Have you ever seen a harpist on TV? She’s usually dressed in mystical regalia and angel wings, playing in an idyllic setting where all is peaceful and good.
It seems so far from reality, it’s hard to believe actual people play the harp.
But I’ve been performing and freelancing as a real, live harpist for 10 years. I can make $100 an hour doing something I love and making other people happy at the same time.
I have a pedal harp (the big one used in orchestras) from Lyon & Healy Harps in Chicago. It has a beautiful gold floral filigree over the soundboard and an amazing resonance that captivates and intrigues onlookers.
The harp’s uniqueness makes it an attractive accent at all sorts of events, such as weddings, luncheons, dinner parties, gallery openings, farmers markets, church services, memorial services and more. I even got to perform at a luncheon for the Japanese ambassador and Shuzaburo Takeda when they visited the University of Delaware this past May!
That’s the additional benefit of this type of work: I get to be exposed to interesting people and events. It feels like important work to do.
I started playing when I was 12 years old. As a huge “Lord of the Rings” geek, I was originally drawn to the harp’s magical quality. I spent days listening to recordings of harps with my eyes closed, wishing for my own harp; I wanted to make my own life magical.
My parents invested in a pedal harp for me after I spent about a year practicing on a smaller lever harp.
My Lyon & Healy 85E pedal harp cost about $18,000 -- a huge financial commitment that put more pressure on me to stick with it. I believe this pressure is what gave me the motivation to become the harpist I am today.
Whenever people learned about the interesting skill I was developing, they wanted to hear me play and support me. I was offered paid performance opportunities through my church and the community music school where I studied.
These first gigs paid between $50 and $100. I felt pretty well-paid from the start.
People would see me perform in church services and concerts and recommend me to friends who were getting married or having parties. I started accepting these opportunities and, gradually, I became a freelance harpist as a teenager.
I used most of the money I made to pay back my parents for buying the harp. I managed to pay them a couple thousand dollars during high school, but they never expected me to pay back the full amount.
Now, I use the money I earn to support my adult life, and I’m able to get by with a little over $1,000 per month to pay for rent and groceries.
As a recent graduate, I should have much more time to play gigs and make more money. I hope to make at least $2,000 per month playing harp by the end of this year.
Pay for harp-playing work can range from $100 to $300 per hour. Background music gigs -- like a garden party or dinner -- are on the lower end, since I’m not the focal point.
The fee also depends on the location, since I take travel time into account. For traveling up to 50 miles I charge $50, which is included in the fee. I rarely travel further than that, but if I do, I base an additional fee on the average cost of gas per mile.
I charge the most for weddings and holiday services, around $300 for the first two hours. Sometimes the couple gives me a little extra, but it has only happened twice. I also factor in travel time, and I never put out a tip jar at this kind of event, like I would at something like a farmers market.
These fees are in accordance with my recent status as a college student and my location in the Philadelphia area. A professional harpist would make more than that, based on their demand and reputation.
I plan on adding at least $100 onto my fees as a harpist with a B.A. in harp performance. While you don’t need a degree to demand a higher fee, because I have one, I can’t rationalize making less.
The fact that the harp is an unusual instrument makes me stand out when event organizers are looking for music. Interesting instruments have more appeal as a conversation piece.
Sometimes people hire me for their events before they’ve even heard me play. They want to show off the image of the instrument. Other unique instruments could work for this too, like accordions, banjos and theremins.
If you can play some recognizable pieces of music decently on a unique instrument, you can open many doors. I know Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” like the back of my hand.
Once you play a few successful gigs, your name spreads by word-of-mouth.
Most gigs I get now, after almost 10 years of freelancing, are referrals from previous clients. I always leave them with a few extra business cards to give their friends.
Since image is a huge part of how I get these opportunities, my personal presentation is important. As entertainment for an event, I want to look nice but unobtrusive -- a lime green dress would be a very bad idea.
I have a simple long black gown that I wear for most formal gigs, like church services and dinners. If I’m playing at a more casual event, I will either wear a neutral knee-length summer dress with a cardigan, or dress pants with a nice shirt.
Another way that I advertise my services is through busking. This can be a great networking activity for a struggling musician.
One summer during college, I spent 10 hours a week busking and made an average of $100, or $400 a month.
Business owners would have me play at their shops or cafes as a sort of promotional opportunity for them. They were also supportive of the fact I was a college student working to make a career for myself -- and sometimes the cafes fed me for free after I played.
The time commitment to do something like this isn’t much, considering the fact that I would be playing music whether or not there was an audience. When it’s something you are passionate about, it doesn’t feel like work. Even advertising doesn’t feel like work since I love talking to people about music!
My advice to other musicians? Put yourself out there and do it confidently. People saw me playing harp as a teenager and called me a musician before I ever considered myself to be one.
Your Turn: Have you ever turned an unusual musical skill into a money-making opportunity?
Harmony Mooney is a freelance harpist and music student at the University of Delaware. She has experience playing music in many settings and venues, such as weddings, parties, live bands, orchestras, concert halls, farmers markets, train stations and her living room. She is currently accruing a list of music and writing freelance gigs to sustain her after graduation.