Harp Time!!!

Harp Time!!!

Ok guys, I should really be practicing, yada yada, all that. But I’m curious: How many harp players do we have here? Better yet, what kind of harp do you play, who do you listen to, any strange but true harp stuff?, best and worst moments, ignorant pedal harpists, ignorant new agers, blah blah blah. Or other completely random stuff I haven’t thought of. The works. The mother of all harp threads. Some of you I definitely know, but I’m sure there are loads that I don’t. So fess up! Yes, there are special harp boards, but they’re either for pedal harp, or general “folk” music. We can have a harp thread here every once in a while, and I figure we’re about due 🙂 And ok, non-harp people can play too…except if you like flute/whistle/piccolo jokes ;)

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Why sleeps the Harp of Erin’s pride?
Why with’ring droops its Shamrock wreath?
Why has that song of sweetness died
Which Erin’s Harp alone can breathe?


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Salvi Livia harp for two years… I love it. Recently been playing alot of music by South American composer Alfredo Ortiz. Cool.


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OK . . . I’ve been playing a Harpsicle (budget/beginner harp made by William Rees of Rising Sun, Indiana) for 1+ years now. That has been I nice instrument to start with, but I’m ready to upgrade soon. Thinking about the harps made by Noteworthy Instruments (Ravenna, Ohio), which are nice instruments at very competitive prices.

My favorites for listening are Grainne Hambly, Michael Rooney, and Grainne Yeats. Yeats has a great 2-CD set on Gael-Linn on which she tries to reconstruct the style and repertoire of the old harpers circa Bunting’s festival in 1792. Who knows how authentic it is, but she certainly did thorough research on the styles, and most importantly it all sounds great.

It seems most of the up-and-coming Irish harpers are emphasizing dance tunes in their repertoire, and that can sound great (cf. Hambly, Rooney, Michelle Mulcahy, etc.), but I’m more interested in the old harp repertoire. I already play dance tunes on other instruments, and they’re tough to master on the harp. There are a lot of fantastic old harp tunes beyond the Carolan stuff, both trad and from other composers (though I do love Carolan as well).

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Hi guys!

Athena, how’d you decide to get a Livia? I actually like them a lot for dance music, but my one student who has one wants to get one of Larry Egar’s. You’re in Ireland right? Ever go to the fleadh or Scoil Eigse? I haven’t been in ages, unfortunately, but a couple of my students usually go every year. Alfredo Ortiz is way cool, for sure. Fun stuff!

Tedium, I’ve never heard of Noteworthy Instruments…used to live in Ohio, so I’m curious. I have a Rees Aberdeen and love it. Do you listen to Ann Heymann at all? She revived the wire harp technique and repertoire, but has also developed a method of playing dance tunes on the wire harp. I would love to learn more about the old harp repertoire--it’s definitely a neglected field. One of my big projects lately, since I’ve got a much bigger repertoire on Irish harp of dance tunes than anything else, is actually to arrange a lot sean nos songs as slow airs, rather than just playing all the same airs that everyone else keeps playing which often are “harp versions” that get fairly far away from the actual song.

Anybody have any favorite slow airs to play, by the way? I’d especially be interested to know what people like beyond the sort of standard harp stuff like Song of the Books, The Wild Geese, An Buachaillin Ban, etc.

Oh, also, if there’s anyone who plays pedal harp as well, do you find either one easier or harder? For myself, it’s wierd, because of course the pedal harp makes different demands on your technique, maybe a wider range of demands, but this music, and I’m talking about the dance tunes now, is so unharpistic that I actually sometimes find certain tunes harder technically. I did this sort of monster fugue on my recital last year and found that running through some reels before I played that actually made it seem easy on my fingers in comparison. Wierd!!

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Harpers seem to be getting really rare. I would play if I had the time, money (main problem), and courage because I can’t handle the finger pain of Mandolin that makes me think no way to harp. I love the sound of Harps.

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I play the pedal harp as well as the lever harp, though since I mostly play harp in classical contexts I am most comfortable with pedal harp. They are really two different animals. I like how most lever harps are lighter tension and smaller string spacing, but I hate having to deal with the levers (kind of a part of that type of harp!). Dealing with seven pedals is much easier to me than dealing with all the levers, but I’ve just gotten used to manuevering around the concert grand I play much easier than any lever harp.

I don’t own my own harp, but the university I attend owns several Salvi pedal harps which I practice on and use for all rehearsals, concerts. It’s really a wonderful thing, since pedal harps are so expensive, and I am still trying to save up to buy my own. My dream harp is a Swanson Semi-Guilded Empire in antique maple finish…

Favorite harpers/harpists: On the classical/pop harp side, I really like the playing of Yolanda Kondanassis, Jan Jennings, and Elzbieta Szmyt. For Irish/Scottish harpers, I love Grainne Hambly’s playing, along with Michael Rooney and Billy Jackson.

If only I had the time to learn more dance tunes, airs, and harp pieces instead of the constant orchestra/band/solo literature that occupies my time. For now, all the energy goes to classical harp and Irish fiddle.

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More on Noteworthy: they’re based near Cleveland and have only been in business a few years AFAIK. I’ve been impressed with the look and sound of their instruments--nice workmanship, with the soundboxes distinctively curved in the back. They specialize in smaller harps, lap size as well as small floor harps with legs. They’ve been showing their “County Kerry” and “County Clare” lap harps at various harp gatherings recently.

Unseen: what kind of finger pain are you talking about? I find the harp easier on my fingers/hands/wrists than the mandolin, which is my main instrument. That’s probably in part because my harp has quite low tension. And re cost, playable harps are a lot cheaper than they used to be, e.g. the Noteworthy and Rees instruments.

Ostrich: has your student looked into ordering an Egar harp? I think they sound fantastic, but I’m guessing they’d be expensive given the dollar/euro exchange rate these days.

Nice sources for old airs and harp tunes include the Petrie and Bunting collections (both reprinted by Dover) and the various O’Neill’s volumes, especially Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melody.

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Hi Ostrichfeathers. I think we spoke about harps some time back on this board. I’ve been playing harp 8 years. I play a Dusty Strings (32 srings) and for sessions, though it’s been a while, I have a 26 string Dusty as well. I also have a 25 wire string Triplett which I have been trying to sell. It’s gorgeous, but since I’ve taken up fiddle 3 years ago, I haven’t had the nails or the time for it. 2 intruments are quite enough!

I play dance tunes. Some airs, and the requisite O’Carolan stuff as well of course. When you (or others) say dance tunes are so un-harpy, I don’t know what that means since that’s all I’ve ever played for the most part. I don’t find getting the melodies down to be difficult at all. It’s doing amazing left hands ala Grainne Hambly which is the challenge. Mostly my left hand accompainments are pretty basic, so as to keep the tempo in the right hand going at a good clip.

So…you wanted some good harp stories/experiences. I’m sure I have loads if I think about it.

One that comes to mind: I was playing at a local natural food market on Valentine’s Day, maybe a year or two ago, and this guy asked me if I was much familiar with “the French composers” and did I “think their music was well-suited to the harp”. I love when people try to trip me up (which from his demeanor and attitude I felt he was trying to do). I just respond honestly and somehow that bugs them.

“I am not familiar with the French composers I said,” “I play Irish traditional music only.” Which I thought would have been obvious to such a man of culture. “Well,” he said, “You’ve certainly picked a very commercial type of music to pursue”. Ha! I responded, “I wouldn’t really know about that, and I couldn’t care less about what type of music sells, I only know that I play the type of music I love.” That pretty much put and end to our conversation. Besides, I was working.

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Once (again, while I was working at a gig) I had a woman (who is a piano teacher) tell me I should come take lessons with her because she would teach me how to read music.

I told her I already had a teacher and that I actually *did* know how to read music.

It’s kind of fun to bring up the ignorance and condescension of some people, but in actuality there are far more experiences of people being appreciative and admiring whether they understand what Irish music is or not. And that’s even more fun.

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Two harps - 30 nylon string Harp, and a 22 wire strung lap harp. I rarely play them these days (long boring story I won’t go in to), so count me in as a “lapsed player”. Cheers 🙂

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I very badly want to learn to play the harp, but it’s going to have to wait a few years…unless a rich uncle I don’t have dies and leaves me all his $$$! Let’s just say there’s a reason my principle instrument is the penny whistle!

Maybe someone here can tell me…for a beginner, is it desperately essential to have levers? My budget is always going to be pretty tight, and if there’s enough of a repetoire out there for someone with a fairly simple, leverless lap harp, I’ll be able to get into harping before I reach my dotage.

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Wow, keep it coming, folks!

violynnsey, are you a harp major? French or Salzedo? Does your teacher like Irish music? It seems like most people who get into Irish music are French for some reason, but I’ve also met relatively few harpists who love YK’s playing that are not Salzedo.I am so impressed that you also have time to play fiddle as well as being in school. I’m finishing my bachelors this semester--yay!! When do you graduate? Most of my energy right now is going to preparing my degree recital, as well as ensemble stuff. But I have a bunch of students getting ready for the fleadh so I get to do a bit of Irish music anyway, finding good tunes and making new arrangements.

tedium, I’ve heard that Egar has a waiting list that’s like 5 years long, unless you happen to get lucky and somebody has cancelled an order or sent one back. I don’t think money would particularly be an object in this case, but I’m wondering if she’d be happy with it in the long run herself, or if she only wants it just because that’s what so many people in Ireland play. They seem to require a very particular touch--the tension is about the lightest of any harp I’ve ever played, which requires a lot of adjustment. I’m not sure she’s prepared to put in the work she’d need to for that, if it’s just a sort of jump-on-the-bandwagon whim.

Hi Andee!! I definitely remember you. Good stories…what a strange question to ask! He was definitely trying to mess with you. I kept thinking of funny things to do if somebody gives you an opening like that but none of them are probably half as funny as they are in my head. Geek humor at the expense of various modern French composers that the guy probably wouldn’t get anyway. Besides, if he was as “cultured” he was trying to act he would have not only known that you were playing Irish music, but he would have already known that the harp is associated with French music…
One of my more interesting harp stories is probably the time Joe Burke’s full pint managed to get overturned at a session at Gaelic Roots years ago, christening my brand-new Aoyama, on its very first outing…I did see it as a christening though. If it had been someone else’s pint, it might have been a different story. 🙂

As far as Irish music being non-harpistic, I mean that it just doesn’t always fit the hand very naturally. Some tunes are much trickier than others in this respect, especially with ornamentation. I also started with dance music, so it’s something I’ve especially come to realize in comparison with studying pedal harp, and with teaching. Playing continuous streams of notes with one hand at a fast tempo is not a “harp-native” kind of texture, and learning to build relaxation into those continuous streams of notes can be a challenge. But it’s really only one or two tunes that have bits that are really murderous. Maybe I’ll put up some links to the tunes section later and you can tell me if you play them and have any magic fingerings or anything. Probably the reason why a classical piece can feel easier to me in comparison to is that I was playing a reel full tilt on the pedal harp, full volume, which is a real workout, and really different than anything you normally study in pedal harp technique. (I was doing this because I was frustrated and couldn’t take it anymore until I got some Irish music into my system, and didn’t want to get up and get the lever harp. But it helped, so who cares?)

