Photo by Chris Lee
One of a Kind: Harpist Nancy Allen
A student in the last class of the legendary Marcel Grandjany, Ms. Allen also studied with Pearl Chertok, Lily Laskine, and the renowned harpist Susann McDonald. Highlights of her career include performances for “Music at the Supreme Court” hosted by Justice Sandra Day O’Conner and for the 1986 opening of the Aspen Silverqueen Gondola at the top of Ajax Mountain, along with singer John Denver. She has enjoyed close collaborations with soprano Kathleen Battle, guitarist Manuel Barrueco, flutists Carol Wincenc and Ransom Wilson, and the Tokyo and American String Quartets.
Ms. Allen is head of the harp departments of the Juilliard School and Stony Brook University. Her students hold major orchestral positions and have won top international prizes worldwide. A veteran of summer music festivals, Nancy Allen has been a faculty artist with the Aspen Music Festival since 1976.
Gena Raps: I was a harpist at Juilliard as a child and practiced daily to build and maintain the calluses needed to pluck the strings. The instrument had to be tuned every day, which could take me as long as 45 minutes. And that’s before I even got to practice! I was also a serious pianist. Given all that each instrument requires, there just wasn’t enough time to practice both. But I certainly understand the time and creative effort the harp requires. How did you become a harpist?
Nancy Allen: I grew up in a musical house. My mother was a good pianist. In the 1940s she was studying in New York with a Juilliard teacher. She was also a student at Columbia Teacher’s College. She was advised to get a teaching degree, because that’s all a woman could do, right? There were a few exceptions, such as [the celebrated English pianist] Myra Hess. Mom studied with a fine teacher at Yale. Later she gave lessons, and also assisted playing organ and had several organ jobs. She taught me everything she knew about the piano and the organ. I had to play in church, and I had to play in all the recitals. She never had time for a complete lesson; she would start my lesson and leave, and consequently I became a good sight reader.
As a student my mother lived in a dormitory. In those days all the women were at the Parnassus Club or the Three Arts Club near Claremont Avenue. Every night she saw a harpist going out with her harp, and was fascinated that this woman had so much work. It turned out she was the harpist in Phil Spitalny’s all-girl orchestra. Kids today don’t know about that ensemble, but as a child I heard all about it, saw all the pictures, and heard the recordings. The women were dressed in fancy long cocktail dresses. And that’s why I played the harp.
As a young mother, Mom moved to Long Island, where there happened to be a harp studio. The teacher had been a student of Carlos Salzedo, the famous French teacher, composer, and harpist. So my mother went out and bought a used harp.
I already played the piano, and I could read music; and, on the harp, I only had to use four fingers on each hand, so that seemed easy. My sisters also played the harp, and my father would tune the harps with us at the piano. I learned to tune that way, but I don’t think it ever took me 45 minutes. I could tune it in about 10.
Actually, as a kid I probably didn’t even tune. I remember our dog chewed up the harp strings whenever he got hold of them. Harp strings are made of gut, and they’re expensive.
GR: How many harps were in the house?
NA: We only had two. We didn’t have a lot of money. We saved up for the first harp in a glass milk bottle. My father said, “Keep putting your quarters in.” I was walking a big golden retriever, and would put the quarters I earned doing that in the big milk bottle. Until I was about 15 I thought that’s how we bought the harp. When I was in sixth grade, my parents bought me my own harp because I was advancing and serious. We had three harps at that point, and two pianos, and an organ.
There was always a lot of music in the house. My father was a medical photographer, but he was also a big-band drummer. That was his love. As he developed photographs, I would stand with him watching people’s faces and bodies come to life in those toxic chemicals. He would say, as he was licking his fingers each time to grab the pictures out of the fluid, “Thank god you’re a musician.” I’ll never forget that, because he really wanted to be a musician. That was important in choosing this career; my parents endorsed this alternative lifestyle.
I didn’t want to be a banker, lawyer, even a mathematician, which was my other good subject. There was no feeling that I couldn’t do it. My father so admired musicians, and my mother loved music. It was important knowing my father had an alternative lifestyle too; he played drums on weekends and loved that as much as he did photography.
GR: How much did you practice?
