Work less for more! by Gabriella Dall’Olio

Pubblichiamo con piacere questo interessante articolo di Gabriella Dall’Olio. Pensiamo possa offrire diversi aspetti su cui riflettere anche rispetto alla situazione nel nostro paese.

Work less for more!

On recitals, free lance or regular orchestral work, back…. and foreground music gigs!

Music is our passion, our joy and way of life. And our profession. I am not here to dwell on artistic aspirations, which I leave to you individually to word, dream of and create, but on realistic earnings a harpist can make upon entering the music business. (online gigging)

There are set fees, negotiable fees, and there is also something that we can do to influence what we earn and would like to earn.

Ben Zander hints in his book ‘The Art of Possibility’ about a shoe salesman reporting back to his boss from an African village he visited: ‘nothing doing here, boss, all are bare feet and nobody needs shoes”. And another one coming shortly after to the same village: ” hey, great opportunity here, boss: all bare feet: all need shoes!”. Get the hint?

When I moved to London 25 years ago, I was kindly invited to tea by Thelma Owen (I give for granted everyone knows Thelma, of course! But to introduce her formally, she was many years principal harpist in the RPO, and has always enjoyed a wonderful free lance career performing and also teaching in London, as well as being the editor of Mr. Ivor Blister column in the UKHA. Later she joined the RAM to teach orchestral classes there). That day has a special place in my heart and memory: Thelma was the first harpist I met in London and she was so generous with her time; she was welcoming, warm and helpful. She gave me countless practical tips about how to survive as a harpist in London. I since started working, made London my ‘home’, and met many other harpists and musicians who later became dear colleagues and friends: all helped in filling the dots in what was a maze of things to learn in metropolitan London, with words and actions, and I am grateful to all for their openness and the valuable advice they have given me. By being helpful and by being so open, they have protected themselves in their work and made my first steps in the UK music business easier.

The main information Thelma talked about concerned two areas:

  1. what is the pitch in different orchestras around London, and

  2. what are the ongoing rates for orchestral sessions, porterage, background music etc., as well as how to respect everyone else’s work.

I remember acting on that information and how useful it has been, and I would like to share some thoughts now, in the hope they can help all harpists become open and supportive of each other and keep developing the profession in a climate where prices have risen everywhere:

petrol, congestion and parking charges, house prices, and the difficulty to get a mortgage for a profession where the income is fluid and variable.

Fees and Porterage:

Rates vary in different regular orchestras: none are usually negotiable. Travel expenses are added on top and established orchestras calculate the amount based on different criteria (per mile, or a return train fare), while semi- or amateur orchestras generally settle for an all inclusive fee, often what they can afford or what has been previously paid to the harpist, or it can be discussed.

Other fees though such as background gigs are often negotiable: agents tend to have set rates.

Orchestral Work

In Europe, all established orchestra and opera and ballet companies own bulky instruments: grand pianos, celestas, percussions and harps. Many have two, some even more (Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic have a wonderful collection of instruments of different makes and models, mostly gilt, kept in excellent conditions, regularly serviced, strung and played.)

Established London Orchestras largely do not own harps, with the exceptions counted as three so far: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra ROH. This means that if a harpist is working free lance with two or three different orchestras, and going on tour with them, she/he will need to move the privately owned instrument from venue to venue, negotiating traffic jams due to rush hour or road works or both; the risk to get caught unloading on a yellow line during the day and be fined (do challenge the fine as usually it will be waived!); sometimes long and awkward paths from the car to the hall; finding a parking space to leave the car safely- sometimes having to time a session to run to feed the meter or change bay if no other solution is possible. The amount of time and the pressure needed to get to the venue and set up are consistent, and can take more energy that the playing itself.

What is paid as compensation is porterage, but it often does not even cover the costs incurred in the exercise, not to mention the time and effort, which go unpaid– and the osteopath and physio to recover from the hopefully only occasional related injuries!

