Conductor and Harpist

 Conductor and Harpist: How to Be Good Partners

by Joyce Rice


Conductor Hamish McKeich and harpist Carolyn Mills
(Thanks to New Zealand Symphony Orchestra


Harpists new to the orchestral setting plus conductors unfamiliar with harps or their players can make for a rocky boat ride. What can be done to calm the waters?


I’m sure there are harpists who have had lessons and decide or are asked to join a community orchestra. It can be a wonderful experience getting to know a large variety of orchestral works and becoming acquainted with other music-lovers. But most of those other instrumentalists have at least been in a school band or orchestra and learned how to follow the baton and what a 4/4 or 3/4 beat looks like, whereas many harp students have only been working on solo repertoire. Any harpist in that position should try to learn conducting patterns, maybe sit in (without harp) at a school or college rehearsal, counting and watching. Harp ensembles have also been a great boon in learning to follow the baton.


What else can harpists at any level do to have a smooth connection with the conductor?

  • Work on good rhythm and a full tone so you can be heard.

  • Ask to get your parts as soon as possible. If you can, listen to recordings of the upcoming pieces while watching your score to become a little familiar with the work and your part in it.

  • Learn your part well before the first rehearsal. You’ll probably have no section partner to cover for you.

  • Mark your parts with pedal changes and put pedal charts at all rehearsal letters or numbers so you can be ready to start quickly at any place. If there are a lot of changes in a particular place, alert the conductor before rehearsal or during intermission so he’ll know to check with you before starting.

  • Patti Warden suggests that, alternatively, you make a photocopy of the part before you add in your markings, then add them to the photocopy. Other harpists might prefer different markings, and if the part is a rental, there are charges for erasing any markings. Keep your photocopies of parts in a file for yourself.

  • Keep your harp in good regulation – every two years at least. I was in my 30s before I heard of regulation – bet I could have qualified for that “harpists are either tuning or playing out of tune” quip.

  • Arrive at the hall at least 45 minutes early to tune. Customarily, orchestras tune to A=440, but if possible, ask, as there may be a reason for a different tuning. If you need to tune otherwise, check it again a couple of times before the rehearsal starts.
  • (Some conductors might not know about pedals, tuning, strings, etc., thinking a harp works like a piano. Elizabeth Volpe-Bligh tells about one who asked her for ‘more pedal’! What did he want – more sustain? Louder? Lia Lonnert in “Surrounded by Sound” mentions a conductor who “asked me to ‘tune A-flat, then A-natural, then A-sharp. Oh, it’s not good, make it a little bit higher or a little bit lower.’ She told him, ‘It can be this way or that way.’ ”).
  • Many harpists find that tuning in Cb, with all the pedals up and the discs disengaged, gets a better result. You might want to check super-exposed places with their correct pedals, though, to be sure those are in tune.
  • Are there a lot of chords in your part? You might want to ask the conductor if s/he wants wide or tightly rolled chords. When should you play them – start on the beat or end on the beat?

  • Don’t read or check your phone during tacet parts. Follow the conductor, counting measures until your next entrance, and prepare your pedals. Julia Kay Jamieson says, “I have found that the best thing for a good relationship with conductors is to watch them like a hawk even during rests - for me it is like relationship building. I get a sense of their style and personality and skill and how they work with the orchestra.  If they see you looking at them even during a rest they will learn that you are very present and attentive, which is important. With eye contact they can learn if you are confident and ready to go or worried about an entrance and so need a good cue, and you can learn if they are confident or if they have their hands full and you shouldn't expect any attention.”

  • Don’t chat when the conductor’s talking. His remarks may not apply to you but any talking is disruptive to those around you, and you can learn a lot about the piece by listening.

  • If the conductor criticizes you, smile and say “OK.” If you disagree, hash it out later. Like most people, conductors don’t like to be challenged in front of everyone.

  • If asked to do something impossible, improvise. John Carrington says,I did have a conductor ask if my harmonic could be ‘more pdlt’ ! I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of the orchestra [because harmonics are played in the middle of the string, not près de la table or next to the soundboard] so I just played the harmonic and with my other hand “ghosted” the octave above down near the board to blend the two sounds. He thought it was perfect.”

  • If there seems to be an error in your part or you’re confused by something, ask the conductor for help after the rehearsal.

