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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”