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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.