We talked to four members of the biggest orchestra in Munich about their instruments. In this interview, you can learn more about the Munich Philharmonic Teresa Zimmermann, her way to the harp and how you can practice playing the harp on a tennis racquet.
“I was a bit naturally disadvantaged in a way. My parents are pianists, and when I was four years old, I was already attending music lessons at the Hanover School of Music. That’s where I was introduced to every instrument you can imagine by the other children, and I instantly fell in love with a little Irish harp that one girl played. My parents were as unenthusiastic as I was bewitched. They pushed me to learn the piano, but evidently I was so stubborn that my teacher at the music school rang my parents three times until they eventually gave in.
As I grew, the harp I used got bigger and heavier – a classical concert harp is very different from an Irish harp. My parents even had to buy an estate car to transport the monster! I have always really liked the sound of the harp; you create the tone by plucking the strings directly.
Harpists have the strongest hands in the orchestra: if there’s a stubborn jar lid to be opened, ask the harpist – they’ll open it.
Of course, playing the harp also has disadvantages: I have to be very careful of my fingers – fingertips are very sensitive and you have to build up a callus. You also have to be careful that your fingertips don’t get softened from being in water, which means I always wear gloves when I’m cleaning, I got a dishwasher early on and I can’t go swimming if I have a concert coming up. While harpists need to have sensitive fingertips, it’s also necessary to develop strong hands to master the instrument. Harpists have the strongest hands in the orchestra: if there’s a stubborn jar lid to be opened, ask the harpist – they’ll open it.
I am always surprised that so few men play the harp – for every 1,000 women players, you might get one man. Men would actually have a great advantage because of their natural physical tendencies, as the weight you apply when plucking a string changes the sound produced. Of the few boys who have pushed past the clichés about harps and cherubs, many are excellent players. You don’t really think about the physical challenges ahead when you’re a five-year-old strumming on an Irish harp, but if I go two weeks without playing it hurts to start again and I get blood blisters on my fingers. At first playing the harp feels like plucking a pin board – it’s really painful. Some of my colleagues use a tennis racquet to practice while they are on holiday away from their instrument, using the strings to keep their fingers in condition. Overall, the instrument keeps you in good physical shape. There are several tonnes of tension on the strings, and you have to move them. That said, to stay in balance you need to do some other sport as well, because the harp is always on your right side and you need to counteract misalignments of the body from an early stage. That is why it is so important to sit in the correct position. After all, you practise for several hours at a time, and if your body is misaligned it can cause serious problems.
Most orchestras only have one harpist, so you might need to wait a long time before a position opens up. There is not a single open harpist position anywhere in the world at the moment, and there were many, many applicants for my position with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. I am delighted that our principal conductor Valery Gergiev knows so much about the harp. Gergiev always wants the harp to make its presence felt – he knows how important the instrument is in the symphonic context. Composers also vary widely in that respect. I love playing pieces by the French impressionists Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy – they knew the harp best.”