4.5 Make Friends With a Harpist

Eira Lynn Jones. Senior Tutor in Harp, Royal Northern College of Music 

Background information

Many young harpists start on a lever harp, due to financial considerations and availability of instruments. The average age to progress to a pedal harp is usually as a teenager (13/14 years), at which point they have also grown enough to cope with a full size instrument. Often the second study instrument has been a piano. Therefore, the experience of regular playing in ensembles/orchestras, which string players have plenty of access to from a young age, is already significantly reduced. Even at conservatoire entry level, we find that orchestral experiences can be limited in many cases, so be aware of that. Youth orchestra repertoire can have difficult harp parts, which might be a challenge to a young, inexperienced player. e.g. Adagio from Kachaturian’s Spartacus has a tricky harp part due to pedal changes, but sounds easy

Get to know the harp

One of the best pieces of advice I can give a conductor is to get to know the harp. Have a session with a harpist and be aware of the physicality of playing it. The music on the page looks like piano music, as we use treble and bass clef, but the writing for it “should be” completely different. We don’t use our little fingers and we have 2 feet to move 7 pedals, each having 3 positions. Understand how the pedals work, and how much time we need to set them: e.g. between movements and in rehearsal when a conductor suddenly announces “from letter B”.

Sit behind a harp and get a feel of what it’s like to turn your head to look at the  strings, then back at the music, and then to look up at a conductor. It can also be a challenge depending on where we are placed on the stage. A good sight-line for us is crucial.

The bottom 2 strings of a pedal harp (7th Octave D and C) do not have a mechanism, so can’t be altered in pitch within a movement. There are times when we might have to re-tune these notes between movements.

We can replace and tune up a new string relatively fast, but it can take a while to settle to pitch. A very hot/cold venue can also cause havoc with tuning and, during a performance, there is not much we can do. Harpists always try to arrive early to tune, but if the instrument has been in a transport van and is only unloaded 30 minutes before a rehearsal, then the tuning won’t settle immediately.


A harpist needs to prepare parts in advance by writing in pedal changes and pedal charts, also writing in cues and preparing the best fingerings. This can take a huge amount of preparation. Last minute changes of repertoire, with a harpist sight-reading in rehearsal, can be stressful, and consideration should be given to a player for that. The same is true if there is a change of singer, and an aria lands on the stand in a different key – the harpist would have to start again with writing in pedal changes

Where to place the harp

Traditionally, the harp is placed on the conductor’s left side, behind the string section. Most of the orchestra prefer this, as we are then not in anyone’s sight-line. But is it the best place for us? Not always.

Ideally, it is good to have the harps on a raised platform so that we can see the conductor clearly, and it also helps with our projection. However, some raised platforms don’t have enough depth for us, and this can also be a problem!

Being far away from the front desk means that we can’t always hear a violin/cello solo. We depend very much on the conductor to help. Our right ear is close to the strings, so when we play at a good volume, we hear ourselves very clearly, but not always the other solo from afar. It is easy for us to sound ‘late’; so help is needed with that.

Often we play with the cello/bass line; but being the other side of the orchestra means it can be difficult to place exactly together. When there is a piece which has a prominent harp/bass ensemble line, especially with pizzicato; then consider having the harp and basses together.

Try to place the harp in the middle of the orchestra for pieces which need good ensemble work. e.g. Adagietto from Mahler 5. Then near the front for soloistic parts like Ravel’s Tzigane and Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. I recently played Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique with both harps sitting right in front of the conductor – it was a revelation to be able to hear the orchestra so well, and the front desk of strings also commented on how useful it was for that movement.

Equally I’ve played the Berlioz with one harp on either side of the orchestra – it didn’t work, as we need to hear each other – especially for the famous descending scale!

All new position points should be decided during rehearsal sessions, and NOT on the day of the concert.