Last question, for now: triplet fingerings. Who likes 432, who likes 212, who likes other wierd things like 321, etc? It’s always interesting to me to see what people prefer and find easier. I like 432 and 212, especially 212 lately, but I can’t convince any of my students that it’s worth the work for the sound of 212. Anyone?

Aight, gotta go eat dinner and practice. later…

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Harpers, rare! All I know is that when I put down the harp to take up the fiddle a few years back, I loaned my harp out to someone to try it to see if they liked it, seeing as how I wasn’t playing it myself at the time. So then it came back from that person, who bought their own, and then went out to another. That person did the same, and then the harp went out again.

This has happened over and over again through five or more years. It’s currently at the home of one of my young dance students, who thinks she might like to take up the harp, to see if she likes having the thing around and all.

Someday, I’ll get back to the harp, but probably not any time soon -- it hasn’t been back for longer than a couple of weeks, not near enough time to get the thing even started up, really…

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A harp thread?!? What a concept! ;) Thanks, Ostrichfeathers!

My favorite harpers are Grainne Hambly, Therese Honey, Robin Huw Bowen, and Myrdhin. (listening to the latter’s A Cordes et A Cris right now…Keridwen is one of my all-time favorite pieces, I’ll never forget hearing him do it live with a clean, spare arrangement.)

I have two harps. The second is a nice little Stoney End Eve, 22 nylon strings with tuning levers on the usual suspects. He’s the harp I play when I don’t have a lot of time to practice (which is often), and the one I play when I’m trying to build technique with chording. He’s also usually the harp I play when I take a harp traveling with me, since he’s replaceable and the other isn’t, but I seldom travel with a harp.

The first harp is the total love of my heart, even though fiddle is my primary instrument. She was a gift from her last owner, a dear old friend of mine, and she’s my favorite strange-but-true harp story in and of herself. Most people don’t believe me when I describe her. She’s a 17-string, bronze-strung, early Witcher (1971 IIRC). So small you can’t play her with both hands, there isn’t room --- at least not for my hands. I had to get a custom-made case for her, and the case-maker plotzed when I pulled her out of her wrappings. (I’ve only seen one or two other jaw-drops like that one.) Music-store staff people sometimes ask if she’s a real harp! I’ve evolved a style of playing her that allows me to play melody note and one or more harmony notes with one hand. Since I don’t have nails (fiddle + nails = disaster) I don’t get out of her the sound I could, but she still has a wonderfully sweet, bell-like tone. Whenever I have time for a decent-length practice, I play her first.

I doubt I’ll ever be performance quality, but playing the harp is so wonderful an experience that I do it just for my own self and don’t worry about what anyone else would think. I have dyspraxia (think dyslexia that affects physical coordination, especially fine motor movement, instead of reading ability) and I literally can’t play “right”. Harp hands? My hands won’t do ‘em. Well, won’t do ’em and still move, anyway. And playing with two hands is a total nightmare for me. How anyone can do such similar yet different movements simultaneously with both hands, keep them straight, and not end up with your fingers knotted in the harpstrings, is a deeper mystery to me than the heart of darkest Africa was to the early Victorians --- and much more insoluble. After 4 1/2 years I can just barely play Blind Mary with simple chords of my own arranging! So, as I said, I play for myself, and do the best I’m able. I’d play right if I could but I can’t so I don’t. As the man said.

I wanted to be a harper from my earliest memories, never could afford an instrument or lessons when I was a kid or in my early adult years, and finally gave up until my buddy Doug’s generosity gave me my old dream at last. That’s why I named my wire harp Hiraeth, a Welsh word meaning “yearning”.

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Good thread, ostrichfeathers!!
I decided on the Livia because: 1. I am currently living in Italy and we could go to the factory itself and try a bunch, and 2. it has a beautiful sound and I like the way it looks. It’s very heavy, though.
Favourite harpists (harpers? What’s the difference?) are Laoise Kelly and Cormac de Barra, as well as Michael Rooney.
I come back to Ireland every summer for Fleadhs etc. (this is our last year here in IT) but I haven’t played the harp in the fleadhs. Not Scoil Eigses either cuz I’m usually competing and need my rest!!! I did go to the Cairde na Cruite in Termonfeckin last year and it was really good. Not sure I can go this year, though. As for triplets, 432. Do you know how Laoise Kelly does her heavenly ones??!


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david a, obviously you must mean Malvern somehwere in the UK, not Malvern the suburb just west of Philadelphia?

Ostrich, I use 432, that’s how Grainne teaches it. Sometimes 321. It never occurred to me to do 212. Does it really sound any different? I imagine one should do what feels most natural, and keep the triplett rhythm the same no matter which way you do it.

MacTireRua, you don’t have to have levers. But obviously most tunes are in D or G. So just tune your harp to D (Cs and Fs up a half step) and your set for all D tunes. Tune your C back down to a C natural and you set for all tunes in G.

You can get the levers put on later when you get really good and you are ready to play in a session or when you are ready to play sets of tunes in different keys one right after the other without stopping to retune the harp.

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Sorry I didn’t see this thread earlier, but I don’t get to actually read here very often. Great to see so many harpists/harpers here playing or looking to play irish music on the harp.

Myself, I play wire harp. I currently have two (but harp lust is always a problem!). One I built some twenty years ago with the help of Jay Witcher. She’s a Trinity College clone that I carved from a willow tree. Even though the willow was far too small to really get the width of the original Trinity, nor did I dry it properly, she is still in good shape after all these years and hasn’t cracked. And the sound of a carved box it really wonderful. She stays in tune better than either of the boxed up harps I’ve had too! I had a Triplett Axline for several years, but finally sold it mostly because of the spacing. Now I have a Witcher Otway - 32 strings which is the main one I lug to sessiun and around. It’s a great harp, but heavy of course and I’m getting too old to lug him far. I’m trying to figure out a way to rebuild the case so it has wheels. None of the “harp carts” I’ve seen really address the footed design on wire harps very well.

So, no levers on a wire harp. I stay mostly in G or D and don’t worry too much about trying to retune at sessiun. One learns to skip the C or C# just like the other instruments learn to play it one way or the other.

My first teacher was Grainne Yeats. She is a wonderful person, extremely talented and very gung-ho in getting people to take up the harp and get it back into irish music. She made a huge impression on me and though I’ve not seen her in years, she and those first few lessons continue to guide me. Ann Heymann of course, has done a lot for wire harping and now there are more and more people coming out of the woodwork.. Cynthia Cathcart has a very nice tutor out now that I would suggest anyone interested in wire harp should get. If you’re interested in some URL’s, let me know.

The thing about the wire harp and where the research on it has been going - i.e. the concept of playing with what Ann has termed “coupled hands” is very useful with the dance music. Basically, it means that the melody is played with BOTH hands and that harmony notes are filled in with which ever finger(s) you can manage to spare for them. By two hand melody, I don’t mean that the tune is played in two octaves by each hand, but that the notes of the melody is shared by both hands. Much more like they are with say a penny whistle. This can be done by nylon harpers too, no reason not to.

Thanks for letting me go on and on….!

Chris Johnson (lurker extraordinaire)

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Triplets: seems to me that 432 or 212 may be more appropriate at a given time, depending on which direction the melody is heading after the ornament.

Levers: I agree that you don’t need them to get started. Lack of levers is only becoming a pain for me now that I’m occaisionally playing harp in public. In addtion to retuning, when you’re practicing you can just transpose any tune to match your harp’s tuning. The fingering remains the same; all that changes are the relative positions of the red & blue/black strings. Playing the same tune in different keys is a good brain exercise anyway, and it happens to be much easier on the harp than most instruments.


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Hi Ostrichfeathers,

I am a music major, but I divide my time among several instruments and styles. At my university there are currently three harpists (myself included), and we split the ensemble work among us. When I first began harp I learned from a Salzedo/Suzuki teacher which didn’t last too long…and the teacher I have now is the harp professor at school, and she is strictly Grandjany/French. She spent an entire year reforming me to French style, and I play that way comfortably now.

My teacher is an American of Irish decent, and therefore assumes she knows everything about “Celtic” music (she owns 2 Mary O’Hara records, and that is the extent of her exposure to anything!). When Grainne Hambly was in town last year to give a concert and some workshops, I helped to organize the workshop part and promoted the event to all of the other local harpists I knew of. After hearing Grainne’s concert, my teacher said “I think she would have a much better act if she would learn how to sing. That’s all people want to hear - a Celtic harpist who sings and plays.” I pretty much keep away from the subject of ITM with her now…

I’ll graduate next spring term - I changed universities midway through school, so I’m taking an extra year to graduate. I’m already thinking and preparing for my recital next year with another harpist - we’re doing a joint recital, which will be a nice chance to do harp duets as well. Good luck with your recital and finishing up your degree!

Oh, and for trebles, I like the 432 fingering best…


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Hi Ostrichfeathers,

I play on 2 Triplett lap harps, one is wirestrung, the other nylon, both are 25-string. Also an Fh32 from Dusty Strings and a Triplett 34 string Catalina de Luxe. I’ve only ever played lever harp. I started with a Musicmakers kit about 12 years ago--no levers, but it was enough to get through Sylvia Woods’ first book of instruction, and to make the decision that an upgrade would be worthwhile. Since there is little opportunity to hear live Irish music where I live (Fresno, CA), I started coming to this site to learn more about ornamentation, settings, and to get tunes. The various members who generously share information on their favorite recordings has been a true gift. I play a lot at home, though being somewhat isolated, progress is slow, but who the blazes do I have to impress? I took a lot of notes about triplets and recordings from this thread--thanks for the information.

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hmm…I guess the Malvern near me is a ketchup flavored one!

Aragorn (love the name, by the way!) How do you fare with going back and forth with wire/nylon? do you keep your nails at some kind of intermediate length that works for both?

Lynnsey--Wow--to think that Grainne’s “act” needs improving at all! She blows me away every time.

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Gees harpers post long posts like!

I play a 34 stringed starfish design (www.starfishdesigns.co.uk) glencoe harp in maple. Gut strung. Although I’ve just got funding which has allowed me to buy a new gut 37-string starfish mamore harp in walnut. They’re amazing! They go down to a low G, but just having that extra bit of soundboard makes a hell of alot of difference.
I borrowed their display mamore harp for a few weeks over the christmas break to use it in a big tv gig, and I found I used the extra bass strings the whole time. Was well getting into the groove with the double bass and keys player!
they’re about to start making mine, and I’m going to be the first with a new lever system they’re going to be using, bit like the camac levers.

