Are you qualified to do that?

21st century living requires proof for everything. We want to know where our cucumbers were grown, down to the farmer who picked them. We trawl social media sites for proof that our friends did have that holiday that they say that they did. We ask for read receipts on our emails to make sure that the person who you sent it to, really has got it so there is no excuse for them not to action it. And, more than ever before, we want to know how well qualified everyone is to do their jobs.

The number of qualifications we all have to have now is incredible. Fifty years ago, 1 in 50 school leavers went to university. Now it’s 1 in 3. That means that more and more, on top of GCSEs, A-Levels and swimming badges, you have to go the extra mile to be ‘qualified’ to do something. Many of my friends have almost collected qualifications; from Masters degrees to accountancy exams, first aid certificates to cake decorating diplomas, just to show that they really can do what they say they can do. But how does this work if you are a musician?

What are music exams?

Music is one of the few art forms where there are clearly structured sets of qualifications that show how good you really are. These are known as graded examinations and go from beginner level (Grade 1, which you take after playing about 1-2 years), through to graduate level music diplomas. Not everyone who plays professionally has these,  as they are not compulsory to become very good, but if you had ‘normal’ lessons on musical instrument as a child, there is a very good chance that at some point you were forced to sit at least one of them! In recent years, the government have included them on their list of official qualifications (some government department called ‘Ofqual’…!), alongside GSCEs, BTECs, degrees, etc., which just goes to show how much work really goes into them. The have now decided the following equivalences:

  • Music grades 1, 2 and 3 are ‘Level 1’, which equates to GCSE grades D-F
  • Music grades 4 and 5 are ‘Level 2’, equivalent of A*-C at GCSE
  • Music grade 6, 7 and 8 are ‘Level 3’ which is the same as an A-Level (and actually carry UCAS points if you want to try to go to university)
  • Music Diplomas are ‘Level 6’ which equate to degree level

All of these exams require the applicant to learn several pieces of music, play a piece of music which they have never seen before (called ‘Sight Reading’), play some technical exercises (called ‘Scales’ and which put more people off taking exams than anything else!) and then you have to answer questions about some music that you have to listen to. These all have different numbers of points, but to pass requires a score of 67%, 80% gives you a ‘Merit’ and if you’re incredibly good and get 87% you get a ‘Distinction’. To prepare all of this lot takes months of lessons and daily practice (usually completed under a lot of nagging from one’s mother… well mine certainly was!).

Now that you know what it is all about, you can decide for yourself whether I am qualified enough for my job.…!

Piano Exams

Nicola Veal Wedding HarpistThe first instrument that I began to learn aged 4, was the piano. I had some lovely teachers, before finally finding Mr Sams, who patiently put me through the piano grades. Under his tutelage I earned 8 qualifications, seven graded exams from Grade 2 to 8, and one advanced diploma by the time that I left school, which said far more about his teaching ability than my piano skills!!

Flute ExamsNicola Veal Wedding Harpist

After playing the piano for a while, I took up the flute, where again I rattled through some exams. As I could already read music by the time that I started, I jumped in a Grade 2, skipping Grade 7… but then taking Grade 8 twice (long story!).

Harp Exams

Nicola Veal Wedding HarpistFinally we’ve got to the harp! The cost, logistics and general awkwardness of playing the harp meant that I actually started this the latest, and so I took just grades 5, 6, 7, and 8 on this instrument (sounds like a song from my youth!).



DiplomasNicola Veal Wedding Harpist

Two of my biggest achievements academically, were gaining my musical diplomas. These are given the same weight as a degree, and I have one on the piano and one on the harp, and these are the reason that I can put some extra funny letters (CertGSMD(P) and LTCL) after my name.

Odds and Ends

Nicola Veal Wedding HarpistAlong the way, I’ve also managed to collect a Grade 5 Music Theory (like a written music paper… very dull!!), Grade 1 Saxophone (that I took as part of a charity fund-raiser at University – we learned new instruments and were sponsored for charity) and Grade 2 Clarinet… which I seem to have taken for fun!!


