'Cancer has made me really appreciate what I've got' Catrin Finch's breast cancer diagnosis earlier this year put her life in a spin - yet she continued to perform during her gruelling treatment. Jenny White meets the international musician and discovers how her harp gave her strength...
IJust after her marriage had broken up, she received a devastating breast cancer diagnosis which, understandably, meant that Wales' favourite harpist was pushed to the limits.
But anyone who follows her career will know that she continued to perform throughout much of her treatment and it was this that gave the mother-of-two the strength she needed.
"It's been a matter of keeping myself positive and the thought of sitting at home stewing and not doing anything was really affecting me," she says when we meet in a Cardiffcity centre coffee shop.
"I just wanted to try to keep going as much as I could. Now I feel really good about the fact I did that."
Not, she adds, that everyone with cancer would cope the same way - she is very aware that everybody is affected differently by a cancer diagnosis and the treatment process, but the harp has been her lifeblood since the age of six and playing it is clearly a source of focus and support - and, increasingly, a form of self expression.
While she is classically trained, her music has blossomed beyond the classical genre in recent years, most notably in the form of her ongoing collaboration with Seckou Keita, a renowned Senegalese master of the kora, a type of African harp. She has also started composing her own work - it is notable that the pieces on Soar, her critically-feted new album with Seckou, are original compositions.
"When we started playing together, we didn't initially know what to do so we both took traditional music and created pieces but, as time went on, we were playing more and more together and at soundchecks we started being more and more creative.
"It's been a natural process and it's very different to what I would do in a classical concert - and for that reason, I enjoy it, it's a refreshing change."
Catrin is not one to let her career stagnate - she is always on the move, seeking new opportunities and stretching her music into new territories.
"I love the harp repertoire, but the harp is also quite limited in what it can do in the classical world, so I've always had this urge and inclination to do other things as well. I think this kind of project opens that out and gives me an opportunity to be freer and more flexible."
While Catrin continued performing during her cancer treatment, it was not possible to go abroad.
Now that her chemotherapy is finished, she's working internationally again.
When we meet, she has just come back from a trip to perform in Marrakesh with Seckou, where the pair received a call to say Johnny Depp and Mark Rylance wanted tickets to their show.
"They were filming in Marrakesh and unfortunately their filming day ran over so they couldn't make it, but they sent the most amazing bunch of flowers and a beautiful letter saying how sorry they were to miss the gig.
"We were very excited - as a musician you never know who is listening to your work, especially with Spotify and streaming sites making it available to anyone at any time. I was really chuffed they wanted to see us."
Her surprise at this is touching, because she is not obscure herself. She has stacked up plenty of accolades over the years, had a lot of media exposure and released numerous albums, not to mention performing internationally, but she's the most natural, unaffected person you could wish to meet.
Born in Llanon, Ceredigion, she asked to learn the harp at six after her parents took her to a performance by acclaimed Spanish harpist Marisa Robles.
"I thought, I want to do that, so on my sixth birthday my parents rented a little Celtic harp and I started with the local peripatetic teacher in Aberystwyth - then, within a couple of years, I moved on to study with Elinor Bennett in north Wales.
"I'm the youngest of three and, ironically, having saved money on the babysitter, my parents had to spend the rest of their lives funding my harp career!" Her progress was unstoppable. By the age of nine, she had passed her grade eight harp examination and by 10 she had joined the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. She went on to study at the Purcell School and the Royal Academy of Music with Skaila Kanga, graduating with the Queen's Commendation for Excellence in 2002.
Her studies were peppered with other significant achievements - in 1999 she won the Lily Laskine International Harp Competition in France and, in 2000, she won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in New York City.
That same year, she was made Royal Harpist to HRH the Prince of Wales, a position she held until 2004.
She has gone on to performed extensively throughout the USA, South America, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and Europe, both as a soloist and with many of the world's top orchestras. She has also recorded for most of the major international recording companies, including Universal Records, Deutsche Grammophon, EMI and Sony Classical.
"I've never looked back," she says. "The first real game-changer came in the middle of my time at the Academy when I was appointed harpist to the Prince of Wales - I was asked to re-establish this tradition which had been dormant for 130 years.
"The press picked up on it and it led to an album produced by Karl Jenkins with Sony Classical."
Catrin left London in 2002 at the end of her studies and settled in Cardiff- she currently lives in a village just outside the city and is in the process of buying a new home nearby with her new partner Natalie.
It's clear that they are looking forward to the fresh start. Natalie, a charity fundraiser, has a young son who is in the same class at school as Catrin's youngest - Catrin has two girls, Ana Gwen, 11, and eight-year-old Pegi, from her marriage.