You guys should check out some of the scottish harpers. Corrina Hewat, Catriona MacKay and Ingrid Henderson . Corrina plays with bachue www.bachue.co.uk as well as directing the unusual suspects the folk big-band. She plays mainly electro harp. She’s also my teacher! She kicks ass!

I’ve been playing all sorts of stuff right now. I’ve my final year recietal for my music degree in may, so working hard on getting some good arrrangements going. This sites been well good for finding the dots to tunes though.

Anyone interested should check out my website:


I’ve some sound clips on it so would be great to get some harpers opinions on my playing. Be nice though!

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Hi Ostrichfeathers

I’ve used the name for years on netscape, long before the movies came out. I liked it better when it was just a name from a beloved series of books I read as a child. I only grow out the nails on my right hand to keep the melody line clear on the wire strung harp. That way, I don’t have to deal with nails on my left hand getting in the way when I’m playing violin or mandolin and they are perfect for the nylon strung harps. There are tempo issues with my lefy hand as a result, and my effective reach is shortened. My wire strung harp has blade levers and string displacement is substantial whenever they’re in use, so I tune it to G instead of E-flat like the nylon strung harps.

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The harp I play now is my third.

the second one was just a bit too big to sit in my lap but had a lovely bright sound and light touch (nylon strings.)

It had no levers, and if i needed to use a minotr third in the left hand where the strings were major, I left out the third and used 1-5-1 or inversions/variations thereof.
If ineeded to change key betrween songs I retuned the appropriate strings. (no big deal)
(hope that helps, Mactirerua….

If the melody required a flattened third I either used the next best note or changed the melody as little as possible to get around it.(niether of these are as bad a compromise as they look on paper)

I have encountered (only a few) snobby pedal harp players, but ‘our’ harp was around first anyway. So There !!!!

As for expense. Near where I live you can hire harps quite cheaply…might be worth looking into in your area. I think it is a good iodea to rent or borrow a harp if you are beginning, then you can find out the things you like and don’t like, (number and type of strings, etc.) ythen when you are ready to order or buy a harp you will know waht you want.

The queen of levers has to be Susan Scott. I was amazed the first time I heard her playing. She has a lot of classical stuff in her repertoire ,and it modulates all over the place.
(…Just quietly…I think she has a third arm…)

Odd things…On a thread I started a while ago about the things only you as a player of a particular instrument would know, I mentiuoned the perils of playing on floorboard as the parallel lines confuse them selves with the strings. The other horror is somebody in dark clothing standing thr other side of you and all teh blue strings disappear. The worst one was at a funeral, and a girl in a TARTAN skirt stood right next to me…ALL the strings vanished!!!! I still continued playing, though, and didn’t make any mistakes.
*Collective sigh of admiration from all..aahhh…pretty girl leans over and whispers ‘You are such a hero’*
Anyway, enough of that.

My harp can be seen and heard at

(should find it via google).


You have such a good attitude to playing. I would much rather listen to you playing your own arrangement of Blind Mary than a lot of other stuff out there. There is someting wonderful and unique about ones own arrangements, and each time they are played a part of your spirit live in the music. Keep up the good work

I am a regular lurker and sometimes contributor to this site, and will always chime in if there is any harp related stuff.

*Just as Marty is about to ‘activate’ smiley face two six foot orderlies in white coats grab him from behind and wrestle him out of the chair. Kicking and screaming he is dragged away from the desk shouting ‘EVERBODY ELSE DOES THEM…..I WANT TO DO ONE AS WELL….WHY CAN’T I DO ONE ?????"
He subsides with a silly grin on his face as the injection takes effect….*

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Another harpy checking in.

Play an old but good Aoyama 120 and have a little Ardival lap harp which sadly gets negelected.

I only play tunes and the odd air. I don’t do O’Carolan and I don’t do accompaniment (unless really drunk and to the irriation of everyone else, no doubt).

Don’t listen to a lot of harp stuff, really. When I do it’s Ann Heymann and the Poozie/Sileas lasses (Patsy Seddon and Mary McMaster).

I’m anti plinky plonky wimpy harpings and like to play “aggressively” but then my friends take the p*ss and say it soooooooo soothing. Argh.

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Oh, another thing I don’t do is triplets on the one note. Others do this to great effect, but it doesn’t seem to suit my own playing.

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SL*, I’m the same way--I like to play aggressively (which is why I am learning fiddle now--it just rocks out more than harp ever can.), but people always say the same thing to me about how soothing it is.

Sometimes (non-musicians will say this) they say, “It must be so relaxing to just sit there and play.” I don’t think so, it takes work!

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Re: Harp Time!!!

MacTireRua--is there any way at all you could borrow or rent a harp- -maybe from Sylvia Woods’ shop--is that anywhere near you? Or maybe a player/teacher in your area?

I have seen and played a Harpsicle. They are Ok for a knock-around or travel harp if you already have a good harp, but as a first harp I would have to say no. The are a llittle “plinky” if you know what I mean. I don’t beleive in “beginner” instruments. They can make a beginner discouraged with their playing, not realizing it’s the poor quality of the intrument and not their playing that’s holding them back.

If you start on a good quality rented or borrowed instrument, you will then know what to look for as far as sound, construction,etc. goes Also after a few months or so you will know if you are going to stick with it or not, and then can make the commitment to purchasing one.

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Re: Harp Time!!!

Unfortunately, I will never be able to make the kind of financial committment that a really “good” harp requires. We’re a single-income family, and I just can’t justify that kind of financial outlay for something that is, for me, just a well-loved hobby. A few hundred dollars I can do, as I occasionally get a bit of a windfall, but when you start talking more than that, well…I just can’t justify spending (or even earmarking) the money that might have to go to pay the light bill or buy groceries.

Ah well…at least I still have my whistles!

Re: Harp Time!!!

Good to hear of another “aggresso-harper”, Andee.

I disagree,though. I think we can rock out as well as the fiddle. It’s just rocking in a different way and with different strengths. I think we are just starting to rediscover those strengths after too much “maiden in a long green dress” type of nonsense.

I don’t mean to say only dazzling fast dance tunes qualify here. For instance, some of the Ann Heymann stuff is, well aggressive is not the word exactly, but it is not “little pink pixies dancing in a meadow” -style prettiness.

(I do admit to murdering tunes on an accordeon every now and again for a chance of scenery. Sometimes your instrument strength of choice is blastability)

Rock on.

(P.s. MacTireRue: It might be worth checking to see if anyone near you is making harps as a hobby. I’m always amazed how many people seem to be building them. I suppose they are relatively simple structures as instruments go. Quality may vary wildly, of course, but that would seem one way of perhaps getting something nice on the cheap. Good luck and I hope you harpwish will be fulfilled somehow.)

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Re: Harp Time!!!

A quick word in defense of the harpsicles: they’re nice instruments. Plinky yes, and not loud, but well constructed and good tone IMHO. Rees’ design is based on a small gothic harp--Therese Honey considers them good instruments for early music. They’re also popular in harp therapy circles. I will probably be keeping mine as a travel instrument after I upgrade. Definitely not poor quality “beginner instruments” like the various Pakistani harps!


Re: Harp Time!!!

I agree Doug, they are better made than the Pakistani harps.

SL*, good idea for Mac to look around for a local harpmaker or woodworker who could make her one. It would should be less expensive than the “big” name harpmakers. Or maybe just go with the Harpsicle, but I would try it out first if at all possible, just to be sure.

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Re: Harp Time!!!

I know a guy who makes harps as a hobby, completely self-taught at it, and I really like the sound, particularly for dance music. If anyone’s interested, email me and I can put you in touch. I have no idea how much he wants to sell them for, but he’s not trying to be “in business” with it at all--he just enjoys doing it. I’m sure there’s others out there doing the same thing, so it’s definitely an avenue worth checking out.
As far as levers are concerned, I always recommend to get the maximum number that you can afford, for the sheer convenience of it. If you can’t afford any, you’ll learn to deal with it, especially as a solo player. Being without levers, or not enough levers, definitely causes the most headaches in situations where you’re playing with other people, especially in big sessions. People are not generally going to want to wait for you to retune every time they change key, which means that they’ll be playing while you’re trying to hear to tune. But of course a leverless harp is better than none at all, and as a beginner, I wouldn’t say it’s a big deal to have no levers. You’ll get lots of practice tuning and developing your ear, and that’s definitely not a bad thing!
My philosophy on beginner instruments is basically to do what you can afford, but don’t be too set on buying and shelling out a couple hundred bucks for something that you’re not going to want sooner or later. Renting is usually a good option--the going rate for a 36-string lever harp, which is a fairly standard large floor harp, is usually around $40-60 a month. Not only can you rent from major harp retailers, but a lot of teachers have harps that they keep specifically to rent out or loan to students. Some places offer rent to own, but often they only let you do that for six months or so before they want you to commit to buying it. It’s worth noting that many harp owners don’t buy their instruments outright, but have to get some kind of financing, whether through the retailer, a bank or credit union, or putting it on a credit card. If you think of it as $60-100 a month, rather than a $2000-5000 instrument, it starts to sound more affordable. Of course if you don’t have enough credit, or bad credit, that’s not always an option.
My main argument with Harpsicles for a beginner is that lap harps in general seem to be harder for people to learn basic technique with, if they’re trying to learn standard technique. So much energy is focused on not dropping the harp, and since the soundbox is so narrow it’s hard to get your arm and hand positioned comfortably unless you’re experienced with the harp and you can adjust it naturally. But if you can’t find anywhere to rent, and financing isn’t an option, and it’s buying a harp or nothing, I think the Harpsicle would be your best bet. I think they were aiming for the market that goes for the Pakistanis because there was nothing else anywhere near that price range before, and yes, they are certainly by far better than those. I would also guess that a Harpsicle would not be too hard to resell should you decide you wanted to someday, although you would probably end up wanting to keep it as a travel harp even if you did get a floor harp.
This sort of thing has probably been discussed ad nauseum at harpcolumn.com. Might be worth checking out for more--they have a search feature for the discussion boards much like this site has.

Re: Harp Time!!!

Here’s the second part of what I meant to post before, but it’s just as well that it’s a separate comment since it’s a different topic.

First of all, let’s hear it for the aggresso-harpers!

There’s lots of great stuff people have brought up that I wanted to jump into. The whole issue of whether of not the harp can “rock out” actually brings up a lot of interesting and probably controversial stuff, so I decided to take that separately.

