The question of what makes a harpist a professional was recently posited in a Facebook group.
Do I fit the definition of a “professional” harpist despite not meeting the qualifications outlined by The Internet™?
Take this lovely example:
“I think you have to have a degree in music from a reputable school, college, university or conservatory, not just music education or therapy. Being professional is far more than taking money for playing. One has to have given at least one complete solo recital (one hour of solo music) and some chamber music. That is pretty minimal. A good professional goes on for a master’s degree or more. Especially where teaching is concerned. One must know enough repertoire to teach effectively, and have had consistent training. The flooding of the profession with amateurs, self-taught or half-trained players trying to get the money that Professionals would otherwise get, as compensation for their incredible investment in owning pedal harp(s) and cars, music, training, etc. Professionals continue their training beyond school. I would only consider a lever harper a professional if they were a specialist in a particular area of folk music or Early Music, and very accomplished in playing. The Free Market approach where anyone can claim to be anything is incredibly destructive and self-serving. Spending money on lever harps and strings and music does not alone justify “getting gigs” or teaching, that would otherwise go to professionals. Likewise the therapeutic jobs that were shut off from real professionals and arranged for rank amateurs who pay for a bogus certificate. All that said, if you can get away with it, you got away with it.”
To this person, I say: if the you’re exemplary of what the pedal harpists and the pedal harp world are and is, then I want none of it anyway. Do you think the pedal harp is the only harp? The most legit? The only harp that allows entree into high art? The pedal harp is an intricate and breathtakingly beautiful art, but if you can’t see the artistry in anything else then I pity you.
If you think that the money you’ve invested in your instrument and the vehicle in which you transport it are factors in your merit as a professional, as if the spending of that money alone somehow means you are more deserving, then I laugh at you.
If you feel that other harp traditions don’t bear as much weight as the Western, classical, Ivory Tower institution that is the pedal harp, then I would say that your illustrious education wasn’t as complete as you like to think it is.
There is incredible beauty in an adult who wishes to develop or even to serve musically, who has gathered the courage and been through the trial-by-fire of seeking and buying their first harp, finding a teacher, and either finding acceptance or pushing on in spite of popularly held opinions about adult learners. How many of them do we see with cheap “harp-shaped-objects” coming into forums to ask questions? Take a moment to think about how much one learns in the process of buying their first harp as an adult. Some are lucky enough to have mentors or teachers who point them in the right direction while others struggle through research and the cesspool of opinions and judgements available on the internet.
I was my own first teacher. I approached the harp with minimal formal music background. I found a teacher an hour away, and consider it lucky that the teacher I found had a solid technical background. That technical background that she offered me, and that I developed through my own practice, earned me entry into the harp studio at the University of Arizona, under the renowned instruction of Dr. Carrol McLaughlin.
Except I wasn’t good enough to be a harp major.
And since I wasn’t a harp major I fell under the tutelage of a graduate student. A very unpersonable individual who was a genius on the harp but who I always felt approached the task of teaching my plebeian self with a heavy, heavy sigh.
I just wanted to be accepted.
My first semester was a disaster. I had no idea of, and no experience in, the kind of discipline and practice it takes to be a serious musician at that level. I was humiliated and bitter, and I took those feelings to fuel my fire during my second semester. I practiced my fingers off and grew exponentially the next semester. I desperately wanted to be a harp major, and to stop feeling like an annoying add-on in the harp studio. I wanted to be taken seriously, and to be a full participant.
I didn’t work hard enough. Dr. McLaughlin told me I was not going to be good enough. She was hurtful, if honest, and I was never going to be the kind of harpist she welcomed into her illustrious studio. I was completely crushed, but I pushed on anyway as I finished my Bachelor’s degree in music. I’m quite grateful now for the education I received, both musically and emotionally, even if it hurts still.
After graduation I relocated and pursued entree into my city’s harp community, and my background from the U of A gave me an in. I was dishonest and let ride the implication that I’d been a harp major when it wasn’t true and that I’d actually been a reject. I put on airs and the facade that I was a better and more experienced harpist than I was.
I just wanted to be accepted.
I regret it all now. I was so completely full of shit. In the end I blew off both people and commitments, largely because I was afraid. I lived with the fear of being found out to be an imposter, a fraud. I felt everyone was better than me. Even though I no longer lay any of the claims I once did, I still live with the guilt of my dishonesty and the fear of not being good enough. I don’t practice enough. I’m not a good performer. My repertoire is basic and boring. I’m nothing that any “real” harpist would consider even moderately talented.
But I’ve found my path and a place. I’m a therapeutic harpist, and I consider myself to be a music-thanatologist even though I am not officially certified as one (I will be someday). I play harp for the dying and I love it. It requires skills that I do have, and that I’m confident in, along with drawing upon the harp training I have. Beyond that, it requires a certain quality of being that cannot be taught. Perhaps my “certificates” are “bogus” because I bought them, but the education and experience I’ve gained from them is quite genuine. Did I not also “buy” my Bachelor’s degree with the same money, time, and practice?
I wish I could be a high-level, professional harpist and impress people with my credentials and my sparkling resume. I still fight my inner demons when my insecurity and envy rear their ugly heads. Am I just “getting away with it?”
Do I “owe” any sort of allegiance to “the profession,” when I’m not even in the same markets as pedal harpists? I don’t play the pedal harp anymore, and while sometimes I miss it I more often am grateful I’ve shed the emotional (along with the ridiculously heavy & cumbersome physical) burdens.
Now, I don’t have a website or a YouTube channel like many other harpists, and I have two main reasons for that. One reason is that I’m simply not comfortable putting myself out there that way. The other is that there are indeed plenty of harpists out there producing content of all kinds, be it entertainment or education, and I don’t feel I have anything to contribute beyond what is already available so why put more noise out there? I will, however, say a big THANK YOU to the harpists that are comfortable putting themselves out there (or who maybe aren’t comfortable with it but do it anyway), because you never know who might come across your offering and gain, whether musically or in their own confidence, because of you!
And as far as work goes, as the meme famously says, “It’s not pie!” There is enough for everyone. Is it impossible to believe that there is a need for every harpist, and a harpist for every need?
Thank goodness there is harp, for all of the dreamers who are drawn to it for all of their own magical reasons. And thank goodness for the dreamers and the harpists, of ALL backgrounds, traditions, and vocations, who add music, beauty, and goodness to this world.