Deborah Henson-Conant: Marathon Fundraiser for Parkinson's Research

By Stephen Perry - April 18, 2014


Marathon Monday is right around the corner. It’s a day off from school and the unofficial start of spring for school kids across Massachusetts. It’s a day of remembrance for victims of last year’s tragedy, and as always, it’s a huge day for fundraising for charities local, national, and global. Deborah Henson-Conant wanted a way to support her husband Jonathan, who is running the marathon to support his mother, Lila, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Deborah is not a marathon runner, so she’s putting her talents as an electric harpist to the ultimate test: a marathon 5.5 hour set. Like her husband, she will be donating all of her proceeds (as will we) to the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s grassroots community fundraising program, "Team Fox." Deborah was nice enough to answer some questions for us...

Concert Window: You're playing this marathon concert to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. For me, and many kids in my generation, the Johnny B. Goode scene in Back To The Future was the moment when I knew I want to learn to play the guitar. When did you decide to become a harpist? What drew you to the instrument?

Deborah Henson-Conant: What fascinated me about the harp was all its unrealised potential. I deeply identified with that. And as a woman, I identified with how the harp was stereotyped as a 'nice' instrument. I was determined to prove that 'nice girl instrument' wrong - first by playing jazz, then by shrinking it down, strapping it on and plugging it in. Later on I began to realize what an amazing political and musical history the instrument has, and how many sounds and styles it has and what a huge dynamic range. I worked with the CAMAC company in France for over two decades to develop the harp I play now, the "DHC-Light" electrica, and now I feel like I finally have the instrument I envisioned at the beginning of my journey! I finally have the powerhouse I saw imprisoned inside a pretty piece of musical furniture.

CW: How much of the set do you have planned out? Do you think you'll be interacting with the chat room much? Or will you kinda lock in and like, be in a sort of meditative state?

DHC: I've gone back through several years of setlist, pulled out all the tunes I love and put them in one long list - but not any particular order. That, right there, is easily 5 hours -- but that doesn't include free improvisations, extended improv on tunes, or the gazillion tunes I learned as a kid on the ukulele that translate easily to the harp. I'd personally like to challenge myself to not repeat tunes, but I have a feeling there will be songs people request that I may have to play more than once.

I used to challenge myself to play a single tune for 20 or 30 minutes, just to see how creative I could get with it, so theoretically I could do the Marathon concert with a handful of tunes, but I'll probably choose one or two tunes to do 'extended versions' of and play the rest the way I usually do. Knowing I have nearly 6 hours, gives me a huge sense of freedom in terms of stretching out in each tune. So I'm excited to see how that will go.

One thing I love about ConcertWindow is interaction via the chat, and I also love interacting with the camera by moving closer or further away from it (you can see some photos on my "" page) - so I will definitely be interacting with the chat. That's kind of like stopping at a water station along the marathon route. Kinda. OK, not really.

CW: Have you ever attempted to play a set as long as this? What is the longest set you've ever played?

DHC: Back when I was playing jazz clubs, I would often play 4 hours a night. In fact, I started running back then as a way to increase my endurance. I figured if I could learn to run for 2 hours straight, I'd be able to keep my energy up for 4-hours playing in a jazz club. So my first running goal was a 2-hour run. Now I normally run 25-60 minutes a day. One of the reasons the Marathon Music idea appealed to me, aside from the chance to join my husband in supporting a cause that's deeply important to both of us -- is because I never feel like I want to end a show. I actually have to keep a clock on stage to make sure I don't play too long. So this is my big chance to actually get to play as long a concert as I could possibly want to!

CW: The guitar nerd in me has to ask, what will you be using for gear? What kind of loop pedal do you use, and what's the best amp for an electric harp?

DHC: Great questions! Well, I toured with Steve Vai in 2012, and I have his signature Ibanez Gemini double distortion pedals (not just the model - but actually one of his actual old pedals ) - so that's a beautiful thing. My looper is a Boss-RE20. And I use a WaWa (also from Vai, but, girl-that-I-am I don't know the model), but I save that for moments of musical humor (trust me, the harp sounds very funny thru the WaWa with distortion).

The sound system I use is a Fishman SA220 Solo Performance System,which has a gorgeous, rich, clear sound, totally fills the room and amplifies both my harp and my voice -- and I use a "Blue Snowball" to feed into my computer. I usually use a Shure wireless system for my voice and harp, and a Countryman wireless headset mic.

My HARP is probably my most impressive piece of gear. It's a bronze 32-string carbon-fibre electric harp that was custom-built for me by the CAMAC Harp company. CAMAC is a French company and they modeled the body of the instrument on a French racing bike body - actually went to racing-bike designers for input. CAMAC wanted to build something light and strong because I wear it with a harness, and travel around the world with it - so it had to be durable, beautiful and light enough to wear. The model is named after me, the "DHC-Light" - so I wouldn't play any other harp. And I designed the harness I use to wear it so that's a DHC DIY special.

Now, my boots, I got at this little used clothing shop in Somerville … oh wait, you only asked about my gear.

CW: Do you think the marathon set will be more challenging mentally or physically?

DHC: I'm anticipating it'll be harder physically, but I could be wrong - and I've got a stand I can put the harp on if my back starts to tense up. I chose 5.5 hours because I figured that's probably how long it would take me to run the Marathon. And I'll be starting at 9:30 in the morning so I can cross my finish line about the same time my husband does. I'll also be able to keep tabs on where he is on the course by check in with his Marathon number, so it's almost like I'm running with him.

What's most meaningful about this to me is that we're doing something together, each in our own way, to raise money for a cause that's deeply important to both of us, since his mother's been diagnosed with Parkinsons. I'm so grateful both to the Michael J Fox Foundation and to for creating ways for us to both do the things we love to support a cause that's so important to us.

People who want to donate direct through Jonathan's "Team Fox" donation site can go here.

Thank you so much, Concert Window for jumping right into this crazy idea with me and offering to donate every penny we get to the Michael J. Fox fund for Parkinson's Research. Thank you!!!

Deborah Henson-Conant goes live on Concert Window at 9:30 EDT on April 21st.

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