Orchestral parts – how long before do you usually get them?

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    Hi everyone, I got contacted by the local orchestra a couple of weeks ago asking me to help them out for their concert. The rehearsal starts next week and yet they haven’t sent me the parts yet because they’re not ready. I am sincerely hoping it would be ready before the first rehearsal so I won’t have to sightread it and ruin the whole thing.

    As I am still an amateur student with little experience, I was just wondering if it is normal to get parts at the last minute, or do you usually get them long before the rehearsal so you can prepare? So that next time I know what to do (whether I should demand the parts to be sent to me before the rehearsal or if I should just wait). Thanks a lot in advance.


    It depends on the orchestra, and how much I jump up and down demanding, but I will say taking up orchestral playing was very good for my sightreading. I think it may also depend where you are: British orchestras have a reputation for sightreading. If the parts are only coming from the hire library a week before and it is in copyright there isn’t all that much you can do, though a good library may have a score. Do you have plenty of time to learn the part between the first rehearsal and concert?

    For works that are out of copyright, especially standard works, you can increasingly often find the parts on

    Also, it isn’t the easiest to use website and no printing but you can pinch pedal markings from here:


    Parts can come at any time. But if you have a specific need, like at least two days, you must communicate that clearly as a condition of playing. It takes a lot of experience with playing and with parts to sight-read comfortably in rehearsals. Most parts come well marked, which helps, but a new piece won’t be marked at all.


    I don’t know if your orchestra publishes their season menu, but around here they do.
    If I think I might be playing, I either get the part from IMSLP or buy it, and I already have a filing cabinet full of parts I bought and studied many years ago. I play in a youth orchestra (not bec I’m young, but because they didn’t have a harp), and he lets me know the season menu ahead of time so I can see if there will be parts.

    I have always done this because I simply do not sightread, and it takes me a long time to prepare parts. I figured out many years ago there was no reason to wait. Much easier to just spend the money and get started. I start on operas a year in advance, or longer, if possible.

    You know the old saying: other instrumentalists go to rehearsal to learn their parts…the harpist must know the part to go to rehearsal.

    BTW, What are the parts?

    Philippa mcauliffe

    I am a student too and I get asked to play by 6 different orchestras -you have to be selective and say no when you have too much on once they all hear about you. I just say I am already committed for that concert date….. It is very hard to pin down whether you are not getting a part because they haven’t got one themselves and are waiting to get the whole lot at the last minute from a library (in which case they pay for the time they have them so they wait til the last minute if possible) or if they are just disorganised. I usually make 2 weeks a condition if I accept an offer but they just seem to ignore that. It gives you a back out though if its a nightmare handwritten new work you cant fathom at all when it turns up.

    Firstly if its old you can find it on the IMSLP and work on it. If it’s famous it might be in the two volumes of Sarah Bullen. Then you need some good harp friends with vast repertoire experience. If this is an amateur group then I ask for it several weeks before and if they say no then I will come to the 1st rehearsal, pick it up and then either leave again or mark my way though depending what it looks like! I warn them first. If its a new or unrecodred work then stay, listen and record it. It will come in hand to practice. You don’t have to play what is written! Just the gist of it in one hand if necessary. Arrange to meet someone with the score and your part early and highlight your exposed bits. Beware a work no one has recorded – its much easier to rehearse with a you tube or an ipad/pod in ear and a score to read while listening.

    Mark your pedals enough – they keep going back to awkward spots…


    Thanks so much for the reply everyone and thank you Philippa for your tips!

    They only told me that it would be excerpts from the Operas La Boheme and Turandot, but haven’t told me the specific pieces that are going to be played. I have looked at IMSLP and found there’s no harp part for those, only the score. So I tried writing out the part for the most famous Arias that is likely going to be played, e.g. Nessun Dorma, and start practicing it.

