“When people hear the harp, they’re, like, ‘Ahhh — the harp.’ It just relaxes people,” says Julie Ann Smith, principal harpist for the San Diego Symphony as of 2010.
The harp is quite a difficult instrument. Smith discussing the preparation of a specific piece — say, the Mozart Concerto for Harp and Flute in C Major. “I have to sit and study the music and the pedals while I’m away from the instrument, so that I don’t have to rely on muscle memory. In a modern piece, you better have every single pedal change memorized backwards and forwards — otherwise, it could be an interesting night. I think, with harp, that we have to do a lot more homework. You have to have a spatial awareness of the instrument before you can play it. With piano, you see the notes, and you press the notes. With the harp, it’s different. You have to see the music in your head, be thinking of where you are in the piece, what pedal comes next — ‘I have an F sharp, but then I need a G sharp there, and then I’m going to have an A sharp with a B flat.’ When you’re playing a solo, you’re supposed to be playing in the moment, but then you have to be thinking ahead as well.”
In short, before your fingers even touch the strings, you have to ready the machine to yield the sound you need. “You have to create that pitch, and so you have to get your whole body in sync with your mind — it goes so fast.”
Smith knows from piano — she played both instruments clear through high school, one of those students who practices four hours a day and spends every Saturday driving to and from lessons in a city two and a half hours away, because that’s where the best teacher lives.
Asked what she loved better about the harp, she replies, “It’s the fascination with how the instrument works, the mechanisms that go into it. When I physically play it, I get a rush, you know? The touch of the strings, the way I use my whole body to make it work.”
A machine for making music, and she gets to become part of it.