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learning the harp booklet sm

A brief introduction

This is a "booklet" for Students, Parents and Teachers explaining the process and experiences of learning the Irish Harp. Using Janet Harbison's "The Traditional Irish Harp Tutors" this is an ideal way to assist more self-learners and classical harp teachers venturing into the traditional style of playing.

The Irish Harp, while the most Irish of traditions and, indeed, our national emblem, is the richest and most diverse tradition of any musical heritage in Europe today – and this is entirely due to its age! Harps have been played in Ireland for at least 1,400 years and each era evolved new styles, performing environments and professional opportunities to players – all resulting in a phenomenal treasure of repertoire that can be grouped into four distinct ‘aspects’ – all of which still exist and are practised today. So, what kind of harp music will you play?



 There are four aspects, styles or types of Irish harping today

‘Trad harp’

Some harp players like to play ‘hard-core’ traditional music – comprising dance tunes (jigs, reels and hornpipes) and slow airs - suitable for the ‘fleadh’s or ‘All-Ireland Championship competitions’ – organised by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the most prominent international organisation for Irish ‘trad music’. This is, in fact, the most recently evolved ‘style’ of Irish harping – which is often presented as the ‘most traditional’ (!) coming to the fore in the 1970s with the ‘folk revival’ – and the players are properly called ‘harpers’…

‘Folk harp’

Some harp players like to play instrumental ‘folk’ music – comprising tunes such as ‘The Rose of Tralee’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘Inis Oirr’, ‘The Cliffs of Dooneen’. These are suitable for ‘easy listening’ or ‘background music’ – and earn excellent incomes for harp players in ‘gigs’ (or ‘engagements’) in hotels, touristic venues or at weddings. These players call themselves ‘harpists’…

‘Song and harp’

All harp players through the 19th and 20th centuries were primarily singers who accompanied themselves with chording on their harps – with songs such as any of Thomas Moore’s, ‘The Spinning Wheel’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘She Moved Through the Fair’, ‘My Lagan Love’ – and these would find lots of summer work in the many Irish cabarets and castle entertainments. However, this style of harping became unfashionable in the 1980s but recently, has returned to popularity with a ‘folk’ (and even ‘sean nós’) singing style (rather than the more ‘classically trained’ voices of the past). The older singing harp players called themselves ‘harpists’ and modern ones could be either ’harpist’ or ‘harper’ depending on how ‘traditional’ they lean…

‘Classical harp’

In 1960, a group of ladies in Dublin were concerned that the harp needed support, a higher national profile and formed the organisation ‘Cairde na Cruite’ (Friends of the Harp). In the 1970s, they became more animated with the rise in popularity of the pub based ‘trad’ session playing, the cabaret based singers and the hotel foyer playing ‘folk’ players. They determined to bring the harp into line with classical music instruments, to print music, establish examinations and competitions based on music from their publications. Until this point in Irish history, the harp was an oral tradition – i.e. it was passed from generation to generation ‘by ear’ , Nevertheless, ‘The Irish Harp Book’, their first publication appeared in 1975 containing 48 pieces (tunes and songs) contributed from modern classical composers and established (classical, folk and singing) ‘harp teachers’ at that time. Of the 48 pieces, only one was a traditional dance tune representative of the ‘trad’ repertoire – so, at this point anyway, this style was significantly excluded. (Later on, the organisation embraced the ‘trad’ style but have persisted in calling these players harpists.

Each of these types of harp player are quite distinct from each other and it is exceedingly unlikely that you would find a player today equally comfortable and competent in more than two ‘aspects’ – so the aspiring student or parent needs to know what kind of harp player they want to become and to choose their teacher accordingly.

Learning ‘orally’ or ‘aurally?’

'Oral' or 'Aural' learning is delivered 'by mouth' (oral) and acquired by ear (aural) - so either term is right!   ‘Learning by ear’ is how the ‘traditional’ and ‘folk’ players have learned and passed on their music for centuries in Ireland. While the harp music has been acknowledged for its excellence throughout Europe since the Middle Ages, isn’t it a surprise to note that the first publication of Irish harp music for Irish harp players didn’t occur until the 1970s?  This is not a surprise when you understand that with oral learning, harpers' 'ears' (aural acuity) and memories are exceptionally well trained, and there was no role or need for written notation to support them.  

It is important to note that there are 2 forms of learning orally / by ear:
learning by ‘rote’ or learning by ‘reason’.