    Problem is they only have like 3 days of consecutive rehearsals, and then the concert. So that gives me practically just 3 days to learn the part, should I get it in the first rehearsal 🙁

    By the way, what other pieces are usually played from those 2 operas? I also find it fascinating that the other instruments sound so good from the first rehearsal, and most of the time they have much more parts that we harpists do. Are they all so great at sight reading? Sometimes it makes me feel lacking.

    Philippa mcauliffe

    Oh no. Sightreading in general on harp is different – many good players and excellent harp teachers can not sit down and play unseen intermediate/advanced repertoire at the sort of difficulty level an amateur pianist could do really well on first reading. My mum plays the cello for fun, turns up on 1st rehearsal, can play most of it sight reading and fudges the rest leaving out the really fast bits and shoving in the main beats then learns it later. There are a whole section of them – and its a one line instrument usually playing one note at a time in standardish finger patterns that only plays the odd chord (max 4 notes). Someone in the section has probably played it before if its standard repertoire anyway. The only time she says anyone gets fussed is if the leader is away and then no one else wants to step up especially if there is a big solo – even then it will usually only be a few bars or a line.

    We have to play solos all the time. We are always the leader and if we get a second harp they probably wont be playing the same part! No one to point at the music when you get lost so I need cues all over my part to pick up from just in case and I print out bits of score for difficult bits. Ours are not one line solos – massive chords and impossible to read leger line tiny note fast arps and ripply bits with scary pedal changes that might make the whole thing sound really dreadful if you miss one…and your fingers hurt when they make you gliss a lot…and then they ask you to be louder even though the chance of being heard above a forte tutti is zero. I find smiling at them and nodding helps even you just play it the same again….

    There are some things that I have done that I would never have sorted out in 3 days! I cant get speed up in that sort of time from nothing. I would just tell the conductor you cant do it as written if the worst happens and offer to stick in some nice chords that follow the harmony…If they want a professional job they will have to pay for one.

    Oh dear, I rehearse tonight for an opera excerpt with one singer and orchestra for the first time….now I don’t feel so good! Lots of solo and rubato bits alone with as yet unheard singer….I do know it though I hope so I should be able to follow. Opera is full of rubato so you need to know exactly what the singer is going to do in your bits. I like to play from the score while I learn something – you need the singing line and the entries.

    It’s a nerve wracking sort of fun….its worse than a solo where you can just go to a repair point and try again!


    That makes me feel much better, Philippa. Thanks so much and good luck for your rehearsal tonight.

    Well, they have given me the list (but not the parts 🙁 ). There’s
    Barcarolle (Belle nuit o nuit d’amour) from Tales of Hoffman
    Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix from Samson and Delilah
    Tu, tu piccolo odio from Madame Butterfly

    I can only find the scores from IMSLP. Are the harp part reasonably easy?


    You can also order these parts from Luck’s Music Library:



    tu tu piccolo Iddio is the very end of Butterfly so easy to find in the score – half a dozen chords and some octaves. The other two are more worth looking at and are on the NY Phil site I linked to above.


    Philippa, for fff glisses you might want to try these:


    Thank you Paul, but it’s probably too late to order them now as the rehearsal starts next week. I’ll keep that website for next time though 🙂

    Thanks a lot for that, Tacye 🙂


    Dear Victoria, If you email me, I can send you my edition of the harp part for Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffman. I used to be able to attach files right onto the page, but I can’t figure out how any more.


    I have see many harpist rely on this method. They play very softly and hidden and look busy. I much prefer to play audible and be asked to play quieter than be barely going thru the motions.

    I have had a conductor call out the a harpist for this saying – If you make a mistake we can fix that but you have to play.

    I have also played in pits at shows or subbed in orchestra concerts where after the rehearsal the other players came up to me and said – wow you played all the notes!

    So would never tells someone to fake it. For opera parts especially if there are singers involved, harpists need to know the music well enough to stretch in places and follow that conductor and singer wherever they go.

    If you don’t have the music yet, you can get the score and a recording and know what is going on before going into the first reading. This is invaluable.

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