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If I've only been playing harp for a year, is it likely that I can major in it?

  • Brittany
    Brittany Huynh

    Hi all,

    I've been playing the harp for about a little over a year now, and I'm
    a senior in high school. I've already applied to colleges and picked my
    majors (and alternates.) Partly because I have an interest in certain
    aspects in Biology, but mostly becaues I was influenced by my family, I
    chose Biology as my major for most schols. To be honest, I'm not really
    sure whether or not I have a passion for biology, which is what I put
    as my major for many colleges. I know that my major will most likely
    determine my career for the rest of my life, and I'm not so sure I will
    be in love with Biology 50 years down the road...However, I DO know
    that I love the harp, as all of you do, and I would love to take it one
    step further. I would love to major in music [performance].  The
    problem is, I've only been playing for a year, and I know that it will
    be hard for me to major in harp because of my inability to play the
    required pieces, etc. I am willing to work for it, but am I being
    quixotic? Is it a realistic goal? Would colleges accept a relative

    I know these are questions that I should answer alone, but after
    debating for a year and being unable to decide, I was hoping you could
    help me? :]

    replies to "If I've only been playing harp for a year, is it likely that I can major in it?"
    • Jennifer
      Jennifer Buehler

      I majored in music with little music background and in an instrument that I had never played before.  It is possible; however, I think you need to realistically think about what your goals are for after college.  I made fabulous progress but really where I was at the end of college is where a lot of conservatory students are expected to start out.  For me things worked because I was a music therapist and while my clarinet studies were important there weren't the major focus of my work after graduation. 

      Small, liberal arts schools are more willing to take on some one with little background in music.  Think about the progress you've made, the porgress you'd like to make, and where you really want to go with it.



    • Janet
      Janet King

      I continually give thanks that I'm not a kid in today's high pressure world... 

      OK, so, reality check, I think:  your major will not necessarily "determine your career for the rest of your life," chill.  You might continue in that direction, then again you might not.  If you don't believe me, take a poll amongst grownups and see if it's been true in real lives... 

      Reality check #2:  You don't need to major in harp now to become a serious harpist, to perform and play professioally.  If you can't get into a college program in harp performance, don't worry, the door isn't closed to you.  There are many ways to develop yourself as a harpist, and many ways to make the harp the center of your professional life.  And note, for some musicians, academic music training is detrimental to their health as musicians.  It does't fit everyone.

      Keep some perspective, please.

      I hope for you and every young person that you follow your heart's desire, and don't follow paths that don't really call to you.  How will it be if you live your entire life doing things you don't really love? especially when there are things you do love to do? which, by the way, is a precious gift that not everyone has.

      Best wishes,


      (shall I say? a professional harpist who failed harp lessons in the tenth grade, and practically hasn't studied since!)

    • Bonnie
      Bonnie Shaljean

      To be honest, you probably need to be more technically advanced, beyond the beginner stage, and have some of the standard repertoire under your belt before you should consider taking it to the higher education stage.  And you really do have to think about what happens beyond college.   

      Also, WHERE you plan to go has a bearing: a top conservatory will have very high standards and steep competition from other applicants.  Conversely, if you get into a college without a strong music department, how useful a harp education would you be receiving?  Most institutions of any educational value in the harp field are going to be looking for someone with more experience, whom they can bring to advanced level, and you're probably not ready for that at this stage.  You could find the demands of a college workload are just too much of a strain for you to progress in the most productive way.

      Also, have you considered the non-playing aspects of what being a professional harpist entails?  Your statement "I know that my major will most likely determine my career for the rest of my life" makes me wonder if you are fully aware of all the non-musical implications of this.

      There are not always reliable-income jobs available, and secure orchestral positions are very demanding: you have to be an excellent sight-reader, able to deal with assorted types of stress (being the only one in your section, which often means playing solo and possibly getting singled out for criticism by the conductor; recognising cues & bar-counting; physically moving and tuning a harp under difficult conditions; finding suitable parking; etc - the list is long).  You also have to spend a considerable amount of time working on music you may never use again or can only play in an orchestra - but it still has to be practiced.  BEFORE the rehearsals begin.  A lot of those orchestral/ballet/opera harp parts are solo passages or very exposed, and they're also often so familiar that the audience knows them by heart and will immediately pick up on boo-boos.  (Think of that cadenza in The Nutcracker.)