The normal stuff

Nicola Veal Wedding Harpist
Like a lot of other people, I do have a collection of 11 GCSEs, 3 A-Levels, 2 AS-Levels (which are a sort-of half A-Level, that only existed for a few years!), a degree in Music and a PGCE (Teaching Qualification) also in Music.


In short….?

That means that I have, in total…

  • 1x Grade 1 exams
  • 2x Grade 2 exams
  • 2x Grade 3 exams
  • 2x Grade 4 exams
  • 4x Grade 5 exams
  • 3x Grade 6 exams
  • 2x Grade 7 exams
  • 4x Grade 8 exams (although one doesn’t really count, as I retook one to see if I could get a better mark!)
  • 2x Performance Diplomas

Ignoring the hours and hours of time slogging through exercises and boring my poor family silly with the same pieces for months on end, in today’s money this lot cost an incredible £1,892 in exam fees alone! And that’s without the cost of lessons and instruments…

But does it matter?

In short, no. What matters is that you like the musicians that you wish to engage for your wedding or function. Listen to them play. Do you enjoy their music? If ‘yes’ is the answer, then does it matter if they have the pieces of paper to prove it? But just in case you wondered what it takes to be a professional musician (or what it takes to be the PARENT of a musician!!), now you know!

PS Thank you mum and dad… sorry that we cost you a fortune (as my sister has just as many!).

+ Nicola Veal Wedding Harpist

It’s NOT all about the music…

Whilst at University and later studying for my advanced performance certificates, no one really sat me down and told me about being a harpist. I could play the harp. I liked playing the harp. I had a harp. They seemed to be the only things that mattered when it came to deciding about what to do with my life. Over a decade later (sob!), it is interesting to look back and see what I’ve learned about being a harpist… and what I should have learned about before I embarked on this career, apart from how fast I could play my scales!

1. How to blow my own trumpet

Ego is everything. If you meekly arrive at a venue, do your thing and go home, however well you have played, no one will remember you. Without people knowing who you were, they won’t recommend you and you won’t get any work out of that venue. What it took me several years to realise, was that some of my competitors (and friends, so this is no slight on them!) had the guts to rock up to a venue, business cards in hand and start handing them out to anyone that they laid eyes on, venue managers, caterers, photographs, car park attendants, etc., and in this way create networks of wedding professionals. I still feel very uncomfortable at doing this, which is rather frustrating as I know full well that by not being as forceful I am missing out on making contacts. Whilst I know that I can play a mean Pachelbel’s Canon in D, I am actually quite shy at heart, and don’t find it easy to bowl up to a complete stranger and tell them who I am and why I’m great. I’m not sure that this will ever change, but I have been surprised how much it is all about personality, rather than necessarily how well you can play…!

2. How to be an accountant

Naturally, as any sole trader or business person needs to, I have to keep a record of my finances. I am rather lucky that all the other members of my family are accountants and therefore I have been able to have free advice and my tax returns are done over a glass of wine, but even so, a knowledge of how to keep clear records, both of income and more importantly expenses (which are often tax-deductible and therefore rather useful to keep a record of!) for each financial year is so important. What I also didn’t really process, was having to set aside money from each payment that I receive so that I can then pay my tax bill twice a year. This is very strange for anyone who has a ‘normal’ job, as your income will be yours to spend. Mine, however, has to be first cut in half, so that I can put aside enough to cover my expenses and then my tax bill. Rather disappointing really…!

3. How to be a car salesman

Yes, you read that correctly! Without my car, I wouldn’t be able to be a harpist. ‘The tank’ as it is affectionately know, gets Baby and I around to gigs across the south of England and therefore it is important that I have something that is both reliable and practical. One would therefore be surprised at how differently designed estate cars are. What you need when you are a harpist is something that has a wide, flat loading boot (or trunk, if you are reading this from the west of the Pond), with, most importantly, widely set wheel arches. This means that you can slide the harp in without having to try to lift it over the wheel arches. Yes. How boring. When car shopping, it became apparent very quickly that many of the smarter car brands have stupidly wide wheels, which means that the gap between them on the inside of the car isn’t then wide enough to get the harp into the car. I can now smoothly make conversation about the differences between the wheel arches of a range car manufacturers, perhaps I should suggest it as a feature on the new series of Top Gear…?