NA: Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we didn’t have as much pressure as children do today. I don’t think I was ever taught to practice well. I had lessons with my mother and later with teachers, but I practiced on my own and became clever at it. Eventually I started the oboe at the same time as the harp. I had to practice the oboe in order to get a note out of it.
I loved the oboe and played it until I was 18. I don’t think I would have gotten into Juilliard playing it, but I played seriously—and as my mother said, I learned about singing. I have a terrible voice, but I learned a lot about singing, breathing, and playing one melodic line as the woodwinds do. That’s something we don’t learn on the harp at first. We’re busy plucking strings and moving pedals.
I was grateful to play the oboe in my school orchestras and in all-state competitions. I even played Mahler’s First Symphony when I was a kid. Not very well probably. Amahl and the Night Visitors has big oboe parts, and I scampered through them. I played seriously. I was always the principal oboe. Practicing the piano and the oboe a little bit and practicing the harp a lot took a substantial amount of time, but I was not a big practicer in the beginning. When I was about 13 or 14 I started practicing seriously. Even then I only practiced two to three hours a day—not much by today’s standards.
I practiced this morning for an hour. I called my daughter and said, “You know, the one thing I love more than anything is playing those strings: there’s something so basic about it—so beautiful and pure—and it’s as if the harp plays by itself in an orchestra. We’re not playing in a single melodic line like a flute or an oboe, where most of the time you are accompanied. You’re not lonely practicing.”
My first harp teacher was not supportive. She told me I would never be a harpist. But I defied her. My next teacher was so impressed with my natural ability from playing so many instruments that she gave me a gold star and a scholarship, and that pushed me along.
GR: Did you ever think about being a conductor, since you were familiar with so many instruments?
NA: I never considered conducting. First of all, this was the 1960s and women didn’t think of that. Now I push my students to take conducting lessons at Juilliard. But I don’t think I’m score-conscious enough. I can read a score, but I’m not fluid enough to be really good at score reading. I don’t think I could handle what it is to become a woman conductor.
I did train one student, Eric Nelson, who was also an oboist at Juilliard, a harp double major, and a pianist. Now he’s the conductor of the Bilbao Symphony in Spain. He was in Frankfurt before that. He came to the first lesson in Juilliard, and I said, “What do you want to do with your life?” He was becoming a terrific harpist. He said, “Well, Ms. Allen, I really want to become a conductor.” He did, very quickly. After getting his degrees with me at Juilliard, he went the serious route of score-reading and accompanying.
GR: You have a chamber music group with your daughter, Claire, who is a cellist.
NA: My daughter’s a wonderful cellist; she also sings and is a pianist. She never wanted to play the harp. She told me the harp couldn’t vibrate. And I said, “What, are you joking? That’s all we do is vibrate. We have to stop the sound.” But she meant that she wanted to vibrate. When she found the cello, she found her instrument. I always played along with her the simple piano parts when she was a kid.
Now I have a trio, the Gossamer Trio, with Claire and Carol Wincenc. Carol’s been gracious to make it a priority. For many years, when my daughter was young, I also played with her in the orchestra at the music festival in Aspen, Colorado. That was a charge. I love playing chamber music; that’s important for harpists, because otherwise we are playing alone.
GR: Everybody who sees a harp wants to know about the pedals.
NA: The harp is quite a difficult instrument. I know that the piano has a massive repertoire, and I can’t play the piano as well. When I finish practicing the harp, I sit down at the piano because it feels easier to me, because I only have three little pedals and I hardly use one. The harp has seven pedals involving a total of 21 positions. Each pedal has three positions—that’s how you create the sharps and the flats. It’s a mystery to most people, and it’s a mental chess game for all harpists. That’s what makes the harp so special, and why harpists relate to each other. It’s not just your fingers and phrasing; it’s also your feet and keeping a coordinated picture in your brain. It’s a challenge. It’s difficult for memory, and we memorize everything, like pianists.
GR: Did you set out to be an orchestral player? The harp is mostly an orchestral instrument.
NA: To me, the harp is a solo instrument. We often play alone in the orchestra. Flutes and woodwinds play major roles in the orchestra because they have grand solos. The harp is in the back, and also has great solo parts in the orchestra. I love playing on a team, Honestly, I never thought of myself as having a career as an orchestral musician.
