The HARBISON HARP METHOD is an oral training system for the Irish harp created over a lifetime’s experience of teaching, by Dr Janet Harbison. embraces the total challenge of Irish harping today and is restoring the internationally acclaimed standards of excellence for which Ireland has been famous for a millennium.  

The Irish Harp tradition has evolved since the Celts came to Ireland and its excellence and appeal has been internationally recognised since at least the 12th century.  Such an old tradition presents many choices and challenges, arts, skills and repertoires to today’s players – from the ancient epic story music to modern dance music, from planxties to therapeutic improvisations.  The Irish Harp College training system has evolved over 30 years (1975-2005) teaching students the fundamental skills of Irish harping while introducing the total repertoire.  The training system is presented in 2 phases; the first involves 4 levels to ‘compentency’ (each level (1 – 4) equivalent to an average year’s training for an average 12 year old with supplementary introductory tutors for adults and juniors); and the second 4 ‘advanced’ levels taking the student from ‘competency’ to ‘mastery’.  On Graduation, the harpers will be skilled to a high level in at least 6 of the ‘Arts of Harping’ (areas of specialisation) and may also be advancing in their professional options (teaching, stagecraft, entertaining, ceremonial and palliative) toward Irish Harp College diplomas.

This training system is unique in that it maintains the oral and creative nature of the ancient tradition ensuring that every performer is capable, confident and fully equipped to participate in all artistic, social and professional aspects of the tradition with the expertise and integrity we have come to expect from exponents of our national emblem.


LEARNING OUTCOMES from the HARBISON HARP COLLEGE training system guarantee that the student:

  • Learns the ‘Language of Music’ – absorbing how it works - understanding how melody, harmony and rhythm work to appreciating style, embellishment, balance and resolution – and the total repertoire; so the student becomes the creator (arranger and composer) as well as a performer of other (fixed) repertory;
  • Develops the necessary physical technique (deportment, agility, strength, control, speed) to ensure safe and healthy performance;
  • Approaches the experience of music holistically so its role in everyday life; from self expression in a solo situation to participating in the communal ‘session’ is fully experienced; from the performance of formal (fixed) music to improvisation, from enriching the home environment to serving the community, church, schools, care facilities, commerce and country.
  • Encourages collaboration with all other instruments by embracing the common tunes known to all other traditional instruments, and encouraging group/ formal ensemble performance;
  • Establishes the player’s creative freedom with arrangement and accompaniment by presenting options from the outset with respectful approaches to works of the old harp repertoire;
  • Teaches harmonisation and accompaniment intuitively through aural training
  • Teaches good taste and encourages the development of personal style
  • Teaches the ‘etiquette’ of musicianship and session participation;
  • Teaches music literacy after learning aurally by relating sound to visual shapes;
  • Encourages the performer to consider professionalism

The System is Presented in 3 Phases:

Preliminary Levels 1 – 3 are optional preparatory courses to Level 1.

Phase 1: Basic levels skill-building from Beginner to Competent (Levels 1 – 4 with Preliminary entry levels for Juniors and Adult beginners)

Phase 2: Advanced levels in ‘The Arts of Harping’  (Level 5 to 8, Graduation)

Phase 3: Professional training, qualification and placement

The system is designed to take the average 12 year old starting with Level 1 to completing Level 4 in 4 years when by age 16 they have completed the first phase of their training.  Younger and older beginners have the supporting coursework for Juniors and Adults affording a more leisurely approach to Level 1 which allows 1 – 3 years to complete.   


3 Preliminary (optional introductory) Levels
Preliminary Levels 1 – 3 are optional preparatory courses to Level 1.  These are designed for the very young or more adult beginners allowing more time to build the necessary skills to proceed comfortably through the next levels.  The ‘Junior Beginner’s Tutor’ has more child orientated content with pictures to colour and familiar songs, rhymes, games etc; while the Adult Beginner’s Tutor has more popular and romantic Irish song content with the inclusion of some popular classics. 

The training is presented in 2 phases:

Phase 1 involves 4 levels (1-4) of foundation training to ‘COMPETENCY’ with 3 optional introductory (‘Preliminary’) Levels for Adults and Juniors. 

Phase 2 involves 4 LEVELS (5-8) of advanced training to ‘MASTER HARPER’ taking 2 of the 12 ‘ARTS OF HARPING’ each year at Advanced Levels 1 – 4 (in each ‘Art’):

  1. Goltraí, Geantraí, Suantraí (Improvisation for the accompaniment of poetry and storytelling)
  2. Historical Repertoire (16th - 18th Centuries)
  3. Lamentations and Slow Airs
  4. The Romantic & Folk Repertoire (19th -20th Centuries)
  5. New Irish Repertoire (Formal (fully arranged) harp compositions of the 20th - 21st Centuries)
  6. Dance Music
  7. Song and Self Accompaniment
  8. Ceremonial Music (Sacred and Secular)
  9. Healthcare (Therapeutic Improvisation)
  10. Composition
  11. Arrangement and
  12. Accompaniment

or stages of training in the 5 PROFESSIONS (toward IHC diploma qualifications)
1    Teacher
2    Stagecraft
3    B/G Entertainer
4    Ceremonial
5    Palliative Harping



At Level 8, harpers prepare and present an ‘Own Choice’ concert programme for graduation as Master of the College.  All Masters of the College are invited to join the directorship of the Irish Harp College.