You might be surprised that in an oral/aural music training method that you are encouraged to learn how to read music notation! Wouldn’t it be surprising if you were taught a new language and then told you should not learn to read (or write) it? Of course, being able to read music notation opens up a wealth of resources of all kinds of written music from the time that music printing evolved in the mid 15th century – but it also opens up a means of adding a great deal to your learning journey that your memory would not be able to manage. Music notation – whether it is in alphabetical letters grouped in rhythm groups (as is the standard practice for traditional Irish melody instrument learners) or in full-blown 2-stave music notation, which is what the instruments that can play many notes-at-the-same-time use - it is both a memory aid, and an opportunity to discover music you haven’t yet experienced. 

Learning languages after your mother tongue has, in the past, been a technical and written-lead experience. For those of us schooled in the 20th century, French lessons began with ‘Je suis, tu es, il est, elle est….’ and the experience was lead from written instruction manuals. Thankfully, today, language learning is conversation-lead so that fluency in speaking is the priority in learning. 

Music education has a deal of catching up to do – as music is universally acclaimed to be humanity’s ‘universal language’ – but it’s teaching has remained in the note reading zone as reading is prioritised over the playing experience and the recognition of middle C’s prioritised over simple tunes. Almost all formal music learning to date (the year of writing this is 2019) is still book- or ‘note’-lead – and the creative (or free, improvisatory) aspect of music making is rarely considered. 

About Reading Music photoWith the Harbison Harp Method, the creative aspect of ‘conversing’ with the language of music is prioritised – so that the playful, spontaneous and ‘informal’ aspect of music-making leads the learning process and establishes creative fluency before literacy. This involves all aspects of the music – from intuitive ornamenting and variating the melody to the easy and playful choosing of harmony and voicing of the bass and interior parts – or indeed the sensitive and safe ‘undressing’ of arrangements ‘back to the bones’ appropriate for session situations with more than one accompaniment instrument. This is to ensure that ‘arrangement’ remains a fluid process – and that ‘formal performance’ is appreciated as such. 

The ‘session’ (from the Irish word ‘seisiún’) for traditional Irish musicians is at the core of Irish music-making and is the place where the creative conversations occur. This is essentially the same as ‘jam sessions’ for pop or jazz musicians – where music is centred on an ‘agreed’ melody and everyone gets creative around it within the commonly understood parameters of the style and practise of that genre. Creative freedom is one of the core goals of learning - so musicians all may ‘converse’ as well as ‘recite’ with confidence and ease in the musical process - and teachers need to be equipped with the appropriate skills to ensure this outcome for their students. 

The informal aspect of music-making brings community cohesion, cultural enjoyment, energises and relaxes us
By giving the informal aspect of music-making more recognition in our music training, it also ensures that we protect and value an important aspect of our lives that keeps us social and brings community cohesion, cultural enjoyment, energises and relaxes us - and brings many other benefits including enhancing our mental health, cognitive processes, physical agility and finger precision. The experience of ‘practising in solitude’ and struggling with memory or with text/script-reading should be confined to history for those unfortunate enough to have suffered it! Music is the voice that connects you to your community and keeps you sane and safe – and the ability of note reading ensures that you can expand your repertoire, appreciation and learning of it exponentially! 

A very rich history of music – including ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’ music
In Ireland, we have a very rich history of music – including ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’ music – in both oral and notated format. There are many collections of Irish music written down by ‘musically literate’ people at various points in history – usually from an ‘anglo-Irish’ and ‘musically educated / literate’ background who wanted to make the music available for their own use or to other ‘musically literate’ people and composers in their time – including such as Thomas Moore and even Beethoven for their Irish song arrangements. While this was how the music came to be written, our heritage of both published and manuscript collections are now valued as an exceptional resource of music and knowledge that can be accessed by everyone. This heritage is all the more important when the oral nature of our music is considered. 

Passed from generation to generation ‘by ear’
Until recently, Irish traditional or ‘folk’ music was wholly ‘orally transmitted’ – that is: passed from generation to generation ‘by ear’. As you would learn your native language from all your community around you – unselfconsciously and informally, this is also how you would have acquired your music – from all your community around you, unselfconsciously and informally. In a mono-cultural environment, this was not difficult as it was an immersion experience for everyone – but today we have a much bigger experience of the world where many musical languages vie for our attention … 

Since the 1970s, the introduction of TV and tape recorders, and later, the internet and You Tube brought all the cultures of the world into our homes and everyone is able to feast on more exotic and unusual musical interests. Concerned parents and grand-parents were keen to ensure their children carried on their Irish traditional music against the distractions, and so the new role of a ‘teacher’ developed – and the culture of ‘competitions’ flourished with ever more attractive titles or money prizes to engage them. 

Significant differences in approach, between ‘classical’ and ‘traditional’ teaching
Today in Ireland, most musicians are taught and shaped by ‘teachers’ who, hopefully, are grounded in traditional music to start with – but where the harp is concerned – this is often not the case. A considerable confusion has arisen about ‘what is’ traditional Irish harping as many people expected to find technical and musical progress in the classical tradition. Significant differences in approach, method, values and standards exist between ‘classical’ and ‘traditional’ teaching and this can be explored more separately – but the confusion can be quickly dispelled by reviewing the characters of learning by note, rote and reason… 

Classical music learning is ‘by note’
The tradition of classical music learning is ‘by note’. From the start, you learn how to read notes from the book where the composer or editor also instructs the reader how to play them: how fast or slow, how loud or soft, connected or disconnected (legato or staccato). The process is toward ‘recital’ – meaning to ‘recite’ from the page and the player is not at liberty to alter it. In examinations, you would be reprimanded should you change anything from what was intended by the composer – by accident or by design! 

Traditional Irish music is learned ‘by reason’
In contrast to this, traditional Irish music is learned ‘by reason’ – like a child acquires language from the community surrounding them – organically and creatively, unselfconsciously and informally – with the choices of what ornaments or variations, chords or counterpoints or any other aspect of interpretation chosen spontaneously by the player while playing. The process is toward improvised interpretation which can be likened to ‘conversation’ – with the player’s mastery displayed in their inventiveness (within the traditional style). In examinations, you would be considered basic if the player played only ‘the bones’ of a tune – and they would be encouraged ‘to make the tune their own’ by embellishing it liberally to their own taste and choice. 

There is also an in-between category of learning ‘by rote’
which indeed involves learning ‘by ear’ but involves a fixed version of a tune that will have been determined by someone other than the player. This is a method that is the standard practise for many teachers and at ‘workshops’ where students or participants are given a fixed version of a tune complete with ornamentation, variations and arrangement by direct imitation from the source player. It is important to remember that tradition gives the tunes but the arrangements are expected to be created by the performer. This is the same for jazz music. However, if someone performs George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, while it sounds like jazz, is in fact Gershwin who has determined every note and nuance so anyone can make beautiful jazzy music. In Irish music, rote learners often neglect to acknowledge the arranger of the piece they play even though it was learned by ear. A version learned by rote is no different to a printed one and it should be no embarrassment to acknowledge the arranger as there are many great arrangers out there – so, don’t forget to acknowledge the arranger as well as the composer if it wasn’t yourself! 

Come to my harp studio in Warwick to explore this way of learning the harp
Harbison Harp Method can be experienced at my weekend or week courses in Warwick, or during a week or two in Ireland, read more on my courses page.


From Janet Harbison’s ‘Traditional Irish Harp, Level 1’