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Michelle Gwynne

A Life Remembered: Harpist Receives Posthumous Doctoral Degree

Michelle Gwynne was one lecture recital away from graduating with a DMA in harp performance when she lost her battle with cancer on September 25, 2016. In her honor Michelle’s parents and longtime friend accepted a posthumous degree from CCM Interim Dean bruce mcclung at UC’s Doctoral Hooding Ceremony in December.

Michelle Gwynne's parents, Roger and Vivienne Himmell, with longtime friend Larry Jones.

Michelle Gwynne's parents, Roger and Vivienne Himmell, with longtime friend Larry Jones and CCM Interim Dean bruce mcclung.

The 59-year-old harpist was not a typical student at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music. A “people person” who loved working with other musicians, Michelle had many years of experience as a classical, pop and jazz harpist. She worked with orchestras and ensembles throughout the region, performed in restaurants and hotels, and taught music at the Wyoming Fine Arts Center, School for Creative and Performing Arts and Northern Kentucky University.

Music was in Michelle’s blood, her parents say. Her father, Roger Himmell, taught Michelle and her two younger sisters how to play the piano at age five. When Michelle was in fourth grade, her elementary school sent home a note that asked if she wanted to sign up to play a stringed instrument in the orchestra.

“She was offered violin, viola, cello or bass,” her mother, Vivienne Himmell, remembers. “And so, after thinking for about a minute, Michelle said ‘I want to play the harp.’”

Michelle Gwynne, age 14, and her father Roger Himmell playing a duet at home in Dayton, Ohio.

Michelle Gwynne, age 14, and her father Roger Himmell playing a duet at their home in Dayton, Ohio.

Roger Himmell remembers hauling his daughter’s heavy harp to all of her concerts and performances. A neighbor eventually designed a dolly so he wouldn’t have to carry Michelle’s harp anymore. Then he carried her bench, music stands and anything else she needed, he remembers with a laugh.

“Even at a young age Michelle was a very talented musician,” Roger Himmell recalls. “As one of the few harpists in the area, she was in high demand.”

She was already becoming a professional by the time she was in 10th grade at Miami Valley School in Dayton, Ohio, says Vivienne Himmell. “Michelle was recruited to play Christmas Eve at every church you could possibly think of.”

The young musician went on to earn a BA in music from Case Western Reserve University, where she studied harp with Alice Chalifoux, and a BS in management. In 1981 she earned a MM in harp performance from CCM.

Michelle was classically trained but loved to infuse varying styles into her harp repertoire. She took lessons with CCM jazz professor emeritus Phil DeGreg on how to incorporate jazz style into her harp playing. Her technique proved to be successful and she became known as a very diverse artist, says longtime friend Larry Jones.

“She made quite a few records and got better and better,” says Jones. “A lot of it was her own interpretation and improvisation. She enjoyed fun music and creating new arrangements on the spot.”

Michelle played the harp nightly for 18 years at the Riverview Revolving Restaurant, now known as Eighteen at the Radisson in Covington. She also played harp for 13 years at the Cincinnatian hotel and routinely played at the Drake hotel in Chicago when she was in the area to perform with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.

Michelle Gwynne-Restauant Video from Michelle Gwynne on Vimeo. This is a compilation of tunes that Michelle typically played in her party/restaurant work.

“She just loved playing with other musicians,” says Jones, who became Michelle’s caregiver after she was diagnosed with cancer. “She loved making music with others. Even recently she still was involved with several orchestras but teaching was a major focus in her life.”

“She really loved being able to place a student in a college and she has kids placed coast to coast,” says Jones. “It was a reward for Michelle to see them go on and do great things.”

Michelle returned to CCM in 2009 to pursue a DMA in harp performance and boost her teaching credentials. CCM harp professor Gillian Benet Sella says Michelle was a passionate musician who had a great influence on many harp students in Cincinnati. She played a significant role in developing the harp programs at NKU and SCPA.

“Michelle Gwynne was an amazing teacher, who gave tirelessly to her students and cared deeply about their growth,” says Angela Powell Walker, Artistic Director at SCPA. “Her dedication to their success on the harp and personally was exemplary.”
Roger Himmell, Larry Jones and Vivienne Himmell with Michelle Gwynne's posthumous DMA in harp performance.

Roger Himmell, Larry Jones and Vivienne Himmell with Michelle Gwynne's posthumous DMA in harp performance.

Jones and Michelle’s parents were touched when so many of her students came to her funeral.

“It was so beautiful,” Vivienne Himmell remembers. “There were little children, adult students, fellow teachers — they all came to tell us that she was an inspiration.”

Michelle’s passion fueled her years of hard work as a harpist, scholar and teacher. Her posthumous DMA from CCM reflects a lifetime of commitment to the arts.


“She was a passionate musician and harpist,” Sella remembers. “Michelle's love of music drove her to work extremely hard to learn harp music in many genres including classical, jazz and pop. The Cincinnati harp community misses Michelle, her sense of humor, her passion and her commitment.”