, playing for the symphony for more than 40 years. During that time, she had several memorable performances.
An orchestra performance with songwriter and pianist Ray Charles stands out in her memory. Held at Sardis Baptist Church in West End, she made sure to bring her harp extra early that day to figure out directions and leave enough time for tuning and setting up. Charles also arrived at the church early that afternoon, so they met before the performance started.
“It was like the only people in the church were me and Ray Charles,” Hicks said. “He was really great … that was just a fabulous concert.”
Another musical memory involved performing the Ginastera Harp Concerto with the Tuscaloosa Symphony, another part-time orchestra Hicks played in for nearly 25 years. When Hicks attended Cleveland Institute, she listened to Heidi Lehwalder, a renowned harpist, perform the same concerto with Louis Lane conducting. “I was just spellbound,” Hicks said.
Years later, Hicks was able to perform this difficult piece with the Tuscaloosa Symphony alongside Louis Lane, the same conductor in the original performance she had seen years before.
“That was one of my happy moment performances,” Hicks recalled.
However, a harpist’s life in orchestra is also fraught with unexpected challenges. One night, while playing with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, when intermission was coming to an end, one of her harp’s pedal rods—a crucial mechanical piece within the harp which assists string pitch changes—broke. The night’s program scheduled Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a piece that involved a large harp part, and she did not have a working harp.
“The conductor stalled. He talked to the audience for a while,” Hicks said. Meanwhile, she raced to her house to fetch her other pedal harp. Thankfully, she had come home from playing a wedding reception that day, so the Lyon and Healy 23 harp she used for gigs was already packed and ready to go by the door.
“(I) grabbed the harp, threw it in the car, sped back to the hall, and we were wheeling it backstage just as they were finishing the first movement,” she said. The crisis was averted and the show still went on.
During a Saturday matinee performance of Sleeping Beauty, a crucial string on Hicks’ harp snapped shortly before she was supposed to play a grandiose harp solo. Scrambling, she fixed and changed the second octave B string minutes before her entrance.
Luckily, the string did not break in the middle of her solo. She was grateful it happened during a “tacet,” or rest period, and her quick thinking ultimately saved the situation.
While Hicks fulfilled her dream of playing in a symphony orchestra, her additional passion has included teaching her students, whether in universities or her own private studio.
“Looking back, teaching is really what I have loved,” she said. Hicks taught at the University of Alabama, University of Montevallo, Vanderbilt University and Samford University throughout her career.
Abigail Workman, a student of Hicks for nearly 15 years, described her teacher’s influence on her life. Whether in high school, college at Samford University, graduate school, or professional life, Hicks was kind and attentive through each season of Workman’s life.
“She has genuinely cared for me and my success as a person first and as a musician second and then as a harpist third,” Workman said.
Hicks displayed that sense of personal care while Workman was in college. Workman wanted to go on a nine-week mission trip which left little time to prepare for Samford’s Concerto and Aria competition that fall. Nevertheless, Hicks realized how important the trip was to Workman and left the decision up to her.
“She was gracious and recognized that I could have other things in my life than music,” Workman said.
As far as caring for her musically, Hicks always emphasized the importance of producing a beautiful, expressive sound over a sole focus on harp technique.
“The music that is produced and what that communicates is the most important thing,” Workman explained. Rather than forcing her students to play pieces at top speed, Hicks encouraged them to slow down and use technique as a means to musical expression.
“She had a way of teaching technique so that the technique would produce good musicianship,” Workman said.
Other students feel similarly. Rebekah Atkinson, a musician near Alabama’s gulf coast and principal harpist with several local orchestras, also described Hicks’ positive influence on her playing. Starting harp at the age of 19, Atkinson quickly found herself playing weddings, gigs and performances before she had time to hone in on her technique. After finding Hicks, Atkinson’s sound dramatically improved.
“She’s taken me to that next level of artistry,” Atkinson said. For her, Hicks’ influence has been worth the monthly four-hour drive to Birmingham. In addition, Atkinson described how Hicks would text her before and after performances, wanting to check in on her and ask how things went.
“She’s been a real friend on top of a teacher,” Atkinson said, “She has such a sweet heart and a kind heart.”
While Hicks never expected her story to involve Alabama, the wonderful people she met caused her to stay. “I’m very blessed that I am still here playing the harp,” she said.
“I just met a lot of really interesting, different people… I just kind of thought, ‘This is where I want to live my life.’ I just loved it.”