Harpist on the Roof

How many male harpists do you know? If the answer is “fewer than five,” then you and I are in the same boat. At my Juilliard audition last year, I had a fantastic interaction with one of the harpists (M) in the school, now a fellow classmate. I was patiently waiting for a practice room at 9am as instructed. M was on duty as the designated audition steward and was dutifully ignoring me, steadfastly reading a book. After about 10 minutes of waiting, I gently cough to grab her attention. Using the most bored expression possible, she informs me the pianos are upstairs. After an exchange in which I explain I’m in fact waiting to practice on one of the school’s harps, a chuckle accompanies the response: “OH! Sorry! They didn’t tell us a dude was applying this year. My bad.”

Apart from little interactions such as these, the odd gender imbalance in the predominantly female harp world doesn’t usually play out in any positive or negative way, but in New York male harpists are in demand. I’m in the enviable position of being the only gigging male harpist under the age of 30 on Manhattan island (and perhaps the rest of the city) and get quite a few calls to play for Orthodox events around the NYC area.

The events are always a scene. The women are all dressed from head to toe, with 1960’s haircuts and caked with enough eye-makeup to put Amy Winehouse to shame. The seating and catering situation is incredible as well. At my last gig, there were three separate buffets and two catering companies. Two of the buffets were mixed-gender, and one was all-male. But one of the mixed-gender buffets was provided by one caterer, and the other two by another. Stepping outside on break, I ask the Orthodox contractor about the complexity of all the divisions. With a toothless grin, he lit a Marlboro and explained that alternative dietary standards and gender micro-norms had to be accommodated. I asked if this was ever a problem when choosing musicians. He tells me that for sake of ease, they hire all male musicians as often as possible, and put them in yarmulkes to avoid any questions. Things only really get complicated when the contractor is asked specifically to provide non-Jewish musicians, as to give the impression of economic power that would permit them to hire musicians from outside the community.

Having studied in in England and traveled to a host of European countries and 43 states, I thought I’d seen a breadth of western culture for a 24-year old southerner. But coming to these events is like stepping into a Chaim Potok novel or listening to a Matisyahu song. Everything feels truly foreign to my lily White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP-y) sensibilities. Certain questions float around my mind about the manner of dress of the men around me. Why fedoras, and but no caftans? Why certain sizes of the yarmulkes? Are these purely functional decisions based upon Talmudic exegesis? Or are they matters of taste, minor delineations created by an ascendant immigrant culture? At my last gig there was inclement weather, and all of the men of a certain age wrapped their hats in blue garbage bags, while wearing them on top of their heads. Why are they all the same? Why are they blue? If they’ve managed to come up with Sabbath-proof elevators and put synagogues on public train cars in Israel, how have they not managed to come up with weatherproof hats?

I digress. The gigs are decent money and light in terms of the demands as I’m often playing for fairly straightforward weddings and receptions. Or so I thought. The groom at a gig in Jersey tomorrow has requested a certain “Israeli song” to be played at the reception. The band’s receptionist sends me a link to a YouTube video to ask if I could play somewhat complex harp part in the song. I open the link to witness the opening number in a concert in Mexico City, featuring an Armenian traditional flute accompanied by a Paraguyan folk harp. I ask the band leader if the song is in fact Israeli, and he replies “No, not really. But it all sounds the same.” I can’t help but laugh, as the there is no irony to this situation, as it’s no secret that most Israeli “folk” music is a cross-cultural hodgepodge of different musical traditions from around the world (most of them not even Jewish in origin). Innumerable seminars reading Edward Said and Benedict Anderson spring to the front of my memory, and I can’t help but laugh as I feel like I’m in the midst of some poor ethnomusicologist’s truly tedious PhD thesis.

I agree to playing the number and confirm the gig. Then things start getting complicated. As of Monday, the wedding party still hadn’t decided when the “evening” gig was going to take place, and whether I was needed at 9am or 5pm. As I have to conduct Lassus at church in the morning, and play a festival audition in the early afternoon, this is potentially problematic. Receiving the chart for the song in question on Wednesday, I let it sit in my inbox and tell myself I’ll get around to it. Generally speaking, the gigs aren’t too taxing, as I’ve had experience playing from lead sheets in Nashville. I get a nervous call from the band leader asking if it’s all going to be ok, inquiring if I’m clear on how the song is supposed to go. He clearly sounds as if he’s in a rush. The notes on the page look simple enough as I glance at the first page. I tell him it’ll be fine, but he’s insistent that I look at it ASAP and look through the instructions at the end so changes can be made before Sunday. I’m pretty relaxed. We’ve got the entire weekend, right?

Wrong. He called me at 2pm on Friday. Sundown is in less than three hours, and I can’t get to a harp. I don’t realize it’s a problem until I print out the music this morning. All the instructions are in Yiddish. The band leader doesn’t know I’m not from the community. I chuckle, as situations such as these aren’t uncommon. Just as M assumed that couldn’t be a harpist, I often go to gigs where nobody knows I’m a Gentile. Sometimes I’ll get requests to play tunes, but inevitably never know them. One gentleman said, “Ah I see, you’re Sephardic!” when I explained I didn’t know the song he was drunkenly humming to me.

Looking at the paragraph of Yiddish, I stay calm, as my German is usually good enough to decipher a small amount of what is spoken around me at these gigs. Some light transliteration and application of Google Translate should do the job to get the gist. So, I copy and paste an entire page of instructions that are at the end of the chart. My stomach starts to sink as I find that it’s not really Yiddish, as Google Translate is telling me that I should perhaps try translating from Hungarian.

I try Hungarian. Nope. It suggests Hebrew.

I try Hebrew. Nada. I’m told to try Yiddish.

I’m in trouble. I have a piece to play tomorrow, I don’t know the performance instructions, as they’re written in a different alphabet going the wrong way and the dialect of the language isn’t readily translatable. It’s still Saturday. I have another gig tonight, and church in the morning. Getting a hold of the bandleader is impossible. “Oops” doesn’t begin to cover it.

I should go practice.

To be continued.

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