To learn by ‘rote’ means to learn by imitation with all elements of creativity, interpretation and style directed from the source.  It does not require the player to contribute creatively to the process - and whether from a notated or aural source, this is about 'reciting' the music ('giving a recital').  To learn 'by reason' is to learn the language of the music, and calls directly on the player to be spontaneously creative - as you would be 'in conversation'.  

Imagine: You have travelled to Japan and have learned a song in Japanese – and being a good student, you have studied all the inflections, sounds and style so your performance of it can be convincing – even excellent - and your performance was so convincing that many expected you to be a native speaker.  With a ‘good ear’ and retentive memory, students can learn fixed arrangements quickly – but will understand nothing of how the piece is constructed and so cannot respond to the ‘insiders’ excitement with participating in the ‘language’ / ‘tradition’ as they can only perform what they have perfected. This type of playing is the result of purely ‘rote’ (or ‘imitation’) learning.

To learn by ‘reason’ means to learn the language that created the music in the first place - as an intuitive art - spontaneous, creative, ultimately variable and unpredictable.  Every sequence of notes has meaning, every embellishment is understood, every accent is logical, every nuance is relevant – with the expectation of generating a collaborative response from the other ‘insiders’ / speakers of the language / players of the tradition. And, the conversation can go on for hours at a time, exciting both players and listeners, who are ‘sparking’ off each other, bouncing energy about and having a merry time - because the ‘language’ or ‘tradition’ is common and is a ‘conversation’.  Each participant inspires the others to explore and experiment with the music – always holding fast to the basic melody (‘the bones of the tune’) with each applying different ornamentation and variation (‘puttling flesh to the music‘ or ‘the dressing of the tune’), harmony and accompaniment. This is the nature of what happens in the ‘session’.

In the ‘classical music’ model, to perform as the composer/arranger intended - whether communicated by 'note' or 'rote'. If you are interested in learning more - please enjoy to check out "Irish Harp by Note, Rote or Reason", the video recordings from the Symposium of this title (with keynote speech presented by Professor Janet Harbison, Ulster University) that are also accessible on this website.



The ‘traditional’ style of playing

Traditional music which is an ‘oral tradition’ (‘taught or learned by ear’) requires players to be spontaneously creative applying ‘ornamentation and variation’ to the melody and harmonic bass accompaniment to the music. Every player is expected to develop their own style of playing – from fiddles and flutes, concertinas and uilleann pipes – each applying ornamentation and variation of their choice (within the traditional style) to the melody, thus ‘making the music their own’. This is the goal of every traditional player!


Harpers have twice the challenge! As well as applying ornamentation and variation like all the other melody-only instruments, harp players are also expected to ‘add an accompaniment’ – a ‘left hand’ – a ‘bass part’ – equally creatively with a multitude of choices and creative options between chording choices, basslines, harmonies, complements and counterpoints. This is the phenomenal ‘other dimension’ that is a creative ‘blank slate’ offering players a tremendous opportunity to showcase their creativity and to thrive with the potential for unique and characterful arrangements.


Not everyone is creative however! This is human nature – some musicians are more ‘creative and flamboyant’ than others who may be ‘careful and predictable’. But all have their place in the world – and to copy a creative player is a complement to them – as long as they are duly acknowledged – for otherwise, the performance is an act of theft. This might sound strong, but one’s creativity is one’s ‘soul song’ – and the sacred offering of the creative spirit. There is no embarrassment in playing other harper’s compositions or arrangements – but there is the responsibility of at least acknowledgement. If there is financial gain in the performance of the music, there will also be a licence fee or royalty due. For more information on this, please write to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

So, what is/was the ‘traditional style’ of learning?

The tradition of teaching ‘trad’ harp is relatively new as all of use older players (60 years and upward!) learned in the ‘traditional’ manner – which involved sitting in the sessions with all the other players, playing late into many evenings absorbing the ‘craic’ (the social interaction), the tunes, the style of playing, the different styles of playing, the excitement of hearing new ways of playing old tunes, excitement of hearing new ones, excitement of hearing the variations of exciting individual players that you want to sit closer to, the excitement and richness of the experience of so many people ‘playing the same tune’ together but each playing it differently from the other in fine detail, the excitement of exciting the audience – whose chatter adds to the ‘brú’ (lively happy noise), whose claps and ‘hoops’ (shouts of excitement) raise the energy again – and it all sounds really exciting all together!