I think of trying to make the harp rock out as a big challenge. Whenever I hear someone do it, it’s totally thrilling, not only because it sounds amazing, but also because it reaffirms what’s possible. I think the “prettiness” image is still, in the 30+ years since the harp has been revived, hard for us to shake, and we’re still largely on the fringes as far as Irish music is concerned. It’s like harping has its own style and its own set of rules; as I’ve said in the past, stuff that would never fly on other instruments is an accepted standard for us. But just because it’s common now to play dance tunes on the harp, it doesn’t mean that Irish musicians have to automatically accept it as good or authentic traditional music, just because it’s being attempted, any more than it would mean that for fiddle, flute or pipes. Yes, it’s a different instrument, with its unique problems and its own sound, but is it an instrument that can really play ITM? The fact that the wire harp had an important place in early Irish society has nothing to do with whether the modern nylon or gut-strung harp will be a great or even viable traditional instrument.

This was Maire ni Chathasaigh’s concern when she first began working on developing “a style of harp playing that would be recognized by traditional musicians as authentically traditional.” It was by no means a foregone conclusion that what she was trying to do was ever going to work or be accepted. At the time she was working on this, most people really thought the harp was a worthless instrument as far as solo traditional music, that is, dance tunes, was concerned. It’s the same kind of skepticism with which people now consider playing tunes on the cello or the oboe or the trumpet is looked on today. So if it was going to be accepted, to prove the value of the harp as a traditional instrument, a way had to be found to create the right stylistic effects with such meticulous detail and accuracy as to make not only the beauty of the music but also its authenticity irreproachable. But as the modern harp tradition has become more and more established, two things have happened: first, these ideals have been relaxed considerably, so that the harp has its own unique set of standards, and second, that other Irish musicians have been less and less concerned with the harp and what harpers in general are doing. In fact, #2 is really #1 in reverse: As harpers became less concerned with what people on other instruments are doing, people on other instruments became less concerned with what harpers were doing.

For example, when accomplished players of other instruments hear some young All-Ireland champion on the harp, if there is anything in their playing that doesn’t sound quite right stylistically—if that young player has a problem with their rhythm, say, that would be unacceptable in decent fiddle player, let alone an All-Ireland winner—the listener is likely by now to assume that this is just what Irish music sounds like on the harp, period. And because this is a general trend, not simply an isolated occurrence, the listener is likely to hear the same characteristics in various different performances, underscoring this impression. Adding the credentials of the performer into the equation, i.e., All-Ireland level success strengthens it further.

Because of this, the All-Ireland is a big part of the cycle that both adds to this attitude and prevents the standard from changing. The playing of the people who win fleadhanna on any instrument is going to be fairly influential. These winners are going to be an important part of the next generation’s concert performers, recording artists, teachers, workshop presenters, and judges. Their style is what’s going to be idolized by up-and-coming players, imitated, passed on, and rewarded in competition, and the players they train or endorse are going to do the same thing for the next generation. The conclusion, the bottom line, is that harp styles and harp standards will be determined by harpers, and the ideas, playing, and standards of other traditional musicians and instruments will rarely influence harp playing. This seems quite odd in light of the fact that this repertoire is not harp repertoire, but is translated to the harp from the rest of the tradition.

But could it be that the modern harp standards and style, while “accepted”
in the sense that their existence is recognized as the way that Irish music sounds on the harp, actually lessening the interest of some serious Irish musicians in the harp? Not consciously, necessarily, really, how many non-harpist Irish musicians listen to harp CDs regularly and by choice, as they would choose to listen to, say, Kevin Burke or Seamus Connolly? How many harpers can people on this site that are not harpers or friends or relatives of harpers even name? (I’m not just asking this rhetorically, though from what I can see, the answer is, not many. But I would love to know what you guys have observed about this type of thing.)

I can’t think of a major ensemble act in Irish music that included a harper. Sure, Michael Rooney has had some different ensembles, and recorded that lovely CD with fiddle and banjo, but that group didn’t last, and it was never on the international radar the way that Lunasa, Dervish, Solas, Flook or Danu are. The same could be said of the Bumblebees: Obviously Laoise Kelly is a fantastic player, but the band was never as internationally known the way those others are. I haven’t heard much about them lately, and had some idea they were defunct, though of course I could be dead wrong, but my point is illustrated by the fact that the last time I remember them coming to the US was three years ago at least. (I’m leaving out the Chieftains since the late Derek Bell had a very different style than what I’m thinking of here, and played keyboards as often as harp.) The point is, why are none of the real heavy-hitters in Irish music appreciating the harp to the point of wanting to collaborate with harpers? The only album I can really think of that might qualify is Joe Burke’s album The Tailor’s Choice, with Maire ni Chathasaigh and Kathleen Guilday, which is at least 20 years old and only uses the harp as accompaniment. Brian McNamara’s album where Grainne Hambly is a guest might also qualify, but I haven’t heard it, so I can’t speak to the extent of the harp’s use, and I’m not sure if Mr. McNamara has yet achieved the stature of Mr. Burke. In any case, the issue is further complicated when you consider not the capability of the harp as a solo instrument playing tunes, but also as accompaniment. To really be a successful part of a major band, I would think that a harper would have to be equally proficient as a soloist and accompanist. I think there’s great potential for the harp on this point, since I see it as definitely the potential equal of the piano or guitar for accompaniment, and much more than the equal of the piano or guitar for solo tune playing. There are plenty of harpers who win accompaniment competitions over piano and guitarists. Obviously competitions aren’t the end-all and be-all of anything, but it seems odd that performers always seek out piano, guitar and bouzouki accompaniment and rarely if ever consider harp. I do think that harp accompaniment hasn’t yet been developed to its fullest extent; players like Rooney and Kelly are the exceptions that prove that rule. Maybe it’s just a matter of time, and of a large enough number of harp players developing who are great accompanists. But in the meantime, why aren’t those who are already great accompanists in more demand, when there are all kinds of rather mediocre guitarists getting hired left, right, and center?

In general, the point is that the few exceptions that there are seem to prove the rule that serious long-term collaborations between stellar Irish music pros and harpers are not just extremely rare, they are practically nonexistent! Certainly, though, if anyone would care to prove me wrong on this, I’d absolutely love some recommendations for good listening! 🙂

Well, I probably have more to say on all this, since there are a lot of hot-button issues for me here that I love to hear other people’s takes on, but I’ve already rambled on too long with too many tangents. So a quick word about trebles, and I’ll be off for now…

Okay, trebles. 212 sounds different to me, crisper and clearer, especially in the middle and lower registers. The thumb produces a different, less resonant tone than the second finger, because it is barely articulated, and that gives it a crisp sound that I really like. Also, it often works really well for fingering depending on the tune, because there is more placing and less jumping. But I definitely use 432 as well, for places where it’s more practical, and sometimes other weird ones like 413 or 414 or 213 and some more that I can’t think of right now. It seems like a lot of professional harpers have a favorite treble fingering, but use others for specific tunes and fingering issues. I don’t remember exactly what Laoise Kelly uses, which is odd because I could swear that I used to know…but I think it’s a mixture of 432 and 212. I thought I saw in her books that Grainne Hambly also uses 212 sometimes as well, but somebody’s borrowing them at the moment, so I can’t check. I do know that one of my students was in a class with Grainne recently where she taught a variety of different fingerings, including 121, which sounds crazy, but actually makes a lot of sense, especially for places where you’re leaping up to a treble. So I’m wondering if there are any other brilliant ideas that people have heard of, or if you have any other preferences than the ones I mentioned, including substitutions for trebles, if you don’t do them.

Okay, I’m done now. Later! 🙂

Re: Harp Time!!!

Wow, that was a very interesting post there, Ostrichfeathers. There’s a lot in it, some of it is beyond my “expertise” (particucarly the Fleadh angle) but as I feel quite strongly about the issues I pitch in my two cents.

I will firstly comment a bit on what you said as the harp as a viable traditional instrument. I only faced that after I had been (trying to) use it in that way a good while. I had been playing miscellaneous beginner classical stuff plus the odd “folktune” when I stumbled upon an Irish session which I thought was great. Without thinking further I thought “Well, the harp’s an Irish instrument-it’s on that pint glass over there, i.e. I can join in”. So I did, clueless and badly at first. I ended up learning by imitating what the other instruments were doing, which were dancetunes, of course. I never questioned it and only found out later than it wasn’t automatically or traditionally the done thing.

When I learned more about it, it was a bit too late to really question it as I was a part of the session and accepted for what I did. When I analyse it I think it’s “inbetween” playing a totally new instrument to Irish music and playing something like the fiddle, with a long history in the music. In a way it’s like introducing something “new” and therefore no different then I wanted to introduce, say, cello into it. And actually, even if harps were originally from Eastern Mongolia and had nothing to do with Ireland I think that’s still fine, provided one makes it work.

Then again, of course there *are* precedents. I mean both “neo-harpers” (I think the term sounds a bit iffy, but it’s fairly clear) and from the ancient harp music. Some of the dance tunes do actually come from old harp tunes and sometims I imagine they do fit the harpy sound. Which might be completely in my head.

Inbetween therefore for in freedom but also in having to work at it more to make it sound right.

As for the no harpers in glittering international bands. Two guesses, which are just guesses:

1. We are a new thing. There’s aren’t so many of us yet. Guitars etc are cheaper, more available so we’re outnumbered.

2. International glittering famous band often like to “crank it up”, make thing sound spectacular by being loud and fast. Fun it its own way, but although there are ways and exceptions, “loud” and “fast” aren’t really very harp-ish qualities.

Finally, an a good note. Did you listen to An Tri is a Rian, with Claire Keville on concertina, John Weir on fiddle and Eithne Ni Dhonaile on harp.


Eithne plays mostly backing on it, with two solo pieces, a tune and an air. I’d highly recommened this to the people who have worn holes in Micheal Rooney’s trio album.

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Re: Harp Time!!!

You’d think I was finished….

After the debating section, the practical stuff.

1. What I substitute for trebles.

I ain’t no hotshot, I just play what I enjoy so I don’t claim any “worth” to these but they are what I like to do.

Mainly I just hit the same note twice. (Sounds dumb, but it can work if you know how to do it. Or so I like to believe) Or even simpler, I just play one that I either let hang around or damp off to sound snappy. I find it easier to get a good rhythm doing either of these instead of trebling which is a personal thing.

Occasionally when I do feel it’s beginning to sound it bit too dull I play, f.i., ABA or AGA (instead of an A treble), but of course that has to fit the melody. In that case I would use the finger that would “naturally” be available or the one which is most easy to “make” available. This is one of the things with harp ornamentation incidentally. I feel it’s harder to do spontaneous ornaments because you have to figure out a few notes in advance how your fingers are going to get to it. I’ve never played fiddle, but it seems much easier to just flick a bow or put down a finger without losing place. It’s certainly the way on the box.

2. Another thing for MacTireRua that I forgot to mention. Aoyama harps aren’t the priciest. As they are “production line” made, they are not all great, but if you search a bit there are really nice ones, especially some of the older ones. I’ve often heard said about them that they are very robust and having dragged my own poor harp round sessions a lot I can attest to the fact that it can take a few knocks. I love it.

