Say I’m asked to play this or that pop song for a wedding and I don’t already know it. This is my game plan.
Assuming I can’t find a harp arrangement that I like (often a harp arrangement simply doesn’t exist yet), my first step is to go on Musicnotes.com. There are multiple websites where you can buy sheet music online, but I like this one because they usually have what I’m looking for, they have it in multiple arrangements, and they understand that printers sometimes don’t work perfectly.
I find a piano version of the song I’m looking for. If I already have an idea for an arrangement in my head, I might buy the easy piano version simply to have the melody and the chords and then improvise off that. But usually I find an intermediate-advanced piano version: just piano, not piano and vocals. If I need the words I can listen to the song and write them in, but my goal is to end up with as few pages as possible. I bought the music for “Let It Go” from Disney’s “Frozen” the other day. The piano/vocal version was ten pages long. Pianists might be able to make that work (they can turn pages with either hand) but harpists can only use their left hand – no way I’m going to perform a piece with 8 page turns.
2. Print & Sightread
Once I’ve printed off my chosen arrangement, I sightread through it, taking special note of the structure of the piece. Often pop songs have a intro, verse, chorus, bridge, and then variations on all of these. If the variations aren’t all that interesting, I cut them out. (Sometimes I make note of them and do them from memory, using the music from the first iteration as a guide.) Remember, I’m trying to cut down on page turns. Usually I end up keeping the first three pages and realizing that the rest are variations.
3. Cut and Tape
If I really like an ending, I cut the end section off the last page and tape it to the bottom of page 3. You can squeeze the lines together (so that your pages don’t peek above the top of the music stand) by cutting each line apart and taping them back together again closer together. If you try play off that piece of music it will fall over, but photocopy it and you’re golden. I know you’re not supposed to photocopy music, but if you bought the music and you copy it in order to produce one playable copy for your own use, I think you’ll be okay.
So I have a cobbled together piece of music with only the stuff I need. Next, I get out my super weapon: white-out. Play through the piece slowly and carefully, removing any notes that aren’t playable. Those awkward chords that overlap and sound all thunky on the harp, or those horrible redundant note repetitions at the beginning of a perfectly good left hand arpeggio. Often I’ll be able to re-write some inner melodies in the bass clef rather than the treble cleff to simplify the fingering. I go a step further and white-out a lot of tied notes since my harp brain can’t process them very fast.
Funny story: I was sitting in Music Theory, my freshman year at the University of Minnesota, a music major, having played harp for 11 years. “Any more questions?” asked my TA, looking around the room. I raised my hand. “Um, what is the purpose of a tie?” All the musicians in the class turned to stare at me. What is wrong with this girl? How can she have come so far and not know what a tie (in music) is?
Well for those of you who aren’t harpists, I’ll just clarify that you cannot “hold” a note on the harp. You play a note and it rings as long as it pleases. If you want to damp it you can, but that’s an exception. So in pop music, the composer could write a half note followed by a half rest, or she could write a whole note: I play them the same.
So I white-out the ties. They visually obscure my ability to see the melody, which is the most important part of the piece.
5. Pedal Changes
Next I write in all the pedal changes. Since this is pop music and I won’t be spending as much time on it as a classical sonata, I go ahead and re-write any enharmonics by whiting-out (for example) the written C sharp, and use a nice black pen to add the staff back in and then the D flat that happens to be more convenient. If you have a Mac and want your music to look perfect, you can white out all the sections you want to change, scan it into your computer, and use Preview to add the lines back in (though you still need to draw notes by hand). This looks much better than wobbly pen lines over uneven white-out, but takes a really long time. It’s probably not worth it.
On pieces that have about one chord per measure and a left hand that is almost playable but not quite, I write in the chords and let my left hand improvise an accompaniment that’s close to what’s written, but not exact. For instance if the piano version has a crazy assortment of notes all in a C chord, I mentally move them around to be an alberti bass, or a simple up and down arpeggio, or repeating upward arpeggios.
I change really fast scales into glisses and usually delete the lower voice in any fast melodic section so I can connect rather than frantically snatch out that line.
This may all seem like a lot of cheating, but ultimately the goal is to make beautiful music. I know myself and I know my instrument. Often what sounds lovely on a piano will not on a harp. Often what is playable on a piano is not for a harpist.
- Start at Musicnotes.com.
- Identify and condense repetition in order to reduce the number of pages, ideally to 3.
- White-out superfluous or repetitious notes so that you can see and play the melody.
- Write in chords where the LH accompaniment is not playable and then improvise off of those chords. (Practice this.)
I hope these tips will help you the next time someone asks you to play “At Last,” or “Here Comes the Sun,” or the theme from “The Polar Express,” or “Bless the Broken Road.” One more suggestion: tape those pages into a manilla folder. Your creation will last longer, and you’re less likely to end up involuntarily playing the third page from memory.
Stephanie Claussen is a classically-trained harpist with over fifteen years of experience performing in Minneapolis & St. Paul. Her new book of harp arrangements, “Lights So Brilliant: Christmas Carols and Tunes for Solo Harp” is now available through Mel Bay!