It was certainly a dilemma for me when I was first asked to teach ‘traditional harp’! My first response was to ‘get and join in the session’ and you ‘just pick it up’. This is true, but it takes a lot more than just a few nights – and most people who seek a teacher, want fast success and most likely don’t have a ‘traditional music environment’ (or ‘local session’) that they can easily tap into – or want to ‘fast-track’ their way into session playing. Once again, I liken the situation to the learning of a language. If you are dropped into Japan and are left to ‘find your own way’, you will gradually acquire the language by listening – listening for similar sounds coming up from time to time and the more familiar they become, the detail between the familiar ‘bits’ becomes easier, and before long, you will be able to string basic sentences together – or string the notes of a tune together.

And, what is the ‘traditional style’ of teaching?

Quote: “Just because you speak English doesn’t mean you can teach it!”

A quick background…
Well, until recently, there was no ‘traditional’ style of teaching – but as the requests for me ‘teach’ grew (as I was doing a lot of performing around the country), and my wish to be helpful intrigued me. I already had an honours degree in music and two professional piano teaching diplomas in piano so turning my attention to ‘teaching’ the harp should hardly be impossible … Except for at workshops where I taught some tunes in the allotted time by ‘rote’, when I started teaching regular weekly half-hour lessons at the Cork School of Music in 1981, my first instinct was to ‘write up’ versions of tunes at the level of the student’s ability to perform them in a manageable 3 or 4 lesssons perhaps – from ‘notes’. But for each half-hour lesson, I had given myself 2-3 hours of preparation – and at this time, the writing was all done by hand on valuable and not too available manuscript paper, when I brought to a local business office to be photocopied (which were newly available machines at this time!). Before too long, I had generated at least 10 different versions of ‘Planxty Irwin’ between the different students with different abilities! And, photocopies were difficult to get (involving trips into the city each time). So I tried teaching regularly by ‘rote’ and created a ‘student session’ to build their confidence in collaborative playing. I went on to organise summerschools and lots of winter weekends: from 1982 I started with Kinsale and then Cork city, adding Ballycastle (Co.Antrim) (1983); then as I had moved to live in Belfast adding Belfast (1984) with monthly workshops at ‘The Piper’s Club’ in Dublin – and from 1985, Glencolmcille in County Donegal which represented a safe compromise between Northern Ireland and the republic as the ‘troubles’ were in full rage at the time. Before long, I was running a full calendar of harp events, festivals and summerschools – and my student base was in the hundreds. I taught well and accrued a lot of glory for myself with my students winning at the ‘fleadh’s and ‘All Ireland Championships’ (one year, it was all my students who won 1st, 2nd and 3rd at all 4 age-groups: under 12s, 12-15s, 15-18s and over 18s). I thought I was doing a great job and was significantly putting the ‘harp on the map’… Until one year at the All Ireland Championship finals, when Mícheál Ó hAlmhain was adjudicating: in his speech before the awarding of the prizes, he complemented the teacher (myself!) on the great harpers coming up (very proud I was) – but - (and he says he doesn’t remember this – but -) I do remember ‘hearing’ the following: “Isn’t it interesting that all Janet’s students sound like herself playing?” … and I realised that I had indeed dictated every note, every nuance, every ornament and bass-line to ensure the success of my students: indeed, all the students were ‘playing my music’ – not ‘their own’. I had denied them their creative input – and this confused and intrigued such as Mícheál - How was I to explain myself? This was a watershed moment for me after which I embarked on the quest to find a way of teaching ‘how to do it for yourself’ if not to do it the ‘old traditional way’ of immersion participation over years of consistent involvement…. Then, when I had a potentially life-limiting illness in 2004, I set about putting what I had learned onto paper; firstly as ‘lesson plans’; then ‘lesson groups to teach particular skills’; all of which evolved into 6 volumes representing 4 years of training with a ‘Junior Beginner’ and ‘Adult Learner’ access level)…..

But, of course there are many ways of learning and achieving fluency in a language – and if not taking the time and commitment to ‘do it the old way’, there are now many ‘teachers’ happy to teach weekly half-hour lessons for a fee. But, while they might all charge a similar fee, there are many good ones and many poor ones – all of which could be very fine performers and lovely, likeable people. Until there is a greater appreciation of the challenges of teaching in our very diverse tradition, among parents, prospective players and teachers, we ask that you:
“Judge us by our results”



To find an effective teacher

If you have had the patience to read this far in this document, hopefully you will know what to look for in an effective choice of teacher for you or your child.