Deciding how to speak to her children about her illness was one of the big decisions of her cancer journey: "Helping children understand about a cancer diagnosis is hard when they are young.
CONTINUED ON PAGES 6&7 CONTINUED FROM PAGES 4&5 "The school was great - they got someone in from Macmillan to talk to my older daughter.
"I've read a lot about how to talk to children about cancer and I know different people choose to do different things and disclose different aspects of the illness to their children, but I decided to be completely honest about it from the start.
"I told them exactly what the situation was and what would happen to me.
"My youngest, Pegi, got particularly upset about the hair loss - she's at an age where hair is important for a girl. We had a very tearful day in the house when my hair started falling out but we got through it together.
"They came with me to Velindre (the cancer centre in Cardiff) on one occasion - I took a decision to bring them with me so they could see what was going on."
Catrin also decided to share her progress and experiences online, via her Instagram page. Her posts are heartfelt, honest and down to earth, covering everything from the tiredness brought on by chemotherapy to how she coped with hair loss - something she and Natalie tackled with a healthy dose of humour.
"The first real upset is when your hair falls out - it comes out over a few days. It's very quick once it starts, so that was very upsetting.
"Everyone deals with it differently. I took the decision to shave it offand I even joked about it. I chose never to have a wig - I went to the wig shop and was horrified and walked out.
"Again, it is a very personal choice, but I couldn't deal with the wig thing, so I just went bald. We had to see the funny side of it - once we got through the initial horror, it became funny that I had a bald head.
"My dad has a bald head, so we were always comparing me to his hair style."
Her decision to share updates on her experiences ran contrary to her first impulses when she received her diagnosis.
"At first I wanted to hide away and didn't want to see anybody or have that contact with people, but as time went on I began to realise how much you appreciate outside input in that situation.
"I also started to appreciate how many people had been through a similar situation - when you've had a cancer diagnosis, everyone starts saying things like 'I had it' or 'my mother had it' and you realise what a massive thing this is for everyone.
"That made me think that posting some videos of what it was like, and what I was going through, would help others, because it certainly helped me watching and reading about other people going through it. It makes you feel you are not the only one and it makes you feel supported.
"And while I initially wanted to be by myself, as time went on I got more and more appreciative of other people around me."
Her videos cover the drama of getting to her first chemotherapy treatment, which was scheduled on a day when a blizzard hit Cardiffand the surrounding areas.
Catrin had been selected to trial a new, cancertargeting drug and this came with strict rules about the timing of the accompanying chemotherapy. In practice, this meant it was essential that she got to Velindre for her chemotherapy appointment that day, snow or no snow.
"We woke up and there was a snow drift at the front door, so there was this tremendous operation to get me to Velindre. It involved my sister getting a friend to lend their 4x4. It was a huge thing, but we got there and then my trial nurse walked in and managed to give me my first chemo."
The events leading up to her diagnosis and treatment had unfolded quickly - she found the lump in mid-January, while touring. The tour had prevented her from getting checked out straight away, but as soon as she did, the NHS swung into action.
"The NHS has been incredible. I was referred by my doctor within 24 hours. I had to go away the next week, which delayed things slightly, but within a fortnight I was at the breast centre. The diagnosis came less than a month later.
"It throws your life into turmoil." It was not the first time breast cancer had struck her wider family. Like the actress Angelina Jolie, who famously underwent a double mastectomy to cut her chances of developing breast cancer, Catrin carries the BRCA1 gene fault, which increases an individual's chances of developing the disease.
"I knew I had this gene fault years ago, so it had been in back of my mind for a while. Five or six years ago I had a choice to have a mastectomy as a preventative measure, but life was busy and I put it to the back of my mind. I guess I do regret not having it now, but that's what happened."
In addition to the lump, Catrin had an inflamed lymph gland, so her doctors decided to go straight to chemotherapy to stop the cancer in its tracks. She was given seven cycles of chemotherapy, each lasting three weeks.
Her decision to keep touring sometimes meant being driven across the UK to be back home in time for chemotherapy the next day.
"I managed to do a 16-date tour in May and I did it because of this incredible team of people involved in the project. It was a logistical issue - there were days when I was in Sheffield, then they drove me through the night. I did it all with their help. I decided to do the tour because I needed to do it to push me forward.
"I think when you get a cancer diagnosis, not only do you have to come through the physical part of it - dealing with the chemotherapy and what it's doing to your body physically, but the mental part of it is also important."
On the physical side, she faced not only the trauma of losing her hair but also the debilitating side effects of the drugs.
