Hear the Story of the U.S. Autoharp Champion
The autoharp, not many people know what this instrument is. But for 20 years, Ray Choi fell in love with this peculiar American folk instrument.
“The autoharp is not a popular instrument, it was popular, but this one is called traditional. People call it traditional instrument,” Choi said.
It’s traditional, but long forgotten and uncommon in the mainstream music community. The miniature harp has 37 chords, which can be strummed to make melodies in folk music.
Ray Choi has been hand-crafting autoharps in his Grace Music Shop since 1997. It’s a laborious process that takes him 2-3 weeks, but it’s his passion he says that keeps him going.
“I’m looking for better sound all the time… I’ve built quite a few instrument.”
Quite a few amounts to more than 300 since he opened his shop in 1991. Just a couple years later, he was the number one Oscar Schmidt autoharp seller in the nation.
Dave Engels has been receiving lessons from Choi for almost three years and owns one of his hars as well.
“With Ray’s Autoharps, they have a much more vibrant and beautiful sound to them,” Engels said. “He has mastered a difficult art, which is to decide what kind of sound that you want and to pick the kind of wood that would give you those sound,”
With Choi’s level of matery, he sought recognition.
“I dreamed musical achievement… and it was the autoharp.”
He competed to place at an international autoharp championship, but to no avail. So, he practiced.
“Sometimes 5 hours, sometimes 10 hours, sometimes 13 hours. My daughter one time she told me… why do you play music too much? So I said it’s because I’m gonna be champion,” Choi said.
And after 19 long years, Choi placed first at the 2011 International Autoharp Championship. He’s the first Asian American to win the title.
“Everybody was proud of me, and maybe I could introduce this instrument to my country, Korea.”
So when Choi hugs his autoharp to his chest and plays, he’s hoping everyone can hear it.