I’m only a beginning harpist, but I’m posting in this thread because I want to hear what you, the ‘Professional Harpists’, do for your careers. I am wondering what sort of career I could make out of being a professional harpist. Do you play as the principal harpists of orchestras? Are those positions competitive? Are there a lot of harpists competing for only a few spots, or not that many harpists competing for a few spots? Do you play in bands and do gigs mostly? Teach? I would love to hear how you make a living (or mostly make a living ha!) playing your harp professionally!
Thanks so much,
sometimes making a living as a harpist is tough
backups are good ideas
I think it is so sad that you are trying to discourage your daughter from doing something she likes. you have no idea what the world will be like when she is older and if you discourage her she might not try enough to be the best and also most harpists are not the best at all things
With all due respect, it’s ignorant to say that your daughter should be better than all of them before you’d encourage her. Many of the ones that seem the best don’t continue and some do and some that you never thought would make it end up on top. The only thing that’s clear is that discouraging someone never helps anything.
there are plenty of harpists across the country that do make a living completely from the harp without a backup and they are not always better than everybody else. if everyone on this forum was honest they would probably tell you that even if they make a living playing harp like me, they can name at least one person better than them in their mind.
you should be encouraging her to talk to other harpists and to observe to see if she wants to deal with making a living this way not just discouraging her
where I live there are about 15 harpists making a living playing the harp
a couple are orchestra harpists and teach at local schools
many make a living teaching and playing gigs
some do celtic harp and voice
some also have income from being married but they also don’t work as much because they have kids
the problem is that sometimes you have to teach people who aren’t good or aren’t respectful of your time and sometimes you have to play for people who aren’t respectful or deal with weird things that you can read in other posts and it’s not the easiest way of making a living and you have to be creative and motivated
but it sure as heck beats sitting at a 9-5 job in a boring cubicle for me at least
If your 11 year old is practicing 2+ hours a DAY, doing orchestra rehearsals ALREADY, AND taking theory/harmony classes, I don’t think you have to worry about her having the “single-minded dedication” to do what she very obviously wants to do. She sounds more dedicated at age 11 than some of the students in the Music program at the university I am enrolled in with a very prestigious music program. When she is old enough to see the realities of a music career herself, then she can make up her own mind about whether or not it’s something she wants to pursue.
Okay – let the uproar begin, I am going to go where angels fear. Follow the dollars to see what the pros do.
To be a full time professional there are essentially 3 streams to follow.
Stream One – Harpist with competitive training & performance experiences through a conservatory and possibly with a music degree leading eventually to an orchestral position. Core income comes from the orchestra with additional income from teaching and some gigging. Essentially the harpist is a contracted out employee of an orchestra with sideline income streams supplementing that income. Harpists who “make it” as orchestra pros are usually superb individuals in almost every respect. Many fall by the wayside along the way.
Stream Two – Harpist with an entrepreneurial bent who operates more like a small business person rather than as an contract employee. To make it as a pro the entrepreneurial harpist will have many streams of income and will avoid becoming too dependent on any single stream. Lessons, gigs, weddings, concerts, online sales etc etc. All good gigs will be lost – just a matter of when. Harping skills and qualifications will vary in this bunch but to survive long term they will need good business and networking skills. They will also need to be collaborative in outlook and have excellent decision making skills.
Stream Three – The star stream – somehow one creates an aura that makes them a media darling. This kind of like winning the lottery – a lot of hard work, chutzpah and self belief. Only a handful go this route.
We have made a quiet living in a town of 350k as an entrepreneurial couple doing all things “harp” as our sole source of income for 13 years now. Every year is different as there is no set formula.
Your daughter needs to know how to run a business, network, handle technology as well as play the harp.
She also needs to know how to have fun because all three streams are a tough road.
Get her into a safe busking situation as an eleven year old in an outdoor market. The tips should be great and she will tell you if she wants more.
Thanks Misty and Stephen, your answers are very detailed, helpful and realistic. Stephen, I checked out your website (this modern world we live in indeed) and found it interesting-thought provoking.