If you are a parent or student starting out, without knowing what questions to ask, finding a good teacher could be a gamble even if they are trained, qualified and employed in a school! The question to ask is ‘What can you teach me’? Can they train in all four ‘aspects’ of harping? Where have they acquired their teaching skills, have they trained, studied or shadowed an established teacher? Who trained them? Are they ‘intuitive’ (‘self trained’) teachers? With self-trained teachers, sometimes you can be successful, and oftimes not. And, remember – ‘to speak the language doesn’t mean you can teach it’ – so don’t be disappointed if your local star player is not a good teacher. It doesn’t necessarily follow. But then also, a great teacher could also be someone who doesn’t play well! Remember what you are seeking is:

  • A teacher who can lead you and your interest to real progress and musicianship
  • A teacher who knows the repertoire who can introduce it generously to you
  • A teacher who can help build your collaboration skills for session playing or stage performance with others
  • A teacher who will help build your confidence and competence in knowing that even a basic player can participate fully in session playing etc
  • A teacher who can give you regular lessons – maybe a half hour per week, 30 weeks a year
  • A teacher who will enhance your understanding, expertise, knowledge and repertoire
  • A teacher who will open the world of harping to you for a lifetime of music practise
  • To ‘learn how to do it yourself’ or ‘play a fixed arrangement’ –
    this is the question!

Many teachers will choose to teach fixed arrangements by rote rather than teaching the student how to ‘do it for themselves’. The reasons for this are many – which include that the teacher may not be comfortable or able to teach any other way – perhaps because of their own lack of understanding or proper teaching skills! If they themselves are still playing fixed arrangements that they acquired from their teachers previously, even if minimally edited, they will have a limited ability to serve the student well. Where the teacher wishes to ensure excellent marks at Junior or Leaving Cert exams, it is perfectly reasonable that the teacher would ‘fix’ the arrangements for the student.

Eventually, it is the responsibility of the parent or mature student to ensure they have a teacher that will introduce them to all that Irish harping can be for them, to encourage their participation and enjoyment of playing in sessions, to build their confidence in stage, competition and examination performance, and to enhance their lives with a life-long love of their instrument and its music. If your teacher is not achieving this for you, you are encouraged to search out a better alternative.

If you are a teacher wishing to upgrade your skills, you are invited to shadow recommended teachers or perhaps consider taking some teacher-training. For more information on these, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

To ‘learn how to do it yourself’ or ‘play a fixed arrangement’
– this is the question!

Many teachers will choose to teach fixed arrangements by rote rather than teaching the student how to ‘do it for themselves’. The reasons for this are many – which include that the teacher may not be comfortable or able to teach any other way – perhaps because of their own lack of understanding or proper teaching skills! If they themselves are still playing fixed arrangements that they acquired from their teachers previously, even if minimally edited, they will have a limited ability to serve the student well. Where the teacher wishes to ensure excellent marks at Junior or Leaving Cert exams, it is perfectly reasonable that the teacher would ‘fix’ the arrangements for the student.

Eventually, it is the responsibility of the parent or mature student to ensure they have a teacher that will introduce them to all that Irish harping can be for them, to encourage their participation and enjoyment of playing in sessions, to build their confidence in stage, competition and examination performance, and to enhance their lives with a life-long love of their instrument and its music. If your teacher is not achieving this for you, you are encouraged to search out a better alternative.

If you are a teacher wishing to upgrade your skills, you are invited to shadow recommended teachers or perhaps consider taking some teacher-training. For more information on these, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Acknowledging the source

“For your pleasure, you are asked only for acknowledgement
For your profession, you need to consider ownership and copyright, licence and royalty”

Traditional music is a generous tradition! It is free and accessible to all players, from all generations, with all instruments, and for all occasions. All that is expected is ACKNOWLEDGEMENT.

If you are gifted a present, it would be bad form not to be grateful! With traditional Irish music, you are always expected to acknowledge the composer, the arranger and the source or person from whom you learned the tune. No self-respecting musician would omit to acknowledge the source of their music – and just to shrug off the source with a ‘Here’s a tune I have with no title’… is unacceptable and a cop-out. If a tune was not given a title by the composer, it will be ‘Paddy Fahey’s No.1 Jig’ or ‘Bill Harte’s’… the source has become the title. Some titles are just forgotten or the player can’t remember it. This happens! But, wouldn’t it be hurtful if a tune was performed and the composer in the audience, and it not acknowledged? This too has happened…. But, shouldn’t. If you acquire a tune from someone, ensure they give you all the info they can on it. Here are some typical acknowledgements:

“And, here’s a tune I learned from Kathleen Nesbitt, a great fiddler and teacher from Loughmore, Co.Tipperary”

“The harper Carolan left us a treasury of tunes from the 18th century. Here is one I learned from Edward Bunting’s book, ‘The Ancient Music of Ireland’ published in piano arrangement in the 1790s...”

