‘Irish Harp by Note, Rote and Reason’.

1st March, 2020 at Ulster University, Belfast Campus 

 Presented by Ulster University in association with Harp Ireland 

 You can see videos of the presentations and demonstations here


ulster university logo harp ireland logo



Symposium March 2020 photo

This Symposium aimed to stimulate debate and to explore the three methods of teaching the Irish / small / folk / Celtic harp in Ireland today.

Janet Harbison defined the 3 methods of Teaching/Learning the Irish harp as follows:

  •  By ‘note’ - as from the literacy-lead ‘classical’ tradition 
  •  By ‘rote’ - as the oral/aural method reproducing pre-arranged traditional music and 
  •  By ‘reason’ - as an oral/aural, organic and improvised artform in the Irish tradition.

Recognising that all of these styles of learning have contributed to the thriving environment of Irish harping today, the symposium focused on the aspects of teaching, by the classical ‘note’ method, and by the oral methods of ‘rote’ and ‘reason’, exploring the differences between them.

The 3 masterclasses presented by Denise Kelly-McDonnell (representing the method of ‘note’), Lucy Birch (representing the method of ‘rote’) and Janet Harbison (representing the method of ‘reason’) demonstrated each – which together with the talks of the other speakers on the evolution of some of the teaching/examination institutions with the harp today, stimulating a fascinating discussion chaired by Aibhlin McCrann at the conclusion of the symposium.

The symposium programme was formally opened by Aibhlin McCrann, chair of Harp Ireland with apologies from Dr Tom Maguire, Head of the School of Arts and Humanities in Ulster University who was also to open the proceedings but who fell ill on the day.

The keynote address was presented by Dr Janet Harbison who is currently a Visiting Professor with Ulster University working specifically on harp pedagogy and to the title of the symposium. The key elements of her address were that that the age, professional role and style diversity within the harp tradition offers harpers today with extraordinary choice of repertoire and styles - that can present both challenges and opportunities. She traced the developments in traditional music over the last half century and suggested why Irish harping has become so energised and conscious of its place in Irish culture - and also somewhat confused. The well-established ‘classical’ approach to music  education has provided a consistent standard in music education from the 19th century, and it is apparent that the ‘traditional’ approach diverges significantly from it – not only in the ‘oral’ nature of teaching the music, but also in its physical techniques, values and standard practises. Oral teachers teaching ‘traditional music’ however, are almost entirely self-developed as teachers and the purpose of Harbison’s presentation was to set the scene with live demonstrations of each of the three methods: by ‘note’, ‘rote’ and ‘reason’ so each may be demonstrated, discussed and evaluated. The concluding hypothesis was to highlight the merits of all three methods and to suggest that with a better understanding and embracing of all options, that we teachers of whichever aspect of the Irish harp, continue to hone our collective skills, share our experience and serve our students and tradition well.

Guest speakers were Denise Kelly McDonnell, TU Dublin Conservatoire whose talk was titled: “Irish Harping From a Classical Perspective” and was an excellent perspective from the more formal, classical aspect of harp teaching and learning. While this was presented from her personal experience, it eloquently demonstrated the nature of the classical approach.

Áine Ní Dhubhghaill from the Royal Irish Academy of Music followed with a fascinating presentation illuminating the development of the Royal Irish Academy of Music harp teaching tradition and examination syllabus.

Patrick Davey, Senior Examiner of the London College of Music Examinations Syllabus gave a talk “On Notations for Traditional Music Teaching” highlighting the way traditional teachers mostly use a letter-based teaching systems for the early stages in tune teaching – until the improvised aspect of interpretation follows.

Finally, Dr. Liz Doherty presented a talk “Towards a Traditional Music Pedagogy” highlighting the development of traditional music teaching as a professional occupation and the challenges in teaching a creative, improvisational art. She spoke on the work of the ‘TradLabb’ and the 4 levels of development from the beginning of the learning experience to the integrated session player and performer.

After the lunch-break, there were the 3 (25 minute) Harp Teaching Demonstrations given to demonstrate each teaching method.

The first was presented by Denise Kelly McDonnell of TU Dublin Conservatoire who, teaching ‘by note’, split her class between two students – the first on Grainne Yeat’s arrangement of Carolan’s ‘Madam Cole’ and second on Sheila Larchet’s arrangement of Miss Hamilton from her ‘Irish Harp Book’ published in 1975. Denise beautifully demonstrated with each volunteer student how each note and phrase was to be interpreted prioritising quality of tone, fingering and technique.

Lucy Birch teaching ‘by rote’ followed with teaching a tune from the wider traditional (Scottish) repertoire entitled ‘Cape Breton’s Welcome to Shetland’ in the key of A major (Ionian). This was taught in a fixed arrangement, presumably arranged by Lucy herself which was beautifully demonstrated with her student Cara.

Janet Harbison completed the 3 demonstrations inviting Lucy and the other volunteer students to a group class experience with the tune ‘Rolling in the Rye Grass’ which Janet used to explore the ‘triplet’ ornament. Having taught the basic tune, Janet then demonstrated where the triplets could go and inviting the players to firstly play in a controlled way with triplets deliberately played in particular gaps, finally the players were invited to play their own choices of ornament in a collective playing of the tune.

Then followed the ‘forum’ where the programme was opened up to the audience of teachers with all presenters participating from the top table. The discussion was vibrant and informative and dealt
directly with the issues of the differences between the methods, which traditions each method served and how the ‘Learning by Rote’ could be seen as a natural compromise between the ‘classical’ and ‘traditional’ traditions - where the method is oral, but also fixed (in that it is interpreting an already-set-arrangement of a tune) - where the arranger should be acknowledged equally with the composer as to play without acknowledgement implies that the arranger is the player themselves.

The transcriptions of the discussions and recordings of the presentations will be made accessible to interested parties and also potentially from the Harp Ireland website in due course.

Janet Harbison. 29.03.20