In Part 1 and Part 2 of the series Practicing for Any Contingency, I shared tips on preparing for background harp gigs and for solo harp concerts. In this post I’ll talk about all the extra steps involved in preparing for an orchestra, choir, or chamber group concert as a harpist.
1. Mark your music.
Since we harpists often only attend one or two rehearsals before the performance, taking the time to analyze and mark the music ahead of time is essential to feeling prepared at rehearsals.
Add pedal diagrams throughout your part. Where? Everywhere! More seriously, add them right before and after tricky passages that you expect to be practicing frequently on your own. Also anywhere you think the ensemble might start in rehearsal, and it’s not a bad idea to include them right before any exposed solo sections.
Make sure all pedals or lever changes are clearly marked.
Number long sections of empty measures or identical measures to avoid getting lost.
Add cues for yourself such as “v.s.” before page turns (meaning you’ll have to play immediately upon turning the page) or “time” (for the opposite).
Make sure your fingerings and brackets are clear and well thought out. Check them at final tempo before learning them too well.
If your part came pre-marked, yay! Check the markings though, because you don’t know who made them. Even pedal changes that are printed in the music could be (probably are) wrong.
Plan your page turns. Make any photocopies necessary and tape as needed. Write in your page turns early in the learning process and be consistent!
2. Practice looking at the conductor.
Often you can catch the beat out of the corner of your eye, but some parts of the music will require you to give more active attention to the conductor, such as ritardandos, tempo changes, or tricky entrances which need to sync precisely.
That complicated two hand arpeggio at the end of a phrase with a ritardando? Your ears might give you enough information to stick with the rest of the ensemble, but you better be prepared if not.
Practice that arpeggio while looking into the air above your music stand (where the conductor will be standing). If you absolutely have to look at your strings, practice the passage and try to catch the (imaginary) conductor’s beat out of the corner of your eye.
3. Know how the harp part fits with the rest of the ensemble.
Listening to the music is absolutely essential. Try get your hands on several different recordings. I also recommend watching YouTube videos where you can see the conductor, if available. Do not get too attached to one version though: your ensemble’s performance will obviously be different, perhaps drastically so.
Try playing along with a recording or video. I recommend using headphones, so you can hear the recording over your own playing. I set my laptop right next to my music stand where I can see the screen. This whole process of playing with the recording helps me “jump in” at the right points, which always seems to be the biggest challenge for me.
Look at the orchestral score to see how your part fits in with the ensemble (and to clarify any questions you have about your part). IMSLP, the online music library, often has scores of public domain orchestra and chamber works. Some university libraries have scores in their collection. Bring the harp part along and take notes.
If you still have questions, ask the conductor during a break at your first rehearsal if you can look at his or her score.
If you are accompanying a choir, copy any helpful lyrics into your own part. Make sure you know whether your entrances are with, before, or after the choir. In my own experience, choirs tend to follow after the conductor a bit later than orchestras, so make sure you can hear whether you are with them or not. Don’t rush ahead!
4. Use a metronome to get things up to speed.
Often an ensemble harp part will look laughably easy on the page, with all sorts of empty measures, and lots of rests.
But at tempo, with the added stress of watching the conductor, listening to the orchestra and changing pedals, your brain might not be able to process the notes with the ease it does in a nice quiet practice room. Either that, or the harp part will look laughably complicated! A metronome will help either way.
Using a metronome, find a tempo at which you can play a complete passage without making any mistakes. Gradually ease the tempo up over several practice sessions until you have surpassed the final tempo. Remember to start slower at the beginning of a practice session than you ended the previous day, even if it’s just by a few clicks.
5. Be flexible with tempos and ritardandos.
Remember that your concept of the tempo might not match the conductor’s concept of the tempo. Be prepared to play your part slower or faster than marked.
Check the tempos of various recordings and be prepared to play your part at any of those tempos. Community orchestras and ensembles often take fast pieces slower than professional orchestras, whereas community choirs tend to take slow pieces faster than professional choirs. If the harp part is involved and difficult, consider emailing the conductor ahead of time and asking their preferred tempos.
Practice any marked ritards at a variety of speeds. Remember to look at the (imaginary) conductor. Try vary the way you play it every time, to avoid getting in a rut.
Exception: if you are playing with a small ensemble where you control the ritardandos, or where you know exactly how the group will slow down, then be as consistent as possible.
6. Write in cues.
Mark instrumental cues in your part, especially after long tacet sections. Try pick out unique but noticable motifs for your cues rather than motifs that occur multiple times.
If you are accompanying any sort of soloistic melodies where the soloist might take liberties with the rhythm, go ahead and write in their solo part (or at least the rhythm) for the whole passage. If you know the part well enough to follow without writing it into your music, great! But having it there can be a huge help especially for the first rehearsal.
You may have already written in various cues while listening to a recording, but depending on what side of the orchestra you are sitting on, you might not be able to hear all the same cues in the actual space. Add relevant cues during the rehearsal.
I hope you find this post helpful. Did I miss anything? Please comment below!
If you liked this post, check out
Practicing for Any Contingency (Part 1):
Six Unorthodox Ways to Prepare for a Background Harp Gig
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.