SIONED WILLIAMS

A PERSONAL RECOLLECTION OF CHILDHOOD TO 1990.

I was born in Mancot, in Flintshire, on July 1st 1953, and grew up in a family with my sister Eleri, seven years older than myself, my parents, Nath and Beti Williams, and my grandparents on my mother’s side, Margaret and Huw T. Edwards. ‘Taid’ was a public figure, who in the 1950s became known as ‘The Unofficial Prime Minister of Wales’. (see more about him on websites etc.) My grandparents and my mother had moved in the 1930s from Penmaen-mawr to Shotton, on Deeside, when Taid was appointed North Wales Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. The move must have been especially difficult for Nain, my grandmother, who was profoundly deaf and did not speak much English.

My mother, Beti, was an intelligent and erudite woman who could have had a successful career, but she devoted most of her life to looking after us all and becoming Taid’s personal assistant. My father, Nath, a carpenter by trade, was very musical. As a young man, he had taught himself to play a violin he found in the ruins of an old house, and during his time in the Army during the Second World War he played the violin and mandolin in numerous dance bands and groups. There was music on my mother’s side too, with several of my forefathers being members of brass bands. My parents were determined that my sister and I would have every opportunity to develop any musical talent we had, and we both started piano lessons at an early age.

At the age of four, I started attending Ysgol Gymraeg Glanrafon, Mold. By then, my family had moved to live at Sychdyn, near Mold; as a young child I was often unwell, and the daily return journey from Shotton to Mold was deemed too far and arduous for me. At Sychdyn, we were also part of a much more Welsh-speaking community. Ysgol Maes Garmon followed – a school where I could excel in music and not be the ‘odd one out’ with whatever it was which ailed me and prevented me from being as physically active as my friends.

Our family were regular attenders at Bryn Seion chapel, Sychdyn, and mam also ran the Sunday school there. I loved listening to the cadence in the speech of those Welsh preachers, and joining in the singing at chapel. I learned to enjoy words, especially poetry, and to harmonise at a very early age – I think that particular cultural background is how my ear developed so quickly. There were great musical and theatrical performances by local people in the chapel vestry, too – there was nothing amateur about them, and I still remember the sense of camaraderie, community spirit and closeness I felt there. We also frequently held a Noson Lawen at our home after chapel on a Sunday with a few friends when people came informally to sing, recite a story, play an instrument and enjoy. I loved these occasions! Competing at Eisteddfodau, and the communal harmony singing at Cymanfaoedd Canu (singing festivals held in various chapels), was the best possible kind of training for a musician from a young age . . . although it took me years to realize that, as I felt so ‘old-fashioned’ and unsophisticated in comparison with fellow students when I initially started in music college.

I had piano lessons from the age of about eight with Miss Gwynedd Griffiths, a wonderful teacher in Mold; I enjoyed showing off at small-scale events at her home, and more important ISM dates in Chester and elsewhere. I was not so active in other ways, and was apparently often unwell, although I have little personal recollection of it limiting my life. I could not always keep up with my peers, but I enjoyed being ‘creative’; this has held me in good stead in later life, as I still love crafting, embroidery, making cards, writing poetry, party planning, and anything which requires using my imagination.

Music was always a great solace to me, and the most important thing in my life. My love of performance started with those early experiences – it was something I could do, something that I somehow knew I had to do. After hearing Eleri playing the harp, I begged for lessons, and although I was (and still am!) very small in stature, I started having lessons with Mair Jones, the harpist of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. She was the only teacher I had until I went to music college, and I always played on a pedal harp. I nearly wore out a set of LPs of Tchaikovsky ballet music my grandfather gave me, listening with an acute ear – especially to the harp parts.

I got the ‘bug’ right from the start and practised endlessly, driving everyone mad! My music was limited, but I took to arranging hymns with variations on the harp and using books of popular classics to extend my repertoire. I won prizes at Eisteddfodau, performed as often as I could, and as a teenager became a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. I also passed the examination for becoming a member of Gorsedd Y Beirdd during this time. I was asked to play at venues all over North Wales, Cheshire and the Wirral. I whizzed through grade exams on harp and piano, attended courses, and went on my first international performing trip as a member of a Cheshire Orchestra. I learned a huge amount of orchestral repertoire during this time – there’s nothing better than being thrown in at the deep end! Having Mair, who excelled in orchestral playing, as a teacher was a very valuable experience, and I would like to thank her for giving me the best grounding ever.

I also performed at various events, with choirs, at dinners, and regularly at the Ruthin Castle medieval banquets. I had a very old van to move my harp, and I passed my driving test when I was 17 as my father had not long since had a car, preferring his motorbike! I had to learn to be self-sufficient, so this was just the beginning . . .  At the time I was in my final two years at Ysgol Maes Garmon, where there were many pupils learning to play the harp – they even built Celtic harps in the woodwork department for the pupils! By the age of about 17 I was teaching the harp there; looking back, I marvel at the faith that they must have had in me. Even then, I wrote lesson plans for the pupils, worked out how to help each one to improve, and hoped they would always love music as I did, even if they did not carry on playing.

