In Love With the Harp: A Conversation with Susan Jolles

by Bob Pawlo

This article originally appeared in Allegro, the magazine of Local 802, in March, 2014.

Susan Jolles has enjoyed a long and varied career as a soloist, chamber musician, orchestral player, teacher and arranger. A founding member of the Jubal Trio, she also appears with her daughter, violinist Renee Jolles, as the Jolles Duo.

Jolles is a member of the American Composers Orchestra, Musica Viva and the Little Orchestra Society, and is associate harpist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. She also appears regularly with the Encores Orchestra and North/South Consonance.

A recipient of the Naumburg Chamber Music Award, Jolles also won a Fromm Fellowship in contemporary music performance in 1963. She has premiered and recorded the music of Luciano Berio, George Crumb, Hans Werner Henze, Charles Wuorinen and David Diamond.

Jolles has collaborated with artists who span all musical styles, including klezmer (with Giora Feidman), jazz (with Kenny Garrett), cabaret (with Barbara Cook), and classical (with Humbert Lucarelli and Laurel Zucker). She recorded on Grammy-winning albums with the the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble and Dawn Upshaw.

Jolles teaches at Manhattan School of Music and the Mannes College of Music. She has been a member of Local 802 since 1962, ever since her teacher told her, “If you want to work, you join the union.” She is currently an honor member.

Susan Jolles recently sat down with Local 802 recording rep Bob Pawlo, where she spoke about her background, her practice tips, her coaching for auditions – and how she doesn’t look when someone else is moving her harp!

Bob Pawlo: When did you first start playing music?

Susan Jolles: I started piano lessons when I was three-and-a-half, and by the time I was 14, I knew I wanted to be a pianist. I attended the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan. The camp also encouraged all pianists to study an orchestral instrument because it was considered unhealthy for a teenager to sit alone all day in a little hut with a piano. So I told my mother that I would like to try the flute. She said no – she did not want her daughter to have an instrument stuck in front of her face! My brother suggested that I try the harp. I said, “Fine – write down harp!” After one week of rudimentary lessons, I called home and informed my parents that the harp would be my life. They were quite shocked! It took three months to convince them I was really serious.

BP: You became a professional harpist, but how helpful was having a grounding in piano at an early age?

SJ: Tremendously helpful, because it’s easy to visualize harmonies on piano, and many of the practice techniques are similar. I still occasionally play celeste and piano on a professional level. You need to play your scales and arpeggios no matter what instrument you play.

BP: Were your parents musically inclined?

SJ: Not particularly. My father was a visual artist. There were lots of painters and sculptors on his side of the family. My mother played the piano, but never in front of me.

BP: When did you first start playing music jobs?

Susan Jolles, in costume, performing in “Holiday on Ice” in 1962.

Susan Jolles, in costume, performing in “Holiday on Ice” in 1962.

SJ: After college, my first real job was being featured in an act with “Holiday on Ice.” I toured the United States and Mexico for a year. I was out on a float in costume [see photo on page 23], playing all kinds of early 20th century love themes like “Toujours l’amour” and the “Merry Wives of Windsor.” Toward the end of the tour, I was sitting in a hotel room in Jackson, Mississipi, thinking, “What am I going to do next?” Then the phone rang. On the other end were Stanley Silverman, Gunther Schuller and Lukas Foss, asking if I would like to come to Tanglewood to be a Fromm Player. Fromm Players performed contemporary chamber music for the entire summer and actually earned a small stipend, housing and food. I said, “Of course!” At that time there were only 12 of us. That’s where I met all the contemporary music people in New York, including Arthur Weisberg and Charles Wuorinen. I came to New York that following September and my career started in the contemporary music scene as well as subbing at Radio City, as most musicians did.

BP: Harp is normally associated with playing in symphony orchestras, which you’ve done. But you’ve also played with jazz, klezmer and cabaret musicians – in addition to working on Broadway as well as with the Metropolitan Opera, of course. What is in your musical background and your training or practice routine that enables you to be so incredibly flexible?

SJ: I guess I’m kind of a natural musician. I don’t get intimidated by new challenges. I also love to work. I never say no to a decent offer. I enjoy all types of music and I enjoy all the people I meet and the places I see. I really love it. It’s very stimulating. Human beings are very adaptable. If you’re willing, you can do anything. Also, I’ve been blessed to be a good sight reader because I started so young. Some people have told me that that’s how I made my reputation. Which is valid to a point, but you need to be very well prepared and you have to keep at your technique all the time. I don’t believe people who say they never practice. Also, it helps that I have a good ear and a good attitude, and that I had phenomenal teachers.

BP: Then let’s talk about your teachers. What are the biggest things you learned from them?

SJ: Technique and sound. Sound is so important. Today I find on all the instruments that young people want speed and virtuosity and sound is taking a back seat. So I stress when I teach that one must have a beautiful, rich, full sound without being strident and harsh on the instrument.

BP: You have been associated with contemporary music since your Tanglewood days. What excitement and challenges does contemporary music pose?

