Being the principal harpist of an orchestra is my full-time job, after winning a national audition in 1999. The Florida Orchestra performs roughly 100 concerts a year in St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Clearwater. We play classical Masterworks concerts, morning matinées, pops shows, outdoor park concerts, full-length operas, rock concerts, youth and family concerts, smaller-scale chamber and chamber orchestra concerts, and soundtracks to feature-length films. We typically perform a Masterworks concert 3-4 times in a given week, after having at least 4-5 rehearsals, but we also have weeks where we perform a combination of various types of musical genres, sometimes up to five different programs in one week.
Because there is only one harp position in an orchestra, everything I play is technically a solo. There are also many pieces of music which contain big, challenging solos or cadenzas for the harp, and sometimes the music calls for more than one harp. I typically begin practicing my parts at home at least two weeks prior to the first full-orchestra rehearsal, and if I have a particularly difficult part I may start looking at it several weeks or even months before the first rehearsal. In any given week I am not only practicing what I will perform that week but also music that I know is coming up in the weeks ahead.
Part of the process for thoroughly learning a piece of music, especially my part to an orchestral work, is to not only practice my individual part until I am extremely comfortable with it, but also to study a score of the piece and to listen to many different recordings of it so that I know how my part fits into the whole and what tempos I can expect the conductor to take. It takes hours of preparation at home to get ready to get ready for the first rehearsal with the full orchestra, and that first rehearsal is always exhilarating, getting to put the piece together as a group for the first time and hear how all the individual pieces sound together. We work regularly with our Music Director as well as with many different guest conductors and guest soloists, and it is always a thrill to get different perspectives and musical ideas about pieces we may have performed dozens of times.
Next up: my other career as a chamber musician!