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Get to know Detroit harpist Pat Terry-Ross

This long-time Detroit harpist has lifted people up with her music, inspired students and has recently garnered a big prize of her own.

Playing the harp isn’t easy. It takes a diligent mind, skillful fingers, perfect pitch and a lifetime of learning. However, if mastered, it can bring the sound of heaven down home.

Pat Terry-Ross, 70, who has been the principle harpist for the Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra since 1977, is one divine musician.

“I’m in my 40th year and it’s a joy, that’s why I still do it,” she says. “It’s difficult. You look at the width of a string and the width of a piano key; you can be a lot more accurate on a key. … All the sharps and flats are controlled by the feet, so you can be blind and play the piano, but you can’t be blind and play the harp.”

Terry-Ross, born and raised in Detroit, earned a bachelor’s degree in choral music education and a master’s in choral music education and harp performance from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. Beyond her performances at the Michigan Opera Theatre and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, she has taught music at various schools including Wayne State University and Cass Technical High School, her alma mater.

“I had learned to love teaching so much. I have the best of both worlds. I always felt like my teaching helps my playing and my playing helps my teaching, and I’m equally passionate about both,” she says.

Terry-Ross’ musical career began at age 5 with the piano. In the third grade, she learned violin. She started playing the harp in 1961 while she was a music major at Cass Tech. The harp program at Cass Tech is in its 90th year and claims to be the oldest ongoing harp program at a public school in the United States.

“It was the program I learned to play at. When my teacher retired, she chose me to lead the program,” she says. And while she may now be retired from teaching at Cass Tech, Terry-Ross clearly left an impression.

Student Sally McCune, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1984 and went on to Cornell University to pursue music, says that what she admires most about Terry-Ross is that she has always worn her heart on her sleeve and shares her gift with people of all ages, stages and colors. “She hasn't been blind to people's differences – she has always celebrated them,” McCune says.

Recently, she had cause to do some celebrating of her own.

The Kresge Foundation selected her to receive its 2017 Eminent Artist Award. Her contributions to the community as an accomplished harpist, vocalist and lifelong educator won her the honor, which comes with $50,000 – no strings attached.

“I’m gonna give some scholarship money away to various places. I also told my husband I’m gonna take him on a nice trip, and I’m gonna put new floor in my kitchen. … I’ve been wanting to change my tile for two years now,” she says.

As far as her musical career, though, she wouldn’t change a thing.

“I plan to teach and play as long as I feel I’m doing it well,” she says. “I just take it year by year, but by teaching, I feel that I will always have something to impart and when I see people get better, it inspires me.”

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