"Initially you get the sickness, then you take the steroids to alleviate that, but they give you a fuzzy head and you become very lethargic, as if your brain is not in your body - so you have to weigh up how many steroids you want to take and how sick you want to be.
"The chemotherapy has a cumulative effect - it was doing what it should be doing and tumourwise you could see a difference within a few weeks, so that was very encouraging, but I got more and more tired."
Catrin had her last chemotherapy session in mid-July, followed by the double mastectomy in August. She is now in the process of breast reconstruction.
"The idea you've had a bit of your body cut off- that affects you, but on the other hand, I'm still here and I have this amazing sense of relief. I could have had a lumpectomy but I chose to have the double mastectomy as a preventative measure against it coming back - because in my family it has returned for a second time."
Now her focus is on new beginnings - including her new home with Natalie and a full return to touring.
"I just want to stay healthy and to keep going - there is a full diary for next year already. A lot of the travelling planned for this year got pushed back to next year and I am talking about ways to incorporate other musicians in that.
"I'm also involved with arrangements for the World Harp Congress to come to Cardiffin 2020 - I'm artistic director of that so it's going to take up a lot of my time - I'm arranging five days of harp based concerts from July 25-30."
Since Catrin first played with Seckou in 2012, the pair have discovered a deep musical affinity and their ongoing joint project has blossomed.
They met through a series of initially unfortunate events - in March 2012, producers Theatr Mwldan and Astar Artes called upon Seckou to stand in when a military coup detained the Malian kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate and prevented him from attending rehearsals for a major collaborative tour with Finch.
Seckou was drafted in from teaching in Italy to help prepare the repertoire with Catrin, which he did before handing over to Toumani, who managed to arrive just hours before the first concert of the tour. It was the first time Catrin had ever seen or heard a kora. Seckou, a kora master and Senegalese griot with royal blood, didn't read music.
CONTINUED ON PAGE 8 CONTINUED FROM PAGES 6&7 The chemistry set between them and, after a successful tour with Toumani (on which Seckou was invited to guest in recognition of his contribution), it became clear that there was a potential for a future project.
As the two of them continued to play together, it became apparent that their two seeming disparate nations may in fact be closer than they first appeared.
"I'd be playing one of my pieces, and Seckou would say - 'I know that one'! It made us question whether in fact there was a deeper history there," says Catrin.
Their latest album, Soar, follows on from their award-winning debut album Clychau Dibon, released in 2013 - and the collaboration clearly has wings to fly further still.
"It's been great - the whole project with Seckou was a bit of an experiment - he had his career and I was doing my thing. We thought we would try this out and it became bigger than either of us imagined.
"It's been a very organic process - nothing was expected - and when you have that situation, everything is a nice surprise."
The album's enthusiastic reviews reflect the success of this extraordinary collaboration - a pairing which, as far as they know, has not been done in this way before.
"The harp and the kora make a very distinctive sound and sometimes people don't know who is doing what - you create this soundscape and people come to the gig and they kind of take a deep breath. In today's crazy world you don't often get a chance to do that.
"It's certainly sparked a lot of interest and that drives you forward - it keeps you wanting to push it. That's what we'll do, just keep pushing forward until we decide to stop - and we may never decide to stop."
Relaxed, confident and looking to the future, Catrin is on great form. Her hair has grown back and is styled in a neat crop, her cheeks glow with colour and the turbulence of the past year or so seems to have cultivated a healthy relaxation about where her life will go next - rather than plotting a course, she is happy to see where her career takes her, while maintaining the levels of discipline and control that ensure that her work is as good as it can be.
"With the music world, you never know what's going to happen next. You just have to follow your journey, believe in it and treat every performance as your last.
"You are only as good as your last performance, so you have to make sure you keep on top of it," she says. "I'm very lucky to be able to make a career out of this - you get to travel and as long as I can continue to do it, I'll do it - when it stops, it stops, and for whatever reason that will be, we will deal with it at that time.
"The last nine months of cancer have made me really appreciate what I've got and what I'm able to do in my career.
"It's also brought a bit of perspective to it, because you do get a bit caught up in your own world and I've always been very career dominated - ever since I was a six year old, my whole life has been the harp. I'm not saying it's not any more, what I'm saying is there is a whole world out there and I'm a bit more calm with the whole thing.
"I think if it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, something else will. I don't get so troubled by things."
| Soar by Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita is out now
Helping children understand about a cancer diagnosis is hard when they are youngOnce we got through the initial horror, it became funny that I had a bald headYou are only as good as your last performance, so you have to make sure you keep on top of it
<B Welsh Harpist Catrin Finch and, top left, with Seckou Keita
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|Publication:||Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Nov 17, 2018|
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