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Contracts for the Freelance Harpist: Their Importance and What to Include

By Karen Gottlieb with input from Meredith Clark, Jennifer Ellis, Constance Koo, Lynn Michel-Taffin, Diana Rowan, Jessica Schaeffer, Laura Simpson and Sarah Voynow. 


Harpists spend many hours learning to play the harp...BUT...of equal importance as a performer is running a business. It is also an art learned over the years from successes but also from mistakes.  A well written contract is critical to the running of any business and is beneficial for both parties, insuring a satisfied client and a 'happy harpist'.  This article combines input from successful professional harpists in the San Francisco Bay Area that I polled to make the information as complete as possible.  Below are the recommendations regarding CONTRACTS for freelance harpists.  


Before accepting any job, ask yourself - "Do I want this job?"  The following are my personal criteria for accepting a job:         

  1. Does it pay well enough?

  2. Is it music that I want to play, do I want this experience and/or do I want to work with these musicians?

  3. Do I believe-in and support the people/organization who have asked me to play?

To accept the work, I require at least one and ideally two of the above.


Everyone should consider a contract as a necessary document regarding services rendered, whether for a wedding, party, funeral or other freelance jobs.  It is an empowering statement that sets a level of professionalism. It can also cover studio teaching policies. The contract (or agreement) clarifies and lowers any risk of misunderstandings, clearly stating expectations for both the client and the harpist.  It serves to protect both parties including guarantee of fees, reimbursement and compensation, details of venue & times, attire, music, etc.  Contracts can be either written, printed or in email format (which are now legally binding).  However, all harpists polled agreed that a 'signed' document is most effective and easily understood. Generally, the event booking becomes official only upon receiving a signed contract and deposit to secure the time and date.    


Many clients (esp. regarding weddings or funerals) have not worked with contracts so it's important that all the details are spelled out.  A ‘generic’ contract offered by the client may not meet the particular needs of a harpist.  Consider adding your own contract-addendum.  It is amazing how many clients have not thought about a harpist’s special needs- e.g. a solid & level place to play, convenient parking & load-in for the event, and potential weather issues including sun protection at outdoor venues.  


An initial conversation with the client is always helpful to clarify needs and contract requirements.   Your job can often be to guide and help the client understand exactly what they want.  Because all clients are slightly different, computers and word processing will allow variations in wording of the written document.  

This is information to include in any contract, questions to ask yourself as well as sample letters/contracts and forms that may be helpful.  It is a major subject that deserves much attention and thought.  I wish to thank my colleagues for sharing their expertise and experiences - truly an ‘ensemble’ effort.  A special thank you to Bay Area Chapter members Alice Yothers and Susie Spiwak and to David Klein for their editorial assistance.  

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Harpist (your) name and contact information

Client information:  name, address & phone numbers

Date, Day and Time of event:

Place (exact address) and venue name


Fees for event: Total $$$ amount for the agreed upon time.

How it is to be paid: 

   1)  Will the total fee be paid up front in full? 

   2)  When? - before or at the time of the event?

   3)  Is a deposit needed in order to hold & secure the date & time of event?  

        Indicate when the balance is to be paid-- at the time of service and specifically when = before or after and by whom or by a            specific date.  This is preferable with weddings as they are booked well in advance.              

       Approximately half the total $$ fee is recommended for the nonrefundable deposit, esp. for      

           weddings (or parties) that are booked well in advance.

Be clear on your over-time fees, best stated at 30 min. intervals...and indicate that it can be arranged at the time of service IF you are available to stay.  

Break Times - state your policy if relevant. Usually 10 mins per hour for jobs 2 hours or longer.    

Event Attire: formal or semi-formal.  All Black or Color preference for weddings or events.

Outdoor or indoor event:  In the case of outdoor events, a solid flat level surface must be provided.  The harp is to be shaded at all times and out of the direct sunlight.  (If necessary, the client needs to provide a large umbrella).  Contracts can include a contingency plan in case of rain or state 'the decision not to play outside due to inclement weather is solely up to the harpist's discretion'.


Other things to consider

   Stairs = 1 able bodied individual will be needed to assist in lifting the harp

   Load-in: Ask about it.  Anything special to know?  

   Parking: Is it provided or not?  Some venues provide parking for the guests of the client.

Special Requests:  It is always a nice idea to ask if the client has any special requests.  Often specific musical selections (or styles) are requested.  You can ask that these be submitted 2-4 weeks in advance.  