Placing of the harp in a ballet/opera pit has to be chosen carefully. The ideal place is behind the first violins, close to the open part of the pit, rather than underneath the stage, from where the projection can be difficult.

The second harp should be on the right-hand side of the Principal and set slightly further back. This is so that they can see the Principal player’s hands on the strings – essential in doubling passages, when the second player relies more on seeing the  Principal, than just following the baton.


This is the most common phrase thrown at the harps, but not always the most useful! Find ways of helping the harp come through across the orchestra by positioning nearer the front of the stage; ask to play lower in the strings to get a dry sound, which will carry more; balance the orchestra against the harps; using a raised platform. Ask the 2nd harp to double-up in tutti sections where needed.

In many Russian works, the parts state 1 or 2 harps. Shostakovich always wanted 2 harps, not just for volume, but to get a richer sound – this was relayed to me by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.

Sir Mark Elder once famously said to the trumpets, “If you can’t hear the harps, you are too loud”. He felt our line was the important one and understood that we can’t always play at fff without compromising quality of sound. He works tirelessly to get the best sound from the harps, without us just playing forte all the time. I would recommend any young conductor to talk to him about how to balance the harp in an orchestra. Tell him I sent you!

If a composer such as Debussy/Ravel notated us at p or pp level, then there is a reason for that.

Glissandi are often-used effects for us; but loud, repeated glisses can damage our fingers, causing blisters (callouses). If more sound is needed in a forte section, harpists will usually use ‘picks’: pedal felts which create a bigger sound without shredding skin. This is particularly useful in film music, where there are usually multiple glisses. We sometimes use them when rehearsing other types of programmes, to save our fingers for the performance.

The Second Harp

Some second harp parts are much harder than the first. e.g. Holst’s Mercury from The Planets, due to having to play on the off-beat. The Principal often gets the glory, but  a good 2nd player is worth her/his weight in gold. It really is a team effort.

Tacet until…

Be aware that some harp parts have ‘TACET until” marked in, with no cues at all. We try to find scores or get a spare violin part in advance, but often we depend on conductors to cue us in – e.g. Janáček’s Sinfonietta. We really do need a cue from you, as we have nothing on the page!

Ready and Waiting

Harpists have to sit around for many hours waiting to play. Some advance warning from conductors as to when they are needed, or not, can make it a more enjoyable experience, and this kind of care is always much appreciated . . . if possible!


They are notated in the part with a circle above or below the notes. They usually sound an octave higher. If you want a stronger sounding harmonic, then you can ask the player to double with the octave above. Harmonics generally ‘sound’ late, so the harpist needs to anticipate the beat, and the conductor needs to be very clear. In Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 the harp and celeste need to practise together, with the celeste ideally being able to see the harpist. This won’t work if we are separated across the orchestra. There are several situations where celeste, harp, piano need to be close.

5-note figures

5-note figures in each hand, are often used by Strauss (e.g., Don Jua) or Wagner. These 2 composers are not the best examples of good harp writing. As we play with only fingers of each hand, then we modify the part to allow for fluent playing with a good result. Many Wagner parts are not idiomatic, or sometimes just unplayable, and we often rearrange the parts between the players to get the best result.

Arpeggiated Chords

It is not always notated in our parts whether a chord should be broken, or not. Some direction from the conductor as to whether they want us to start or finish the chord on the beat is welcome: it all depends on personal taste and musical context.


For young or student players, it can be daunting to be the only player in the section, especially in the early years of orchestral playing. If there are issues with a cadenza/solo, then it’s better to ask to work with the player during the break, rather than in front of the whole orchestra. This helps with confidence and develops a good working relationship which can help them to thrive.

Final Notes

I have worked with many conductors during my orchestral career. The ones who made a favourable impression on me are those with a clear beat, who are reliable with their cues, use rehearsal time well, have attention to detail and a thirst for finding out how the harp works best within the orchestral context. Keep talking to us and explore what the harp can do. Good luck!

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