Considering back to college for harp performance

Posted In: How To Play

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    Harper10 on #255875

    Hi there! Do I have to go through a harp performance program to build the confidence and skillset of a professional harpist? Or,can I get there with private lessons?
    I would like to one day play with an orchestra (not the majors, smaller orchestras), play weddings and formal events and teach.

    I have been taking harp lessons for about 5 years and at the end of last year progressed to a pedal harp. I am in my early 30s and am a digital marketer by trade. I earned my bachelors 10 years ago and am considering a career change and going back to school for harp. Right now I take weekly lessons with a private teacher but I crave more.

    I’m scared to pursue this interest because one person told me that it’s hard to support yourself financially as a harpist. In addition, I’m scared of taking on school debt. I currently am debt free after a lot of hard work. So I could afford to go back to school but I’m trying to weigh if it’s worth it…especially taking all the gen eds.

    Is it possible to reach a professional level doing private lessons only or do I really need a degree? What types of viable jobs are there for harpists other that teacher, orchestra member, performer (weddings, funerals, special events) and studio musician?

    Any insight, advice or encouragement is much appreciated!

    Philippa mcauliffe on #255877

    Well, it can indeed be hard to support yourself financially purely as a harpist, even an advanced one, especially if you are going to incur debt to do more study. Having just got an advanced performance degree I can say that I do think private lessons would absolutely have got me to similar solo playing standards – I had a good knowledge of theory already, perform regularly outside the Con and read a lot about music anyway. I continued piano on the side privately and continued to progress well and get my Licentiate. Presumably you could test the waters and see what gigs you can get now if you have done 5 years already? While keeping your other job going. Maybe you could end up part-time with both eventually. The only thing you would get more of in a degree apart from some research projects, harmony tasks and things like compulsory choir and some very basic history of music are student chamber/orchestral/ensemble opportunities and meeting some people to play with in the future. The chance of being salaried by any orchestra is highly, highly remote if not to say frankly non-existent. You might pick up some casual paid orchestral work occasionally for community or youth orchestras but they often have free volunteers. Building a teaching studio depends rather on your location and how many competitors you have but harp pupils are often not numerous or longlasting! Expensive schools bring forth a trickle for me. Can you play the piano by any chance or sing? Far more pupils and accompanying on offer with that as a side line. I get paid regularly to write classical program notes and had I not done that during my degree I suppose that would never have taken off. Events again depend where you are and how many people are wanting to play them. There is quite a division where I am between “classical” and “folk or celtic” harpers – if you ended up teaching and performing both you could do a bit better I suppose. Still got your lever harp?!

    shelby-m on #255882

    I went to school for a music degree, my focus instrument was flute because I had just barely started playing the harp 2 years before I started college.

    A music degree teaches you a lot of things not related to playing your instrument (music theory, music history, aural skills, dictations, analyzing the performance of other musicians, composition, etc.) You work individually with a teacher for your chosen instrument. Weekly lessons and solo practice time, learning new repertoire and preparing for juries and recitals. My school also required participation in at least one ensemble each semester in addition to private lessons.

    So, if you just want to be a really great harp player, I think you could save yourself a lot of debt by just continuing your private lessons and studying from free theory websites like

    You could inquire with a local college that offers a music degree and find out if you could take private lessons with the faculty harp teacher. A lot of times the faculty instrument teachers are more than happy to take on another private student, especially if you are an adult who has already been taking lessons for several years and have mastered the basics.

    You may also be able to audit classes at a local college. You attend for a small fee, you won’t earn any credits, and you aren’t required to pass any exams but you can still learn a lot by attending and doing the homework!

    Alison on #255964

    You would miss all the deep immersion, chamber works, masterclasses and visiting harp professeurs without being at college or conservatoire. Perhaps treat it as a sabbatical. However you need to be at a high standard to gain entry and able to work quickly on new pieces and chamber works.

    carl-swanson on #255974

    It’s very difficult to rationalize the debt of a 4 year music degree these days. I have told good students of mine that if they simply want to play gigs and even freelance, then go to college for something non-musical that 1) you enjoy, and 2) offers the prospect of making an acceptable living. That way, you get to pick and choose what you want to perform, without being dependent totally on income from playing.

    Having said that, what you are asking is dependent on several things. You need to answer these honestly, and even get a good harp teacher to answer some of them too.

    1) Do you have any talent for the harp, or music in general? You don’t have to be a prodigy, but there are lots of people who enjoy playing an instrument who, in reality, are terrible.

    2) Along with question number 1, do you have standards of precision and excellence that will allow you to play at a high level if you work hard enough? Again, many amateurs are terrible because they completely lack the drive to perfect what they are working on. They are perfectly happy to slaughter the same piece for 8 months or more without ever improving it.

    If you can realistically say that you have sufficient natural talent and drive to play well, then you have to develop a program for yourself that will improve all of the skills needed to perform in public. First and foremost, you need a good harp teacher. Not a nice teacher that you really like, not a teacher who is a good friend, but a teacher who can and will build a good technique and bring you in a logical way into more and more difficult repertoire. In addition, you will have to study music theory (a lot) to improve your reading skills and your understanding of the music. You should also be very familiar with music history and the music and its context for each period of music. You’ll play with much more intelligence and understanding with that kind of knowledge. Most importantly, you need to listen to tons of music from different periods to develop your musical understanding and interpretation.

    Sylvia on #255977

    Be sure to keep your day job.

    Harper10 on #255999

    Thank you all so much for the excellent advice. I really appreciate you all sharing your insight and experience!

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #256025

    Simply put, you’re too old. Going to school will give you an education and lots of performing experience, and you will learn far more than you would with private lessons. That said, you might as well do private lessons twice a week, if you can practice four-five hours a day. It takes at least that much to learn to study enough music to give a recital. The only orchestral work you are likely to get is with part-time or community orchestras. You won’t be competitive with young harpists in their 20s, or those with one or two decades of professional experience already. But, miracles can happen. I’m surprised that a performance program would accept you at your age, unless you are paying cash. You may become a good harpist, and play lots of chamber music and recitals on your own. You can probably freelance as well, but it’s very hard work, not much of it, and not paying as well as it used to, with so many amateurs playing professionally.
    You might consider working in a harp business, or being a harp supporter. You could start a harp concert series and run it, or start a music school. There are many things you can do, but to be competitive as a professional, it totally depends where you are and who else is there, and is not very likely to work out. It’s harsh, but true. When I started performing as a singer, a professional friend who was a star said, when talking about someone else, “he thinks he can become a star, but he’s too old.” and I took that as advice to myself to not have any illusions. So, go into it, but without illusions. The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to start young and get experience while young.

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