Following Her Passions
The many sides of harpist Laura Sherman
Volume 115, No. 11November, 2015
Harpist Laura Sherman, a member of Local 802 since 1988, enjoys a diverse and well-traveled career. Currently the harpist for “Wicked” on Broadway, she is also the founder of Gotham Harp Publishing, a harp music publishing company specializing in historically-informed transcriptions of early music and new works by contemporary composers.
Equally at home in the classical, commercial and academic worlds, she has toured internationally with Barbra Streisand and three Broadway shows, and as a lecturer, performer and teacher of the music of J. S. Bach.
During her 30 years in New York City, she has performed with many of the top freelance orchestras, subbed on numerous Broadway shows, recorded on diverse films, commercials and sound recordings, and performed solo and chamber music recitals. She also played at the Ritz-Carlton Central Park Hotel for seven years and has performed on countless club dates.
Laura has been featured on the cover of Harp Column magazine and has written historical and scholarly articles for the American Harp Society Journal and the World Harp Congress Review.
A graduate of Queens College/CUNY, Yale School of Music and the University of Michigan, Laura holds four degrees, three in harp performance and one in music theory. She studied harp with Lynne Aspnes, Nancy Allen, Gloria Agostini, Susan Jolles, Mary Brigid Roman and Elisa Dickon, and studied Bach performance practice with Rosalyn Tureck at her Tureck-Bach Research Institute in Oxford, England. Laura has taught at Louisiana State University and currently teaches both privately and at Hunter College/CUNY. Her web site is wickedharp.com.
Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently caught up with Laura to discuss her life in music.
Bob Pawlo: What are your first memories of music?
Laura Sherman: I’ll never forget the first time I heard live music. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Marshall, sat us down in front of the piano in our classroom and started to play. I don’t recall what the song was, but I was transfixed. Afterwards, I remember tugging on her skirt and, in spite of being a shy kid, insisting that she teach me how to make music. She found a local piano teacher for me and I was hooked. I filled every possible free moment practicing the piano and listening to all kinds of music. Most nights my mom had to bang on my bedroom door and demand that I stop practicing when it was time to go to sleep. And I was constantly bringing different instruments home from school to try out – violin, cello, bassoon, marimba. My supportive and patient parents would sequester me in the garage so that I could make as much “noise” as I wanted. Music was, and still is, my lifeline.
Bob Pawlo: When did you start playing the harp?
Laura Sherman: I always wanted to be a concert pianist. I didn’t start the harp until much later and it was really a lucky fluke. I was playing piano for my high school orchestra and the director mentioned that she needed a harpist for the next concert. She handed me a beginning harp book and a tuning key and pointed to a nearby closet where an old, dusty harp was stored. Years earlier, a benefactor of the Norfolk, Virginia public schools had purchased a concert grand pedal harp for each of the city’s high schools including this one. Since very few public schools had harps, I was incredibly lucky to be exposed to the instrument. I somehow managed to figure out enough to get through that first concert and eventually found a teacher and began studying harp seriously. It took me quite a while, and, thankfully, I had the help of many patient and generous teachers, but I finally earned four degrees, including a bachelor’s from Queens College, a master’s from Yale and a master’s from the University of Michigan, and a doctorate, also from Michigan. I was halfway through a second doctorate, this one in music theory at the CUNY Grad Center, when I had to call it quits. My performing career here in New York got too busy for me to do both well. I also took several breaks during my undergrad education to pursue other opportunities.
Bob Pawlo: What opportunities were those?
Laura Sherman: The first one brought me to New York City. While studying harp at Florida State University with Mary Brigid Roman, I won an audition with the National Orchestral Association – a long-time, though now defunct training orchestra that predated the New World Symphony – which included a nine-month residency at Columbia University. It turned out to be a fantastic education and experience. We had a new program and a new conductor every week and played monthly concerts at Carnegie Hall. It allowed me to quickly learn invaluable orchestral skills and a lot of repertoire. Plus I fell completely in love with New York City, and went to as many concerts, operas, museums and movies as I could. That was also a great education and prepared me for the second interruption in my undergraduate education: two years of international touring with three Broadway shows.
Bob Pawlo: So instead of going back to school, you went on the road. What was that like?