“I love Michael Rooney’s tune “Land’s End” which he published on his CD of the same title…”

“Janet Harbison’s ‘Walk in Belfast’ has been performed widely and here is her own version from the recording with the Irish Harp Orchestra….”

Of historical harp music, composers and arrangements

Historically, almost all ‘harp music’ is attributed to a known composer because harp music was ‘high music’ – the court music of Ireland’s historic past, the patronised music of the ‘big house’, the professional music that served the upper classes. This is the music of O’Cahan, the Connellan brothers and Carolan and they have bequeathed us a treasure of melody – and only melody. This is also the case with all the ‘ordinary’ music in the Irish tradition – it exists in the form of melody only and the presentation of this is open to our creative input. We players will ‘arrange’ this music to our taste and if not acknowledging an arranger, it is implicit that the player is the arranger. And the player is well-entitled to the credit and glory if the setting is good - as our treatment of the music is a lot more than just the ornamentation and variation of the melody….

The ‘arrangement’ dimension is the special deal for us harp players and here is where we can show off our understanding of the music and our creative input. It is worth noting that our roles as arrangers are equally protected by the laws protecting composers. If you perform someone elses’ arrangement, and remember - it is perfectly acceptable to do so! – don’t forget to acknowledge the source!

Some helpful ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’

Understanding what is involved in learning
Most students learn on a one-on-one basis with a teacher in their home, in a school ‘after –hours’ or in a designated music school. Fees are paid by the ‘term’ of which there are 3 in a year, divided into ‘Autumn’, ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’ pretty much parallel with the school dates. Primary schools work to the end of June, while Secondary Schools finish in the first days of June (making way for the state examinations of Junior or Leaving Certificate starting in week 2). So, there may be 33 or 37 weeks in your lessons year. Be sure to check the term dates at the outset of the term by having the terms dates with the terms and conditions of the teacher in writing at the start of term so there are no arguments later on!

Terms and Conditions
Also ensure that you understand the missed lessons policy of your school or private teacher. Normally, if you miss a lesson for whatever reason, this will be forfeit and the teacher may make a discretionary choice as to whether to replace this lesson or not. Usually in a music school, this is not possible. If a teacher, however, has to miss or move a lesson, the replacement lesson must be at a mutually convenient time with the student, or the lesson fee would be refunded or credited to next term. If you are attending a private teacher in their or your home, technically the teacher should be insured (for Public Liability). In Ireland this is hardly ever arranged where in other countries, you are prohibited from practising any professional teaching without insurance. Be aware!

Two teachers for double the result?
Occasionally I have found that students or student parents engage the ‘teaching’ of two teachers – perhaps aiming to ‘cover all bases’. The problem here is that whatever about the gains from two teachers contributing to the student’s learning experience, the student usually has only a certain amount of time in a week to allocate to each teacher’s programme – and essentially progress drops to half of what it was before the teacher duplication! Also, as there is such a wide diversity in skills, method and approach between teachers, students are often left confused or annoyed when a hand position for one teacher is negated by the other; or elements of arrangement are disapproved by the other etc etc. If the two teachers are collaborating in the same programme, this might indeed be helpful – so if you wish to invest in two, be discerning in your choice and ensure communication and openness for the best collaboration.



Qualifications and Examinations

What are your teacher’s qualifications?

Students and parents of students should never be shy about asking to see the qualifications of the teacher – but for us Irish harpers or harpists, until recently , there were no qualifications - or examinations - or teaching ‘method’ for any kind of Irish harp player – and all the teachers starting off as ‘teachers’ were teaching intuitively – or, in essence, teaching by ‘trial and error’ or ‘off the cuff’. Because they were able to play a number of tunes, it is often thought that those who can play, can ‘teach’ what they know to the next player – but, as we have seen this is a very ‘hit and miss’ idea as ‘just because you speak English, doesn’t mean you can teach it’….. As with every skill, there will be good teachers and poor teachers. For harp teachers today, you will inevitably have to take the gamble on

  • What the teacher will teach
  • How effective they are as a teacher
  • How likeable they are
  • How honourable the are
  • How skilled they are

The ‘qualification’ short-coming has been addressed by a number of different establishments in recent years…

TTCT (Teastas I dTeagasc Ceolta Tire) Traditional Music Teacher’s Diploma governed by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann with the Department of Education. This diploma course was the first to address the new skill of traditional music teaching since 1990 and comprises a one-week residential course at the headquarters of Comhaltas in Dublin. It is an excellent week of teacher training with supervised teaching practise in the afternoons equipping teachers with repertoire and teaching strategies.

