Noël Wan

Noël was just 16 when she swept up First Prize at the very first Dutch Harp Competition. She stills holds the record today as the youngest winner of the competition.

Photo by Nike Martens

She was just finishing her last year of high school the year she won the Dutch Harp Competition, and part of her prize was to return to Holland in 2011 for a concert tour of the country. The experience offered her a first taste of what it’s like to be a professional performing artist. Since then, Noël has gone on to study harp performance at the University of Illinois – where she earned her bachelor’s degree – and is now in her second year of a master’s degree at Yale School of Music.

What did winning the Dutch Harp Competition mean to you at the time?

It was a big deal! It was the first international harp competition that I had won and, in the final stage of the competition, my first time playing a concert with an orchestra. The Ginastera concerto is one of my favorites. Winning the competition was unexpected but a really great feeling. I would say it helped me to set goals for future projects. Ultimately, the competition was a motivating step rather than an end goal. It made me feel I had potential. I realized I could be a concert performer if I wanted to, so then I felt justified in working harder toward that goal.

What were for you the best and worse moments of the competition?

Back in that first edition of the competition, the quarter finals were held in a different room from where they are now. It was a small room, and the spotlight was really hot. That was the worst moment for me: sitting there are feeling the sweat forming on my forehead. On top of that, I wasn’t used to playing for a jury behind a screen, and I was really nervous.

The best aspect of the competition was being around friends. I had been taking lessons with Erika Waardenburg and I so knew the other harpists from her studio. It was a friendly atmosphere – we were all supporting each other. It was really different vibe from what I experienced at the Israel International Harp Competition the year before.

What have you been up to since 2010?

I finished my bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois (UIUC) in 2014, and now I’m in the second year of my master’s at Yale studying in June Han. I feel like I’ve learned a lot and have grown as a musician instead of just a harpist. When I was younger, even in the Dutch Competition years, I was a very technique oriented harpist. Being young, I feel like I didn’t apply my knowledge of theory and history so much to my playing, so what came out was my own style, but not a well-rounded style. Part of my general education in the past few years has been about assimilating all the knowledge from my classes and coming up with new ways of approaching music and understanding the bigger picture.

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What are your upcoming plans and goals?

I applied to some DMA programs, and I’m considering Northwestern or going back to UIUC. I got a good fellowship from UIUC, and I like Ann Yeung’s rigorous and structured program, so I’m probably going there. Recently, I’ve become more interested in teaching. Being in college for four years, you get to explore different fields of study, and I started getting interested in research in cognition in music. I’m interested in addressing special-needs students in my doctoral research, aiming ultimately for a university teaching position, and still performing but not traveling so much for it.

Check out Noël’s website

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