Now I’m really done.

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Re: Harp Time!!!

Goodness, Ostrichfeathers! It would take me reading your post over at least a few more times before I can make any intelligent reply, and honestly, I don’t know if I feel like thinking about that much right now.

As far as your last point--remember loads of people play guitar and not nearly a fraction of that number play harp. So of course more guitarists get asked to be in bands.

Also, mostly all of the harpers I know (and I know quite a few here in the Delaware Valley (Philadelphia area) have no interest in being in a band at all. Many of them are happy to just play by themselves or with other harpers in “harp circles”, many are busy mothers as well.

By the way, Brian McNamara’s Cd is awesome and Grainne backing him on a few tracks is quite a treat!

Oh, looks like we are posting at the same time SL* and covered some of the same territory.

I feel no need to defend harps as viable in the tradition at all. I feel with the stellar players out there they are becoming viable quickly. And besides the idea of international super groups in Irish music is not exactly traditional is it? And if the piano and guitar are readily accepted, the harp certainly will be soon.

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Re: Harp Time!!!

SL* re: Ayoyama harps being robust: Absolutely! Several years ago I took Janet Harbison’s week long harp workshop in the Antrim Glens. There was another woman who came from the US and brought her own harp, an Ayoyama--in nothing but a totally soft case--no padding, just a few sweaters in there! And it was fine all the way up and back to the US. She even had to put it under the bus (storage compartment) from Belfast up to the glens, and it was fine. I just borrowed a harp from Janet Harbison.

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Re: Harp Time!!!

I did a bit of searching on Ayoyama, but can’t find a site that even lists prices, which is more than a bit disconcerting!

Unfortunately, the only place around that rents folk harps is quite a distance away from us, over a dangerous mountain road that I don’t drive lightly. Renting isn’ t the greatest anyway…if I enjoy the instrument (which I suspect I will), it will only make it harder to face the fact that I can’t afford to own it…and I can’t really afford to throw away $60-$100 a month on a whim anyway. Thanks anyway, guys, but I guess I’ll just stick to my whistles.

Re: Harp Time!!!

You may have seen this site, which is the American importer of Aoyamas:


This is the page with their contact info. If you call them
at 800-760-4277, or one of the other numbers listed there, they should be able to give you prices. Tell them you’re interested in their lever harps; the model that most Irish players seem to like is the 130-D, which is the larger lever model with the detachable legs. Their price on that in 1998 was $2000. There is a slightly cheaper lever model, but I don’t remember what it was called, and it was still over $1000. But they should be able to tell you current prices over the phone, and you can ask if they have any financing. And yes, Aoyamas are sturdy; I never had a hard case for mine, and towards the end the zipper on the soft case went caput and I put 120 large safety pins all along the opening and away we went. No problem.

I’m sorry if I was confusing in my post about harp-buying, by the way; I would not expect to pay more than $50 a month for renting a large lever harp, but if you’re not interested in rental (which, I agree, can feel like throwing money down the drain), there are other options. The $60-100 a month figure I mentioned would be what you might expect to pay if you actually bought a harp and were paying it off bit by bit, on a financing plan, credit card, or bank loan. But if your situation is really tight, and you really want to play the harp badly, I’d say go with the Harpsicle if you can afford it. I think it’s about the same price as some of the Pakistanis and far superior, and should not be hard to resell, should you need to later. Even the Pakistanis, though, may have their place, as they have started many people on the harp who otherwise wouldn’t have started. Don’t give up yet! In fact, I’ll ask the amateur harpmaker I know what he might want to sell one for, and get back to you. I know the phrase “amateur harpmaker” is probably raising some people’s hackles (as it did mine when I first heard about him doing this), but I was very impressed with his work. I’ll let you know…

Re: Harp Time!!!

Hey, here’s another place that has more affordable harps: Stoney End. You can buy the harps either finished or as a kit. The model people seem to prefer for Irish music is the Braunwen.


You can click on the link for their complete prce list. The Braunwen is $799.00 for the cheapest kit (least finished,) and 1,399.00 finished. This is definitely cheaper than the Aoyama 130s, and the ones that I have heard are far superior in sound.

Here’s some other kits, from Musicmakers: you can also buy their harps finished. The Studio Harp model looked like it could be a good option; finished, it’s about $1000. They are having a clearance on one of the kits for $425. I have no personal experience with these, but I’ve heard very good things about them, both about the sound and about the ease of putting them together for someone with no woodworking experience.


If you haven’t seen harpmall.com or harplust.com, check ’em out. These both have big collections of links to just about every imaginable facet of harp playing.

Good luck!

Re: Harp Time!!!

Thanks for reading my long post, and for your insightful comments, guys. And especially the CD recommendations--I’ll have to get ahold of those! If you have any more, I’m all ears!

I hope I wasn’t too confusing, but it’s kind of a murky topic, anyway. I have only recently learned that this is the source of a divide in the Irish harp world that is very similar to the rift between the Salzedo and French camps of pedal harp playing at its height. There are passionate advocates on both sides, though maybe the positions are not as clear and articulated. If you’re not familiar with this, and want to know a bit about it, check out the links to these two discussions from harpcolumn.com here:



Since this is a board much like this one, there various comments that go in some different directions, but the real meat of the discussion is the posts by Carl Swanson and Saul Davis.

Anyway, I think that by now it has definitely been demonstrated that the harp *is* viable as a traditional instrument. It has also been demonstrated that the fiddle is a viable traditional instrument, and came into the tradition from the outside, albeit a couple centuries earlier. But just because it is *possible* to play great, stylistically authentic music on the harp proves nothing about what anyone actually does, either way. The fiddle, because it has been in the tradition so much longer, has a much more narrow definition of what constitutes acceptable traditional playing, and fiddlers know that there are certain things they need to grasp before the really sound like Irish fiddlers (hence threads like “moving away from classical,” etc. The fact that threads that address this issue in some form for fiddle, flute and the like seem to pop up fairly frequently supports this as well. The closest I’ve seen to a question like this being asked for the harp is regarding accompaniment, which also pops up now and then.)

So absolutely, yes, the harp has been demonstrated to be more than capable of playing great, recognisably authentic ITM. I certainly don’t question whether or not it’s capable. But my point is that other musicians might, based on what they hear. And the fact that certain things are acceptable in harp playing, at the highest levels of competition, for example, only underscores the impression that if this is what the best harp players are doing, this is how the harp sounds playing ITM. If this is what they mostly hear, it doesn’t matter what is possible, because they have no way of knowing about that; they only know what they are experiencing. I think a lot of Irish musicians “accept” this type of harp playing in the sense that they accept that this is standard for the *harp.* Because a different standard is accepted by Comhaltas and by harpers in general, Irish musicians in general are coming to accept it. This is happening to the extent that multi-instrumentalists, people who are very accomplished both technically and stylistically on multiple instruments as well as the harp, don’t apply this to their harp playing at all. It’s absolutely incredible to me that they don’t even seem to hear what is different about their harp playing. Anyway, this whole thing is what freaks me out, because not only would non-harp Irish musicians and multi-instrumentalist harp players never accept come things that are par for the course for harp players in a fiddle, flute, whistle, or pipes player, they would not accept it in the cello, oboe, or other “outside” instrument. These are the same things that by and large *prevent* the cello from being considered an acceptable ITM solo instrument, and yet they are accepted day in and day out from harpers.

So, SL, your analogy with the cello is an excellent point, especially your qualification that “one makes it work.” I have heard four cellists attempting to play tunes. All were excellent technically, and one had a masters degree in performance from a leading conservatory and is an established “folk” cellist. All four had been fairly heavily involved with Irish music for a number of years, listened to numerous cds, played with bands, etc.As far as trad, three sounded horrible from the Irish music perspective. Sure, it was pleasant enough music, but definitely would never be accepted as Irish. Listening to them, one would assume that they might be fantastic cellists, but Irish music simply doesn’t work on the cello, and that if they really wanted to play ITM, they should take up another instrument. However, one of those four was different, and not the one with the degree and the established career. She sounded darn good, not just from an enjoyable music perspective, but from an Irish music perspective. Hearing that was like a lightbulb going on. For the first time it seemed conceivable to me that the cello could possibly be a viable solo instrument. I don’t know where she is or if she’s still playing, but I really hope she doesn’t give it up, because there is no one else I’ve ever heard, on recordings or otherwise, who was even close to making it work the way she was. But if there are roughly three “unacceptable” players for every one player who can make it work, that really works against the acceptance of the cello. And the proportion is probably much larger than that, for both the cello and the harp.

So, the kind of harp playing I’m talking about *is* being generally “accepted” by other Irish musicians, but simply as the *reality* of what Irish harp playing is. Gradually, more and more, this is being equated with *legitimacy* in the community, but not necessarily with being truly *good.* The fact that it seems to be being legitimized, without truly being good, is the worst for me, because that means that there is a limit being put on what we can ever accomplish with our instrument. If we are limited in this way, no matter how many players there are that come up, no matter how much time goes by, the status of the harp is never going to change. It really puts us in a box that we’re going to have a heck of a time getting out of. It’s at least as small part of the reason why winning the All-Ireland is not the golden brick road to opportunity that it’s sometimes made out to be, at least in the case of the harp. And what’s really sad about this whole thing is that it really undermines what the people who started the revival were trying to do.

But of course, who even started the revival and what their intentions were and what the place of the harp should be and how to accomplish that is part and parcel of the Salzedo/French-esque rivalry. As Americans, there is one side of this that we tend to hear much more often than the other, because the playing and teaching that the majority of Americans have access to reflects the same general viewpoint. So that definitely colors our perceptions of what this whole Irish harp thing is all about, and our tastes and preferences develop in a certain direction because of what we’re exposed to.

So, last thing: the issue of ensembles, collaborations, and bands. Of course, the “supergroup” phenomenon is not really traditional, but it can be an interesting barometer of general trends, though by no means the only one. The fact that there aren’t as many of us yet seems to be less important than the fact that guitar and piano are so much the “done” thing that it might not occur to musicians to try anything else, but we’ve been around for 30+ years, and there is certainly no bias against harp in accompaniment competitions. Also, we now have no much technology available for amplification and even effects that the fast and loud part, in the hands of a skilled player and arranger, is not going to be a serious complication. Lunasa, for example, puts a lot of work into crafting their arrangements and there is much more going on there than simply fast and loud playing. I could really see them using the harp to great effect. I’d really like to hear from some of the non-harpers here as well on why they would or wouldn’t choose to add a harp to their lineup, or would or wouldn’t like to hear a harp in a band like this. For a band like Lunasa, at their level, they don’t have to limit themselves to musicians that they know personally or are even aware of already. If they decided they wanted to try a harp, they could take their pick and find someone who would really suit what they wanted to do. But maybe they haven’t considered the possibility because they haven’t heard much harp playing that convinces them that it would be worth it. What they have heard with that potential might serve only to convince them how hard it would be to find someone who could do that and was willing to throw their whole self into it. And whatever might strike them at the moment, meeting someone and listening to them in a session, may be soon forgotten or never followed up on.