ARIAM (Associate of the Royal Irish Academy of Music) Classical teaching diploma from the Royal Irish Academy in their graded examinations for the harp. There is a lot of excellent music on their syllabus with links to the publishers for the written texts. This music is then taught and examined as ‘classical’ music.

And the examinations available for students to take are:
London College of Music Traditional Music Examinations
Offering exams at Grade 2, 4, 6 &8 with a syllabus designed by a trad teacher – but the harp syllabus here is exceptionally basic and harp players are adjudicated mainly by other instrumentalists who would neither understand harmony or arrangement – or classical music examiners.

Scrúdú Ceol Tíre
Traditional music examinations governed by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann. This system has proved problematical as the harp is included with all the melody-only instruments (fiddle, flute, whistle, concertina, button accordion and uilleann pipes (both these last with a small but very restricted element of chording) and offering no guidance either to teachers or examiners on harmony, arrangement or accompaniment.

Royal Irish Academy of Music
Irish harp is the only ‘Irish’ instrument included on their syllabus of examinations – and while there is certainly a number of excellent ‘traditional music arrangements’ on their syllabus, these are learned from the page and played in examination (or competition) as classical pieces.

(Harbison) Irish Harp College
Since 1986, my students have taken annual examinations at 8 levels; the first 4 of designated coursework and the second 4 following their choice of specialism (or ‘Art of Harping’). The Board of Examiners as well as myself, includes a number of highly regarded traditional musicians including Geraldine Cotter (trad Piano) and Mícheál Ó hAlmhain (flute and pipes). At least 400 harp students have progressed at least to Level 4 in this system (and at Leaving Cert, the Irish Harp College has a 95% record of ‘A’ and ‘A*’ grades). Also since 1986, I have been training teachers, and from 2006, there have been teacher training courses and examinations but this system, however effective, is as yet unaccredited (due to the small numbers of examination candidates annually and the unique nature of the (oral) method– but an academic accreditation partner is being sought).
This document has been prepared in January 2017 and improvements and new strategies are coming forward - so check for updates and new developments.

What your Irish harp teacher should do for you…

As well as addressing your interest in whatever is your preferred style or repertoire of Irish music,
Your teacher should be teaching you:

Good Technique - involving a healthy development of the hand and ear. As a coach trains an athlete, the teacher should be able to train the harp player to achieve exceptional dexterity and articulation – not just in playing the right notes but also measuring exactly how much weight and tension to use so to be able to control the sound (louds and softs). The key elements of developing

strength – agility – speed – control

are the imperatives – and it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure these are developed safely as there are many potential injuries that could occur. These include Repetitive Stress Injury, Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, Tendonitis, Ganglionitis, Trigger Thumb to name the most frequent problematic conditions.

Aural acuity – meaning the training of the ear. As a wine taster trains the taste buds, a musician trains their ears to hear the finest nuances and details of pitch, tone and timbre. At the start of the ‘sound journey’, the listener will not be able to discern the detail that they will easily appreciate after years of listening to – not just hearing – the sounds they and all around them are making. There are many aspects of hearing (aurality) that a teacher needs to be watching out for (including a lazy ear; missing pitches; pitch discernment; relative pitch; perfect pitch) and many strategies that they should be able to use to help discern, correct and/or balance a student’s ability.

Logic – Music is a language that has its own logicality. When ‘music makes sense’ it flows, it is pleasing, it excites, it raises the spirits of all who hear it. When music doesn’t make sense, it is easily discerned and is confusing, annoying, frustrating, unbalanced. To play an incomplete scale – rising from do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti….. doesn’t afford the comfort of ‘completeness’ without the top note. Try playing this for someone and watch the result….. the sense of bewilderment at the end when it ‘doesn’t finish’. This is illogical! Carrying this forward into other aspects of the music, with the shape of the melody, or the movement of harmony, or an imbalance in rhythm – if there are surprises and the music loses its ‘flow’, there will be a logical reason that, if not intended by the composer, will be a ‘mistake’ and demands to be fixed or at least understood before the experience of listening will lead itself to a comfortable conclusion. This aspect of learning is significantly enhanced with a study of ‘Theory, Harmony and Counterpoint’ as relevant to Irish music allowing a student who, through understanding of their music, will intuitively know how to fix it and to appreciate the greatness in the skill of the old masters – as in the English language, one comes to appreciate Shakespeare!

