Piano parts on harp?

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    Hello everyone, I’m fairly new here and would like to share my recent experience and ask for your advice.

    I am an amateur harpist that plays for hobby and last month I was asked to substitute in for a friend of mine, who plays in the local orchestra, for their Christmas concert. I was okay with most of the pieces as I got the parts a week before and had time to learn them.

    However on the day before the concert, they decided to add a new piece. A soprano solo with strings and piano accompaniment…and since they don’t have a pianist, I was shoved the piano part and was expected to be able to play it at once.

    Needless to say it was a complete disaster. It wasn’t terribly difficult (I’d probably be able to do it if given a few days), but definitely not something I can sightread. With all the pedal changes, the singer’s (many) rubatos and the conductor yelling that he can’t hear me, I made a complete mess.

    So after a few disastrous tries, I ended up feeling like a complete failure, with all the orchestra members getting annoyed and giving me the “shouldn’t have hired an incompetent amateur” look. They decided not to do the piece in the end.

    I couldn’t help feeling it was a bit unfair though…a harp is much harder to play than a piano…and piano parts are not made to be played on a harp? So do we harpists really have to be able to play piano parts on the spot, or are there any tips and simplifying tricks that we can do? I’m really sorry for bothering you with my story and any help/advice would be really appreciated. Thanks everyone.

    Gretchen Cover

    I am an amateur, too. I play often at a local church and have been put in last minute situations. If someone pulls a surprise like the one you had, I just say “no.” I am not willing to play a duet without at least one solid rehearsal and a couple days to work on a part. Now they know better:) I feel your agony on this one.



    I am so sorry this happened to you. When I was a college student, just beginning harp, I once sat in a rehearsal where there were two harp parts, and because I couldn’t sight read Harp 1 (the other harpist, a professional, wasn’t there for that rehearsal) the conductor (not our regular conductor,) openly mocked me in front of the whole orchestra. I was only there because there were no other harpists in the department, so I played (or sat behind the harp!) for everything… it was *terrible* Like Gretchen, I feel your agony 🙂 Feel better, it’s NOT AT ALL your fault 🙂


    I sometimes get piano parts in band. I just improvise off the chords. I write the chord symbol above the measure and as many pedal changes for accidentals as I can gracefully manage…. and just wing it.

    I also play with a church choir sometimes and improvise off the same music the choir is singing from….same way, write in chord symbols and pedal changes.
    …and I can add glisses, which the piano can’t. (I mean theirs are not real like ours)

    I do the same thing if a a singer is thrown at me for a wedding or whatever. As long as you play something on the right beat and have the right chord, you should be OK.

    Another tactic is to be sure to hit the first beat of the measure and not worry much about the rest of the measure if it goes fast. I actually learned that from a singer many years ago.

    But of course, I play my own rep that way…the melody and improvise the LH….I call it a free left hand (sounds nicer than fake). Only my Ave and Jesu, Joy get the real deal on the LH….everything else is imp LH.

    Don’t get me wrong…I admire you people who can actually play what’s there.

    Philippa mcauliffe

    I just say no immediately to things that I know I can not sight read reasonably well or fake. Especially if very exposed like this. I find it hard to believe that no one in a whole orchestra could play it as a piano part though. Most orchestras have some very good pianists lurking in their ranks. Good amateur pianists are typically much better sight readers than good amateur harpists! My amateur orchestra has some excellent pianists in it. Every so often we have chamber days and get to hear some of them.

    Sid Humphreys

    I once had a meltdown during a church orchestra rehearsal. While we have a piano (with 2 mikes on it), the conductor once again scribbled “harp” on a piano part and put it in my music slot. I couldn’t take it anymore. I took the part up to her and informed her that just because you write harp on the music doesn’t make it a harp part. Did I mention that I get in trouble a lot?


    Thanks everyone…and thank you Sylvia for sharing your tips. I’m not used to improvising and playing by reading chord symbols (i.e. when they are not explicitly written out). I guess it’s a skill you have to learn…I’ve always admired people who can improvise on music on the spot.

    The problem with being an amateur, I guess, is when you said you won’t do it, people will take it as your incompetence. While if you’re a professional, they would take it more seriously and think that perhaps their demand is unreasonable.

    Philippa, I’m sure they have some very good pianists too…but for some reason the conductor wanted the harp to play, since it sounds “pretty”…but then of course they’re forgetting (or not aware) of the fact that the harp will never sound as loud as the piano so they can hardly hear it.


    While being an amateur, I just keep in mind that no matter how amateurish I am, I’m still more educated in the harp than everyone else in the room (because they typically know nothing). Even harp parts can be unsightreadable, much less piano parts. Don’t blame yourself 🙂


    Good for you, Sid!


    I don’t improvise on the spot…I have to have time to write in chord symbols and pedals…and I wouldn’t even try to play a piano part as written…and I make sure I have all orchestra parts way in advance. That Victoria played the harp parts with only a week to prepare leaves me in awe. Very likely, I couldn’t have done that.

    The more I thought about Victoria’s situation, the madder I got. The conductor is a jerk. I think every student in a conducting class should be required to take harp lessons. I think they have to have classes in strings and winds, don’t they?

    As a sub, they should have been very grateful to Victoria that she was willing to come and play. The conductor should have ASKED her if she could play the piano part and respected her point of view…because, as someone said, she knew more about the harp than he did.

    I’m willing to bet the regular harpist wouldn’t have been able to play it, either. We harpists know that, but the outside world doesn’t. I had plenty of bad experiences as a rookie, and I’m still here…so I say, tough as it is, put it behind you, and you’ll know what to do next time.


    We all sympathise and know that you have you be firm and say No! Trust your own judgement and be a real harpie! The stupid thing here is that since so many people play the piano, he only had to ask around the orchestra and I bet he could have found someone to play willingly. I have turned down genuine harp jobs with too short notice and taken on others with a sense of bravado, but always take a professional stance even as an amateur. If they thrust an extra work at you, or you deputise at the last minute, they have to understand the risks…


    I have a few times found a very useful get out: ‘I am sorry, I prefer a reputation for playing well to one for being obliging’.

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