Reaching the skill level that enables you to provide music for others and get paid for it is a very exciting moment for every music student. I still remember the very first function that I played at and all the emotions.
These memories came back a few days ago when an advanced pupil of mine asked if I could recommend her some music books that she could use to begin playing at functions. After sharing some titles, I thought I’d write more about them here for anyone else starting out.
Playing harp at weddings and functions
At most functions you will be typically asked to perform for 1 to 3 hours. One of your priorities in preparation for working as a function harpist will be acquiring sufficient amount of music to fill this time. Since it’s a lot of music to learn, start from learning pieces that feel comfortable to play at your level. It is better to spend a week learning several easier arrangements than struggling for a whole month to learn one challenging work. Once you have acquired a good amount of core repertoire, of course you will continue adding more pieces, some of them possibly at a higher difficulty level. However, it is important to begin building your base of pieces; if you are keen to start advertising yourself and get the real experience at your first gig, learning easier pieces will be a better use of your time.
There are many harpists publishing their own versions of popular songs. Many of them create elaborate works, which are solos in their own right. However, easier arrangements are also available, and some of the most well-known harpists creating these include:
- Sylvia Woods
- Meinir Heulyn
- Daniel Burton
- Susann McDonald, and
- Linda Wood Rollo
Being able to play varied repertoire is one of the most important assets of a function harpist. From the very beginning, choose pieces which span across different genres. For a start, let’s look at three main categories – I’ll call them “classical”, “modern” and “traditional”.
Sometimes referred to as “light classical”, this part of your repertoire should include well-known melodies that your audience will recognise even if they do not have too much experience of listening to classical music. Some examples:
Prelude in C by Bach
Morning Mood by Grieg
Gymnopedie no 1 by Satie
Arabesque no 1 by Debussy
If you ask me for one piece which is a must-have for any wedding harpist, that will definitely be the all-time favourite – Canon in D by Pachelbel. On top of being an extremely popular request, it is a very useful one to have in your repertoire as the harmonic progression is easy to improvise on. This makes it a perfect piece to play just before the beginning of a wedding ceremony. It is always a bit of a stressful moment for the harpist who is trying to spot the arriving bride in order to start playing the “entrance” piece just at the right moment! Improvising on the chords of the Canon is a good way to keep entertaining the guests while looking out for the bridal party.
There are many solo harp arrangements of this piece available to buy. If you are looking for one which is not too difficult so you could learn it quickly, I recommend one made by Sylvia Woods.
Books and sets of pieces
For a nice set of easy arrangements of popular classical pieces, I recommend 30 Little Classics for the Harp by Mildred Dilling.
Another great starter book of popular wedding choices is Music for Worship and Weddings by Linda Wood Rollo and Susann McDonald.
Daniel Burton has made numerous arrangements of classical pieces suitable for many different occasions and I love his take on Vivaldi, Händel and Bach. Check out the list of these and other works.
Another useful book that I recommend is Famous Music for the Harp vol. 3 by Meinir Heulyn. It includes two versions of Happy Birthday, which is another must-have that you should learn (and memorise, if possible) just after Pachelbel’s Canon – you never know when a request for this one may come in!
Out of the three categories, I find that easily playable arrangements of this type of music are probably the most challenging to source. However, they can be also one of the most rewarding to play, especially if you perform for an audience who is not very familiar with classical music. Your listeners will be happy hearing melodies that they can recognise from the radio, and some will even come up and ask if they guessed the title correctly.
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Some arrangements can be purchased as single songs, while others come as part of books. While it is important to keep your repertoire fresh and regularly add recent songs, I recommend starting with all-time favourites that you will be able to play for many years to come. I find these two books by Sylvia Woods a good investment for a start, as they provide over 120 popular songs which you can learn very quickly – or even play right away if you are a confident sight-reader.
I should probably state that this post has not been sponsored in any way by Ms Woods However as she’s one of the most prolific arrangers of all music genres I simply cannot not mention her many brilliant works! They are a pleasure to play and easy to learn while still sounding great. From La La Land, through Game of Thrones to Frozen – for any modern music request I head to her HarpCentre website first to check if she hasn’t already arranged it.
Harpists who are able to quickly learn newest hits are definitely amongst the most sought after. It is a challenging work as more and more songs are released every year and before sheet music becomes available sometimes the only way to learn a piece is to make your own arrangement. A good idea is to visit a music shop and flick through piano beginner books. There are quite a few series where easy arrangements of most recent songs are published. Not all of them will work for the harp, but some will only require minor adjustments to make them possible to play.
There are many books to choose from. Two that I use most regularly are:
If I were to choose one piece of this genre which is one of the audience favourites (especially the older generations), that would be Danny Boy, and the second book contains a lovely arrangement by Meinir.
And what are your favourites?
Do share your suggestions for books and arrangements in the comments, especially if they haven’t been mentioned in the post. I hope you all enjoy playing!