Laura Sherman: It was an incredible experience. To literally travel around the world at such a young age definitely helped shape who I am today as a person and a musician. I started out with “A Chorus Line,” and we traveled extensively throughout Europe, often with long stays in the European capitals. We visited Singapore, Hong Kong and 26 cities in Japan, and spent three months in New Zealand. I had a different harp in every city, which was a great education, and I learned as much as I could about the local cultures, arts, religions, food and music. Sometimes I would also take a lesson with the local harpist. I then hopped onto the “Evita” and “42nd Street” tours and only stopped touring two years later because I had promised my father that I would return to New York and finish my undergrad degree.
Bob Pawlo: More recently, you’ve toured quite a bit with Barbra Streisand. Are there specific performances that stand out in your memory?
Laura Sherman: Yes. I’ve been Barbra Streisand’s touring harpist since 2006 and have done four tours with her and her extraordinary music director, Bill Ross. I learned and grew so much by working with both of them, and with all of the amazingly talented musicians in the orchestra. To hear all of those different arrangements, watch Bill translate her ideas into gorgeous orchestrations, and hear her fully explore each song during weeks of rehearsals with the full orchestra was invaluable. I still don’t know how she, and her phenomenal sound department managed to make those large arenas sound and feel like an intimate cabaret performance! While each performance felt like a unique gift, two special ones stand out. The first would be on June 30, 2007, in Berlin, when we played at the Waldbuhne (“Forest Stage”), a large, outdoor amphitheatre built by Joseph Goebbels – Hitler’s propaganda minister – as part of the 1936 Olympics complex. This was the first time Ms. Streisand had performed in Germany, after turning down many invitations in the past. Given the history of the venue, it was an especially emotional performance and the crowd was unbelievable. Before the show even started, while we were waiting for the sun to go down, the crowd began doing “the wave” with us! And they went crazy when she came out and started singing. I believe the performance was over two and a half hours long that night. It felt like no one wanted it to end.
The second most memorable was on June 22, 2013, in Tel Aviv, at the Bloomfield Stadium. It was the first time she had performed publicly in Israel and was also the 100th live performance of her career. They just loved her and when she spoke about her Jewish background, you could feel the special connection that she and the audience shared. During that concert she also mentioned that it would be her last live performance, but we are all keeping our fingers crossed that she might change her mind. Tours like those, with a 50-piece orchestra, don’t happen very often anymore.
Bob Pawlo: What are some of the musical highlights of your time here in New York?
Laura Sherman: In addition to playing with my fantastic colleagues at “Wicked,” several especially meaningful performances come to mind. Two include concerts that tried to bring healing and solace to tragic circumstances: “From Broadway with Love: A Benefit Concert for Sandy Hook,” took place at the Palace Theatre in Waterbury, Connecticut on January 28, 2013, and was in response to the Newtown school shootings. Hundreds of members of the Broadway community came together to put on a two-and-a-half-hour show. The feeling of community, love and generosity was unforgettable.
And the memorial concert for our dear colleague, Mary Whitaker, at St. John the Divine, on May 3, 2015 was unbelievably moving and inspiring. With over 500 people in attendance, 175 of her musician friends and colleagues performed in her honor. It was a true testament to her beautiful and loving spirit and an unforgettable day.
For sheer fun and across the board excellence, our recent benefit performance for the Actors Fund of “Bombshell in Concert” was mind-blowing. “Bombshell” was the show within the TV show “Smash.” Marc Shaiman’s music and Doug Besterman’s orchestrations played by such a phenomenal band was unforgettable, plus the amazing singers, dancers, choreography, and costumes. I was so thrilled that they included me, since I used to watch “Smash” and wish I could play the harp parts someday! A dream come true, for sure!
Lastly, two recent recording experiences were absolute thrills. In June, I had the honor of collaborating with Meredith Monk and her amazing ensemble on their latest recording, “On Behalf of Nature.” Being invited into her unique sound world and watching her work definitely broadened my concepts and understanding of music. It’s hard to describe, which is exactly her point. As she says, in her compositions she “creates landscapes of sound that unearth feelings, energies, and memories for which there are no words.” Working with her, and her iconic producer, Manfred Eicher of ECM records, definitely helped me grow as a musician.
