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Tools of the Trade

Posted August 19, 2010



Patricia Masri-FletcherM.M. The Juilliard School, has been Principal Harpist of the DSO since 1988, She also holds the positions of Instructor of Harp at Michigan State University, Professor of Harp at Madonna University, Life Member of the American Harp Society and Life Memeber of the World Harp Congress.


One of the most inevitable questions I get about the Harp is: “How much does that thing cost?” I used to ask people to guess. Not anymore. Most people take a step back from my instrument when I tell them that my Italian-made Salvi Minerva (affectionately named “ Tall Red”) now sells for $47,000.

For the professional musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), our instruments are the tools of our job. Each musician is responsible for providing his own instrument, except for the piano, celesta, and much of the percussion,  which is owned by the DSO.

Every craftsman owns tools for his job. An on-site carpenter needs his own tool belt, including hammer, wire cutters, pliers, nail pouch, tape measure, carpenters (flat) pencils, etc. According to my buddy at Home Depot, this basic set-up will run about $100. (Now if I were a carpenter, I’d probably spring for the pneumatic at $230, and let the strong guys swing the $35 framing hammer. And of course, what every girl wants for Christmas… the $179 DeWalt power drill…) Okay, so for about $500, I can get started. (Of course, lacking the necessary skills is probably the biggest deterrent from building that deck on the outside of my house.) So what can you buy for $500 in the professional symphony orchestra? A pair of cymbals. But here’s the kicker: because of the difference in sounds for different pieces of music, our Percussion section at the DSO stocks an arsenal of at least a dozen pairs.

Most of our musicians own more than one of their instrument type. I keep my “Tall Red” in the harp storage area of Orchestra Hall almost year-round, and have a second harp (“Bruno”) just like it at home to do the many hours of work necessary to keep up my skills, and practice on the thousands of notes for which I’m responsible. (By the way, Bruno is my summer and traveling harp with the DSO.)

When most people come to a DSO concert, they notice that there are many people manipulating musical instruments on a stage, and a conductor waving his arms in front of the musicians. They listen to the music, and then go home. But did you ever think about the collective value of those instruments of wood, strings, and metal? I’d like to give you a few examples.

One of our cellists owns an instrument made in 1675, worth approximately $1 million. The cellist, and spouse, have taken extra loans on their home to afford the cello. By the way, that $1 million does not include the bow used to play it.

The timpani, also known as the “kettle drums” will set you back about $30,000 for a set of four. This doesn’t include the sometimes yearly replacement of the heads. For calfskin, press $600, for plastic, press $320. (By the way, Tall Red’s and Bruno’s strings run about $800 yearly. Also, the harps’ mechanism discs need to be “regulated” yearly at $300 each harp.)

A flute for sale recently floating around our flute section was under consideration. (Okay, so it was gold, $18,000.) That little tiny “pocket” flute? The piccolo, runs a mere $5,000…

The violins, and most of the string instruments you see on our stage run in the hundreds of thousands each.

By now you might be asking yourself, “Okay, so what’s the least expensive tool used in the orchestra?” I’ll tell you. That would be the conductor’s baton. Depending on length and materials used, a decent little stick runs maybe $8. (One particular guest conductor’s baton is quite long: it could double as a fishing rod.) Funny. The guy with the least expensive tool which makes no sound, wields the most power and influence over the orchestra… amazingly enough…

So why such expensive instruments anyway? Why would anyone in their right mind (or any mind) even consider spending a million dollars on a cello or $18,000 for a flute? What’s wrong with the $200 flute from the JC Penney catalog?

One of the first criteria of a true, serious orchestral musician is the recognition of sound. Good sound? No, it must even be beyond excellent. It must be stellar. The sound one brings to an orchestra must also blend or add in such a way, giving that orchestra its distinctive, unique “sound face”.

A symphony orchestra is a musical ensemble. An ensemble which, collectively, produces “Art for the ears”. A symphony orchestra at the level of the DSO is made up of experts on their instrument, as well as experts on the ideal sound of their instrument. The musicians of the DSO are very sensitive to sound, ensemble, accuracy of the notes, rhythm, musical expression, and how all of that fits together. We also understand the power of live sound. At the level of musicianship and orchestral professionalism, we at the DSO, are passionate about sound. We are willing to sacrifice other things in our lives in order to purchase a really great instrument. And we know that “great instrument” when we hear it.

Music making for the musicians of the DSO is our passion, yes, our job, but also our joy. Sometimes when the harp part is such that I have some measures of counting “rests”, I sit back and listen to the glorious music produced through the expertise of my colleagues. I know the long hours of practice, expense of their instruments, and the personal sacrifice many of them have made.

So why bother with the hours and hours and hours of practice, the expense of the instrument and its ongoing maintenance? Why? Because art is meant to be shared. Our beautiful Orchestra Hall is like a large living room to me. Our audience members are our guests. We want to share this Music, this “Art for the ears”, with you.