Of importance, tell the client you will plan to arrive at least 30 minutes in advance.  This will assure time to load-in, setup, park and discuss any late minute details.   


How to protect yourself = “Terms and Conditions”

Things to be aware of and that can be an issue**.  

1)In the case of a date change or cancellation by the client, you are under no obligation to return a nonrefundable deposit.  Precisely for this reason you want a nonrefundable deposit, making for a serious commitment on the clients part as well as for your time.   However, depending on the circumstances and/or client, you may choose to refund or transfer the deposit to another date & time.  

2)**Be sure you protect yourself if you must cancel the contract.  It happens rarely, but most harpists have a clear clause stating that 'should you (the performer) be unable to play, that you will be responsible to find a suitable replacement to fulfill the contractual obligations'.  In handling this diplomatically, recommendations are to find a harpist of like ability and who can play similar music to what the client requested.  Make sure everything is arranged before calling the client.  Don't go into the particulars-they really don't want to know.  Just tell them that regretfully you are unable to play but the good news is you have a 'wonderful' substitute.   Most clients say 'yes' and are grateful they do not have to deal with finding another harpist.  Let them know the same contract will be extended to your substitute - you will transfer the deposit to that harpist and the balance is to be paid to them.  Send the client in writing/or email the substitutes name and contact information.  Several harpists say they liked to follow up with the clients after the event to be sure they were happy and to demonstrate they cared.   In the rare case when the client has refused to use your substitute, then best to return the deposit money and wish them well.  


WEDDINGS: These suggestions are recommended.  

1) Always get a deposit of about 50% to ensure commitment by bride/groom and to hold your time for the date.  If you are dealing directly with a wedding planner, they will have their own contract and usually pay the entire $$$ fee at the time of service or within 2 weeks of it.  

2) Phone or email the bride (or wedding planner) the week of the wedding to be sure there is no time change or alterations.  Since weddings are usually booked well in advance, the harpist can be the last to know.  Best to be prepared.  

3) It is recommended to request final payment be received 2 weeks in advance.  This avoided any problems of being paid at the time of service.  It is a day for the bride/groom to enjoy themselves without these worries.  

4) With last minute bookings, full payment is required in advance.



1) Always check and reconfirm the details.  You would be surprised how many mistakenly put down the wrong information - date, time or venue location.  

2) In the rare case that a check bounces, you can include a late fee of $25 (or more) in 'terms and conditions'.  Most people are honest and embarrassed when this happens, and rewrite a check including the late fee. 

3) Learn from your mistakes!   Things happen that are unexpected and undesirable so make note of them.  If necessary add it to your 'terms and condition'.  At least that same 'snafu' will not occur again AND you will be a little wiser.  



Every teacher must decide what their policies are regarding students and teaching. It never hurts to have these policies written down and given to each student.  It will be easier for both parties, knowing expectations in advance. People are human and things come up so you need to be attentive to relationships.  Understand your students, know your boundaries and err on the side of compassion.  

Are you flexible or do you have set times?  Do you only teach weekly lessons or every-other week? Monthly?  Adult students are often professionals with busy lives and require a bit more flexibility to their lesson schedule. 

What is your lesson fee? Do you have a separate fee for weekly, bi-monthly or monthly lessons? 

Lesson Cancellation policy?  Most teachers require 48 hour notice if a lesson is cancelled.  With less than 48 hrs notice, the fee is owed.  It is surprising how many students are suddenly able to make the lesson when they know the fee is due.  Many teachers allow the lesson to be rescheduled esp. if it is due to illness or an emergency. 



One area in which you will NOT need your own written contract is performing as a free-lance harpist with orchestras, chamber music groups or professional recording studios.  These organizations usually work with the local musicians union.  Fees or reimbursement are fixed according to their agreement or contract with the union.  A call or email from the contractor is sufficient and serves as a contract.  If it is a phone call, have them send all the details clearly stated in an email.  Confirm that you have received the email and are available for all the dates & times..AND looking forward to working with them.  

Other items to consider: 

1) Be sure to ask about compensation for 'cartage' of the harp if it is an orchestral job.  Most should reimburse you for each service in which the harp is moved in & out of the venue.  In some cases  (eg-choral groups) this can be built into the fees of your service.

2) If you will need to store your harp safely at a venue for several days; discuss this in advance.

Below I have included 2 sample contract/letters and a Wedding-Music Planner that may be helpful in clarifying the points made above.  They are only suggestions that can be augmented and altered for each event.

Sample Letter Contract #1                     Sample Letter Contract #2                Wedding & Ceremony Music Planner

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