Lever Harp parts for orchestra

Posted In: Teaching the Harp

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    Donna O on #143969

    I recently joined our community orchestra. We just finished our first concert and I was able to participate. I play lever harp so I know parts are scarce. Today my director said she had nothing for me for the next Christmas concert and wondered if “my teacher could come up with something” for me. I brought a number of my Christmas collections for her to take a look at, but she did not seem interested. I don’t think I am at a level where I could do this on my own. My question is this, is it appropriate to ask my teacher to use my lesson time to do this? Can anyone give me some guidance here.

    Janis Cortese on #143970

    You can always ask. 🙂

    I think Christmas carols should be pretty lever-harp friendly. They are meant to be sung by untutored voices, so they don’t change key, and there aren’t many accidentals.

    kreig-kitts on #143983

    If you brought your Christmas music to your conductor, she wouldn’t be able to do much with it apart from allow you a solo in the program. Is that what you had in mind, or playing with the orchestra?

    If playing a solo, it seems appropriate to ask for help selecting something appropriate that meets the conductor’s approval. Depending on the general level of the orchestra’s playing, it is possible that you aren’t ready to play something that would fit into this concert, and you shouldn’t take offense of that but keep playing when you can.

    Chamber music is a close option, one where you wouldn’t have the burden of the entire piece. Something like “Greensleeves” with a violin or flute would be appropriate. The variations by Fleury and Dewey Owens are playable on lever harp. One of the variations might have a pedal change and you could leave out a couple of notes or skip that variation. It’s not too difficult a piece. The harp plays mostly chords.

    If playing with the orchestra, it would be possible to write a simple harp part for a couple of pieces, but that can be time consuming depending on the pieces. If your teacher is coming up with it, probably the simpler the better from the standpoint of not taking up too much time and having a part that can be written and taught easily. Your teacher would need to know what the concert program is, titles as well as composers and arrangers, and maybe borrow a score. Writing a part would take time, probably more than the length of a single lesson. Some teachers could whip something up but others might need more time. Because of the time commitment, I would suggest only asking your teacher if you think your teacher would feel comfortable saying “no” so that your teacher doesn’t feel obligated to agree to it.

    One failsafe Christmas piece is “Silent Night”. If the orchestra or just a solo instrument plays the melody or leads the audience in singing it, the harp can accompany. It has only three chords and is playable on about any lever harp unless they’re playing in G-flat or another very rare key. Most of the time it’s in b-flat, and the chords are b-flat, e-flat, and f (or f7 if you want to be really fancy). You can just play eighth note arpeggios and it will be beautiful. In fact, it’s better with a simple harmony, since according to the story it was first played with only a guitar.

    Donna O on #143985

    Janis and kreig-kitts Thanks so much for your input.
    kreig, I wasn’t necessarily looking to play a solo but I appreciate your feedback about my music not being useful to the conductor. I was feeling a tad “put off” when she did not want to look at it. Your comments help to put things into perspective for me. I have no frame of reference for how to arrange music. I can certainly handle Greensleeves and Silent Night so I will run that by the conductor. I know both of those are planned but not sure what arrangements. I am really reluctant to ask my teacher to do anything as he is a very busy professional with a lot of his own commitments especially with the holidays approaching.

    Gretchen Cover on #143987


    I would bring all this up with your harp instructor at your next lesson. This is part of learning to play the harp.

    Sid Humphreys on #143993

    Joining a community orchestra really propelled me forward as a harpist. My teacher was a little unsure when I approached her with my plan of taking the challenge of this role. But when she saw how excited I was about this she perked up and said, okay let’s go for it. Playing with a group is challenging as it is fun, so I definitely think this is something you should discuss with your teacher. Understand that most community orchestras have to pay for a harpist because most of the harp community will not do volunteer work. I was snubbed by a few harpists because what I started doing for free was once a little extra gig for them. Too bad that so many students aren’t offered positions like this so GOOD FOR YOU!
    As for picking music for this group; there is probably a board of directors that have approved the years program already leaving small gaps to fill in here or there. Just want you to be aware of that. I eventually got on such board and made my way in to the artistic comity that goes over the music and presents it to the board to be voted on. Sounds like fun but it was very tiring work. But, it opened my eyes to how an orchestra works. Have fun!