And mental skills – Finally, Irish music being the art that it is, involves a gigantic repertoire of melody. In a typical trad session for instance, that would last 3 hours or so, with each tune taking about 2 minutes to play, will result in the playing of around 90 tunes. This is not a surprise – nor surprising – as, according to an academic thesis written in the 1980s, traditional musicians will typically have over 400 tunes in their heads that they can play at will in the course of one evenings’ music-making. Most of these 90 tunes will be randomly chosen by different participants in the session from the core repertoire of about 400 tunes – and there will be particular tunes that are popular in particular regions, with particular groups of players, with particular age-groups – the majority of which will be known to the majority of players – implying that their repertoire is larger again.

The obvious mental skill is that of memory – how to remember all your tunes. But another is how to trigger the memories of the tunes. Every musician will have experienced the situation where they are asked to ‘play a tune’ – but at that explicit moment, they can’t muster a single tune to play. Another of the mental skills is the ‘filing’ of tunes according to their rhythms or categories. This can be likened to a healthy filing system. If the memory contents are in a mess, retention is challenging, retrieval is erratic etc etc. This is where scientists and educators over the years have found the positive aspects of a musician’s superior mental skills and information organisation in general. Music is good for you – and if your teacher is doing the job right, your technique, aural, logic and mental skills will be in balance guaranteeing a healthy, positive development for you entirely!


Repertoire, Arrangement and Accompaniment

In addition to the skills of just playing, you will also want the right kind of repertoire for the style or aspect of harp music you wish to follow (or a grounding in each aspect until you are sufficiently knowledgeable to make your own decision); to learn the skills of arrangement (i.e. the setting of the tune with a left hand, with chords, base line and harmony notes) and accompaniment (i.e. the playing of chording to yourself singing or someone else or the session playing the tune).

On the skill of accompanying: or ‘vamping’ as some call it: here follows a few words of caution:
On ‘Vamping’…… (‘To vamp’ refers to accompanying and the idea of ‘making it up as you go along’)
I have heard it from many ‘players’ that have learned one accompaniment sequence to force this on every tune played – as if ‘one size fits all’. This is enormously uncomfortable for not only the audience, but also all the other musicians in the session. Most people are polite and will say nothing – but if you are offending with playing bad accompaniments, watch for these signs:

  • Musicians can’t look you in the eye, occasionally grimace and won’t engage you in conversation
  • They lay their instruments on the table after the set of tunes and chat for long periods
  • They make out that they are putting their instruments away (disconnecting the flute; placing the fiddle on or in the case)…
  • They stop playing altogether and hope you go away – or they pack up and go away!

It is absolutely essential that the ‘natural harmony’ (that which is determined in the tune itself) is at least appreciated before the player would apply more adventurous chording - which could be very innovative and exciting if done right – or nastily conflicting if not. And if there are other accompaniment instruments in the session doing something else, the overall din will be horrible. Yet, a number of particularly the ‘gung-ho’ younger players will persist - thinking they are playing great and essential to the session experience…… Oh dear!

Good accompaniment – and consistently complementary accompaniment is perfectly possible with accompaniment training. Understanding how chords work together and how to make rhythm patterns more lively or leisurely is a basic skill - and every teacher should be able to lead their students into understanding what they’re doing and working their accompanying intuitively and confidently. There are easy formulae, and recognising which is appropriate when, is the necessary skill to learn.



On Repertoire

Your ‘Repertoire’ is all the tunes (or songs) you know. What you should expect as a student or student parent is that your teacher will teach you the tunes that connect you to the tradition of Irish music first and foremost. To learn unknown old tunes, recently composed new ones or exotic others, will have their place in exam, competition or concert programmes perhaps. But to play these tunes in the company of other musicians does not allow them to join with you if they don’t know them.

Another excluding practise is the playing traditional tunes in unusual keys. A particular fashion among younger players today, is to play their music in odd keys – the key of F or Bflat for instance. Most traditional music instruments can only play in the core keys of G – D – so inevitably, tunes played in unusual keys excludes them from participating. This is not a nice thing to do – even if you can do it! Perhaps your friends might admire you for 3 minutes, but then...



On social playing in ‘trad’ and ‘folk’ sessions

Playing with others in the session where each participant can excite themselves and all around them by participating at their level of ability – each ornamenting and variating and arranging differently to the other – is one of the exceptional glories of Irish music-making – making it unique among traditions and ultimately socially inclusive. A complete stranger can wander into a session in New York and sit with the musicians there and play away as if they had been neighbours for generations. This is the special aspect of the session –

But the ‘folk’ session also has its place and will suit the solo players well. Here everyone offers their ‘party-piece’ to the gathering and each participant takes ‘their turn’ – possibly joined in by the others if the tune or song is known – but it tends to be a session of singers and guitars with the occasional fiddle, flute or accordion – with songs or tunes from a wide variety of sources – country and western music, pop music, music hall, balladry.