I’m proud to be in the New York Philharmonic. I did my homework, playing oboe and harp in orchestras since I was young. I played in Orpheus as a harpist when I was in my twenties. And I subbed with the Philharmonic with Bernstein and Boulez when I was at Juilliard. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. And I had a lot of contemporary music experience.
We played West Side Story, accompanying the movie as it was shown on a screen in the concert hall the other day, and I had to laugh because I was the only one on stage who had played with Bernstein on tour in the ‘70s, and during the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial. We played all over Europe. When I graduated from Juilliard, I had no intention of joining an orchestra. I was asked several times to come and play privately for auditions.
I remember I said, once, to Sergiu Comissiona, “If I would ever be in an orchestra, it would be with you, maestro.” But I went on to say, “I want to try and be the soloist that I feel I am.” When I joined the Philharmonic in 1999, it was halfway through my career and new to me. I knew the repertoire, and I’d played orchestrally and solo many years at the Aspen Festival. I was over-prepared in a way. I felt like I had been a student for 30 years, a student of orchestra rep, teaching it and playing it with students. All that experience helped me fit right into the Philharmonic.
GR: What are the opportunities for the many harpists coming out of conservatories now?
NA: I teach ten major students right now. Usually I have eight to ten students, and I have two younger students. One would think that it’s a field that would make you a nervous wreck because of the lack of music in the schools in America, and orchestras’ budgetary constraints; the major orchestras have plenty, but the smaller orchestras around the country have tight budgets. They often eliminate the harp position and hire harpists when required for individual performances.
Some kids are left without benefits unless they get a major orchestra job. I’m proud that my class is so fine. Most of [my former students] have jobs around the world. The students I have now are under age 22. I would say most of them will end up with positions in orchestras. Many of them have won competitions as soloists already, but they also know that the meat and potatoes will come from multitasking: orchestral, chamber, and solo performances, and working as a teacher.
I don’t think I was aware of that when I was a kid, because we had blinders on. We practiced and we claimed to be soloists. Then the world became more expensive and more competitive. I was lucky to be a young artist in the ‘70s when the arts were flourishing, with assistance from the National Endowment for the Arts and Columbia Artists Management. It’s harder for young musicians today.
Still, there are opportunities. Right now I think we have five fine openings in the United States for principal harpists, in Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Kansas City. Within 10 years, my own position may be open. It’s a good field right now and young harpists know it. They’re working on orchestra excerpts for auditions in addition to their solo repertoire.
In music departments where there are too many musicians, they will never find employment. But harpists are always special. We can also play churches and weddings, which is great fun. These are things we can fall back on while also practicing our repertoire. It’s a great way to extend your career.
GR: You’ve trained harpists who are playing all over the world.
NA: I have a lot of students from the past and present. Many in the United States and in Europe. The funny thing about my harp students is that we stay together, and are in contact. I’m talking to my former students and new students all at the same time. I’m proud of them. Some are still searching for jobs, but right now my students have positions—including as principal harpist in the Boston Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Houston Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, Orchestre de Paris, Radio Orchestra of Paris. I could go on and on. It’s an exciting career.
GR: You have taught at Juilliard since 1985. You’re in the New York Phil, you’re playing chamber music, and you’re teaching. You’re traveling three hours a day because you live out of town. How do you do it all?
NA: It<’s easier now that my daughter’s grown. When she was younger, it was hard. When I was in my solo career, I was traveling with a baby all over Europe. That was difficult. Once I joined the Philharmonic, it was a little bit easier because I was in one place, with a commute. All musicians, especially harpists, are good multitaskers. Thank God for all of those hours of practice during the Juilliard years, and before, because I learned a lot of repertoire and I fall back on it. I tell my students, don’t waste this time, because you will never have this kind of glorious freedom again. GR: That’s great advice.
NA: Being over sixty, I’ve learned to prioritize and not overbook. You never know how your body’s going to feel; you never know about your hands or your brain or your mind — you might have a headache or you can’t focus because something has gone wrong in the world.
I am careful about my schedule. I take my jobs seriously. I don’t make it harder for myself by scheduling anything that’s going to infringe on my responsibilities at the Philharmonic and at Juilliard. The students are important to me. You also have to get out and play.
