Tips on Preparing Orchestral Harp Parts

Tips on Preparing Orchestral Harp Parts

by Elizabeth Volpé Bligh, Principal Harp, Vancouver Symphony
(first edition published in American Harp Society Journal, Teachers' Forum Summer, 2000) 


Here are lots of things you can do to help make your orchestra experience more comfortable and enjoyable for both you and your conductor. Elizabeth has listed invaluable ideas that it sometimes takes orchestral harpists decades to discover for themselves. If you are a teacher, you might help your student edit or make pedal markings, listen with him or her  for cues on a recording, or conduct while your student is playing the part, including starting at rehearsal markings or numbers.


Before the first rehearsal:

  • Get the harp part as early as possible. Make copies of all the difficult parts you get, catalogue them, and file them away for the future. When a piece is programmed in a subsequent season you will not have to solve the same problems again.

  • Mark the pedal changes before you start practicing. Draw pedal diagrams at every starting point (rehearsal letter or number). They may not match the key signature! Look for chromatic passages and make them more efficient by using enharmonics where possible.

  • Keep the part tidy! Put the right pedal marking above the left, either in the middle of the staff or just underneath. Never obliterate dynamic markings or other important notations by writing pedal changes too close. Always use lead pencil that is easily erased. Eliminate awkward page turns by copying a page to be folded out, or copy in the next bars on the bottom of the page.

  • Use fingerings that allow you to look at the conductor and make the right accents. Split single-line parts between both hands to avoid over-use injuries. It helps to look for patterns and use the same fingerings for all similar configurations. Avoid jumping around; place whenever possible, and use the same finger on the same note if you can.

  • Edit impossible passages. If a part contains ten-note chords, stretches that require hands the size of platters, pedal changes so numerous that you are performing zapateado, lines so far apart that you need a third eye, lines so close together that your left hand is tripping over your right, chord jumps that should be in the Olympics….don’t be a hero! Just find a way to get the right effect, with the correct harmony, rhythm and line, and everyone’s happy. If there are two harp parts, re-distribute the parts to avoid nasty pedal changes, a host of awkward problems, and a frazzled second harpist.

  • Mark the part legibly with measure numbers and cues. If the part has numbered bars, figure out the bar numbers for all your starting points and mark them in. If you have a recording of the piece, listen to it, pencil in hand, and mark all the important cues that help you with your entrances. If you have 14 measures to count, and there is a trumpet solo in the fourth bar, write “m4 trpt” in the space provided. This will give you great confidence when you’re performing.


At the first rehearsal:

  • Continue to mark in cues as you hear them and get cues from other musicians’ parts during the breaks. Many conductors don’t give cues. Planning and preparation on your part will lead to self-sufficiency and success.

  • Write in “solo” over any exposed parts and “covered” over any places where all your hard-practiced notes are obliterated by thick orchestration or enthusiastic brass players. Harpists everywhere will bless you for this.

  • If the conductor says “We will start at bar 118” and you do not have that marked, start counting “118, 119, 120” until you get to the spot in your music where you do have a numbered bar. Often there is not enough time to do the math to figure out how many bars there are to your next spot.

  • Mark phrases and cues, especially towards the last bars of repeated patterns. Some pieces repeat the same pattern more than 20 times, and it is very easy to lose count. Write a “1” in the first of a lengthy section of repeated bars or patterns, a “2” in the second, etc., to help you keep track. Odd phrases, hemiolas, and other phrases and accents that do not match the bar lines may confuse you. Write in the melody and sing it as you practice.

  • Check the tempi! Sometimes a fingering works well at a slow tempo, but becomes completely impossible at the breakneck speed so popular with many conductors. Have a “Plan B” for any awkward passages. It may be necessary to throw away a few notes in order to facilitate beautiful, even playing. It is not helpful to give the conductor a speeding ticket as you remark, "Where's the fire?"

  • Divide the tacet bars into phrases so they can be counted that way, instead of the odd numbers that are unfortunately in so many parts. In “The Nutcracker”, for example, one finds rehearsal letters in bizarre places. It is much easier to count by the phrase rather than by 7, 9 or 15. “Candide” by Bernstein, and “Sleeping Beauty” by Tchaikovsky, are numbered in tens, making them excruciating to count. For some unfathomable reason, a few composers put the rehearsal letters on the last bar of a phrase! Other pieces feature a similar lack of logic. Be forewarned!

  • Don’t trust the part. If it sounds wrong, there is a good chance that it is. Ask the conductor. However, occasionally he or she may not understand or hear your question, so you should also check the score yourself at the next break. If there is a mistake, fix it legibly and permanently, so the next harpist doesn’t have to suffer.

  • Read “The Harp in the Orchestra” by Beatrice Schroeder Rose. It’s full of great examples of ways to fix unmanageable parts.

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