A Structured Approach to Oral/Aural Learning/Teaching the Irish Harp

IRISH HARPERS have distinguished Ireland as a place of exceptional cultural interest and excellence from as long ago as the early middle ages, and it is because of the high esteem held internationally for its music that the harp was adopted as the Irish national emblem in the 16th century.  It is the only country in the world with a musical instrument for its emblem, and it is still the most recognisably Irish symbol in business and organisation logos proudly defining their Irishness.   

With over 1,000 years of history, we have an extraordinary legacy of music representative of a vibrant living tradition, not only of the music itself, but also of the profession and its patronage which has adapted itself many times through the centuries since harpers were the court musicians of the chieftains and Anglo-Norman Lords of the Middle Ages.  Today, harpers’ patrons range from Arts foundations and government departments to you, the concert goers, CD and book buyers, track downloaders as well as heritage venues, wedding couples and corporate events managers!  So, harping continues to represent a heritage and artistic endeavour that not only offers a great musical education and an active cultural heritage, but also multiple career opportunities in the worlds of personal development and artistic expression; stage, corporate, private and social entertainment; arts and cultural heritage; social pastime, collaborative team-work and artistic leadership; mental health, special needs education, healthcare and palliative therapy.  This is Ireland’s extraordinary gift.

“Music is the universal language”    Joseph Haydn 1732 – 1809

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols


Learning is Oral

It is only in the 1970s that harp music started to be published for harp players.  Up to then, from antiquity, the tradition was oral, passed from one generation to the next, from master to pupil, ‘by ear’.* The famous books of Irish harping (by Edward Bunting) of the late 18th and early 19th century, were Irish music re-arranged for piano.  It is important to note that there are two types of oral learning/teaching:  ‘By Rote’, and ‘By Reason’.  To learn By Rote is by direct imitation of the teacher, without explanation or deviation.  To learn By Reason is to understand ‘how the music works’ and to construct it organically (from simple to ornate) so the player is creatively free to interpret, arrange, accompany, ornament and variate the music as they feel intuitively.  There is also ‘formal play’ with this method where the player is directed to ‘play as given’ for particular solo (arranged by other players/composers) or ensemble pieces – but the distinction is made.  

With the Harbison Harp Method, the teaching is organic, ‘By Reason’, with some ‘Rote’ learning for the basic melodies and arrangement options at the beginning.  

(* Note of interest: The tradition is ‘oral’ because it is delivered ‘by mouth’ (or ‘voice’) and ‘aural’ as it is received ‘by ear’. Hence there could be confusion with the two terms.)

“Words are the stuff of intellect, Music is the sound of emotion”  Janet Harbison

It is a Social and Creative Art-form

As there is a considerable ‘improvised’ aspect to Irish music-making, you might expect that when musicians play in the ‘session’ (from the Irish ‘seisiún’ meaning a ‘jam session’), that the result is a mess; but in fact it is a vibrant and energising experience as all participants consistently play ‘the bones’ (fundamental version) of the communally known tunes and the variations are in the soft detail which can only be discerned when sitting close to a musician.  This allows musicians of all standards to fully participate in the activity and to challenge themselves artistically at whatever level they are.  Harp players also have the option of participating with the melody or with supplying the easily identified chorded accompaniments at the level of their ability.  Collectively, the music is entirely homogenous and always enjoyed by the audience as well as the musicians themselves, especially  if they are energetic and skilled.  So the ‘session’ offers the opportunity to be creative in company – which is a significantly different experience to playing in a classical ensemble where everyone’s parts are pre-determined and incomplete unless all the defined parts are sounded.  

With the Harbison Harp Method, the ability to play in a Session starts with basic chording which is introduced in Lesson 1 - so inclusion is immediate and from here, the musical journey takes off ….

