Accomplished harpist’s ‘serendipitous’ path brings her to Qualicum Beach

Sarah Mainland, blind since infancy, has played her harp to audiences across Canada and the U.S. || Photo by Kevin Forsyth.
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A Qualicum Beach woman has become an accomplished harpist, after learning to play her instrument by ear.

Sarah Mainland, blind since infancy, has played her harp for audiences across Canada and the U.S. She spent 217 days in neonatal intensive care after being born premature — the oxygen from the respirator caused her retinas to detach and made her blind, according to Joyce Mainland, her mother and caregiver. 

Before learning the harp in her twenties, she played the piano and classical guitar. It was while playing with guitarist Phil Keaggy that she was inspired to learn a new instrument.

Keaggy invited Sarah to his concert in Rochester, N.Y. and while the two played together backstage, he noticed Sarah’s ability with the strings.

“He was watching me play and he was like, ‘God was telling me you should play the harp’ and my mom looked at him and she was like, ‘tell God I just bought her a guitar,’” Sarah said.

She said she took to the instrument quickly and within the first 45 minutes of her first lesson she was playing scales. “I thought it was pretty amazing and I thought, ‘this is the instrument of my choice.’”

After about six years of playing Sarah earned a medal from the Royal Conservatory, one of the largest and most respected music education institutions in the world. “We were all blown away,” said Joyce.

Sarah was born in Vancouver, but she and Joyce lived in Ontario and Kelowna before moving to the island. The two moved to Qualicum Beach earlier this year when a spot opened in an affordable housing unit they were on a waiting list for. The complex is home to single-parent families and seniors — Joyce said they enjoy the mixed-generational living.

Sarah and Joyce passed through Qualicum Beach on a trip to Ucluelet several years ago and happened to walk by their future home. They asked a man sitting outside on the steps what it was like to live there and he told them it was paradise, Joyce said.

“I love it. I like going for walks down by the ocean,” said Sarah.

Sarah used to volunteer to play the harp in hospices, long-term care homes and the neonatal intensive care unit at Kelowna General Hospital before pandemic restrictions made it impossible.

“COVID takes all that away from her. And musicians have really suffered because they haven’t been out performing,” said Joyce. She said Sarah is still able to do a little bit of busking for extra money.

“This is really the only way Sarah can make a few extra dollars,” she said. “But she loves it.”

Sarah said she also misses playing the harp at her church in Kelowna, bowling, kayaking and sailing. 

She said she named her harp ‘Dipitous’ because together she and her harp are Sarah’N Dipitous. 

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