And in August, I was invited by Alex Lacamoire, the brilliant music director and orchestrator of the new Broadway show “Hamilton,” to play on the cast recording. Alex’s harp parts were a dream, and it was incredible fun playing so many different musical styles with him and his amazing band. They definitely take “time and groove” to whole new levels with that show, both in the music and the integration of the words with the music. It’s sheer brilliance and was an absolute thrill to experience during the recording sessions.
Bob Pawlo: Tell us what it’s been like playing the harp with “Wicked” for the last 12 years.
Laura Sherman: I am eternally grateful for that life-changing job. (Thank you, Michael Keller!) Without it, and all of my wonderful harp subs, I definitely would not be able to pursue all of my extra projects and performances. The harp is part of the rhythm section, which is a lot of fun. Because the scenery for the show extends down into the pit, they had to move me and Andy Jones, our fantastic percussionist, into separate rooms on the stage level. So I’ve been playing in a “star’s” dressing room by myself for the last 12 years. (It was Yul Brynner’s dressing room during “King and I” and Elaine Stritch’s during “Showboat.”) And Andy has been playing in what was the “star’s guest receiving room,” right next to my room, so at least we have each other as neighbors!
Bob Pawlo: What’s that like, playing the same music eight times a week, for 12 years and running, in a room by yourself? It sounds like a recipe for madness!
Laura Sherman: Funny you should say that! One of my subs taped a newspaper quote on the wall that reads, “Research shows that extreme isolation can have effects similar to those of torture,” but I actually love the challenge. Because of the distance from the rest of the orchestra, and the fact that not everyone can hear me well in the pit, I believe it has helped my ensemble skills tremendously. I had to become a quick reader of people’s musical tendencies – where they put the beat, how they phrase things – and then try to remember what every regular musician and all of their subs do! When I look at the sub book before each show, I make mental notes about how I should play various passages so that I make sure that I’m with them. It keeps things fresh, that’s for sure! It’s also creative, in a different way. Because of the repetition, it enables me to investigate the subtleties of things such as rhythm, timing, technique, sound, muffling and phrasing. Plus, there’s a different kind of focus and concentration that’s needed when playing the same music repeatedly. Early on in the run, I started reading a lot about mindfulness and Buddhism, which has helped me be more aware of how I use my mind and maintain my focus. Yoga and meditation also help. And fortunately, there’s a wonderful sense of community at the Gershwin, since we’ve all worked together for so long. It certainly helps counter all of those hours alone in the harp room!
Bob Pawlo: Aside from the show, what are you working on?
Laura Sherman: I have two main projects going right now, one that was 20 years in the making and the other that I started this past summer. In 2012 I founded Gotham Harp Publishing because I wanted a way to add historically-informed transcriptions of early music and new works by contemporary composers to the harp’s repertoire. It took me 20 years of study and the profoundly generous help of many of my close friends, but I was finally able to create an outlet for two of my dearest passions: transcribing J. S. Bach’s music for the harp, and working with composers on new pieces for the harp. So far, the catalogue includes my transcriptions for harp of Bach’s five Lute Suites and a collection of select preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Each edition includes extensive historical and Baroque performance practice information and a glossary of suggested and realized ornaments. The catalogue also includes transcriptions by harpists Susan Jolles – of works by Rameau and Handel – and Victoria Drake – of Bach’s complete Cello Suites, as well as new solo harp works by British composer Stephen Burtonwood, and New York City composers Torrie Zito and Joel Mandelbaum. I’m currently preparing transcriptions of Handel arias for voice and harp, as well as a collection of solo pieces by John Dowland. I am always looking for new contemporary works to publish as well.
I started my second big project in June after falling in love with the Baroque triple harp at an historical harp conference, thanks to the amazing Cheryl Ann Fulton and Mara Galassi, two historical harp scholars and performers. Unlike the modern pedal harp, this smaller instrument has three rows of strings, two diatonic rows on the outside and a chromatic row on the inside. My goal is to play Bach’s music on a modern replication of an instrument from his time. I’m a very long way from that, but am excited to be starting out on this new path.
Bob Pawlo: You mentioned 20 years of preparation before you started Gotham Harp Publishing. Tell us about that.