But I really didn’t intend to go on about the “supergroups” for so long, since I agree that the factors that keep the harps out of these are a bit more obvious and easier to understand.I suppose “collaboration” is the angle that I should focus on to really make my point. I was not really thinking of that so much from the angle of amateurs wanting to join bands or do collaborations, because there actually seem to be *more* people doing it on the amateur or semi-pro front, but on the professional level. We’ve mentioned a few collaborations, with Michael, Grainne, Laoise Kelly and Eithne ni Dhonail. Before I go on, and this does not in any way reflect an opinion of any of the players I just mentioned, I do want to mention that one of the problems with the harp is that people who are well-regarded as tune players are often expected to be good accompanists, and if their accompaniment cannot compete with a Donna Long or John Doyle, this tends to reflect on the harp’s capability as an accompaniment instrument, which is ridiculous. Playing tunes and playing accompaniment are two totally separate skills. But why do so few solo players choose to work with harpers, as either melody or accompaniment players? Or, to really put a fine point on it, why is it so hard for really stellar harpers to find work with the big names in the business, no matter how many prizes they win and qualifications they have? And if the harpers who are already at the top can’t find much work as collaborators, the situation would only worsen the more the market is flooded with a surplus of harpers. It would probably have a trickle-down effect as if the people on top *were* able to get more work, for if Kevin Burke or Tommy Peoples recorded or toured substantially with harp, you can bet you’d find more ITM players at all levels interested in the possibilities of working with harpers.

What would need to change for this to happen, if anything, could be the subject of much debate. I don’t have the final answers to the question I just asked, but I do have theories. Is a Burke or Peoples going to be interested in working with an instrument whose interpretation of ITM has been “legitimized” without being really *good*? Maybe this is a vicious cycle as well, because as long as harp playing is separated from the rest of Irish music and held to different standards, by both harpers and other instrumentalists, harpers are going to be less and less likely to attempt or even see the need to adhere to universal standards of what constitutes Irish music, the very core and definition of what makes it Irish music as opposed to Scottish, American, Paraguayan, Classical, Salsa, Hip Hop, or any other genre. The less they try to adhere to the standards, the less meaningful musical interaction they’ll have with other Irish musicians, and the less Irish musicians will be interested in or concerned with the harp. And the less Irish musicians are concerned with the harp, the more isolated harp playing will become. And the more Irish musicians think they know about the harp, about its “special issues” or whatever, the more dire the situation becomes, because they are accepting and encouraging things that they wouldn’t normally from any other Irish musician instead of encouraging the standard to rise. I was fortunate to come up in the music during my most formative time in an atmosphere of outspoken types that were not willing to compromise the definition of Irish music to suit the harp or any other instrument, and were not to be impressed with imitating so-and-so (“I’ve never heard of ’em and I don’t care what they do!”) just because they won this or that. I remember once in a fit ot teenage bandwagon-jumping I once changed my style to imitate the “stars” I was idolizing at the time. But as it turned out, when I was playing at a time when the other musicians were around, I couldn’t get away with playing “harp” style Irish music for five minutes without at least two musicians I respected walking by and telling me it sounded like cr*p, and asking what had happened to me! I really feel indebted to the people who demanded a lot of me though, and I try to give this to my students as well.

Ah well, orchestra concert tonight, so I’ve really been on here too long already. I probably won’t be able to write in for a couple days, but maybe this’ll give people something to chew on for a couple days, and I really look forward to hearing everyone’s point of view when I come back!

Re: Harp Time!!!

Is there such thing as an electric harp? (I don’t mean an elecrically amplified harp - I mean like an electric guitar, just with a harp).
I don’t care what you lot think - that would be soo cool!

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I think Alan Stivell plays an electric harp sometimes.

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Sooo, what you are saying ostrichfeathers, (correct me if I’m wrong) is that subpar harp players are competing and winning in the fleadhs, and that lowers the standard for everyone else. So if this is true, why would judges be easier on harpers than fiddlers? Surely there should be a set standard.

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Ostrich, I took a look at the 2 threads, but they are very long and all about the 2 classical styles, which I don’t really have enough interest in to read about right now. Maybe you can sum up how that applies here.

Also, what is the rift exactly in the Irish harp world that you refer to?. Subpar players vs. players steeped inthe tradition? If not that than what? I hate to sound dense but I just am not getting it.

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I hope I don’t come off sounding rude or mean, but it seems like whomever is winning all-Ireland lately (and I don’t know who that is off hand) you feel are not good enough or steeped in the tradition enough to have won. Well, maybe you can remedy that by entering and winning yourself, hence raising the standard!

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You say “certain things are acceptable in harp playing, at the highest levels of competition” [that wouldn’t be acceptable for other instruments]--what are you referring to?

Not sure if it’s what you’re talking about, but it occurs to me that some otherwise excellent harpers seem to play their tunes the same way every time, with even the same ornamentation. I can’t think of another ITM instrument where that approach would be considered acceptable. Perhaps it’s because fingering issues make it more difficult to freely vary tunes on harp than on other trad instruments? It’s not impossible, for sure--e.g., Rooney and Hambly throw in variations fluidly, but I don’t hear much of that in Maire ni C.’s playing, and of course she’s been very influential.

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Hey OstrichFeathers! Nothing is superior to Aoyamas, okay.! Grrrrr.

I know, I know, I’ve just had mine for so long and it’s like saying someone’s mother is nicer mother than my mother or something like that. 🙂

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As for your other post. I really want to reply and I am, but I don’t really have the time required to do so a well thought out as I want to so forgive me if I’m a bit incoherent.

Your central argument seems to me to be that the harp is considered legit, but this isn’t always warranted. Is what your trying to say, perhaps, that some harpers are hitching a free ride on a mostly irrelevant historical link with trad music? It’s the national symbol, on the pint glasses and so on, so musicians feel they can’t say it’s NOT relevant /Irish/traditional but they do pick up on the fact that certain harpers lack the style and so aren’t keen to really work with them. And if it was a cellist they wouldn’t get away with it because they don’t have this “instant historical legitimacy”? Am I reading you right, there?

If so, I think there’s something in that, actually, though I don’t feel as gloomy as you are coming across and am still saying that, in time, we will find a greater variety of approaches as well as building on what has already been achieved.

I personally feel harpers should be coming into sessions more. I live in a very musicial area and know of countless harpers in my area. But “know of” is empathically the term, I don’t see them in sessions. There’s only two of us playing in pubs regularly, plus one who does so occasionally. Then I hear on the radio that such-and-such won the Fleadh or whatever, but you never see them. Yet all these people are playing dancetunes on the harp.

It’s true that going to sessions and trying to play session style music is partly a personal hobby of mine. Nonetheless, I find it a bit of an odd for a whole group of people to be playing session style tunes, but never in sessions. I do think some of these harpers play technically blinding dance tunes but they just don’t sound like dance tunes to me, crucially they don’t make me want to actually tap my feet or, well, dance. Which is fine if that’s what you choose to play, but I can see how that would make it trickier playing on albums with fiddlers, box players etc who, for the great majority, do want to make it sound like dance music.

So that’s more or less my view: going to more sessions is the solution to everything. 🙂

(Well, the site is called TheSession, isn’t it?)

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SL*, where do you live--just curious since there’s no info in your bio and now we’ve been chatting a bit.

There’s lots of harpers in my area and most don’t go to sessions. Different reasons. Some are busy mothers, others are still getting their chops up to speed, others are young and their parents won’t or can’t take them to sessions.

We do have in my area, run by my teacher, on the second Sunday of each month a “Next Generation Session” at the Irish center for any young person who wants to attend, I know of only one harper who attends, and her parents and brother are both involved in Irish music so that makes it easy!

I used to bring my harp to sessions, but honestly, when you don’t have a car, or even when you do it can be a little inconvenient. It’s another reason why I took up fiddle.

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Hi guys,

I’ll have to make this relatively quick because I have a lot of school stuff to deal with in the next couple of days, but maybe I clear up a few things so the rest of it will make sense. I’ve been really trying hard to get my points accross without sounding mean, but like the Salzedo/French debate, it’s something that people (myself included) tend to have a lot of emotional investiture in. (Sorry for dissing Aoyamas, by the way. I had one as my main harp for ages, but was never happy with it. A friend of mine had one I really liked, though. Luck of the draw, with them, I think.)

Re Salzedo/French: two different outlooks on playing the harp that encompass everything from how you hold and move your hands, arms, body (very different positions, Salzedo uses getures developed by Carlos Salzedo with the help of the dancer Nijinsky), to what repertoire you consider acceptable music (Salzedo players tend to be very picky about repertoire and feel that the prevalence of harpist-composers in the pedal harp repertoire is unfortunate because they were virtuosi, not composers, and their pieces are “fluff” that prevents the harp from being taken seriously as a concert instrument), to what aesthetic you value musically (very different but hard to describe), to how you teach students from the beginning. Salzedo is designed to be a new, 20th century approach to all aspects of harp playing that is an extension and modification of what came before it (French, developed by players such as Hasselmans (Salzedo’s teacher), Renie, and Grandjany.) Whether it actually accomplishes its ambitious goals as the future of harp playing or is an utter abomination is the subject of passionate debate among devotees of both approaches. A lot of strict French trained people really think everything Salzedo is a load of cr*p, and Salzedo is closely associated with being an American approach, although Salzedo himself was French. So people get into a lot of arguments about this, although my generation of harpists is much, much less influenced by this whole thing and a growing number of teachers have had the influence of both schools.

As for how this relates to Irish music, it’s not a direct parallel as far as one side being “French” and one side being “Salzedo,” but there are definitely two distinct and sometimes opposing schools of thought on just what this whole Irish harp thing is about. From what I understand, one is basically associated with Cairde na Cruite, and players like Maire ni Chathasaigh, Anne-Marie O’Farrell, Kathleen Loughnane, and Cormac de Barra. The other is generally comprised of Janet Harbison and her students and probably has a more unified approach because of that; it is also the one that is much more well-known in the US, since its members tend to tour over here and teach. Michael Rooney and Grainne Hambly are the best-known “faces” of that school, though it seems that Grainne in particular has really been trying to reach out and bridge the gap. She’s been teaching at the Cairde na Cruite summerschool in Termonfeckin recently, for instance. This sort of unity is badly needed, since there certainly appears to be some bad blood between the two sides and certain individuals in particular, and even some degrees of feeling on both sides that what the other side does is “illegitimate” or unacceptable as Irish music, though few would put it so bluntly. This all has huge implications for everyone who plays Irish harp, and affects us and our outlook on the music whether we realize it or not. More on this later, if you want--I’m trying (not that successfully, I know) to keep this short!