Music can dance and sing our blues away.  It conjures up memories of lost lovers or deceased friends.  It lets the child in us play, the monk in us pray, the cowgirl in us line dance, the hero in us surmount all obstacles.   It helps the stroke patient find language and expression.  John Campbell, “The Mozart Effect” 1997

A unique opportunity for Music Education ('The harp Versus the Piano') 

Until recently, the piano was the preferred instrument for a ‘full’ music education as you can play many notes at the same time (creating both melody (melodies) and harmony (or harmonies)) - whereas melody-only instruments can only play one note at a time (and never a chord).  Also, to sound a parallel line of notes (as in octaves) on a piano demands opposing Left – Right finger action (5th finger LH with the thumb RH, 4th finger LH with the 2nd RH etc) – whereas on the harp, there is perfect L-R symmetry (4th fingers L and R, 3rd fingers L and R).  Also pianos are solitary instruments, are not portable and keyboards need electric sockets – whereas the harp is totally portable, can play in a crowd of harps and needs no sockets (just a back seat in a car)!  The piano’s one-size keyboard is challenging to very big or very small fingers and hands - whereas the harp comes in all sizes to fit the player!  The piano’s high-low spectrum operates right-to-left with invisible mechanics - whereas the harp mechanics are immediately obvious with short strings producing the high sounds and long strings producing low.  With the relationship of the notes of the scale, the piano and the classical music idiom introduces different keys and key changes a lot, which means the scales involve many additions of ‘black notes’ which are challenging to play (or change) – whereas the harp and Irish / Folk / Celtic music is based mainly in the tunings of the keys of G and D only (with the changeable C natural – C sharp) which allows instruments to join without fear of getting the keys (or semitones) wrong.  The limitation that can be said of the harp is that it doesn’t change key – but it does have a lever mechanism that compensates to a degree.  However, for Irish or the wider family of Folk or Celtic music there is little relevance to key changing.  So, the harp triumphs as a logical starter instrument for the world!

“I want to make good citizens. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.”  Shin'ichi Suzuki (1898 – 1998)


And 'Beginning in the Middle' Years

The small / Irish / Celtic / Folk harp is an obvious and ideal instrument for people taking up ‘music in their middle years.’  The harp playing movement in the USA is already well established boasting an exceptionally large and growing number of associations and groups involved in social play and offering tuition.  The Harbison Harp Method is perfectly tailored for adult leisure players – for all the same reasons in the previous paragraph – but also because with little effort, adults will be producing pleasing music and the tools to apply their own favourite tunes with easy bases within their first lessons.  Many adults feel challenged by their age, lack of or a bad childhood musical experience, physical stiffness or lack of confidence – but these anxieties are immediately dispelled as the Harbison Harp Method ‘makes music logical’ and achieves pleasing results from the start with applying well-known tunes to simple chords and showing how this strategy works for all music.    

“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” 
 Maya Angelou


Particular Therapeutic Qualities

Another notable benefit to the playing of the harp is for its therapeutic qualities both for the players as well as their audiences – whether for the assistance of concentration and focus or the alleviation of stress; for the taming of the unruly; the relief of the troubled; the amelioration of the unwell or the comforting of the dying.  And the harp has deep spiritual and meditative qualities which, with its ancient heritage, evokes legend, myth and magic, strength, gentleness, generosity and romance.  Its value to mental health and well-being are well attested and every year, new studies espouse the value of musicianship and community health.

“How powerful is your magic sound” Mozart, The Magic Flute 1791


Affordable and Comfortable

The harp is also economically accessible with starting instruments costing from €300 and professional quality instruments priced around €4,000.  All harp manufacturers have much improved their ‘folk / lever / Celtic / Irish / Scottish / small’ harps, and the French company, ‘Camac’ have created the ‘Janet’ (designed for and with Janet Harbison) which is perfect for all ages and standards of harp player from all traditions.  (The particular qualities of the ‘Janet’ are that the fingers are able to perform with greater comfort, agility and finesse as the strings are less tight and spaced apart as on the large orchestral concert harp.)


Social, Inclusive, Creative and Stimulating – Music for Life

Finally, the Harbison Harp Method promotes ‘music pleasure for life’ as well as ‘expertise for excellence’ and offers the means and method to make music an integral part of everyone’s life – offering access to all kinds of music-making with creative expression, social inclusion and adaptable repertoire it’s key experience; with musical understanding and historic appreciation it’s legacy, and participation in the Celtic tradition that has contributed massively to the evolution of world and art music.  The Harbison Harp Method brings a unique instrument, tradition and training system to the world classroom, community and stage...