      Being a professional musician in any instrument is often financially insecure, and for a lot of basic playing work, you don't need a college degree anyway. I have seen cases where the pressures of trying to earn a living from music (not just harp) have finally outweighed the rewards of it, and resulted in burn-out. Instead of joyfully looking forward to performing, it can become "just another gig" - often a long drive away - but you can't afford NOT to do it.  This is the absolute downside, of course, but it IS a factor in playing for a living.

      I'm certainly not trying to put you off the harp (I doubt if I could anyway!) but you do need to be realistic about what the professional demands are, the repertoire you need to have mastered, your own technical limitations and how far towards overcoming them you will even be able to go.  It's a competitive world out there, and you're up against a lot of people who have been playing since childhood. (Perhaps read through some of the threads in the Professional Harpists forum to get a clear picture of what being a professional involves.)  

      It might be a better idea to give yourself the time you need (and you DO need it) to develop naturally, aim to do something else as your main income and keep the harp as an extra enrichment to your life (and wallet).  You'll then be in a position to choose your workload and your practice list.  The harp is wonderfully adaptable this way because it can do so much, being an accompanying instrument as well as a solo one.  Please do take time with this decision because it could affect the rest of your life, and your relationship to your harp.  The very best of luck to you -

    • Brook
      Brook Boddie


      There's a lot of good advice here already.  I'll just add my two cents to some of the previous posters.  It is DEFINITELY possible to work as a harpist without obtaining a degree in harp performance.  Granted, you probably won't be playing with a symphony orchestra, but there are plenty of jobs around that would not require that degree of skill or playing.  I live in a moderate-sized city of about 350,000, and I am actually only one of two harpists in the city.  I receive calls all the time to play for weddings, private parties, etc.  I work full-time and also have a part-time church organist position, so these don't allow me a lot of free time, but it's nice to be able to make some extra money playing harp occasionally.  Depending on where you live, you have to be careful about accepting/not accepting jobs that may be beyond your skill level, and you certainly don't want to undercut professional harpists who may be at a skill level beyond your own (I won't go into that here;  there are other posts that deal with this issue).

      My point is that it is definitely possible to not major in harp but still become proficient at the instrument and have opportunities to play.  If you choose not to major in harp, I would definitely inquire about the possibility of a minor or, at least, taking harp lessons as an elective or privately.  Good luck with your decision!

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth Volpé Bligh

      There is a lot of excellent advice here! When you are applying for universities, see if there is a good harp teacher on faculty at the music school, and if not, see if the university is situated in a city where there are some good harp teachers. My advice? Take a course in Biology for now, but take private lessons on the harp, or maybe the university will let you take harp as an elective. All music schools require an audition, and the applicant has to be at a certain level. Otherwise, they will be unable to handle the workload once they get there. I have a good friend who majored in Engineering and then immediately got a job in a symphony orchestra after graduation. Another one graduated with a degree in Music Education and then was hired in a top-rank symphony orchestra in Europe. A music degree in Performance not only demands a high level of playing ability and hours of practice once you are accepted, but also has other courses such as history, theory, composition, which require your time. I should confess that I started university with only about a year of harp, but I had been playing piano and flute since I was quite young, and had all my Royal Conservatory theory and history courses before I went in. I did my audition and was accepted as a flautist, then switched my major later. When you get out there to perform, you do not want to be wondering how your technique will hold up and be quaking with stage fright. Your other options, if you really want to study music: take a course in Music Education or Music History or Composition, but not Perfomance. 

    • Sherry
      Sherry Lenox

      When I took my BA in Music Education (back in the Stone Age) there were people who started with sub-professional auditions and in the long run made out pretty well. Still, I had a fall back profession in another teaching field that was much more secure, and because of that, much more lucrative.