When touring, the harpist must have another harp to be delivered at an address to go on tour a few days later- and to return a few days after- and another, and sometimes more, to use for rehearsals and concerts while the other one is travelling.

Both harps must of course be of excellent quality and kept in good order, all at the harpists’ expense.

Some West End shows include harps, and some for decades now: as far as I am aware, some bands do hire a harp, while some harpists have their harp in the pit or hire their harp to the band; but as far as I know none owns a harp.

Percussionists ask hire of their instruments, and as a result most established orchestras, theatres and recording studios own those instruments, kept in optimum conditions, or instruments are hired for them.

Because harpists have been charging only in and out porterage (although that might not always been so), it has perhaps provoked a different outlook on the fixers, viewing it a cheaper option that harpists must bring their own instruments, with the orchestra thus waiving the need to purchase- and maintain- harps.

If harpists were to charge a daily porterage rate for their harp – which would be fair as the harp is sometimes kept at the work premises for long periods of times- this would earn the harpist a higher fee to cover the insurance costs, regular services and strings, and eventually might encourage orchestras to buy instruments, as some have already done, saving the harpists costly purchases and expenses.

Background Music and gigs

As the previous country where I worked was Germany, where musicians are highly respected and fees normally high also for occasional work, I had a sweet tooth as far as such fees are concerned.

I had a respectable job as the principal harpist of the Opera House in Regensburg where we played opera, ballet and symphonic concerts, as well as regularly chamber music performances and the occasional choir concert. I also taught a few young pupils – being the only harpist in the city helped being the first call for everything and sometimes dates were found around the opera house schedule, and fees have always been surprisingly generous (coming from Italy where being paid for a concert was unusual, and, when playing with professional orchestras, fees could hardly cover expenses). I quickly got used to be treated with respect and receive a good retribution for any kind of work I provided. When Thelma mentioned to me the fee bracket that harpists were charging in London in the 90’s, it seemed natural to orient myself towards the higher bracket of the spectrum.

Respect for all harpists and for the profession was another reason to lean towards the higher fees: this way I would not undermine their work, and simply add my name to the list of players.

I also thought that while not everyone might choose to book me and I may therefore ‘lose’ a few dates this way, by charging more I would hopefully earn the same amount of money in the end, but have more free time to do other things- to have more time for friends and family, and to practise: learn new repertoire, be well prepared for concerts.

I was also well aware that while an agent can try and convince me to play for less, the agent in the end could book many people the same day and make a good profit with numbers, but I could only do that one gig.

There were side effects to this approach of course: understandably not all who enquired for a date booked me when I presented my quotes, but I thought that it would be best to work less for a better fee. My income in the end was higher as I ended up as busy as I could be and I also enjoyed the work more. The side effect – a welcome one!- was that the more I was paid, the better I was treated! In a society where all is valued in money, the customer tends to think that if it is expensive, it must be worth more- and we always play our best when we feel valued, so it is a win-win situation.

And there was another wonderful side effect: if a booking with a professional orchestra, solo recital, or tour came up later, it was much easier to find an excellent deputy harpist for the gig because of the good fee attached.

Weddings and corporate events, and the – sadly- occasional bereavement, are a business: there are charges for venues, registrars, refreshments and meals, flowers, vintage cars and driver amongst other items. It might be a worthwhile exercise to find out how much these vary and how much they can be, to get an idea of where the harpist fits in that bracket of services and values. It is important to help the client see how much the harp and the harpists abilities can improve the event, choice of repertoire, but also how the images will remain in the photo album, the sounds in the videos recorded during the events (have you negotiated an inclusive fee? Have you thought that you could be recorded and it would be almost impossible to prevent everyone from doing so in such an event? Here is another thought your agent might not think much about when selling you, however it is wise to include a small extra fee for the privilege!).

A harpist and her/his harp are precious and valuable: from the many years of training and high skills acquired, to the beautiful instrument the harp is and how much it costs to acquire, not to mention the lateral skills- driving a car, moving the harp, etc- that we often don’t think much about.