I made an arrangement of “Embraceable You” from Earl Wild’s piano transcription of the Gershwin song and his estate gave me permission to perform it.
George Gershwin: Embraceable You – Nancy Allen
I started it when my little black cat Pan was sick with cancer. I told him that he had to stay and listen and stay alive until I could play it. For 2 years he sat along side me. Then it was done and he was gone.
GR: Speaking of going out and playing, I’ve seen you whip your harp in and out of your car, and pack it up — and I said, thank goodness I’m not a harpist. You make it look so easy.
NA: Everyone thinks it’s easy. If you don’t make it easy, it’ll hurt your body. When I was younger, I learned how to move the harp myself. If I ever ask someone to help me, it’s almost always a disaster. I had to learn how to distribute the weight, how to pick things up without hurting my shoulders and fingers.
If you have a car, it’s easier. The kids today call Uber, and put the harp in the back of the car or van that shows up. Or there are harp movers. Harps generally weigh about 100 pounds. I always played on my own harp until after I was 65. Traveling to Europe, Asia, and other places I went to cargo first and left the big wooden harp trunk, which weighs 200 pounds. I had a system that worked for me.
I believed even if I lost money, I’d be better if I kept my level high and that would be on my own instrument. Since I turned sixty-five I’ve occasionally borrowed harps. I’ve been happy sometimes, not so happy others. Maybe part of the essence of my career was being willing to spend a lot on moving my own harp and not playing whatever’s available. I’ll borrow harps now because I’m tired and older.
GR: You must have some pretty good stories— about both disasters and uplifting experiences.
NA: I’ve had nightmares with instruments. I went to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and when I got there saw the harp was a smaller instrument, which was okay. But it hadn’t been played in 10 years. And there were hardly any strings on it. That was a disaster. I had two days to restring it. Fortunately, the concert hall in St. John’s was beautiful, with a big dome ceiling, and the harp sounded beautiful. It was a little out of tune, but I just said, I’m here, I’m going to play.
I remember asking a very well-known pianist recently, “What do you do when you get there and the piano is not well tuned or doesn’t sound good?” He said, “I don’t even hear it.” [LAUGHING] “I’m not responsible.” As harpists, we are responsible for everything.
I’ve had some occasions recently when I cried backstage because the instrument was not good. I’m careful about that now. Sometimes people want you to play their harp, but the instrument is not good enough. The other day I was trying out a harp, and it turned out to be one of the greatest harps I ever found. I’m playing it next week. The owner is letting me use it, and I’m thrilled.
GR: One of your stories that touched my heart was when you brought to Juilliard the young girl who had been kidnapped.
NA: That was Elizabeth Smart. She’s great now and a spokesperson for inner strength. She and her sister, Mary Katherine, came to Aspen right after the police rescued Elizabeth. She survived that ordeal [held captive and repeatedly assaulted for more than nine months]. She loved playing the harp, and I brought her and her sister to play for me at Juilliard while she was still traumatized. She wrote a book, eventually, about how she dealt with trauma. It was remarkable to be close to her, because I had a young daughter. Elizabeth was a shining light to everybody for what she endured and how she remained whole and not bitter.
GR: Touring looks glamorous, but there’s a lot of waiting, delays, travel problems. Do you have other interests? For example, what do you do when you’re stuck in an airport?
NA: I have other pursuits that have nothing to do with the harp. Horseback riding is one— though I recently had a bad fall and had to stop for a bit. I also like hiking—all of those Aspen-related activities. I started writing when I was quite young. I think what liberated me as a writer was the computer, because I learned about getting something down on a piece of paper and not worrying about it being perfect, and then editing.
I should get a degree in writing, which I might try to do as I get older. I write essays and short stories. Most of it’s personal, some really funny. I also write hilarious fake biographies for friends using exaggeration and hyperbole. I write poetry because I’ve always loved poetry; I follow a few poets. I need a mentor. I read a lot of Billy Collins; he’s my favorite, and Emily Dickinson.
I started writing as therapy. I wrote stories of my life and things I had to deal with as a child because my home life was chaotic and a mess, even though my mother was fantastic, and my father was wonderful. It was not a solid, happy home.
