Phyllis Mauney: retired Marine, career musician and, most likely, the Lowcountry resident who has played harp for the higher number of presidents.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps E-9 gunnery sergeant Phyllis Mauney has never fired a weapon, but she wields a mean harp.
The 57-year-old Bluffton resident, who moved to the area in 2005, joined the Corps in 1978 after auditioning for “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band. After years with the Marines and performing with symphonies, she’s now a freelance harpist. But she doesn’t carry her harp around in a hip holster; it’s a 75-pound, 46-string load that she delivers and sets up by her diminutive self. “It fits nicely into my van, but sometimes I call on a friend to help,” she says.
Mauney performs solo and occasionally with duos at weddings, receptions and social events. She holds down a regular gig is at First Presbyterian Church, where she performs with the Tim Reynolds-directed Hilton Head Choral Society. “I’ve always loved performing with a choral group, and Tim is a wonderful conductor,” she says.
Mauney came by the harp honestly: Her dad, Miles, who died in 2010, was one-half of the well-known piano duo the Mauney Twins, and her mom, Dorothy, was a violin virtuoso (Dorothy, now 83, still teaches more than a dozen students on Hilton Head). Mauney was playing piano at age 5 and violin at 7. At 13, she wanted her “own” instrument, and Dorothy suggested the harp, which her grandmother bought for her. The $9,000 instrument today would cost closer to $40,000.
While with the President’s band, Mauney performed for Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The White House gigs were usually state dinners, receptions and small parties, and like most Marines, she was on call at a minute’s notice.
Mauney has played harp for a White House wedding engagement party for Prince Charles and Princess Di, was accompanied on “Danny Boy” by President Clinton (‘He took a lot of interest in the harp and chatted with me,” she says), and, during a break in a performance at a Reagan reception, enjoyed an impromptu massage from John Travolta. “I was taking a few minutes’ break, and someone started rubbing my shoulders from behind,” she says. “I turned around to say thanks and it was Travolta.”
Mauney has two harps — one for backup — and both are from Lyon & Healy, the Chicago-based granddaddy of harp makers. She tunes her hand-carved harps before each performance, but they get an annual “regulating,” or fine-tuning, by professionals.
She’s not playing for the Marines anymore, but Mauney’s favorite (and most-requested) tunes include “The Way We Were,” “What the World Needs Now,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “All I Ask of You,” “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” “Charade,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Scarborough Fair.” But she can rock the house, too, and can knock out a mean “Stairway to Heaven.” And once, with typical Marine gung-ho, she played for six hours without repeating a single song.