4. How to use social media (!)

Ok, ok, I don’t want to sound like a dinosaur, but this is a really mad one. I get work from the pictures that I post on line. Yes, that’s right, not the sound of my music, but the pictures that I post. Back in 2005, I was one of the first batch of people in the UK to use Facebook, as I was at Nottingham University when it was launched. Back then you could only sign up with an academic email address and it was a relatively ‘safe’ environment, as there were so few people using it. What a lot has changed. I am not very ‘good’ at social media, to be honest I don’t have time, all of the reading, commenting, liking, etc., and without a boring train commute every day, I don’t really have an opportunity. A good friend, however, pointed out that I was potentially missing a gap in the market by not using these things for my work. I now have an Instagram account, alongside a Facebook page, but have drawn the line at Twitter, as I really can’t see what I can say about the harp that people would want to read in 150 characters!

5. How to build a website

The world revolves through Google. Only about ten years ago, as a harpist you spent time and money producing beautiful glossy brochures. Now you pay for an ‘adaptable’ website (I now know that this is something that can be viewed on any size of screen, from Smart Phone to laptop!) that can easily be found on search engines. My first website I had built by a computer engineering friend at university and simply had a biography and pictures taken by my mum. When that then got outdated, I found a brilliant web designer to build one for me. But only a few years later, this too was out of date. This time, I decided to take matters into my own hands: I will always need an up-to-date website and if I continue to pay someone else to build it for me, it will cost me thousands of pounds with all of the changes that will inevitably happen over the next few years. A year ago, therefore, I taught myself! The website you are now looking at, I am rather proud to say, I built! Yes, I use a very helpful site called WordPress as a starting point, but I can now add videos, links, buttons, widgets (no, I didn’t know what these were either!) and all mention of formatting, so that I can keep my site current and interesting (and, more importantly, without spending a fortune!).


My Booking Process Explained

Ok, possibly not the most entertaining of subjects, but I hope that this will help to explain how you can make sure that I can be part of your special event.

Check out my website – am I what you want?!

Firstly, have a good rummage round my website and social media accounts. I try to make sure that what I post and write is an accurate reflection of what you would experience of my services, so make sure that you like what you can see!

Make contact!

Using the contact me page, drop me a message with your email address and telephone number. I will aim to respond within 48 hours of initial contact, so if you haven’t heard from me, please do check your junk emails as sometimes my replies end up there. Do please include an approximate location and date of your event as those can really help me to check my diary to make sure that I can help.

I will give you a quote

Once we have made sure that I am available on your desired date, I will need to know how long you would like me to play for. I don’t tend to quote by the hour, but by the ‘part’ of your event (see my FAQs for more information), so that if timings change it won’t affect your booking with me. I also only take one booking per day so if timings change completely, that’s never a problem! The quote that I provide you includes all travel costs (I have standard fees for all events in Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire). The only potential additional charge will be for extra music choices (see below).

You accept the quote!

Once you are happy with the quote and would like to proceed with a booking, let me know and I will pencil you into my diary. I am afraid that I cannot hold a date without receiving a signed booking form and deposit, so please don’t assume that the date is yours at this point!

I send you a booking form

To make a firm booking, I will ask you for some details (names, address, telephone numbers, address of the venue and timings of the day) and then send you a booking form. Why do I ask for all of this, rather than sending you a blank form? Well, that’s partly because I used to find it a little difficult to read some people’s handwriting (!) but more importantly so that you can check that I have interpreted everything as you were expecting.

You sign and return the form, along with the deposit

Once you are happy that I have the correct details, you need to sign the booking form that I have sent you and return it with a deposit. I ask for 50% of the agreed fee as a deposit. This is non-transferrable and non-refundable as it’s to hold a specific date in my diary, however if things do change I can always see what I can do. The deposit can be paid by bank transfer or a cheque with the booking form. Once they have arrived I send you receipt of the payment, and confirm that everything is in place.

What happens next?

