1. Practice with a light shining in your face.
Once I played harp for a lovely wedding reception on a cruise boat. Dramatic clouds spotted the western sky as a glowing red sun sank toward the horizon. The boat cruised the St. Croix river, the sun sank and the guests milled contentedly around me. Golden light would illuminate my music, dazzling my eyes until I could barely see, and then disappear behind a guest, a cloud, or a hill, plunging me and my notes into utter (comparative) darkness. Of course the battery on my stand light had died. While I was able to play without too much difficulty, the lighting situation certainly diverted my attention. Practice being comfortable in diverse lighting situations.
2. Practice with the television turned up to high volume
Sometimes the background noise at a gig will be so overwhelming that you literally cannot hear your own harp. At other times the notes coming out of your harp will sound wrong due to external factors such as when you are warming up against the backdrop of an orchestra before a concert or trying to compete with the pipe band across the fairgrounds. Practice trusting your hands even when the auditory input from your instrument is removed or distorted.
3. Have two or three friends stand in a cluster right next to you and carry on a conversation.
I am often surprised by how close guests will stand to my harp at an event. I can frequently hear every single thing they say, whether I try to listen or not. Loud conversations can be extremely distracting, especially if they are interesting. Practice maintaining focus.
4. Train your family members to jostle the music stand as they walk by.
In crowded venues, people will often miscalculate the amount of space occupied by harp, stand and chair. They will run into your music and it is your job to simply keep playing. In really crowded situations I sometimes put a foot down on one leg of the music stand to keep it from tipping over into my harp, especially if someone is standing very close with their back toward me! Practice maintaining the pulse of the music (not necessarily the correct notes) even if you lose your place on the page. Practice coming to a graceful stop if you absolutely cannot continue, such as if your music falls off the stand.
5. Practice making eye contact and smiling at various objects during the most challenging passages of your pieces.
Inevitably people will give their compliments when you can least afford to look away from your harp or music. I strongly believe that it is very important to acknowledge people when they compliment you. It is not necessary to say anything, but you do need to attempt a split second of eye contact and maybe a smile or a nod. This courtesy is more meaningful than playing all the right notes! Practice looking away from your music every so often. Practice nodding. Practice smiling while you play.
6. Practice with all the lights turned off.
A few years ago I played for an outdoor wedding ceremony after which I was scheduled to play for the cocktail hour. I began to move my harp to the reception area and made an appalling series of realizations.
- A) the cocktail hour was to be held on the patio
- B) it was mid-autumn in Minnesota and by the end of the reception it would be pitch black outside
- C) the patio was not lighted
- D) my stand light was dead (again).
(If you’re seeing a pattern here, good. Stand lights and back up batteries and back-ups for back-up batteries are all very important. But in fifteen years of gigging, there are moments where things just don’t go right.)
I played all my difficult non-memorized pieces first while it was still light out. As the sun sank I transitioned to my larger print lead-sheet pieces or ones that I was fairly certain I could fake the chords. By the end of the hour I was playing by feel from memory.
When preparing for a gig, assume less than ideal lighting conditions and make sure ahead of time that your markings are clear and legible. Consider adding chord symbols to your music to facilitate any improvisation that may be necessary.
Have a funny gig story? Please share in the comments below!
Stephanie Claussen is a professional harpist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She performs on her harp throughout Minnesota in various concerts, recitals, and collaborations with other musicians. Sign up for her e-mail newsletter to receive important announcements and notifications of upcoming performances.