  • Learn to be adaptable. I once played a Nutcracker run of a dozen or so performances and the conductor’s tempos were markedly different each time.
  • What you hear in the orchestra may not match what you’ve heard in a recording. Once my Harp II partner (and friend) wasn’t staying with the conductor. “Hey,” I said, “follow the beat!” “But he’s doing it at a different tempo from the record I listened to,” he complained….


Conductor Ludovic Morlot, recently retired from the Seattle Symphony, and harpist Valerie Muzzolini

(Thanks to Seattle Symphony / James Holt)


What can the conductor do to work well with the harpist? 

  • Understand that a harpist may not be as experienced in orchestral playing as other instrumentalists, especially at a community orchestra level. Feel lucky to have a harpist. Being kind and helpful will reap more rewards than being what one harpist calls “a bully”.

  • If a school conductor with a harpist, make friends with the harp teacher who can edit parts to fit the student’s ability level.

  •  Make the harp part available as early as possible. It can be difficult for harpists to sight-read parts at the first rehearsal because pedal changes and pedal charts need to be written in. Sometimes fingering, too, to make the part playable. (It’s not unusual for a harp part to resemble more a piano part but harpists play with eight fingers -no pinkies - and pianists with ten, so adjustments are often necessary.)

  • Choose a good spot to place the harp. For years I was put behind the first violins, so as not to be in the way of other players, I guess, but that meant the sound went toward the conductor rather than out to the audience. Karen Beth Atz, the Madison Symphony Orchestra's principal harpist, says, “Sitting beside the percussion section against the back wall… is an ideal spot because the wall helps bounce the sound out.” Valerie Muzzolini of the Seattle Symphony usually sits in front of the percussion at about 10:30 or 11:00 o’clock so her harp is facing toward the audience.

  • At rehearsals, give enough time for the harpist to change pedals, if necessary.

  • A very clear beat will help everyone, not just the harpist, especially in music with lots of meter changes. Be aware that the harpists’ eyes move in a triangle. They must look frequently to the right at the strings, then to the left to the music, then forward to you, whereas most other players don’t need to look at their instruments and have both their music and you in front of them. Also, sometimes the harpists must turn completely away from you to see the uppermost strings.

(When I was 21 and a recent college graduate, I took a junior high teaching job several states away and was glad to hear that there was a community orchestra nearby. In the first rehearsal, though, I was having trouble following the conductor. “Harp, you’re not with me!” he finally called out. “I’m sorry but I’m not seeing your downbeat.” “Then maybe you shouldn’t be playing in this orchestra!” he retorted. I never went back – it's his loss, I grumbled to myself - but several orchestra members thanked me. “We can’t see the downbeat, either,” they said.)


One harpist who shall remain unnamed says, “My most unpleasant types of interactions with conductors are when they anticipate a problem before it happens, maybe because they are inexperienced or because they have worked with a less experienced harpist in the past. This plays out either by getting some sort of talking-to before something even happens (which is baffling, embarrassing, and anxiety inducing), or by getting a cue that is overdone: extra motions, subdivided to death, etc.  In the case of the overdone cue, when it is out of character from the rest of what they are doing it looks like there is a problem and so it is harder to just play normally. So a conductor anticipates a problem and then creates it... I would hope that conductors and harpists both spend some time getting to know each other as individuals, not assuming anything but instead observing a lot.”



Last words 

  • Elizabeth Volpe-Bligh says, “I've always had excellent relationships with the conductors I've worked with. Maybe it's because I watch the baton, learn my parts before the first rehearsal, listen carefully to the rest of the orchestra, and get there early enough to tune and warm up.

  • Lia Lonnert quotes Natalia Shameyeva thus: “You know in orchestra we had very funny rules [about] how to behave with the conductor. The first rule is that the conductor is always right. The second: If the conductor is not right, see the first rule.”

  • Lonnert quotes Anna Levina: ‘I never regret my choice of playing orchestra. But it all depends on the conductor’.



Karen Beth Atz in Harp, Piano and Organ Players are the Orchestra’s Loners by Sandy Tabachnik at

Lia Lonnert: Surrounded by Sound: Experienced Orchestral Harpists ’Professional Knowledge and Learning. Printed in Sweden by Media-Tryck, Lund University Lund 2015. 


Thanks to:  


John CarringtonSeattle, WA


Susi Hussong, Seattle WA


Julia Kay Jamieson, Champaign, IL


Elizabeth Volpe-BlighVancouver, British Columbia, Canada


Patti WardenSeattle WA

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