Harp professor balances music and martial arts

Harp professor balances music and martial arts

Jaymee Haefner is a walking paradox.

Her days are split between the well-lit stage of the Murchison Performing Arts Center surrounded by harp students and the sweaty gyms of Red Tiger Karate, where punching, kicking and sparring with opponents is encouraged.

Haefner is an assistant professor of harp at UNT and is also a 1st degree black belt in karate. However, she believes the two aren’t as mutually exclusive as some may think.

Honing the harp

Early in her childhood, Haefner was bound to be a pianist. She began playing at the age of five and envisioned herself heading straight in her musical trajectory. But in third grade, Haefner took a detour.

“Every time I saw a harp or heard a harp I would comment on it and begged for it to my parents,” Haefner said. “I was drawn to it because it was so unique.”

Although piano was her first passion, Haefner quickly fell in love with the harp.

It was distinct, rare and an instrument that gave her a greater sense of connection to the sound.

Unlike many instruments, the harp uses multiple parts of the body.

“You are in touch with the instrument,” Haefner said. “You’re hugging it, you’re using your feet [and] you’re using your hands. We’re not separated by valves or keys or mallets. It’s actually me who’s making the sound.”

In a sense, she said that the harp represents her polarizing lifestyle.

“The harp is like a person,” Haefner said. “You meet [someone or something] and think ‘oh, they’re this way’ and then you get to know them and think, ‘there are all these layers’ and that’s really just the beauty of what the harp is.”

Between harp and karate, Haefner has proven to be skilled in walking the line between the two, sometimes to the point where others wonder how she does it all.

Her students don’t miss her dedication to Haefner’s talents, either.

“She juggles many different roles and yet is always focused on encouraging and helping the people around her,” Harp performance sophomore Ruth Mertens said. “It’s incredible that Dr. Haefner is able to do karate on top of all her other activities.”

Wax on, wax off

In 2010, Haefner enrolled her son at Red Tiger Karate, a community-based karate program. Around that time, Haefner was looking for another outlet besides the harp.

She had been tasked with regulating a major institute with the American Harp Society that involved bringing over 400 harpists together for a musical performance. Although this opportunity was great, it was also stressful.

When she found herself in one of Red Tiger’s karate sessions, she found the perfect opportunity to embark on something new.

“I sat down on the ground with these other parents and thought, ‘this is kind of silly to sit here for an hour, I might as well learn it,’” Haefner said. “And at the same time, I needed a stress outlet for running this other major institute.”

Soon afterward, Haefner began to train with Red Tiger Karate. It took her five years of going through the ranks to test for her 1st degree black belt, an assessment designed to push trainers to their mental and physical limits.

“Basically, you don’t stop,” Haefner said. “[The test] is designed to break you down so that near the end you’re nearly as close to [a dangerous] situation as you can be without being in mortal danger.”

Every test is tailored to the trainer’s skills, strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, the type of school and martial art they’ve trained in are important factors in the overall design.

One can expect to cycle through all the training areas, including several hours of sparring, running and performing the kata, which are the various exercise forms used in martial arts.

Haefner’s test lasted nine and half hours.

“You have to be in good physical condition and be mentally strong because it’s a long test,” said Robert Margach, owner of Red Tiger Karate. “It’s like running a marathon but in martial arts.”

Two is better than one

Recently, Haefner has discovered that karate has changed her performance in ways she never expected.

“Through my training and my experience, I will fully admit that I dealt with nerves that my students have dealt with and overcome,” Haefner said. “But what I never expected is to be in the middle of my professional career and find something that helped me more.”

No matter the circumstance,  Haefner would experience stage anxiety before performing on the harp. It didn’t matter if she had prepared for 30 years or 30 minutes—her nervousness always crept to the surface. But now, the tables have turned.

“What I never anticipated was that by doing all this cardio, that [anxiety] completely went away 100 percent,” Haefner said. “I never expected that [it would] give [me] a new level of control on stage from being more physically fit and specifically doing core strength.”

Competing in high-intensity karate tournaments, which Haefner has done at least four times a year, could have also helped.

“When you’re competing [in a tournament] against one other person with an audience of hundreds of people, all you can do is perform, so it’s probably similar to harp, where you just have to focus,” Margach said. “[Karate] gives you a lot of confidence in various areas in your life.”

Haefner’s ability to balance and grow within two of her passions inspire students of hers, who see her as a role model.

“It is easy to get burned out when you don’t have enough diversity with what you do,” said Anne Lehman, a music education and harp performance senior. “What I think is really great is the fact that she is both a black belt in karate and a ‘black belt’ in harp. It’s not easy to be very accomplished in multiple areas, especially when they are so vastly different from one another.”

Haefner believes this has uncovered a new facet within her career. Currently, she’s taking a hiatus from karate but is working on a publication about harp wellness.

The publication will share what she’s learned thus far about how to perform better on stage through not-so-traditional means.

“As a performer, we are elite athletes,” Haefner said. “But we forget that. We don’t stretch or warm up as much as we should and we don’t really talk about the mental game as we should.”

Featured Image: Jaymee Haefner teaches a student to play the harp. She also has a black belt in karate. Zoee Acosta

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