Crafted in what is called the “French Empire” style, with a 23-karat-gold plated cast set against a gilded background, “opulent” is the best way to describe this exquisite instrument. Making it sing is her life’s work.
For the past six years, the 2011 RIC graduate has worked as a freelance musician and harp teacher, driving from one booking to the next, each week looking totally different than the last.
Recently she won the position of principal harpist in the Cape Ann Symphony in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Although it’s a part-time position and it will still require her to freelance, with orchestral positions so hard to come by, it is a major coup.
“There’s only a few premiere orchestras in the country where you can get a full-time position with benefits, which is why these positions are highly limited and highly guarded,” she said. “A musician will win a position in one of the top orchestras and make it their lifelong career.”
However, for struggling musicians like McCaffrey, auditioning becomes a way of life. “You may be competing against 100 or more of your peers,” she said.
To protect against gender-bias, auditions are blind. A screen conceals the identity of the candidate from the judges and carpet muffles the sound of their footsteps.
“It’s kind of surreal because you’re essentially playing to a blank wall,” she said. “After the audition, you leave. The judges don’t talk to you, and you don’t know how you’ve done.”
Positions are even slimmer if you’re a harpist. An orchestra may have three spots for violinists, but there is ever only one spot for a harpist per orchestra. “It’s true that there are fewer of us [harpists] out there, but there are also fewer spots,” said McCaffrey.
It’s no wonder she had doubts about making it in this business when she enrolled at Rhode Island College. In her freshman year, McCaffrey was immediately made principal harpist because there were no other harpists in the music program. That meant she performed with three different ensembles: the RIC Symphony Orchestra, the RIC Wind Ensemble and the RIC Chamber Ensemble. Each group performed two concerts per semester and held weekly rehearsals, which kept her busy.
“The music program was extremely instrumental in my development as a musician,” she underscored. “It was a wonderful experience.”
In her junior year, an opportunity came for McCaffrey to study harp abroad at the Royal College of Music in London. This would cement her decision to make music her career.
“I grew up in Narragansett and had never lived outside of the country,” she said. “It was exciting. It was scary. And it made me see how far music could take me. Music had brought me to RIC. Then it took me to London, thanks to the Shinn Study Abroad Fund. The possibilities of where I could go with music seemed limitless.”
After graduating with a B.A. in music, McCaffrey applied to the Boston Conservatory’s graduate program in harp performance. She auditioned and won a scholarship.
“I went from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond,” she said. “The environment at a conservatory is extremely intense. People are practicing six, seven, eight hours a day. You have to be competitive. But the music department at RIC prepared me well. RIC faculty were encouraging but tough, and some of them had come from the conservatory themselves. My entire experience at RIC shaped how I interact with professional musicians and conductors today.”
These days, McCaffrey is always on the road, never knowing where she’ll be performing next, yet it keeps life interesting, she said. The young musician has performed with the internationally known singing ensemble Celtic Woman; she’s been asked to perform with Andrea Bocelli; she plays in numerous regional orchestras, including as substitute harpist for the Rhode Island Philharmonic; and she has bookings at corporate events, weddings and other venues.
“As a freelance musician, you piece your career together,” McCaffrey said of her nomadic life. “It’s exciting.” But her greatest joy is recreating great works of music through harp and edifying the hearts of her listeners.