Students external engagements while at College

Each conservatoire has an external engagements’ dedicated person: it is very important that fees are kept close to the professional rates, to avoid undercutting the profession: everyone is a student only for a little amount of time and then a professional for the rest of it: it would be counterproductive to charge only a nominal fee because when a professional, the client might keep booking another student.

Charging little money as a student makes the transition very difficult to charge much higher rates once graduated, and clients have insisted that the harpists performs again for the same fee as a student because they have done so before.

Many students are already professionals and are deemed good enough to play as such. For example students taking their masters already hold degrees.

Artistry should be paid by its value.

Also by paying students close to professional rates, we give them the confidence that music is a viable profession. University fees have trebled in the UK over the past few years, and some students may choose to go to university instead in order to have a higher paid job, and the hope to have a home and a family one day.

We need to help make the music profession sustainable and necessary.

Session work

I have willingly left out the Session work because it seem healthy in terms of fees and porterage negotiated, perhaps because it thrives within the advertising and film business, is self regulated and not subject to government funding or cuts. However, as a healthy example of thriving in the profession- although session players tell me they used to earn so much more 20 years ago- we can see it as a model.


At the beginning of a music career, well into it and sometimes while still a student, 1) you will get a call to perform a gig – of any kind, high profile or at amateur level- at short notice, stepping in for who has been booked originally, or 2) you may need to get out of one.

  1. This is wonderful chance to get known, provided you are ready for it and are confident that you will perform well. Make sure you get as much information so that the fixer will not notice the short notice change, and prepare well.

2) When unable to do a gig, choose an excellent and reliable replacement for yourself: good performers means the fixer will be happy and might let you off again also next time, as well as keeping booking you for many years to come.

It is interesting, but by giving work away you will find that it comes back multiplied with a boomerang effect, and not necessarily from the same source. Sharing multiplies in a strange way, and it is another way to prove that ‘together we are stronger’.

More could be addressed on this topic but it will be another chapter for another time!

If we communicate and share how much we would like to charge for the work we do, and do our best to stick to it, we will be consistent as a ‘Harp Guild’ and ‘Work Less for More’ sounds to me, an excellent idea!

I have collated a survey for as many as possible to fill in- please ask any harpists you know to fill it, and add at the end any other thoughts I may have missed out.

Please also add any further thoughts you may have on the subject, as I am sure I have not covered everything here.

If we accept unpaid or not well paid work, we will work too hard and find it more difficult making a living. In the end we will damage a profession we deeply love, and end up with little money and few friends, since I am sure it is true, many of our friends are our own colleagues!

I deeply love music and the harp and cannot imagine myself not working in the music profession: a hobby has become the work I do for a living, and I still work with the enthusiasm of a child in a sweetshop! I feel privileged my family has supported me through all my studies and in all subsequent choices- and I remembered they were only saying….but it is a hobby, not a profession!

It is time we all get together and gently start steering our boat into making music recognised and respected, as it is in Germany and Switzerland for example.

Music is wonderful profession that engages the individual on so many levels, emotionally and physically, and makes him/her interact with fellow musicians and with audiences.

Can you imagine a world without music?

Do you love music?

Do you want to keep dreaming all your life, and keep your feet on the ground?

Let’s keep talking!

Gabriella Dall’Olio @

(Music heals, helps us in every aspects of our life.

Let’s work so it can also sustain us in a more trivial way, equally necessary to live in our society, in the XXI century)

Region county


Do you work for an agency?

Do you know how much is their commission?

How much do you charge per wedding ceremony only, ceremony and drinks drinks only drinks and wedding breakfast.

Do you charge for travel on top or all inclusive

Do you charge for extra time if it goes over the agreed time.


Private lessons



Mileage – what rates

Lessons in schools

                                     Gabriella Dall’Olio, docente di arpa al Trinity Laban Conservatorio di Londra

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