    Donna O on #144022

    Thanks Sid for your feedback. I appreciate anything that helps me understand the process better. I must admit I was really anxious about trying anything like this at first but I really enjoyed working with other musicians. It was quite challenging and I had never played with instruments other than the harp. The first concert was really successful, so I was eager and hoped to be included in the Christmas Concert.

    kreig-kitts on #144036

    I also improved greatly when I started playing the harp in a community symphonic wind ensemble where I’d been playing the flute. Since the repertoire gets chosen by somebody else, it’s a great chance to be forced outside your comfort zone and stretch. I probably wasn’t “ready” the first time a major, fairly hard harp part came my way, but it put me in a much better position the second time.

    Lever harp will be very hit or miss with an orchestra, probably more misses.

    Right now, a lot of potential opportunities for playing could be in casual settings with a few other musicians where you select pieces together. If it’s your kind of thing, you might look for churches that have a small group of instrumentalists who play occasionally. More contemporary churches or small churches with casual services would be more likely to have such a thing. I play once a month or so at a church I don’t even attend because of the musical fit (if I had strong objections to their beliefs I wouldn’t, but they’re pretty nice and forgive a wrong note here or there).

    Something else you might consider working on with your teacher is reading chord symbols. Much of the music that small groups can play isn’t written for that exact group, but instead they play off of music that shows only the melody and maybe a bass line, plus symbols for the harmony, called fake books or lead sheets. They’re very common in jazz but many gigging musicians use them for pop standards, and you can buy a book of hundreds of songs (most are songs) for probably $20 to $30. A lot of these pieces can be played on a lever harp and you do not need to be technically advanced to play from them. Since they don’t specify the notes, beyond the general harmony, you can play within your own limits, and the harp can add touches of color that enhance the music while others do the heavy lifting of playing solos. I wouldn’t be surprised if many teachers don’t teach it, but Ray Pool also has some good introductory fake books for learning. It opens up a lot, I mean tons, of repertoire without having to shop for an arrangement for the specific combination of instruments.

    Donna O on #144038

    Thanks for the suggestions. I actually read chords fairly well. In fact for the concert we just finished, I played the guitar part for one section and the harp part later in the piece. I have Lousie Trotter’s fake book and I just recently purchased Ray Pool’s Anthology book at a workshop with him. This is all fairly new to me, but I’m learning.

    Sylvia on #144044

    If you really want to play orchestra, have you considered getting a pedal harp?
    Community orchestras are great for learning, and so are community bands.

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #144285

    If you get one or two more lever harpers to join you, then you can divide the parts.

    nataliecannedy on #144299

    My daughter just joined our area Youth Orchestra, with her Lyon and Healy Prelude Lever harp. We realize there may be difficulties ahead, and know this may lead to her wanting a pedal harp. However, so far this experience has been exciting. She loves all the buzz of the orchestra. On her first day, she found she did not have a part in two of the assigned three pieces. She knew that might happen; her harp teacher had joked beforehand that she should take up knitting to keep her busy in the down time. During the first piece, she looked over her music and wrote in where to make lever changes. It was a complicated piece, so she looked ahead to help make the first playing a bit more comfortable. To her surprise, she was pulled over to the Timpani. A quick lesson later, and she was making music she never imagined she’d make! By the time the final piece came up, when she could play, she was warmed up and already felt like a key part of the orchestra. Hopefully this experience encourages other young lever harpists.

    Donna O on #144303

    Natalie, Good for your daughter! Even though I am decades older, I know why she enjoys it. The piece I played most recently was “Poem for Orchestra” by John Tatgenhorst. It goes from C to G flat but lots of rests for flipping levers. I had to re-tune my harp in G flat though. If she hasn’t played it yet she might suggest it to her director. It’s really lovely.
    Sylvia and Saul I appreciate your input but a pedal harp is not financially feasible or realistic. Saul I am the only harp player around for miles so finding others to play with isn’t an option for me although it’s a good idea.
    On an upbeat note, I went to rehearsal yesterday and got a copy of the Christmas music being played. I am currently busy transposing my music into the correct keys and chords. It looks like some of this will work, so that I can play a few pieces at least.

    Elizabeth Volpé Bligh on #183278

    Moncayo’s Huapango has a very tricky and exposed harp part, but it would work almost completely for lever harp except for one or two places. In those spots, the left hand could be left out while it flipped a lever. The harpist would need excellent technique, though.
    Here is a video of it:

    Elizabeth Volpé Bligh on #183642

    Aaron Copland’s ballet, Rodeo, has a harp part that could be adapted for lever harp. Saturday Night Waltz works perfectly, and Corral Nocturne would only require moving the octaves into a higher register. Buckaroo Holiday could be moved into another register where it is too high.

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