A Harp Tradition

Nancy Brace

Nancy looks through the strings of her harp. (photo credit: David R. Jennings)

Fifth-grader Nancy Brace’s mind was made up as she turned from the glowing television set.

“I want to play harp,” she announced to her parents and grandparents, seated in their Boulder living room around the latest episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. Most of the family was musically inclined, making the show’s champagne tunes and theatrical antics a Saturday night staple.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to learn piano first?” her family asked her, but Nancy shook her head. “I want to play harp.”

“In this show we all watched,” she recalls, “in all this hoopla, among the costumes and bubbles and everything else, there was the harpist in a long flowing sparkly gown. After that, it’s all I ever really wanted to do.”

The following Christmas, after enough reiterations of her instrument of choice, Nancy received her very first miniature harp, and she hasn’t stopped plucking strings since.

“If I didn’t know how to play, I’d be getting in trouble, right?” she reasons, laughing.

A Boulder native, Nancy attended Fairview High School—where she played in the orchestra—and later enrolled at Denver University, eventually continuing her studies at the Indiana University School of Music.

She was a harpist on staff at the historic Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan, which was the set for 1980 romantic drama “Somewhere in Time.” In the film, actor Christopher Reeve’s character becomes so smitten with an old portrait of a woman (played by Jane Seymour) hanging in the hotel, he travels back in time to meet her and win her love.

That iconic scene, where the characters of Reeve and Seymour meet for the first time, is the exact spot Nancy met her husband Dan.  They’ve been married for 30 years this past August, and the “Somewhere in Time” theme song is still her favorite tune to play solo.

She played shows at DU and CU, and dabbled as a self-proclaimed “cocktail lounge harpist” for many years at Churchill Tavern inside Denver’s Old Writers Manor Hotel.

It was there where she and an on-duty piano player were asked to assemble a hasty overture for the surprise arrival of President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who were in town for the 1997 Summit of the 8. Despite the sudden flood of shouting reporters with flashing cameras, the musical duo earned the charm of the world leaders as they strode through the entrance of the historic hotel.

When she eventually moved back to Boulder, Nancy shopped at McGuckin Hardware, the store where she had fond memories growing up, including flashbacks of the owner Dave Hight loading her up with treats from the candy aisle.

“I came and talked to Dave in the early ‘90s and said, ‘hey, you could use some music in here,’” says Nancy.

Dave knew just the person. He offered Nancy a gig playing her harp in the store as customers did their holiday shopping—a tradition that has lasted almost 25 years.

“We started playing in the tool aisle and then we were moved onto a platform among the Christmas trees,” she says, “Dave has been there since day one as the biggest proponent of my music.”

Around that time, Nancy got an ensemble together— enlisting old friends whose sounds complimented each other. Brett Wallace, a fellow Fairview High School graduate (who later taught orchestra there) played cello. Tracy LaGuardia, Nancy’s friend from DU, played violin.

They called themselves A Touch of Class Trio, and they continue to play together at diverse venues across the Front Range. Every weekend in December, however, they can be found making melodies at the hardware store.Nancy plays harp in the center aisle of the store

“We really like to perform in that atmosphere, with people milling around,” says Nancy, “We’ve all agreed that it’s the ideal gig.”

When she’s with the group, Nancy’s favorite song to play is “The Prayer.”  Last year, after the trio finished performing the song in the store’s center aisle, Nancy was approached by a teary-eyed shopper whose mother had recently passed away. “The Prayer” was used at the funeral to remember her life. The shopper came to McGuckin to peruse holiday wares, but was touched by the serendipitous drifting tune that met her ears.

“It’s unexpected in a hardware store, yet it makes such an impact in their lives,” she says, “It’s those kinds of things that really get you. That’s why we all do music. That’s what makes it all worth it.”