Behind every twirling snowflake and pirouetting flower on stage in Tchaikovsky’s iconic Nutcracker ballet are the flying fingers of a harpist. Sometimes, if we are lucky, two harpists.

The music is what we all dream of—a gorgeous, exposed part with big juicy rolled chords, arpeggios that fall beautifully into our hands, and even our own cadenza. But our dreams quickly turn to nightmares in spots where the part is awkwardly written or we are scrambling to cover two parts on a single harp.

The Nutcracker is tough to crack on your own, but with some advice and edits from our experts, you will have the benefit of wisdom gained from over 1,000 performances behind you. So pull out your score, sharpen your pencil, and get your part ready for the upcoming Nutcracker season.

Big Picture

I must have played the Nutcracker about 300 times, with six years in the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra, then the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra accompanying the Goh, Alberta, Pacific Northwest, Kirov, and Royal Winnipeg Ballet companies.

There are varying repeats and tempos among ballet companies, so always work from their parts, but keep your own copy for fingerings and pedals. Don’t take metronome markings too literally; dancers take their own tempos, and the conductor follows them. The rehearsal letters are often in illogical places, so put in lots of cues and split the multi-rests into phrases.

The harp represents the magical elements of the story, so it should sound sparkly, elegant, and slightly spooky. But above all, it must be rigorously rhythmic and in time.

“Much of the score is playable as written but all tempos are subject to each ballet company and its choreographer,” notes Pacific Northwest Ballet principal harpist John Carrington. “Tempos can vary several notches on the metronome, making a passage unplayable as written—the opening of the Waltz of the Snowflakes, the opening of Act II, and the Final Apotheosis all come to mind.”

Orchestra pits can have notoriously bad acoustics, so it is essential to keep an eye on the conductor, and to be hyper-aware of what the other instruments are doing when you are playing. Listen to the whole ballet, and get all your cues marked in before your first rehearsal. You can check the score (free online at for additional cues.

Essential Edits

(Click any image to enlarge; right click to save an image.)

Editing the Nutcracker Ballet is essential, especially if you have to reduce the part from two harps to one. So let’s go through the score scene by scene from the beginning to highlight edits that will make your part playable. If you’ve been playing the part for years, some of these observations and tips will be obvious, but there are also some brilliant editing nuggets that you will want to add to your score.

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About Author

Elizabeth has been the Principal Harpist of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra since 1982, after 6 years as harpist with the National Ballet of Canada. She teaches at UBC, the VSO School of Music, the VSO Institute at Whistler and privately. In 2011, she was the Chair of the Host Committee for the World Harp Congress in Vancouver, and currently is President of the West Coast Harp Society and the BC Chapter of the AHS.


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