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Eyes on the Conductor

Q. How many conductors does it take to change a light bulb?

A. No one knows... nobody has ever watched a conductor long enough to find out!

That seemed to be quite true during our symphony orchestra rehearsals over the last few months while working out Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Bach and Grøndahl. At any given time I would bet that only two-thirds of the orchestra members were actually paying any attention to the conductor -- and it sure sounded that way. However, at our concert two weeks ago everybody (even the brass section!) miraculously focused and we gave a solid performance of some challenging and beautiful music.

Granted, ensemble playing is a real juggling act. The players must read the music, listen to the rest of the ensemble without being distracted from their own part and keep their eyes on the conductor for cues all at the same time. It’s true multi-tasking.

For the harpist this presents an even bigger challenge as most of the other musicians don’t have to look at their instruments in order to play them. The eyes of the harpist are always moving between three points: the conductor, the page of music and the strings in order to see where to place the hands.

Some things that make this easier:

1) Memorize the music when there is an especially busy passage. When there are too many notes or pedal changes it can keep your eyes glued to the page. Memorizing the tricky section frees up your eyes so you can glance between the conductor for the downbeat and your strings so you can find that next big arpeggio.

2) Place the music stand close to the harp and high enough that the conductor appears just at the top of it from your line of sight. This way, you don’t have to move your head to take in everything. You can read the music and see the conductor at the same time with peripheral vision.

harp in the orchestra

3) Listen! Get some recordings of the pieces you’re learning and play them frequently in your car while you drive, while you’re washing dishes, anytime. Your ears will get familiar enough with the music so they can begin to inform your fingers. You’ll feel more confident about entrances and won’t have to rely on the conductor for every cue.

Laurie and concert harp at orchestra performance
Feeling pleased about the Tchaikovsky cadenza.