I read one of my favorite stories of myself over and over. It’s called “My Father’s Dark Room.” Obviously there’s a double meaning, because I spent a lot of time with him in his photography darkroom; but the story also refers to his metaphorical room of secrets and things that he did that weren’t so honest. I came away feeling that everybody has to do what they have to do.
“Life Is Worth Living,” is another story I read to myself. It sounds arrogant and self-centered, but it helps me. It’s about the old Tappan Zee Bridge. There’s a sign in the middle that says life is worth living. Obviously it’s trying to deter people from ending their life in times of crisis. I always saw it when I drove over to my mother’s, including the day she died. My mother died before I could get there but I saw the sign just before she died — life is worth living.
The story is about how everything had gone wrong for my mother and her family and my own childhood. But my mother always said, “Tomorrow is a beautiful day and it’s worth living.” So the story is not as nostalgic nor thoughtful as it sounds. It’s more about the funny things in life that make you almost jump, but you have enough inner strength and compassion for other people or for yourself not to jump.
I found it funny that every day I would see this sign, and so many other people probably never noticed it.
GR: Do you write about music?
NA: I wrote a cute piece during the pandemic about me, swinging on a swing, and being a harpist. Then imagining through the swing what it meant to me… signifying confidence—it’s more of a poem. It’s your inner child growing up on that swing, and developing oneself as an artist. But I write very little about music, itself. I generally write about the psychology—why people behave as they do, and how people grow up and get over much more difficult things than I had to.
GR: Why are harpists mostly women? Are we supposed to be angels? Is that the point?
NA: We say the harp can make a fool of anyone, and that’s why we think there are so many women harpists, because the men can’t handle it. It’s like being on a huge elliptical machine with lots of settings and algorithms in your head. Still, it’s not true that all harpists are women these days. There are a number of great male harpists.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, most harpists were men. In Paris, many women harpists swarmed around Henriette Renié [1875-1958]. What were they going to do? They couldn’t be in orchestras. They trained as harpists with Renié, one of the most famous teachers and soloists of all time. She taught my teacher. But all the others were men.
GR: When did it change?
NA: It changed in Paris, and in Belgium with harp schools and the changing repertoire, and when orchestras began bringing harpists to play in orchestras. Now there are probably more women than men playing the harp. But we have great male harpists too. I can list them on two hands.
This is a major change. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was only one female harp soloist, Dorette Scheidler [1787-1834], the wife of the German composer, violinist, and conductor Louis Spohr. She lived at the same time as Beethoven, when the modern harp was still being developed, and her husband composed for her—including some difficult violin and harp duets.
GR: I understand that you get to the hall early to tune the harp.
NA: I get to the hall an hour and fifteen minutes before any performance. I’m a fanatic about tuning. I always have been, because I was an oboist. People think I’m obsessive compulsive, but I have a good ear for pitch. I tune by ear rather than with tuners, which is unusual now. And I tune both harps. I tune two harps exactly together when we have to play in tandem, because it’s basically the only way to get two instruments sounding close. My colleagues like it because they can come later, and they trust me. Basically you have a system of 2,000 moving parts. It’s a puzzle you have to solve. Once I’m in tune, the pressure is off me. I feel 100 percent better.
GR: Your daughter Claire’s half-sister was in Israel when the war broke out.
NA: Obviously the whole world is concerned about the situation in Palestine, Gaza, and Israel, and all of us have relatives and friends—and I have students and parents of students—in Israel. Everybody is touched when it’s someone that’s related to them. My daughter’s half-sister had gone to college in Israel and is comfortable there. She had gone back for a wedding, and landed in the midst of that disaster the day before the wedding, which was cancelled. She hunkered down with five friends from college in an apartment with a bomb shelter. It’s scary to hear the words bomb shelter, a common term in Israel, where everyone is prepared for war. We were concerned about her getting out. She went to the airport and her flight was canceled. Before the American airplanes were taking people out, she got on a Turkish airline flight to Germany. She’s fine and she wants to go back to Israel.
Her father was calm. He believes everything will work out. I’m the more worrying person. I know her mother was worried too. Claire was upset, and still is upset about the situation. She can hardly leave the news, like most of us.
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