On Photocopies and Copyright

The culture of photocopying without concern for the composer, arranger or publisher of the music is rife in Ireland – and has thwarted many careers in creative musicianship. To learn by ear from the community of music-makers was the traditional way to learn the music. If you are learning in the ‘new way’ assisted by notes on a page, or are playing a desired ready-made arrangement, these were generated by somebody, and that somebody is entitled to be recompensed for their product. If the page was originally generated by the teacher for the student, of course this is your ‘lesson support material’ and the teacher is the originator. The student is not at liberty to pass this to others, or to use it themselves as teaching material in the future without the expressed permission of the originator – unless the material is published and available for purchase for the purpose. Informal materials may be passed on with the original teacher’s permission, but if the material is published, it must be purchased. This is common sense – as, with the music itself, it is the tune that is freely given from the tradition and not the arrangement. (Beware of newly composed pieces that while sounding ‘traditional’ are not - such as the tunes: ‘Inis Oirr’ (T.Walsh) or ‘Mná na hÉireann’ (S. O Riada) that are copyright – and many legal cases have been taken regarding these tunes).

With harp music, while most tunes that are played are traditional (with attributed composers such as Carolan or Connellan), the tradition gifts the melodies only, not arrangements. The aim of all Irish harp players (unless choosing to be as classical musicians) is to create their own arrangements of everything from a jig or reel and slow air, to a planxty, folk or hymn tune. The expectation is that, unless expressly acknowledged, the arrangements played are your own. It is a real tragedy that so many arrangers are being abused by unscrupulous others who are presuming to use their arrangements without acknowledgement - or payment.

Photocopying is also a gigantic problem for us arrangers – and publishers! For anyone to presume to photocopy pages from a book for their or anybody else’s use, is obviously not valuing the skill and expense to produce it in the first instance. This culture needs to change – if only to show integrity, respect and honesty. There are indeed Copyright Laws that were enacted to protect the rights of composers and arrangers, but in Ireland, cases are rarely taken against harp players and teachers. But, beware! Irish arrangers and publishers are now numerous, and more of them are aware of their rights. Each year, there are more cases being dealt with my IMRO (the Irish Music Rights Organisation) on behalf of Irish artists.

So, if you ask a teacher or a friend to photocopy a page of their music books for you, expect to be advised to buy it for yourself. It would be no different from asking someone for an illegal CD to be copied for your use. It is illegal, plain and simple! Most track downloads don’t cost more than €1, most music downloads cost the same – and most books cost less than a new CD – so the prices are small for the learning or pleasure they will bring. I often hear the protest: “But, I just wanted one or two tunes from the book”….. But if the book contains 10 tunes and you only wanted one, you still get 9 more! Like a ‘set of tools’ – if they are being sold as a set, you are not at liberty to buy only one component at a fraction of the price. Most pieces are available as single downloads from the web now – so often there is no excuse for not paying your 80cents.

If you buy a book of music, like a CD, you have also bought the right to play the music contained in it. If you perform this music for financial gain, as in a gig, broadcast, in a concert or a commercial recording, you will be required to write the title, the composer’s and arranger’s name on your ‘playlist’ or ‘PRS return’. Very simple! And, it is not you who pays the license fee, it is the concert house or the music publisher who pays. So, there is little excuse not to do the right thing – observing the right of the composer or arranger, or teacher materials to the recompense for their contribution to your learning and enjoyment. You wouldn’t go into a shop, and order a coffee; sit down and enjoy it and not expect to pay! So, please don’t give your music teacher a bad time if they require you to ‘go buy the book’ and refuse to give you a photocopy!


In Conclusion

So, you are invited to enjoy your music – to participate in the tradition in every way that pleases and thrills you - to be creatively independent and to be generous with acknowledgement. Be discerning in your choice of teacher if you are not learning ‘in the old way’ (in the session) and ensure you are offered training in all the ‘aspects’ of harping so you may make your own preferences and if your teacher can’t offer you what you need, find workshops, masterclasses or summerschools with other teachers to help shape and refine you and your skills.

Here’s wishing you the best of luck in your journey and the world looks forward to the beauty, comfort and joy that your music will bring to you and all who are fortunate to hear you.

If students or student parents or teachers feel that there are other issues that this pamphlet should cover, please write to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . I look forward to hearing from you!