“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” goes the familiar joke.
“Practice, practice, practice,” is the answer, as we all know.
That mantra has certainly been true for Hannah Cope Johnson, the principal harpist in her first season at the Sarasota Orchestra. Johnson, age 27, started playing the harp when she was just five years old and was practicing three hours a day by the time she was a teen.
But it takes more than practice to become a successful harpist; it takes a commitment to transporting the bulky instrument, which generally weighs close to 100 pounds. “You definitely have to have an SUV and a hand truck, kind of like the ones the FedEx guys use when they deliver big packages,” Johnson says.
Tuba and cello players also know what it’s like to lug around a cumbersome instrument, but the harp is in a category by itself.
A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, Johnson comes from an artistic family. Her father has been able to support his family as a singer/songwriter within the Church of Latter Day Saints, while her mother was a ballerina and taught ballet. “I had the example growing up that it was possible to earn a living as an artist,” she says.
A musical way of life
In Salt Lake City, there were lots of young women studying the harp during Johnson's childhood so she was by no means unique. “In the Church of Latter Day Saints, families want their children to study music,” she says, using the formal name for the religion commonly called the Mormon faith.
Johnson wasn’t the one who decided that she should learn how to play the harp, she says; it was her mother. “My older sister was studying the piano and she wanted me to try something different,” she says.
When she was a child, going to harp lessons was something Johnson and her mom would do together. It was a family activity she enjoyed but it was not yet a passion. Something changed around the time Johnson was 10. “I remember falling in love with music when I was a preteen,” she says.
Learning to play the piano was part of the musical romance. Johnson learned songs from the 2005 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” starring Keira Knightley and the Broadway show “Wicked.”
On the classical front, French composer Claude Debussy, known for such works as “La Mer,” “Clair de Lune” and “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” became a favorite.
Despite her piano flirtation, Johnson remained devoted to her primary instrument: “The harp was my medium.” The budding musician did try her hand at sports in high school, but dropped basketball after a year to focus on her music.
A musical mentor
At Brigham Young University in Utah, Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in music before heading east to attend the New England Conservatory in Boston for a master’s degree. It was there that she studied one-on-one with the teacher who became her mentor, Jessica Zhou.
While at NEC, Johnson was selected as the school’s featured artist and performed the Mozart Concerto for Flute & Harp with the NEC Symphony in January 2020. She graduated in 2022 and won the position of principal harpist in Sarasota later that year.
Her relationship with Zhou and challenging auditions have opened up doors for Johnson at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where Zhou has been principal harpist since the 2009-10 season, and at summer festivals presented by Tanglewood Music Center, where Zhou is a faculty member.
“She was exactly what I needed,” Johnson says of Zhou, with whom she’ll play in Boston later this year after performing “A Hero’s Life” with the Sarasota Orchestra from March 31-April 2. Johnson has been a regular substitute for the Boston Symphony since 2021.
But it’s her new, permanent position in Sarasota that she’s most grateful for. “This was my goal — winning a principal harp job and getting paid a salary to play harp with an orchestra,” Johnson says. “It’s such an honor. I worked hard to get here. The audition process was so difficult. I got lucky. I’m really humbled.”
Still, Johnson makes it clear that her musical journey is far from over. “In no terms have I arrived,” says the articulate musician. “I’m learning new things every day. I’m getting more experience as a team player and learning to be a sensitive accompanist,” she says.
Although she has dedicated her life to classical music, Johnson isn’t a snob when it comes to popular culture. “Sometimes you just want to kick back and watch 'Finding Nemo' and sometimes you want to watch 'Schindler’s List,’” she says. “I think music is the same way.” When Johnson works out, she listens to The Weeknd and Chris Rock, she says.
'Harp, chocolate, but most of all Ben'
Johnson says she isn’t one of “those TikTok harp players,” but she does maintain a social media presence with her website harpfreak.com. However, she’s not online as much as she used to be when she was younger.
Back in 2015, she posted on Instagram: “I won two national harp competitions this past week! WOW I am so grateful!! Thank you all for your wonderful friendship and support! I am so blessed to get to do what I love,” next to a picture of her and her harp teacher from junior high and high school.
That was when she won both the Lyon & Healy Awards and the American Harp Society National Competition.
Johnson's Instagram profile says she loves the “harp, chocolate, but most of all Ben,” her husband of seven years.
Right now, Johnson and her husband have a long-distance relationship, but she hopes that he will be able to join her full-time in Florida when he pursues an MBA.
Ben works in private equity, but Johnson says he has great appreciation for music. “He studied piano and saxophone and sang in a choir, which is typical of Latter Day Saints culture,” she says.
Although many artists end up marrying fellow performers, Cope says she likes the fact that her husband doesn’t share her profession. “Spending the day in different worlds gives us something to talk about when we come together at dinner,” she says.
While female musicians dominate the harp, Johnson says it’s not just an instrument used to play background music at tea parties, “although I’ve played plenty of those.”
In fact, Johnson's musical hero is a man: Emmanuel Ceysson, the harpist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic known for his signature red instrument. “He’s a rock star!” Johnson exclaims.
Asked to define her goal in life, Johnson describes it in general terms: “To always be improving and striving to be excellent.”
But what about Carnegie Hall? Thanks to all those years of “practice, practice, practice,” Johnson has already performed there, with the Boston Symphony. She can cross that musical milestone off her list.
Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.