SJ: Well, you’re expanding your technique all the time and you have to rise to the challenge. It’s very exciting to work with something new and to work with composers. You come upon some composers who are very flexible. They understand if something doesn’t sound right, they’ll change it. But you also can come upon other composers who will not. They think everything they write is perfect. You learn to deal with these personalities and these different problems. If things are totally impossible then you just have to tell the composer he has to find another way.

BP: You’ve commissioned many new works. Who did you work with?

SJ: George Crumb gave my Jubal Trio a gift: “Federico’s Little Songs For Children.” With Jubal, there also are commissions from Ursala Mamolk, Harvey Sollberger and Tania Leon, among many others. Ken Froelich and Victoria Bond composed exciting pieces for the Jolles Duo.

BP: How is it through the years that you’ve been able to retain your technique and grow as a musician?

SJ: You’re never too old to learn. Never. Everything new is wonderful and exciting. This season at the Met, “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” by Britten was a great challenge. Performing new works is very stimulating. It keeps you young and fresh.

BP: Over the years how was the music world’s perception of the harp changed?

SJ: I think much more contemporary music is being written for the harp. I think people are more aware of it. When I was young and just starting out, there weren’t too many harpists in my generation. Now there are lots and lots of people playing very well all over the country. Today when an audition is announced anywhere in the country, over 100 harpists might apply. When I began my professional life, five or six would apply. That’s one way that the harp has changed.

BP: How do you prepare your students for auditions?

SJ: We do a lot of work on excerpts. At Manhattan School of Music there is a big orchestral program. They have mock auditions for the young people. I encourage the students never to say no and to try everything they can. I know a flutist who took ten auditions in a row over a year or two, and didn’t get anything – until she finally won a chair at the Met! So all her audition experience really helped.

BP: In preparing a student for an audition, is it a period of months?

SJ: Years. My advice to students anywhere on any instrument is that the secret to success is being extremely well prepared. You can’t go out half sure of yourself; you need to be really on top of things. Because nerves are going to be a part of the audition experience. I also tell students when you’re playing, zone out everybody around you, and think of a single person you’re playing for: your teacher, your friend, one person in the audience. That was one thing I learned in the ice show because we were playing in arenas with sometimes 20,000 people in the audience and one of the skaters said to me, just pick out one person in the audience and play for that person. It works.

BP: Tell me about your teaching style.

SJ: The approach has to be tailored to each student. It’s a very personal relationship with each student. Some students can take a lot of discipline, some cannot. Some want to be challenged, some do not. There’s a certain repertoire that must be covered if you’re going into a conservatory, but you have to really think of the individual and how that person learns, if she can sight read well, how long it takes her to learn a piece, if she has memory problems.

BP: What have been some of your more challenging moments of having to move your harp?

SJ: One was trying to get on to a boat for a sail around Manhattan to play a party. It was stormy and there was no gangplank. They had to hoist the harp over, and since I was in a long gown and high heels, I said now you’ve got to hoist me over too. And of course when you encounter stairs, it’s very difficult. Harp is a nightmare on stairs. I have a dolly, but on stairs I need help. If someone else is moving the harp, I never watch. It’s better not to know.

BP: Have conditions in general for women in music gotten better over the years?

SJ: In general, I never had a problem, although two stories come to mind. When I was pregnant with my first child, a contractor from New Jersey called me. There was a big event at Lincoln Center. I remember that Tony Bennett and all the big stars at the time were there, including Joan Rivers. The contractor said, “I want you to know I don’t hire women, but you’ve been highly recommended and I can’t find any men that are available.” Those words speak for themselves. Then, when I was pregnant with my second child, I was returning from a day trip to Washington, D.C. with a group that I will not mention. It was early in the pregnancy and I was feeling pretty sick. We arrived at Lincoln Center around 2 a.m. I asked if somebody could help me find a cab. One of the men turned to me and said, “You want to work like a man, you have to act like a man.” So there you have it. The good news is that there are so many women in orchestral positions now. When I was young, there were two or three women on a job in a large orchestra. Now it’s half or more. I think having blind auditions behind a screen has made a big impact on the number of women in our orchestras.

BP: What do you say to a person starting out in a career in music as a harpist?

SJ: I tell them take every job that you can. It doesn’t matter what it is. It can be a wedding gig, it can be in an orchestra, it can be chamber music. I also advise them to form their own groups with musicians in their generation. I see my students succeeding. It’s very gratifying.

BP: Have you passed on music to your children?

SJ: Yes, my violinist daughter was just appointed to the faculty at the Eastman School of Music. My other daughter was a terrific harpist but never wanted to be a musician. She works as a director in theatre and television. Her musical background and knowledge have played a major role in her being the first woman to direct a “Live From Lincoln Center” production.

BP: Any closing thoughts?

SJ: New York is just the best place to be. It’s a wonderful city. There’s so much to stimulate and excite and to challenge. There is so much art around that adds to one’s education and understanding of style. I make sure my students go to museums so that they understand what baroque means from a visual point of view, for example. I think New York is just the most inspirational place to be for musicians.