      Since you are lucky enough to have another field that you are passionate about, the previous suggestions are terrific. You will be able to relish study in both fields, and prepare to support yourself as well as play the harp.

    • Saul
      Saul Davis Zlatkovski

      I disagree with everyone here, it seems. Majoring in biology because of your family is the worst reason to do it, at least in American culture. It is time for you to begin your journey into what you are interested in most. If it is music, so be it. Music can provide a reliable living, through education, for one direction. Church music is another. You can go to any college with a music department, which most have, and preferably one with a good harp teacher who will give you a good foundation. You can also transfer to a music school after two years, or go for your graduate studies. If you want to play professionally someday, you need time to practice, three hours a day or more. Therefore, you need a light course load. I avoided classes with a lot of papers required. No, you probably can't go to a conservatory right now, but in five years, yes you can. While making a living is important, education is important for its own sake, detached from practicality. That's what the Liberal Arts are about. Sure, a lot of us came out not knowing business, but we were intelligent, employable people. An education taken solely for one type of job is narrow and unfulfilling. Of course, you have to have talent. I don't like the idea of trying to be a harpist without an education in music. There are too many harpists with low standards and knowledge about music, not referring to anyone here. If I knew where you were I might be able to recommend a teacher. I will recommend Karen Thielen, who teaches at San Jose State and Santa Clara Universities in the San Jose area if you are anywhere near California. You can't go into music and only be concerned about money, because then you will not be a good musician, in my view. You can keep harp as an avocation if you can find another profession. It is hard to be a harpist for a living, though in some ways not like it used to be (more teaching opportunity), and in other ways harder (too much competition). I decided after my first year of college that I had to do music, and that a 9-5 civil service job would crush my soul. On the other hand, you have not mentioned whether or not you want to someday have a family. That would change the picture also.

    • Kreig
      Kreig Kitts

      Remember that you can continue to love and enjoy something while not making your career out of it. Hopefully you'll like your career, but you're allowed to love many things in life.

      And like others said, your career isn't always determined by what you study. And interests can overlap in both good and bad ways. To take the example of majoring in music and teaching it for a career, you're pursuing a career in music, but you're also pursuing one in teaching. If you don't have a passion for both music and teaching, then that might be the best option. If you freelance, then you're a musician, but also an entrepreneur and your own salesperson and booking agent.

      There are people who major in something they enjoy, but pursue a broad education and take a different career later. I considered majoring in music, but with a bachelor of arts instead of a performance degree (some schools offer a variety of options, and others only performance degrees). The field I work in now doesn't require a particular major (most don't, unless you're becoming an accountant or architect or something).

      Since you mentioned majoring in performance, have you talked to many professional musicians yet? You might find a variety of professional musicians in your area and ask if you can talk to them for a few minutes about their work sometime. Ask what their typical day is like, what they enjoy most, what they dislike, how many hours they spend practicing/teaching/performing/chasing down delinquent clients to pay bills/traveling/etc. Many people go headlong into a career track without a good idea of the realities of their future profession.  Teachers, lawyers, and clergy can be good examples of occupations where the day-to-day realities don't match the perception. Teachers may spend their evenings preparing lesson plans and their days monitoring bathrooms for smoking, lawyers may spend a a lot more time with their word processors than they do in court, and clergy may worry about church budgets, bishops, and recruiting Sunday School volunteers.

      I'm not trying to discourage you from a career in music. I'd give the same advice if you wanted to major in landscape architecture. If you're trying to plan the rest of your life, get as much information as you can. At the same time, know that you can study something and love it without making a career out of it.


    • Brittany
      Brittany Huynh

      To all the people who've taken the time to answer my questions,

      Thank you so much! You have opened my eyes quite a bit. Though I knew that the music world was demanding, as I had asked both my piano and harp teachers, I didn't know the specifics. You have all given me great insight.  Now that I've read over my first post, I realize that I was a bit confusing, so my apologies.