At any point after your booking is confirmed, we need to start sorting out the finer details. These will include confirmed timings, location of where you would like me to set up and, of course, your choice of music. The number of pieces that I will need confirmed from you will vary according to the type of event, and you are more than welcome to leave me to make a choice of music that I know would work well, but we can see what you would like to definitely hear (or not!) and go from there. If you would like to come and have a chat with me personally about this, just let me know and we will get a date in the diary for you t pop over. At the latest, I will need all the details finalised by no later than two months before the date of the event, as this will then give me enough time to ensure that all your music choices are practised and ready to go! I also ask that you settle the remaining 50% of the fee by this point as well, just so that everything has cleared into my account before the Big Day.

The Big Day!

We are there! All the planning and panicking (well, maybe just a little!) is over and you can sit back and enjoy your event, knowing that you will be able to enjoy some relaxing harp music! By getting everything confirmed before will mean that I won’t need to bother you on the day, and you can enjoy the music. Please do come and say ‘hello’, it’s always nice to meet you!

Every event is different (which is why I have the best job in the world!) so this process may not quite fit for you, which is absolutely fine. Just let me know how things would work best for you.

+ Nicola Veal Wedding Harpist

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Harps

The concert harp is a pretty unusual instrument of choice and many people don’t know much about them. Here’s ten things that might come useful in next month’s pub quiz…

1. They have 47 strings

Yes, a mad number, but that is what it is! When the harp become a fashionable ladies’ instrument amongst the well-to-do back in the eighteenth century, different makers had different sizes of harp. Over time these have become more standardised and now they have 47 strings, so that they can play almost as many notes as a piano.

2. The strings are different colours

With so many strings it’s pretty hard to work out which is which, so we have coloured coded them! In music, we use letters to name the notes from A to G (and then they repeat all they way from the bottom to the top). On the harp, the Cs are red and the Fs are black (or sometimes blue) so that we can quickly work out what to play!

3. The strings are made out of animal guts!

Well, not all of them, but the majority of the harp strings are made of animal gut. Even though there are synthetic alternatives nowadays, they still don’t compare for consistent tension and depth of sound as animal gut and so we are still using this traditional material. The bass (lowest and therefore longest strings) are made of steel wires wrapped in cotton and then more steel, and some harpists choose to put synthetic strings at the top of their harps on the tiniest strings, but still the majority are a little gruesomely made out of gut!

4. They have 7 pedals

Nicola Veal Wedding HarpistTo allow the harpists to play lots of different music, harps have seven pedals, one for each musical letter. Each pedal has three positions (flat, natural and sharp). When a player needs a different note (accidental) they move the pedal, which they sets a mad system of mechanics in play that shortens or lengthens the strings using pins at the top of the strings. Once I had mastered this lot, it made learning to drive a piece of cake!

5. Harps are hollow

Whilst they look like heavy monsters (and they are pretty heavy!) the big bit that goes in between the harpist’s legs (where the strings go into the middle) is in fact a huge soundbox, and therefore it is hollow. This means that a concert harp is between 35-40kg (just under 6 stone!), rather than being any heavier…!

6. Harps have to be tuned every time that they are moved

… and sometimes even more often than that! Due to the delicate nature of gut strings, they are easily affected by temperature, humidity, and generally easily knocked. This means that every time that they are moved, they need to be retuned.

7. Harpists have 8 fingersNicola Veal Wedding Harpist

Due to the way that you hold your hands when you play, a harpist cannot get your little fingers on. This means that we only play with four fingers on each hand, not all ten like a pianist would.

8. Harp music looks like piano music

As harpists use two hands with multiple fingers, our music looks like piano music, so that one hand plays one line of music whilst the other hand plays from the other. The only different being that we can’t play as many notes at the same time, but at first glance, it looks identical.

9. It is on the Queen’s flag (and a certain beer bottle…!)

The harp has been the political symbol of Ireland for many centuries. As a result, it is portrayed on the Royal Standard of Great Britain, as the quarter that represents Northern Ireland. Since 1862 it has also been used as the symbol for Guinness Stout, and still appears on their bottle labels.

10. Harping on…

The term ‘harp on’ means to ‘go on and on’. I imagine that those who know me might think this appropriate, so until next time…! x