As for fleadhanna, I’ve written at length before on the problems of standardizing adjudication. That is a whole other huge issue. Because of the aforementioned rift in the harp world, I think they should get non-harpists to judge it, and they should put the judges behind a screen. I don’t have time to go into my reasoning behind this now, but I talked about some of that in this thread:


I was not talking about harp competitions specifically there, by the way, but judging in general. Since any problems in harp are only a small part of that picture, some my comments there are probably much more optimistic. Anyway, maybe that will shed some light on the judging angle. If there’re any questions about this, or how it specifically relates to harp, we can get into that later.

Yes, I do think the fleadhanna are largely promoting the wrong thing regarding harp playing. Your suggestion about entering the fleadhanna to raise the standard is exactly the approach I’ve been taking. I’ve taken it a step further by trying to send at least two or three people to compete in the All-Ireland every year. In the last couple of years, I and my students have taken a total of 8 medals in solo harp in the All-Ireland, including three gold, three silver, and two bronze (and one of those was the result of deliberate bias stemming from the sort of partisan bullcr*p I described. This is not speculation or sour grapes, by the way—it can happen. ) Two of the three silver were also the result of, not bias, nor unfairness, but definitely another symptom of the rift between the schools and what they value in harp playing. After this incident, I considered not sending my students there anymore, because it didn’t seem fair to them to let them get caught up in something like this, and be hurt by it in any way, but my whole point is not about winning medals, and I tell my students this constantly. It is about meeting and getting to know other musicians, listening to great music, and yes, getting out there and raising the standard for the harp, being an ambassador for the harp, whether that is rewarded or not. But as long as we’re caught in the vicious cycle of what judges not necessarily valuing what I feel are important basic principles of what Irish music is, it’s an uphill battle. This is why I want to see people from outside the harp community judging, because I feel that the results would be very, very different.

But enough for now; sorry if I haven’t answered all your questions, but I really have to go. I think you read me right concerning the cello thing; I have to go back and re-read what I wrote to see if there was anything else I was getting that, but I can’t do it now. Yes, I’m kind of pessimistic about it; I think in the last six months I’ve learned a lot of facts about the situation and why certain things have happened that have contributed to this. I’m trying to focus on the things that I can actually possibly have a hand in changing in the future, such as judging reform to eliminate all possible sources of judging bias and trying to teach what I feel is good music. I’m also working on some writing for publication on the topic. And I love to discuss it with people. We might not always agree, but if we can at least get it out in the open and have a dialogue, that’s a really important step, not only to raising the bar for harp playing, but to healing the rift between the opposing views.

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By the way, I don’t mean to say that I’m the only one teaching this way or trying to raise the standard, or that no good harpers are winning the All-Ireland. For example, Seana Davey, who won 15-18 last year, is a fantastic harper who as far as I know studies with Aibhlin McCrann, the director of Cairde na Cruite. So what I was describing is a general trend of what is acceptable, and it changes depending on who is adjudicating, because, as I talked about at length in the other thread that I linked to, all an adjudicator really has when they sit down at the table is the sum of their teaching and playing experiences, their own ideas, aesthetics, and possible biases, because the standards are very faintly defined and many adjudicators have no specific training as adjudicators. The adjudicator’s handbook actually allows the use of harmonics and, I believe, even glissandi (which some players may use to great effect in a concert setting,) but which the majority of harp judges would penalize in the fleadh. I’ve even heard judges go so far as to state that it is actually against the rules to do harmonics or glissandi, when it is clearly stated in the manual (last edition 1986, not published, not even including certain instruments, including mandolin, consisting of about 30 mimeographed pages) that these techniques, particularly harmonics, which comes up more often, are not allowed (meaning can lead to disqualification!)
So it’s really a mess as far as standards are concerned. We’re due for an update, since it’s been 20 years since the last one, so maybe there’ll be an opportunity soon to get some more clarity on all this. There is much greater agreement for other instruments on what the basic definition of acceptable Irish traditional style is, which is one reason why I propose at least a transition period of non-harpers adjudicating. I do plan to give more reasons for this later, since a lot of people will probably disagree, and because I really think it’s a good idea, that deserves to be considered, and the possible objections, in my opinion at least, can be overridden. Actually, I believe this idea may first have originated with Eileen Gannon, 2000 Senior All-Ireland champion.

Ok, now I really am done. Bye for now!

Re: Harp Time!!!

I see….how about someone who is maybe both a harper and a fiddler or something like that? Even if harp is their secondary instrument. But I guess that would mean they would have to admit their was a problem to begin with.

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Also, I didn’t realize that Maire Ni Chathasaigh and Grainne were on two opposite sides of the rift. How so? Of course their styles are obviously different, but that different? Can you explain it to me? I don’t mean to put you on the offensive, Ostrich, I’m just trying to understand, and obviously you have thought a whole lot about this.

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Speaking of glissandi, what do you think of them within the context of Irish music? They are very harpy, but I remember it was Maire Ni Cathasaigh who said they have no place in Irish dance tunes. I don’t know if I’m qualified to say, but I think they sound cheesey. Maybe in an air it’s Ok? Would a pianist do them in Irish music?

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I’ve heard a few people put a gliss into Irish tunes and it cheesed up the experience for me. It sounds as out-of-place to me as a honky tonk turnaround in a Chopin nocturne.

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Again, a lot of stuff was brought up, again I don’t have time to reply to it all in sufficient details.

Ostrich, I’m coming to the conclusion that our approaches to playing the harp are very different. You are a lot more professional about it then I am and as a consequence you care a lot more about what’s happening in the “world of harp” and at the competitions as you have to deal with that in your teaching/performing incarnations.

Personally, I’m much more of a good time harper who would enjoy competing as much as having root canals done, so for me the impact of what you describe is significantly less. Which is not to say that I do not care how my music sounds, I just care less about how harps are “supposed to” sound. I’m not saying that you yourself care about that in a needy way, just that you do because you have to deal with it professionally and for the sake of your students.

However, I do want to point out that harp schools and competitions are not all there is to harp playing. What you are on about is what’s going on without a particular set (or sets) of people and cannot be taken to refer to “harp music” in general. There are plenty of people playing outside of this, in their own ways, just as there are plenty of quirky fiddlers, concertina players of what have you lurking in the woodworks. Plenty of damn awful ones in there of course, but highly original ones as well and I would hate it if it seemed as if all that didn’t count.

Andee, I live in Clare, Ireland and I used to do a gliss in my version of The Morning Dew when I was a young one. I grew out of it soon enough, but thought it was the coolest thing ever at the time. Worth something, maybe? 🙂

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Previous post:


Sorry about that.

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Thank you for your patience with a wannabe…I have one more quick question, if you all don’t mind…

I’ve been told by several people now that the cheap Pakistani harps are pretty bad, but no one’s told me WHAT is bad about them. Do they have a tendency to warp or fall apart? Are they impossible to get in tune? Do they just sound awful?

I’ll grant you that they seemed to fall into the “too good to be true” department as soon as I first saw them, so I’m not really seriously considering one, but I wonder if anyone out there has any experience with them. Most of them seem to have some kind of warranty on the sound board, but that doesn’t do one any good if the rest of the harp falls apart, eh?

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I haven’t owned a Pakistani harp, but from hearsay and some observation, I think the problems include weak sound, trouble staying in tune, poor lever regulation (thus making those fully-levered Pakistani harps much less of a good deal), and structural instability. Some googling, or searching the harpcolumn archives, will get you more info.

Some people have been happy with theirs, and as William Jackson has said, these harps may be closer to what some the older Irish harps sounded like. But for me, the bottom line is that there are now better-made instruments available at similar price points.

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Okay, I’m back.

First off, Pakistani harps: In general, I’ve heard of some of these harps having structural problems, but it doesn’t seem to be that common, and were you to get one that did, the company should deal with it, replacing it or refunding your money. (Find out before you buy one if that’s not the case!) But it’s not like their harps just tend to fall apart. As far as the tuning, it’s worth noting that few harps will really hold pitch well unless you tune them often, ideally every day. Some brands of lever harps do seem to be particularly good at holding their pitch, so much so that you will often hear people claim that they “never” tune their harps. Anyway, the Pakistanis aren’t one of the “always in tune” harps, but they’re not particularly bad, either. Compared to the tuning battles that orchestral harpists face, you won’t really have anything to worry about as long as you have a good electronic tuner and pickup and are diligent about tuning, especially at the beginning. The reality of being a harp player is dealing with tuning issues, especially if you play with others; and even if you don’t, it’s worth remembering that if you don’t consistently play in tune, you will actually start to lose your perception of when you are out of tune, until the conductor is turning purple or your session mates show up with wire cutters.

Actually, I think the Lyon and Healy Folk Harps would be my #1 recommendation of the harp not to buy for Irish music. Few people know that this harp actually was mainly developed for very young Suzuki students, and is in that sense a pre-pedal harp in much the same way that the L&H Troubadour is, just in a smaller package for young children. But because the size of the soundbox is part of what makes that recognizable classical harp type of sound, these small harps leave much to be desired in terms of sound. As pre-pedal harps for children, with relatively high-tension gut strings, they serve their purpose; they sound better played with strong pedal harp technique. They’re not designed for Irish music, despite the “Celtic” designs on the soundboard and their name, and they don’t work for it. L&H and Salvi have in recent years introduced lever harps designed as concert instruments and not as pre-pedal harps, including the L&H Lyric and Shamrock and the Salvi Livia. These are much better and some people find that they really suit them.

Actually, at least to me, many of the L&H Folk Harps sound worse than the Pakistani harps, but they cost a bundle more and are harder to tune. They almost always sound out of tune to me, no matter what the tuner says. With that in mind, I think the worst part about the Pakistanis is probably their sound, and how much they cost for what you get, because they have risen in price quite a lot over the last 5-10 years with only minimal improvements in quality (for example, the levers they had used to be completely nonfunctional. Now the levers seem to work fairly well, but only as long as you are not attempting lever changes during the piece.) If you were to rate the sound on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being rubber bands stretched across a shoebox and 10 being a respected brand of lever harp such as a Dusty or Rees, the Pakistanis are about 4.They also don’t project very well, though possibly better than the L&H Folk Harp.

The other objection is that any lap harp is more difficult for a beginner, as I talked about earlier. If you can buy a small bench and cover it with a non-slippery material as a stand for the harp, like one of my students has rigged up for her Pakistani Heather, you can get around this difficulty. That’s obviously a possibility for any 22-string model as well. The Megan, the “floor” model, is really outrageously priced in my opinion, almost $1000, and it’s not really a floor model unless you’re the size of the average 5-7 year old. I have a nine-year-old student who has one of those and has to put it on a small stool to play it. I never encourage my students to buy these harps, but if they show up at their first lesson with one, I’ve learned to work with them so that they can accomplish what they need to, and get them excited about figuring out how to eventually upgrade. Also, I’ve heard that someone has designed special light-gauge strings for the Pakistanis that you can buy from an outfit called the Robinson Harp Shop, and these make them sound a heck of a lot better, even good, though the tension is lower. I’ve never heard them, but I of some people who swear by them.

