The Life of a Symphony Orchestra Harpist

Above is a photo of my music stand with a sampling of three challenging works I have performed or will be performing with The Florida Orchestra on concerts in April and May: Tzigane, a violin concerto with a wickedly difficult harp part by Maurice Ravel; The Ring Without Words, an hour-long selection of music from Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle; Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which we just performed last weekend.


A typical day for me involves waking up at 6am to have coffee with my daughter before she leaves for high school, and depending on my schedule for that day I will either go for a run and then practice, or I will just start warming up and getting ready for rehearsals with The Florida Orchestra. I won a national audition to become the principal harpist of The Florida Orchestra in 1999, and that has been my main career ever since. The orchestra typically performs anywhere from 1-4 different programs per week, with rehearsals Wednesday through Friday in the mornings and afternoons, and performances Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. At the same time as we are rehearsing and performing during any given week each musician must also be in the process of learning music for upcoming concerts as well, so there is significant practice time at home in addition to the scheduled rehearsals and performances. I typically start practicing my music at least 1-2 weeks before the first rehearsal, unless it is a new or difficult piece, in which case I might start practicing 1-2 months in advance, or more. In The Florida Orchestra we perform all kinds of music, from standard classical masterpieces to light classics and morning matinees, movies, pops, outdoor and youth concerts, chamber music and full operas. It is a very busy schedule, and all of that music requires significant preparation at home.


For me, a typical practice session at home involves several parts:

-warmup: I have a routine designed to warm up my muscles and my mind before I start playing. I never, ever skip my warmup routine, no matter how busy I am or how much work I have to do. Warming up gently eases my muscles into the hours of work they will put in, and focuses my mind on the music I have to play. I go through my warmup routine at home and at the halls before each rehearsal and performance. It is almost meditative for me to warm up.

-After I warm up I typically begin working slowly and methodically on music I may not need to perform for a while, that might be programmed farther out in the future. I spend a lot of time figuring out good fingerings, pedal markings, basic musical ideas, working with a metronome, etc. All of this preparation lays the ground work for (hopefully!) a successful performance in the future.

-I spend the bulk of my practice session on music that is coming up in the near future and needs to get performance-ready. This could involve refining phrasing or dynamics, bringing all or parts up to tempo after having practiced it slowly for some time, recording myself and listening to the playback later to get an accurate assessment of how I sound, or playing it in performance practice mode to get an idea of how it feels to play straight through without stopping.

-I spend time listening to recordings of different orchestras playing the same pieces I am learning, to get an idea of what possible tempos the conductor could take, or what cues from other players I can be listening for. I also study written scores of the pieces so that I know precisely what the other musicians in the orchestra are doing and how my part fits in with the rest of the group.


In addition to my career in The Florida Orchestra I also play in a chamber group for harp and percussion with my husband, John Shaw, the principal percussionist of The Florida Orchestra. Since we live together and work together in The Florida Orchestra and in the Mackle Shaw Duo, its a good thing we like spending time with each other! The Mackle Shaw Duo performs numerous concerts each year as well as having commissioned five new pieces for ourselves since 2018, so in addition to our orchestral work we also have to find the time to practice our chamber music parts and learn brand new music that was written just for us.



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