Choosing a Harpist

What you should know before hiring a harpist

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Almost anyone can advertise them self as a “harpist.” Worse yet, almost any harpist can label them self as a “professional” harpist. Like other types of musicians, there is no requirement that harpists attain a certain level of education or be licensed or otherwise certified. Therefore, the consumer in the market for a harpist must proceed with caution.

Many people shopping for a harpist simply start by calling a harpist – – any harpist – – and asking for a price quote or a referral to another harpist. This can be a mistake for a number of reasons. First, the potential difference in musical ability from harpist to harpist is substantial and merely shopping for the cheapest harpist available on a given date is, at best, a gamble with your event. Second, a referral from one harpist to another is only as good as the judgment of the referring harpist, about whom you may know nothing.

Instead of shooting in the dark, it is far better to proceed with reliable information. Answering the following 3 questions before shopping for a harpist will help you select the best available person for the job. Finally, keep in mind that when you hire a musician, you are asking an artist to share their art with you. This can be a deeply moving experience rather than merely an exchange of money for services.

(1) Purpose

The first question you should ask yourself is, “What event do I want a harpist to play for?”

The answer to this question is important for a number of reasons. For example, if your event is a large dinner party and all you really want is some background music to set the atmosphere, the quality of the performance and the musical ability of the harpist may not be your foremost considerations. Indeed, some people merely enjoy the visual grandeur and cultural ambiance created by the presence of a harp and harpist. Since there is a larger pool of harpists available who are suited to play background music for this purpose, the aesthetic appearance of the harpist and cost may be your most important considerations.

On the other hand, if your event involves an audience whose attention is directed toward the harpist and the music generated by the harpist, such as a wedding ceremony or a private performance in a small venue, the quality of the performance and the musical ability of the harpist are much more important. These considerations become paramount if your audience is musically discerning or artistically sophisticated. Furthermore, weddings require the special ability to anticipate the sequence of events and to make split-second decisions about the most appropriate way to accommodate any unexpected changes or delays in the ceremony. A good harpist will be able to smooth out the bumps in the road, fill in the gaps, and avert potential disasters as if it were all going according to plan.

(2) Type of Music

The next question you should ask yourself is, “What type of music do I want the harpist to play?”

Since harpists vary greatly in their musical training and experience, and hence in their ability to play particular types of music, this is another question that should be asked and answered before choosing a harpist. If your answer to this question is, “Well, I would like harp music, of course,” you have missed the boat. Like piano music, harp music can run the gamut from classical to standards, blues to jazz, ragtime to pop, Celtic to new age music, and everything in between. You simply cannot assume that any given harpist can perform all types of music.

Indeed, some harpists are limited by the type of harp they play. There are 2 major categories of harps: (1) Celtic or folk harps; and (2) pedal or concert harps. Of the 2 types, the pedal harp generally has a greater capacity to produce a broader range of music. Although harpists tend to fall into one camp or the other, the best harpists are equally adept at both kinds of instruments.

Don’t be afraid to inquire whether the harpist can play selections from the particular type of music you want to hear, for example, classical music or Jewish music. Some harpists cannot even read music, so their ability to perform special requests outside of their standard repertoire is severely limited. A good harpist will have an extensive and varied repertoire as well as the ability to play pieces upon request. Of course, even a good harpist should be given fair notice in advance of an event so that he or she has the opportunity to acquire the music and learn the piece, if necessary. The very best musicians have the ability to sight-read music and play a piece as they read it for the first time, but given the choice, they would usually rather see the music in advance.

(3) Duration

The next question you should ask yourself is, “How long do I want the harpist to play?”

Los Angeles harpist Carolyn SykesContrary to popular belief, the harp is a mentally and physically demanding instrument to play. Shoulder, arm, hand and finger strength must be developed over long periods of practice. The harpist’s arms and hands must be held outstretched at all times while performing. With 7 pedals to adjust the pitch, pedal harps demand precise foot coordination as well. While even an advanced harp student may struggle to play continuously for an hour, a seasoned professional harpist should be able to play up to 4 or 5 hours provided that short breaks (i.e., 10-15 minutes) are allowed once every hour or so. The average duration for a private event such as a wedding and reception is about 3 hours, including breaks.

Of course, depending on the harpist, the quality of performance may decline over extended periods of time. Whereas an advanced harp student may feel perfectly comfortable with a single 30 minute set, the same student may falter if forced to continue beyond his or her level of preparation and endurance. The same is true of harpists in general. Only professional harpists with substantial experience possess the stamina necessary to deliver a sustained level of performance for hours at a time.

Credentials and qualifications

Having first answered the foregoing questions (your purpose, desired type of music and duration), you are now ready to match the credentials and qualifications of available harpists with your objectives. Like shopping for other professionals, the foremost factors you should take into consideration are education, training and experience. The additional cost for a particular harpist could well be worth the expense if it is supported by and commensurate with these factors.


Although completing a certain level of higher education is not necessarily a prerequisite to becoming an accomplished harpist, it is true that the best harpists tend to share a history which includes the study of music in college. A major in the fine arts or music together with the completion of a bachelor’s or master’s degree demonstrates a solid foundation for a career as a professional musician. Some schools even acknowledge a major in harp performance, and thus integrate training with education. Either the lack of a degree altogether or a degree in a field unrelated to the fine arts or music should be treated as a red flag warning calling for further investigation.


Serious harp students gravitate toward institutions and geographic regions where they can assume pupilage under the auspices of an accomplished harpist. When harpists introduce other harpists in a professional capacity, they typically announce who they studied harp with in the past. The harp world is a small world, and the names of former instructors are important. Examine the credentials, reputation and professional standing of former instructors for insights into the abilities of the student.


Los Angeles harpist Carolyn SykesThe primary difference between a harp student and a professional harpist is experience. Consider the event you have in mind and the number of years the harpist has been performing similar events. A harpist can be technically perfect but totally ignorant when it comes to playing for a particular type of event, such as a wedding. Some harpists do not know how to function as part of an ensemble which includes other musicians.Don’t be afraid to inquire how many weddings per month the harpist performs on the average or whether the harpist regularly appears as part of an ensemble, such as a string quartet.

Finally, it is only through experience that a harpist develops a sense of responsibility to the customer and the audience. A truly professional harpist will be fully prepared, arrive in a timely manner, and deliver a solid performance without the need for any excuses.

About Us

Pacific Harps is a boutique harp instruction, performance, showroom and sales company located in Pasadena, California. Established over 30 years ago by Carolyn Sykes, Pacific Harps has links to France, Australia, Pakistan, Ireland and South America and is continuing to expand, spreading the joy of harp music to an ever wider audience.


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