After my grandparents passed away, my parents moved to a house in Parc Hendy, Mold, and I entered the Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, as an eighteen year old undergraduate student. After a year, Marie Goossens, of the famous musical family (whilst tutoring me on a National Youth Orchestra of Wales course) pointed out that I had, in her opinion, the ability to reach the skies – provided I worked hard with the correct teacher. During this period, I had a master class with Elinor Bennett, Osian Elis, Ann Griffiths and Susan Drake, who all emphasized that I urgently needed to improve my technique and suggested I had a new teacher.

Elinor Bennett became that new teacher, and this was to change the whole pattern of my harp lessons as Elinor took my technique right back to basics, and restructured it – moving away from flawed performances of difficult pieces to simple repetitive practice until all the flaws had been ironed out. Elinor was really strict with me, but it was exactly what I needed at the time. I was also told that my old Erard  harp was not suited to the demands of a professional musician’s life, and came home one day to find a brand new Salvi harp, and a new van to move it in. My mother calmly told me that they had sold their home in  Mold, and mam was to become the warden of sheltered-housing in Caerwys, a few miles away.

In Cardiff I also studied piano with a wonderful man called Mantle Childe, to whom I’m indebted for introducing me to music by the ‘great’ composers who did not compose for the harp. This led to a better understanding of musical periods, styles and performance. I was also really good at the Kodaly method, introduced to me by Cecilia Vajda, a Hungarian teacher. A few years later, at her invitation, I was performing in Budapest with the Hungarian State Choir, and teaching at the Liszt Academy . . . what an honour! I completed three years at Cardiff on a high, winning several competitions, awards and scholarships.

After Cardiff, I was encouraged to go to London for the benefit of my music and career. I had the same two teachers at the Royal Academy of Music as had taught Elinor Bennett – namely Osian Ellis and Renata Scheffel-Stein, who were Principal and Co-Principal Harpists of the London Symphony Orchestra. I won a healthy scholarship to enable me to undertake a second post-graduate year. I became only the second harpist to achieve the ‘Recital Diploma’ (the most highly acclaimed performance exam) at the Royal Academy of Music – Elinor having been the first. I started teaching at the Royal College of Music Junior Department on Saturdays, and was given the opportunity of professional work with the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Sinfonietta, the Philharmonia, West End theatres, and other orchestral ensembles, all whilst I was still studying at the Academy.

After leaving college, I initially became primarily a soloist, and I conducted research to see what harp repertoire had been performed at the Wigmore Hall in London over the previous ten years, and set about breaking new ground in terms of repertoire in order to create a rationale for my own future concert performance opportunities. I never forgot my Welsh roots, however, and much of my research was centred on Welsh harpists, especially Blind John Parry from the 18th century, and John Thomas from the 19th century. I professionally recorded a selection of their original compositions for the first time on a set of two vinyl LPs – both became highly acclaimed, and are still being played on radio today.

Then, for almost twenty years, I toured the world as a soloist and had my own radio programmes on Radio 4 and the World Service. I became the first British musician, and the first harpist, to win the prestigious Concert Artist Guild Award in New York. I travelled an average of 2,000 miles a week throughout that period, often driving with my harp all over the British Isles, to Vienna, Berlin and many parts of the Continent.

I have discovered neglected and out-of-print music whilst searching for long-forgotten gems. I have always been actively involved in contemporary music, and I have commissioned many new pieces by  composers in a wide spectrum of musical genres. I’ve played in Chamber groups, accompanied choirs, performed as a concerto soloist, given master-classes, researched, and taught. I created the first ever Integrated Harp Studies course in Britain, for Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and I have my own private teaching studio. In 1990 I became Principal Harpist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and life took on a whole new meaning… working with the best orchestral colleagues, conductors, and composers in the world, travelling widely, and playing in the brilliant BBCProms each year. I will be relinquishing this position in April 2018…but I am never short of ideas for future creativity with my wonderfully versatile instrument.

My biography and CV are more detailed for the work period from 1990, as this account has been rather more about the ‘local, Mold and personal/family life’, until I finished my studies. In 1990, I discovered, finally, that I did indeed suffer from a very rare condition called McArdle Disease. This is a Glycogen Storage Disorder, and I was told, as I signed the contract to take my place as Principal Harpist of the BBCSO, that I should ‘conserve, not use, energy’ from then on, and for a while, I cannot express what emotions I went through. However, my heart decided to rule my head and here we are 28 years later, and I am still a harpist. 1990 was crazy; specialists discovered a rare illness, I became the harpist of one of the greatest orchestras in the world, and on the beachfront in Aberystwyth on a gorgeous Summer’s day, I married my second husband, Ali, who comes from Iran. This also led to adventures I would not have dreamt of, including taking my harp to Tehran to give a solo recital….but for now, details will remain in my diaries and notebooks for an autobiography… the formal biography will suffice!