So I guess what I am gleaning from all of this information is that it IS possible to make (some sort of) a living playing the harp, but that it’s not easy (when is the life of a musician ever easy or glamourous – unless your one of the “lucky” “media darlings”).
Misty I like what you said: “but it sure as heck beats sitting at a 9-5 job in a boring cubicle for me at least”. That’s how I feel completely. Thanks again! Anymore people out there with some input?
I will chime in though my thoughts and opinions are not that of a pro harpist but rather as a flutist who was going to go the ‘pro’ route but floundered just at the end of my degree in music performance.
I just graduated with a degree in flute performance (I harp as a stress reliever and as an occasional source of income). As I stood on the brink of entering music as a full time professional I realized that the single minded dedication stripped me of everything else that made me happy. In fact, it brought me to dark emotional places. Places of fear, hunger and loneliness. So I left. I haven’t regularly practiced in months.
In many ways I am much happier. In others I’m unhappier. Now that I am no longer a student that is dependent on my family I work 60 hours a week as a chef at a restaurant and as a copy and print specialist at my local office supply store (I love cooking and graphic design). It’s hard work, and it doesn’t pay well. I enjoy each job individually, but I don’t see myself doing this kind of routine for much longer. To top it off I’m getting married in less than a month. So I’ll admit it… I’m floundering.
I have spent a huge part of my life preparing for a career in music and now that I have changed course I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m very moody and it’s largely because I’ve never been without a plan in life. I know I will get on my feet however. It’s just a matter of time to do some soul searching. Every day I have regrets for leaving music but then I think about how it made me feel when I was still on that path. So… who knows where I’ll end up?
I know that this was just a bunch of word vomit, but I just wanted to share because this type of situation is certainly possible. What if she goes through with a career in music, then flounders before she lands a job? What if she realizes that she has missed out on so many wonderful things because she was so focused? Please don’t think that I’m trying to imply that you should worry about or perhaps impress these things upon her but rather that this is a concern that should be taken into consideration in my opinion. It’s just a bit of food for thought.
It takes a tremendous amount of dedication and self discipline to become a professional harpist. Everyone’s route is different that they take, but I know a handful of harpists that make a comfortable living playing in regional orchestras and teaching at the university level in addition to private teaching, it can be done. Nothing is set in stone though until you get tenure.
Having said that, it takes a lot of work to get to that point. Yes there are hardly any orchestral openings, so when a position opens up you may get over 100 applicants but remember- people drop out, people can’t make it, people change their mind etc so that applicant pool of 100+ suddenly becomes 60 or 70. Learn the excerpts long before you need them and polish the standard rep to a tee. If you’re not taking lessons already find the best teacher you possibly can and begin studying. Age is another factor..most people that start in their late teens seem to do ok but anything later than that- late 20s you better work harder than the rest of everyone else that started at age 8.
Last final word of thought: make sure it’s your dream you’re chasing and not someone else’s.
Dear Harp guy- Boy, does your story resonate with me! I spent my whole life from age 16 to 28 totally immersed in harp study, thinking I would be a career orchestra player. Undergraduate degree, then three years of private study in Paris, then Masters. After playing a few auditions and feeling that 1)the process was usually rigged and 2)that I really didn’t like playing in orchestras, I faced the same crisis you are now going through. I had to redefine myself and find a way of making a career that 1)made me happy and 2) allowed me to earn a living. I had started buying and fixing old harps while getting my masters degree, but didn’t look at it as a potential profession. It was like a hobby at the time. But then I realized I could make a living doing that and that I really liked it. It took me 2 years to change my brain around and redefine myself as a harp repairer. Once I made that change, I never looked back. I’ve had a great life doing what I do. I haven’t made a fortune, but have always had work and live comfortably. I have no bitterness or regrets and I’m very glad I spent those years studying the harp to an advanced level. It’s a huge part of who I am. I’ve met people and had entre into places I would never have encountered had I been a professional harpist. So hang in there and look for something that makes you happy. It’s out there. You just have to find it. And give yourself two or three years to change your thinking around so you can see that you have value and purpose at something other than what you started out doing.
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