Laura Sherman: When I went from playing the piano to playing the harp exclusively, I really missed performing Bach’s music. I began fiddling around with transcribing various pieces of his, but got serious about it while at Yale. Rosalyn Tureck, the pianist, harpsichordist and Bach scholar, was a guest lecturer there and I began working closely with her. A few years later while at the University of Michigan, I won a grant to study at her Tureck-Bach Research Institute in Oxford, England, which enabled me to take private lessons with her and do research at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. The end results were my doctoral dissertation at Michigan, critical performance editions of Bach’s five Lute Suites and three dissertation recitals that coupled the Lute Suites with contemporary works. And in 2012, after many more years of work and study, the five Lute Suites were the inaugural publications for my publishing company.
Bob Pawlo: Tell us about some of your future projects.
Laura Sherman: I really love teaching and sharing my work on Bach’s music at master classes with harp students around the world. At some point, I want to record Bach’s Lute Suites, which I’ve been meaning to do for decades! I’m also looking forward to writing several articles that the American Harp Journal has requested. And there are still many fantastic musicians with whom I’d love to play chamber music too! Eventually, I’d love to be a part of a university again. I truly love teaching harp and theory at the college level.
Bob Pawlo: Given the diversity of the jobs that you play, what skills do you consider most important?
Laura Sherman: Having good rhythm and time is essential and something that I’ve been especially fascinated with for a long time. (Next lifetime, I’d love to come back as a cowbell player in an Afro-Cuban band! They get to have so much fun with rhythm and time!) Since it’s really hard to make a plucked instrument “sing,” I use rhythm and time to simulate the singing, legato quality that wind and bowed instruments naturally create. I teach my students that the energy of music comes from the rhythm, and by simultaneously phrasing both the foreground lines and the background groove, you give music the space and vibrancy to come alive, no matter what style of music it is. When I teach my Bach master classes, I stress this concept a lot. It’s really tough to give clear, musical performances of Bach’s densely contrapuntal music on an excessively resonant instrument like the harp without it.
Ensemble timing is also crucial. The harp’s attack is unforgiving, so developing an almost intuitive sense of where to put the beat at all times is essential and, for me, thrilling. All good orchestral musicians have this, but harpists have to be even more attuned to this concept.
And lastly, my academic training, especially in music theory, has helped me countless times. Whether it’s being asked to improvise during a film date, collaborate with composers or orchestrators, or get a bride down the aisle in spite of my music blowing off the stand, being conversant in many styles of music and comfortable with music theory have been invaluable.
Bob Pawlo: What advice do you have for young harpists and musicians?
Laura Sherman: As I mentioned before, I was an incredibly shy kid. I credit music, and all of the amazingly talented teachers and musicians with whom I’ve worked, with helping me come out of my shell, musically and personally. It’s taken a long time to overcome that shyness, but I have never felt more comfortable, authentic and grateful as I do now. So, my first piece of advice would be to do what you love, work hard and with integrity, and follow your passions. While luck plays a big role, persistence is essential. So just get up each day, learn and grow, and create music one way or another. Being a musician in New York City is an exciting and sometimes, challenging life. These are some of the ideals that I strive for, hoping they help create a more pleasant and successful communal experience: Try to be authentic, flexible, respectful, curious, courteous, compassionate, organized and extremely prepared. Let go of the ego and try to have open ears, mind and heart. Play from your soul. Be a deep listener both in musical and social situations. Listen to as many different kinds and styles of music as possible. It will come in handy. Know your strengths and improve your weaknesses, because we all have both. Watch your attitude and try to get along with others. My natural inclination is to be sharing and supportive in my work environment. (I’m also a big hugger, but that’s not for everyone.) A little friendliness and humor go a long way. Have interests outside of music and take excellent care of your body and mind. Take every job that’s offered to you, always play your best, and remember to say thank you. Dress appropriately and keep your word. Try to stay current with technology. (Thank you, all of my tech genius friends!) Give back when you can. I love working with composers and orchestrators to help them and to promote the harp in an increasingly electronic sound world. I don’t want Henry Fanelli (at “Phantom”) and me to be the last live harpists on Broadway. Please orchestrators, include live harp!