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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!