Jason’s wife, Courtney, here. Though I’m not a bassist, I do play a
large instrument (the harp, whose lowest note is the same C as a bass’
with a C extension), and as such I feel an affinity for my bass-
playing bretheren and hope you’ll indulge me in a guest post.
As a professional harpist since 2001, I’ve played my share of normal,
everyday gigs that most other freelance instrumentalists have had
experience with. I’ve played with dozens of orchestras, from the
community orchestra down the street to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
I’ve played hundreds of weddings and nearly as many cocktail party-
Over the years, unfamiliar situations that once made me nervous have
become routine, and I have developed a distinct mental blueprint for
efficiently executing the various gig types I encounter. For example,
my mental map of a typical cocktail party: load harp in car. Drive to
swanky venue using trusty GPS. Park as close as possible, especially
if in a snowstorm. Unload harp and wheel it into the venue, digging a
path through the snow if necessary. Pretend like it’s the first time
you ever heard the joke, “Bet you wish you played the (insert small
instrument here)!” even though at least one person says it to you
every single time you move your harp from one place to another.
Endeavor to keep your head from exploding when one more person looks
at the huge harp, which towers over your 5’10” body, and asks you,
“Hey! Is that a cello???” Find a mirror and make sure all of this fuss
didn’t mess up your hair or otherwise make you look unfit to play a
swanky party. Meet and endear yourself to the client and the catering
coordinator or event planner. Tune harp. Set up stand… Realize you
forgot stand in car while trying to keep your head from exploding when
passerby asked if your harp was a cello. Go back for stand.
Eventually… Play. Have fun. Chat with random and always-interesting
people on breaks. Etc. Okay, it’s not always a perfect blueprint, but
what I’m trying to say is that I generally know what to expect when
I’m on the job.
But my harp playing career has also brought me some rather out-of-the-
ordinary experiences. One summer day a few years ago, I had such an
experience. A call came in from a casting agency, saying that they had
found my website and were wondering if I wanted to come downtown and
audition to be in a commercial. Having zero experience with such
things at the time, I was thrown off. “Uh, well – I mean, sure, but
I’m not, like, an actor or anything,” I stammered. No, no, the man
said, this was an audition to play harp in a commercial, and he was
inviting about 20 other harpists from around town. Now I was back on
solid ground. “oh, a MUSIC audition. Yes, sign me up.”
The next day I was sitting in the casting agency’s office in a row of
other artsy-looking harpists seated along one wall. I learned that we
were auditioning for a commercial for Totes, which I vaguely recalled
as a brand of slippers, umbrellas, and maybe gloves. There must have
been another audition going on for a role called “Skinny Woman” or
“Woman with Pelvis-to-Head Ratio of Less Than 1,” because a row of
impossibly thin and far more fashionable ladies were seated along the
The agency had rented a harp for the audition, and the paper-thin
walls in the trendy loft that housed the agency permitted each
harpist’s audition to come through loud and clear into the waiting
room. A harpist would be called in, and within moments we would hear a
blazingly confident, supremely professional rendition of a standard
harp excerpt or solo – we were told we could play whatever we wanted.
And this is when things started to become a bit unusual. Following
this performance, we would then hear a long series of muffled,
cacophonous harp sounds that are hard to describe directly. Rather,
I’ll liken it to an actor who has just performed a famous Shakespeare
monologue and then tries to repeat the same monologue, but this time
his mouth is stuffed full of cotton balls and the casting director is
trying hard to strangle him as he speaks. The harpist would then come
back to the waiting room to retrieve her things, face red and eyes
cast down to the floor, and hurry out before we could find out what
had happened. Every audition before me went this way, and I was
supremely uncertain of what was going to happen when I got called in
to the audition room.
Masking my nerves with a smile so wide my face hurt, I breezed into
the room and exchanged pleasantries with the casting director and
others in the room. I sat at the harp and played a piece I figured
people unfamiliar with the harp would like – one filled with
glissandos and other fun, flashy things that let me kind of ham it up
physically. This was an audition to play on camera, after all – I
figured that how it looked was at least as important as how it sounded
in the commercial milieu.
The casting director cut me off after a generous amount of time.
“Okay, that was really great. Now, I need you to play that again…
While wearing THESE.” And he proffered a pair of bright-red leather
“Ah. Okay. You know, you… Can’t really play the harp with gloves
on,” I protested as politely as I could.
“Yes, so it seems,” replied the casting director, “But I need you to
Shrugging, I donned the gloves – rather loose and clumsy-feeling on my
bony fingers – and dove back into my solo with all the charisma I
could muster. Luckily, glissandos sound pretty darn good even with
gloves on. The bulk of the piece didn’t sound so great, but I left my
pride behind and just tried to have fun and look as graceful as
The director cut me off, promising a call the next day, and I returned
to the waiting room. The remaining harpists looked at me expectantly.
I walked to the exit and opened the door. Just before slipping out, I
turned and said, “You have to wear gloves.” The room burst into
conversation as I got out of there.
I actually ended up getting a callback audition and was subsequently
cast as the harpist in this commercial for Isotoner Gloves (made by
Totes). They ended up recording the harp separately (thank
goodness!!), then playing the track back as I faked playing the piece.
In addition to a cool experience on a set and getting to feel
glamorous with wardrobe, hair, and makeup, I got a great paycheck and
a sweet pair of leather gloves that had been perfectly tailored to my
fingers in order to look good in close-up shots. Unfortunately, I
eventually lost those gloves – probably in a moment of distraction on
a subsequent gig as I tried to remain polite when the thousandth
passerby asked me if I wish I’d played the piccolo.
A professional harpist for many years, Courtney currently works in a research lab and will be starting medical school at The University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine in August 2010.
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