Our regional Virginia music scene lost an institution with the passing of John Kovac, harp master, performer, instrument maker, inventor, and friend and mentor to many, in July of 2022.
In recent years, we often wandered into ThunWa Thai and other area restaurants to find John, his wife Judi Floyd, and musical friends from far and near playing a variety of harp music, jazz, American folk songs, and South American tunes on harp, guitar, and percussion instruments.
John was famous for his hand-built harps and harp kits. How did this come about? We spoke with Judi about his progression from attorney to musician.
John moved from New Jersey to Virginia in the early 1980s following his best friend, Michael Ordower. He took a position at Blue Ridge Legal Services and got busy helping clients with housing issues.
From his website. While visiting Colombia with the Peace Corps in 1977, John Kovac saw a harpist playing at the Hilton Hotel in Bogota. Fascinated by the harpist and his instrument, John foolishly traveled six hours on a bus to the musician’s home. That visit to the humble harp maker’s shop (complete with chickens running around in the yard) resulted in John’s first harp purchase and a new mission: to some day make his own harp. Ten years later, he reached his goal. His passion for the folk harp flourished and in 1991, John gave up his law practice for a new profession: musician and instrument maker.
Judi tells us the transition from harp owner to player was not immediate. While John had returned from the Columbian harp maker’s shop with his own instrument, he did not learn to play it until a friend insisted that he perform for an event. John rose to the challenge, and his true engagement with the harp began. He made many trips to Paraguay, studying and playing with harpists. He also began making harps as a hobby, and then selling them at craft shows.
Judi and John met at a craft show in Fall of 1990, finding many shared interests including music and South American travel. By 1991, John was ready to transition from lawyer to harp maker, and Judi to pause a long career as nurse practitioner in Adams Morgan. In John’s words, he “gave up the practice of law for the practice of music.”
Together they made and sold 20 harps a year — and traveled to about 20 craft shows a year — for the next fifteen to twenty years. Harps alone did not bring in a full income, so they added cassettes and later CDs of John’s music, making new recordings regularly for their many repeat customers.
The digital age, picking up speed in the 2000s, dampened CD sales and eventually prompted a move to YouTube, with John’s Daily Harp Moments series that grew into many videos featuring musician friends, gospel singers, and a rich assortment of musical pieces.
The craft show circuit shifted to a focus on mail order harp sales. John and Judi shipped kits all over the world, to all seven continents, including a PVC harp made especially for a visitor to Antarctica. An inveterate tinkerer and inventor, John filled his workshop with handmade harps, guitars, and other instruments, and he never grew tired of experimenting with harp designs.
Yearly trips to Guatemala increased John and Judi’s shared love of the regional art, music, and culture, and connected them with a wide circle of Paraguayan, Columbian, and Venezuelan musical friends, many of whom visited and played with them locally over the years.
John’s interests evolved to enabling people to make their own harps, and he and Judi hosted many guests with a B&B-style workshop package, the guest leaving with their own harp. In the summer of 2020, they sold the business to student Davey Clark, who continues the tradition of teaching harp making.
In recent years, John taught harp and guitar through Mountain View Music and increasingly enjoyed the companionship of Nandu, a former service dog trainee John and Judi had fostered as a puppy, who later became John’s beloved pet.
From a Mountain View Music program: John Kovac, a known and respected expert in harp playing and building harps, has taught guitar and harp to hundreds of students for more than 40 years. In addition to recording with the Moscow Symphony, he also possesses more than 25 CD recordings. Having lectured about harp making at the Library of Congress, he also wrote three books: The Musician’s Guide to Playing Music by Ear, Harpmaking Made Simple, and PVC Musical Instruments and How to Make Them. You may have seen him on Main Street Front Royal, where he plays harp and concertina nightly at the various restaurants in town. John teaches guitar and harp at Mountain View Music.
As John’s health declined, his motto became more and more, “I live in this moment”. A small painting with those words sits on a shelf filled with mechanical toys and mementos. Judi showed us John’s mural of mountains painted on a back building, with a custom-cut fence following the painted mountains’ curved line. He was driven to create and to celebrate the beauty of this world up to the end. An artist friend has since added a bespectacled angel over the mountains.
“I live in this moment” is a fitting description for a lifetime of curiosity, inventiveness, geniality, engagement, and generous service. John Kovac’s legacy of harp music lives on with his students and the many, many people who had the pleasure of attending his performances. His life is a testament to the power of showing up, genuine enthusiasm, and the quest for knowledge.
Here at National Media Services, we count John as one of our original customers, from way back in the days of cassette duplication. His CD catalog numbered in the dozens, and we were always delighted to see him walk through the door with a new CD master or a harp making worksheet. If Heaven is a place full of harp-playing angels, we would like to think of John Kovac perched on a cloud, happily trading riffs with a group of like-minded musical souls.
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