Who The Folk?! Shari Latz Rothman

Many kids who want to become musicians don’t think of harp. Shari Latz Rothman hadn’t even heard of the harp when her mom suggested it to her, but she’s turned it into a career playing everything from Broadway shows to jazz – and even trying to turn popular music into songs for the harp. So, Who The Folk is Shari Latz Rothman?!

You’re a harpist. How did that happen?

It all began when I was 8 years old and my mom heard a harpist at a dinner party. Mom asked her about teaching little girls how to play. Then she came home and asked me if I wanted to play the harp, and I replied, “I don’t know. What’s a harp?” Mom drove me to a music store where I looked at and played the harp for a few minutes and said, “Sure. I’ll try it.” I loved it right away. I continued to play the harp throughout high school but didn’t plan to pursue it professionally. I had a lot of other interests and ideas for my future. In a great twist of fate, however, I received a partial scholarship to the University of Michigan School of Music with the requirement that I major in harp performance. I realized that I liked playing the harp more than I enjoyed any of my other studies, so I decided to commit myself to a career in music. I received my Master of Music degree in Harp Performance from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles with a graduate teaching fellowship. I taught and performed in Los Angeles for 10 years before returning to Minnesota to teach at MacPhail Center for Music and play professionally in the Twin Cities.

What’s your favorite kind of harp music to play?

I love playing all kinds of music! There is definitely something special, though, about playing Jewish music and music inspired by prayers and psalms. It reaches into my soul in a way that is powerful, meditative and healing. It’s fun to play jazz, blues, classical, old standards and Broadway tunes. I listen to a lot of popular music and try to play those songs on the harp, too. In recent years, I’ve been playing more Irish and folk music. I explored klezmer music for a while, and am currently collaborating with a local Native American flutist.

You teach harp at MacPhail and right now you’re playing the harp in the orchestra during the one-week run of “The King and I” – the Broadway touring show – at the Orpheum. Where do you usually perform?

I am a freelance performer, which means that I take a variety of jobs at many different venues. I play with orchestras, choirs, and chamber groups, as well as at parties, weddings, and memorial services. I even played with an indie rock band in Los Angeles! In addition to my private studio, I teach at MacPhail, which includes private lessons for musicians of all ages and abilities, co-directing an adult harp ensemble, and leading a summer harp camp for beginners.

What are some of your favorite gigs?

I had an amazing time playing on Prince’s album, “Art Official Age.” That ranks up there as one of the best gigs ever! It was also really thrilling to play in a small chamber orchestra with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. I often find playing at weddings a personal joy. It is one of the most beautiful experiences a couple will have, and I get to share in that magic.

Outside of King David, is there a long tradition of Jews playing the harp?

King David is certainly the most famous Jewish harp player, and it was played every day in Temple times by the Levites as part of the service. Harpo Marx was very well-known for playing the harp in movies. If there were others, they have not been written about much.

Is there Jewish harp music?

Yes, there is wonderful Jewish harp music. Most of it was not written specifically for the harp, but we often borrow traditional melodies or music written for other instruments and arrange them for the harp. There are also some talented Israeli composers who write beautiful works specifically for harp.

Where did you grow up? Where did you have your bat mitzvah?

I grew up in Golden Valley and had my bat mitzvah at Temple Israel in Minneapolis. My harp teacher played at the luncheon afterward, and my friends talked me into playing a song for them. I turned off the microphone, though.

You’re part of a pretty political family. Can you tell us a little about your dad and Ron?

My family’s political roots go back to my grandfather, Rubin Latz, who was a key political and labor leader during the 1930s and 1940s. My father, Bob Latz, was a State Representative from the North Side, and my brother, Ron, is currently a State Senator. My dad also wrote a book entitled, “Jews in Minnesota Politics: The Inside Stories.” We have a family tradition of Tikkun Olam, trying to help repair the world through law and politics. There must be something in the genes because I have many other relatives who are also very active in politics throughout the country.

Is it a coincidence that you married someone who was very involved in politics and is now Commissioner of Commerce?

I met Mike when he was working at the Capitol, so I knew right away that he was passionate about politics and that our political beliefs were compatible. On our first date, he quizzed me about my feelings regarding politics and campaigns. I remember telling him that while I was only moderately politically active myself, I had grown up with political discussions around the dinner table and fully appreciated the commitment a person makes to a life in politics. I also warned him that a life with a harpist required that he become a certified harp schlepper.

You’ve got 3 kids – Sophi, Adam, and David. Are you seeing any future musicians in the family?

All three of our kids play multiple instruments and enjoy making music. It’s hard to predict if any of them will choose a career in music, but I do think they will all appreciate music throughout their lives and be strong supporters of the arts.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

This probably isn’t a popular choice, but my favorite Jewish holiday is Yom Kippur. I like the idea of wiping the slate clean each year, apologizing for all the things I’ve done that I wish had gone differently, and starting fresh. Plus, I don’t host break the fast at my house, so I don’t need to focus any energy on cooking and cleaning.

Favorite Jewish food?

I really love a good bowl of matzo ball soup. I have great memories of eating matzo ball soup during the holidays as a kid, in beautiful china bowls. Making it is a family event in our house, with my husband and kids all participating. Chicken soup is truly good for the soul.

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