Louise Vickerman, a woman with short hair and in an elegant black dress, plays the harp

A Musical Interlude in the sky

Louise Vickerman has harp, will travel
Louise Vickerman, a woman with short hair and in an elegant black dress, plays the harp

Salt Lake City, Utah

When you think of the Flying Musician’s Association you might think, okay, that’s a bunch of guys and gals with guitars, banjos, maybe some woodwinds or brass, possibly a fiddle? Botachellian cherubs with lutes and harps not so much, eh? 

Breaking the Mold

It is definitely difficult to picture Louise Vickerman, principal harpist for the Utah Symphony, with her full-sized (and might I say, heavyweight) harp at her side in the chummy cockpit of a Cessna 182. But there she is, the Northwest Region Ambassador for The Flying Musician’s Association. A longtime certificated commercial pilot with multi-engine, instrument, glider (private) & UAS (certified drone pilot) ratings, Louise breaks the mold, in all the good ways. She is a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight West and Pilots N’ Paws, along with her association affiliations (AOPA and WAI among them).

Moving to America

This Scottish-born virtuoso took up her instrument as a six year old, and was the youngest student her teacher world renown ever took on. Louise did not disappoint, and after more than 10 years of study, she’d graduated and moved on to University and then postgraduate study at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. At 20 she came to the U.S. because careers for harpists were tough to come by in Scotland.

“I was freelancing with all the major Scottish orchestras. But by the time I was in college none of them had full-time harpists anymore,” she sighs. “I had the chance to take a lesson with one of the finest harpists in the Americas, Kathleen Bride, and she offered me a position to earn my Masters’ degree in the U.S. at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, funded by grant monies from scholarships and the Scottish International Education Trust,” she continues. “Kathleen Bride was wonderful to study with,” Louise remembers.

Behind the Screen

In the U.S. there are 17 full-time symphony orchestras, all of which might have a harpist position (one) open up at some point. Talk about career competition! Auditions are performed behind a solid screen so that judges cannot be influenced by the gender or appearance of the musician, and musicians must abide by strict codes of silence, as even a voice or the footsteps of heeled shoes might influence a judge. 

“I luckily snagged an opening at the New World Symphony in Miami, Florida, which is run by Michael Tilson Thomas,” remembers Louise. “It’s a training orchestra for graduates and works like an internship for as long as three years. It operates like a professional orchestra and musicians get coaching, lessons and master classes and play a full season repertoire.”

Practice, practice, practice

Orchestra interns are housed in dorms and receive stipends. The time in Miami was what Louise needed to mature. “It's just a lot of damn work. Constantly practicing. Perfecting your technique, perfecting your pieces, it's exhausting. But I mean, when you're young, you have that kind of energy,” she laughs. “Now I look back at my 20s and I'm like, oh it was just awful. I was going from audition to audition and practicing all hours of the day. And I need to play for people and play for my colleagues. It's not something I recommend unless you've got the stamina and the willpower to get through it.”

Where Music meets the Sky

All of that hard work did pay off. Louise has been playing principal harpist for the Utah Symphony full time for 23 years. About 14 years ago she started learning to fly airplanes. “From the time I was 10 years old and took an airline trip to Egypt I have loved flying. I asked to see the cockpit and the pilots let me stay up in the jumpseat for the whole flight,” she remembers. “I saw the pyramids glowing outside Cairo as we landed at night. It was magical. I was hooked.”

She knew that inadequate training led to bad habits among musicians, and she figured it was probably  the same for flying airplanes. One of her students at her teaching position (a side profession of most symphony players) had a father who was a retired Delta Air Lines pilot. “Bless Greg. He was just amazing,” she says. “He found me a CFI and a little Cessna 150 that I still use today.”

“There's a lot of similarities between playing an instrument and flying an airplane,” she says. “You have to have the same kind of finesse and fine motor skills. The multitasking is the same, too. So there are a lot of musician pilots out there,” she continues. 

Volunteer Using Her Plane

Louise’s other airplane is a Cessna 182, which has a backseat, giving her the ability to carry passengers and cargo. And that she does, volunteering to take ambulatory patients to far-flung doctors appointments through the Angel Flight West organization. She also transfers homeless animals to no-kill shelters for Pilots N’ Paws. 

But of all the organizations she volunteers for, The Flying Musician’s Association, which she discovered just as it was forming, is close to her heart. She is both a member of its board of directors and the Northwest Region Ambassador for the organization. “The coolest thing I think we do, aside from flying neat places with our instruments and jamming, is that we give out a scholarship to a musician student who wants to learn to fly. We call it the Solo Scholarship and this past year it went to a young woman from the Pacific Northwest. I’m really proud of that,” she smiles.

And Then There Are The Mannequins

Beyond airplanes and music, Louise has recently found another creative expression: art. During the past three years, particularly when the symphony closed because of the pandemic, Louise had to find a new focus, and it came in the form of steam-punk mannequin art. The functional sculptures (some double as lamps) adorn the Salt Lake City home she shares with her husband, Peter. 
What she says about her Abingdon watch

“I love this watch because it's on the smaller side and I can wear it when I'm performing. It also looks good on stage,” she explains. “If I'm walking through airports and I see female pilots around, I look at their wrists and check to see if they're wearing the watch. It's like a sisterhood. It’s just another thing that unites us and makes us feel, you know, connected and special.”

What she wears:
Elise Watch
Swiss Movement, Three Time Zones, Date Function, 4 Hand