07/17/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Every day is casual day when you're a 20-year-old music student. So Catrin Finch's roommates suspected something was up when they started seeing her in dresses instead of jeans. "I kept having to dress up really posh for my visits to the palace," she says.
That would be St. James's Palace, where she is now Harpist to the Prince of Wales. Reviving a dormant centuries-old tradition (the last royal harpist was appointed in 1871), Prince Charles sent word around: Get me a harpist aged 19 to 25. The quest ended in the four-bedroom London flat that Finch, whose former teacher was on the prince's selection committee, shares with three other young students at the Royal Academy of Music. "My flatmate Nick said I had a call from the palace, and I said, 'Yeah, right,' " she recalls. But when the royal staff explained the situation, she says, "I felt pure excitement." And nerves: To get ready for her debut performance as royal harpist in May, Finch downed two bananas: She can't eat anything else before playing. ("I also have to find a corridor so I can pace around," she explains.) The reviews crowned her evening: "You dazzled the room with your virtuosity and musicality," Prince Charles wrote her.
Heady stuff for a girl from the village of Llanon, Wales. Finch, the youngest of three children born to Chris, 49, who works for an agricultural agency, and Marianne, 50, a college librarian and piano teacher (they are separated), also picked up a nifty gold brooch and a $3,750-a-year stipend (for about 12 gigs a year), but there has been a price: "I gave up my childhood to harp practice," she says. Making up for lost time, she has begun imperiling her career with in-line skating adventures. "It is a risk," Finch says, "but I have to do a few normal things."