Phuttaraksa Kamnirdratana’s father once joked the reason she stayed single during her college life was because boys were afraid to date her, as they wouldn’t want to help her carry a 30-kg harp from her dorm to a concert hall every day.
“I guess my dad was right. Besides, how could I possibly impress anyone when they saw me clumsily dragging a harp case around,” said Phuttaraksa, laughing with squinty eyes.
After spending almost two years completing a degree in harp performance at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami, the rising star of Thai classical music returned to her homeland to share her talent at the harp concert “Follow the Dream”, held at the College of Music, Mahidol University, Salaya campus, earlier this month.
At 24, Phuttaraksa is a lively and cheerful young woman. She speaks gently but always entertains her listeners with her sense of humour. As a classical performer, Phuttaraksa professionally charms her way into the hearts of audiences with her graceful strumming gestures of her harp’s strings.
“It was good to be home,” said Phuttaraksa, known among friends and family as “Namwan”, at her first show after graduating as a professional harpist.
Before her passion for the harp grew, at the age of four, Phuttaraksa played her first musical notes when she clumsily tinkled her youthful fingers on a piano. In 1992, Phuttaraksa was introduced to classical music in a piano lesson at a Yamaha Junior Music Course.
“I could only stand five minutes of rehearsal,” says Phuttaraksa. “Every evening my mum would ask me to practise the song I had learned. But once I finished, I would just jump off the chair and run to play outside.”
Along with the normal school curriculum, Phuttaraksa continued to study piano part-time. In 2002, the most important moment in Phuttaraksa’s life occurred when she and her parents discussed whether to keep her music interest as a part-time hobby or pursue it as a career.
“From the first day, I never thought I would enjoy piano that much, but the more I played, the deeper I fell in love with it.” The answer was probably obvious in her eyes, she said, and her parents both agreed to support her education at the College of Music, Mahidol University – one of the best music conservatories in Thailand – where Phuttaraksa was accepted with a major in piano.
“It was like heaven for music lovers. Everywhere you walk, you could see people singing or playing music.”
Finishing her high school with a 3.7 GPA, Phuttaraksa continued her college degree at the same institution. But it was during her first year of studies when her life changed again. Phuttaraksa’s mother came home with a copy of a magazine and inside there was an advertisement for the Tamnak Prathom Harp Centre, the first school to offer harp lessons in Thailand.
“I remember when my mum showed it to me, I was very excited,” she said. “I have always liked the sound of the harp. I mean, who doesn’t?”
Among the 30 students in her class, Phuttaraksa outshone her classmates because of her piano background, which helps most harp beginners pick up the instrument quickly.
“Having 47 strings, the harp is the stringed instrument most compatible with the piano. But the harp has its own challenge. While most pianos have only three pedals, harps have seven.”
After one year of learning the new instrument, in 2005, Phuttaraksa received a chance to flaunt her talent to the public. The hit teenage film about the lives of music school students, Season Change, which was filmed at her school, featured Phuttaraksa, as herself, a harpist.
“It was my one minute of fame. If you watch the movie, I only appear for one minute in the scene of the concert where the band plays the title track. However, it was a very good experience.”
Phuttaraksa was announced as a recipient of the Yamaha Asia 2004 scholarship, which is selected from piano major students from all over Asia. Also as a young harpist, during her college years, she auditioned for the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra, and performed at a number of important international music events. In 2007, Phuttaraksa finished her bachelor’s degree with excellent results.
There is no better word but gifted to describe Phuttaraksa’s musical expertise on both the piano and harp, however, she responded to such compliments moderately.
“I don’t believe in gifted people. Strong effort, discipline and opportunity combined are what make people successful in what they do. So far, I have spent most of my life practising, and I do it with love. I am grateful to have parents who are always there to support me.”
Shortly after graduating college, Phuttaraksa was awarded a scholarship from the University of Miami to further her harp-playing skills. It was another time in her life when she had to make a tough decision.
“I enjoy playing the piano as much as the harp, but I realised there were obviously not so many harpists in Thailand compared with pianists. When I was told about the scholarship, it helped me choose.”
In Miami, Phuttaraksa was under the instruction of renowned harpists Deborah Fleisher and Marguerite Lynn Williams, the latter of which currently acts as the substitute principal harpist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
“In the beginning, I was a bit worried about some of my subjects, especially my history of classical music class. Coming from a Buddhist background, I found it quite difficult to get used to names of saints and Christian stories. So the first year of college, the library was the second place to find me, after the concert hall.”
Throughout her time as a master’s degree student, Phuttaraksa performed with prestigious orchestras in Florida – from the Walenstein and Broward symphony orchestras to the Miami Symphony Orchestra.
“But the most impressive show I have played so far was at the Hard Rock Cafe in Miami, with a rock band. It was a different kind of performance but the audience seemed truly pleased. The collaboration between rock and classical music was exciting. And the best part was the size of the audience. There were around 2,000 people watching us perform that night,” she said, with excitement in her tone.
Her profound experiences at a very young age undoubtedly promise her a bright future.Next week, Phuttaraksa will return to the US to continue her doctorate degree in harp performance, under full scholarship.
“My plan now is to explore the professional world of the harp. I wish, once in my life time, to perform a solo at Carnegie Hall,” she said, naming classical music’s most prestigious stage.
“But once I have fulfilled my dream, I will definitely return to Thailand and become a harp teacher for young Thai musicians.”