      Of course, I haven't made a decision between the two, but I'm really glad that so many people were able to give me their input and advice. At the moment, all I know for certain is that I am still in love with music and will pursue it in some way (does that even make sense?)

      And you're right--my major doesn't dictate my future career forever. Obviously, I have a lot to learn about college! X)

      I hope that I haven't offended anybody in any way!

      I'll be sure to repost again after I begin college =]

      Thank you again!


    • Brittany
      Brittany Huynh

      Hi Elizabeth!

      I just wanted to say thank you for giving me wonderful advice! I think
      your advice is great: taking the bio course for now and taking the harp
      elective. I'm actually taking private lessons right now, which is
      something I forgot to mention, but I do intend on continuing them. =)
      Congrats on getting accepted as the flutist and majoring in harp!
      You're right-I shouldn't be so worried about how my technique will hold
      up when playing. It only makes things worse. Though I may not major in
      harp performance, I might just do something similar to teaching
      something in the music field. Who knows? But really, thank you so much
      for your input :] It means a lot to me. Like I said in the post below,
      I'll update on what happens! :] Thanks again! :D



    • Tacye
      Tacye Phillipson

      Another thing to think about is the joy of being an amateur musician.  Much as I love music I was not keen to make it my career (I studied physics).  The harp for me is a serious interest (in the past it has almost been an evening job) but I greatly value being able to do only what I want when I want.

    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      All of the advice on this thread has been wonderful. I've been going through this with my talented 17 year old male student. I've told him that making a living full time at music is difficult. I've said that he has enough ability to do whatever he wants with the harp(perform, enter competitions, play orchestra auditions, teach, etc.) without spending big bucks for a music degree. I've encouraged him to train for some non-musical career that will be dependable and earn a decent living, but to continue to study the harp privately. If, in the end, he decides to go to musc school, he'll at least do it with his eyes wide open.

    • Unknown
      Unknown User

      Hi Brittany,

      First of all, choosing a major is a difficult choice (in fact, most students who know what they are majoring in change at least once in their four years) so don't be too worried.  However, Biology is a very difficult field (I know, my roommate in college was a Biology major) and if you don't have the passion for it, it will be difficult to get through -- there is so much reading and memorizing!!  As for your real question regarding majoring in harp, there isn't an easy answer.  What schools are you looking at?  Obviously some are very competitive and it would be very difficult to enter with only a year of training; however, you might be able to find a small school that really wants a harpist who will let you get a B.M. It all depends.  Of course, in any music school, you are going to have to audition.  The quality of your rep. is something that you should discuss with your teacher - some schools require certain pieces (thus a specific proficieny level) others (especially smaller ones) don't.  Also, know that if you enter a music school, you will most likely be required to play in an ensemble (orchestra, band, etc).  Do you have experience with this?  If not, I would suggest finding a youth orchestra to begin working with....  Not to scare you off, but orchestral work can be a challenge for a beginning harpist and conductors don't always realize the difficulties.  All in all, I really can't answer your question, though if you are really serious, I would suggest looking into a small, less competitive school, as your chances of majoring in music are greater.  Another option you might want to consider is to get a music minor.  You will have a lot of wonderful training but not as many requirements....  

      Just a thought...

      Emily Toelcke

    • Amiable
      Amiable Aardvark

      The trouble with a small, less competitive school is: how good an education would you be getting? Is that really going to give you what you need as a working musician, in view of how demanding the scene is?  Just getting IN is not really the point.

      I can well believe that a major in biology may possibly be the wrong move if you're not sure about it.  And switching from science to music is a big change which could involve a lot of backtracking and cost you more time & work than you want to spend.  As Elizabeth has already suggested, a music-related course might be a better path for you if you're already questioning your commitment to biology.  Music therapy is a possible consideration - many harpers work in this field and find it hugely rewarding, and it gives them added outlets for playing.  (A lot of them post in the Harplist in Yahoogroups and could probably offer useful guidance if you're interested in going down that road.)  Where are you, by the way?

      I join the others in wishing you the best of luck with both your studies and your music!