Some teachers worry that if people start on the Pakistani they will get totally discouraged and give up the harp because of the sound, but I have probably had at least 10 different students over the years who turned up at their first lesson with them, and none of them were turned off the harp by them; some of them definitely regretted spending the money before they knew any better, but all of them made good progress and quickly began looking into better harps at the same time. Nowadays, though, there seem to be better options for comparable prices to the Pakistanis, including Harpsicles, kit harps, and independent makers. (I’m seeing the guy who makes the harps later today when he brings his daughter for her lesson, and I’ll ask him then what his rates might be. So look for those here tonight.) But even if it takes you a couple of years to get a really decent harp, you certainly don’t have to lose that time as far as learning how to play. And once you have a grasp of the essentials, you may even have a better idea of what more expensive harp would suit you and what you want to do.

Re: Harp Time!!!

Well, I talked to the amateur harpmaker, and he said he really has no idea what to charge. He’s not in this for money, but is concerned about undercutting established makers and is concerned about doing the right thing. His idea was to look at the similar models (34-string floor harps, the sound of his is similar to a Kortier) of other makers and see what the basic “going rates” are. So he wants to do some research first, but the idea is that he feels he shouldn’t sell them for a significantly cheaper price. It may sound strange, but I can see where he’s coming from, because harpists deal with essentially the same issue regarding whether amateurs and students should charge professional rates if they choose to play out, and a lot of people will get upset at you if you don’t charge professional rates. But he also said he would be willing to build harps from kits for people for a nominal fee. Some of those kits in the less finished stages are relatively cheap, if memory serves, less than the 22-string Pakistani. If anyone’s interested in either the finished harps or kit building, drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch. I can also email sound files so you can get an idea what his harps sound like.

Re: Harp Time!!!

Now that I’ve got all the practical stuff out of the way, I really wanted to address the various interesting things that people brought up in response to my posts earlier this week. There’s a lot of stuff, so I’m going to take it in a random order and it might take several postings, but I’ll get to everything eventually.

First, glissandi. Glissandi are not inherently suited to lever harps in general because one of the main points that has fascinated composers and audiences alike about them is that using the double-action mechanism of the modern pedal harp, you can get rid of certain notes enharmonically, leaving only the notes of a particular chord or scale. You can’t do this on the piano; the only gliss you can get on the piano is a C major scale. Pianists don’t traditionally gliss in Irish music, except maybe when messing around, as a joke, or when going for a wild n’ crazy or more pop sound; I vaguely remember a sort of tongue-in-cheek but effective piano gliss in an old recording designed for dancers to practice to by Pat King and Brian Grant. You hear the piano’s gliss the most in certain kinds of pop music; they always seem to make people think of “Great Balls of Fire.” So it’s a totally different animal than a harp gliss, and has a different effect.

To illustrate the issues that glissandi bring up, both in terms of sound and difficulty, here’s an experiment you can try on a lever harp. On a lever harp tuned in C, put up all your B and E levers. B# is the same as (this is called “enharmonically equivalent to”) C, and E# is enharmonically equivalent to F. In other words, when you pluck the B# and then the C, they will sound exactly the same (provided your harp is in tune and your levers are well-regulated.) So with those B and E levers up, you are missing the notes B and E natural on the harp. All you have left are C, D, F, G, and A, which is one kind of pentatonic scale. Try a gliss now: it should be familiar as a very harpistic if cheesy riff that you’ve probably heard in movies and commercials a hundred times.

In the same way, you can enharmonically “get rid of” certain notes so that you have just about any chord imaginable. There are whole books of just pedal charts for various chordal glissandi in every key for all kinds of wacky chords. Pop harpists and studio harpists tend to have these literally hundreds of charts memorized, so when you tell them what harmony the gliss should be, they can just do it.

Theoretically, it is technically possible to do play any glissando in isolation on the lever harp, but you’d have to actually retune the harp constantly for different chords since lever harps don’t have 3 pitches available for every string, as well as move levers in every octave for each gliss. And of course if your levers are set for a gliss, you can’t play anything else that needs any other notes than those in the gliss. Of course one thing you can do on the lever harp that you can’t do on the pedal harp is have the different registers of your harp levered differently, so for example you could theoretically gliss in the top register with your right hand and play a tune in the mid-range with your left. But the lever harp is far less flexible in terms of chordal glissandi than the pedal harp because:

1.) there are only two pitches per string
2.) You have to change each lever in each octave individually
3.) You have to use your hands to change the levers.

There is actually a technique that Ray Pool has developed for doing special chordal and scalar glissandi on the lever harp where you simply individually muffle the notes that you don’t want in your glissando with one hand while glissing with the other, but of course in this case both hands are occupied during the glissando. It seems to work best for cadences or flourishes in pop music.

Of course composers do use regular scalar glissandi as well, but even then the harpist will usually assume that if, say, the part calls for a Bb major gliss, you will put your A sharp pedal down, because A# is enharmonically the same as Bb. Then, instead of having A, the leading tone of the scale, in your gliss, you get the tonic, or “home base” for that key, doubled.

The point is that one of the coolest things about glissing, the use of enharmonically doubled notes for any key and any chord, and the ability to change every note on the harp quickly to get an entirely different gliss quickly, is something that is unique to the pedal harp. So I guess my point is that the lever harp really can’t exploit the full possibilities of glissandi and is not designed to, and the glisses that we are able to do easily, i.e. scalar glissandi with nothing doubled, don’t sound that great even in isolation, because of all the overtones ringing together and clashing.

So, all that background aside, I think probably the best use of harp glissandi for Irish music would be in the context of an *arrangement*, whether a solo arrangement, a harp ensemble arrangement or band arrangement, where the goal is to “spice it up” and not remain strictly traditional, and where another harper or other instrumentalist may be playing the melody at the time, or there is an introduction, ending, or transition going on. This is where the difference between a fleadh and a concert setting comes in. In a concert setting, a traditional musician can make the choice to try innovative arrangements and even incorporate different styles of music into their performance; this might include techniques like glissandi. Glissandi are not generally to my personal taste for arranging Irish music, mainly because of the cheese factor and also the fact that I have felt limited by not being able to do chordal glissandi. I’ve used things like arpeggios, harmonics, trills and bisbigliando, but always in the context of an arrangement, to achieve a specific complementary effect with what other instruments were doing at the moment and throughout the piece. You could theoretically use glissandi this way as well, and I have heard some rave reviews of people doing it, but haven’t heard it myself.

It’s always a tricky balancing act, not just in one arrangement, but for a performance as a whole, to incorporate outside influences and styles while not compromising the integrity of the traditional music and making sure that everything complements each other.
It certainly is *unstylistic* to do glissandi in both dance music and airs; this means you should stay away from it at the fleadh, but on your own time, for your own performances, your arrangements don’t necessarily have to be 100% traditional. If you are looking for a more contemporary, less stylistically accurate effect, a gliss could theoretically be part of that, as long as you are aware of the effect you’re going to be creating and that traditionalists might raise their eyebrows.

Having a gliss in there as part of the accompaniment is not going to make it “not Irish music anymore” as long as the tune itself--the right hand-- is played in a stylistically appropriate way. However, there’s a difference between an untraditional *arrangement* and not playing the *tune* in a stylistically appropriate way. An untraditional arrangement is essentially taking a tune basically played in a traditional style, or maybe jazzed up a bit, by a person who understands and respects traditional music, and putting it in a sound environment or context that is untraditional. This is basically what many well-known bands do, including Sean Smyth’s version of “Dr. Gilbert’s” with electronic effects, Lunasa’s version of “The Miller of Drohan” with harmony lines, the Chieftains’ contrapuntal version of “Morning Dew” (Track 1 from Chieftains 5) or track 9 from that same Chieftains Cd, “Samradh, Samhradh,” which makes fairly liberal use of…harp glissandi!

Playing a tune in a style that would be unrecognizable to a traditional musician (while at the same time usually placing it in an untraditional setting) is a different story, and this is what usually provokes the worst reactions, since the performers are essentially trivializing Irish music. There are a number of new-agey harp players who fall into this category and have no idea why trad musicians react the way they do to their music. I’ve heard some pretty well-known performers complaining that “traditionalists” hate their music, and they assume that it’s their arrangements that people don’t like or approve of. In some cases, that may be true as well, but it seems clear to me that the thing that was probably provoking the harshest criticism was actually the way the the tunes themselves were played, because these performers were clearly not appreciating or respecting the tunes as *music* in their own right, with their own associated style and aesthetic, but as cute little melodies that they can use for their own ends and “improve” them. Played this way, some really great tunes can sound juvenile and insipid indeed.

Getting back to the original reason I brought up the glissando issue in the first place, I think that the adjudicators who comment negatively on glisses have every right to do so, since the fleadh is about a traditional interpretation of the music. I don’t think it would be necessarily fair for them to criticize glissandi in grupai cheoil competitions, especially with the precedent of the Chieftains’ use of them, but otherwise, the problem here lies more with the manual than with the judges. My main point in mentioning the issue was to illustrate both how outdated the adjudicator’s manual is and how rarely judges seem to read it at all. If the manual is both obsolete and not being utilized, that underlines the problem that judges have no training and no standard to go by. I thought of even more “horror stories” about this sort of thing after I posted, including an All-Ireland judge that openly claims not to be comfortable judging dance tunes since they “all sound the same” and so bases her decisions on the airs alone. But I don’t want to pick on these people since really, it’s not their fault. Judges are not being equipped to do their jobs in a variety of ways, and both they, the competitors and the competition can suffer because of this.

I guess this is enough for the moment. More later…

Re: Harp Time!!!

….ummm so basically you agree with me (and Maire NiChathasaigh, and Bob) that glisses are cheesey and have no place in Irish traditonal music.

Posted by .

Re: Harp Time!!!

Uh, yeah…as far as “traditional” is concerned. I guess my opinion is kind of complicated, hence the long post. Sorry…

Now to the other stuff…

Yes, as far as someone who was both a harper and a fiddler, they’d have to realize the problem, and it’s an interesting phenomenon that just because someone applies their knowledge on one instrument, they don’t necessarily play the harp any differently than anyone else. Of course there are people who are brilliant players on multiple instruments including harp, but in my experience, being a brilliant player on another instrument doesn’t make someone more likely to get a really great traditional style on the harp. My theory about why this is so is that people who play other instruments consciously try to imitate harp players on the harp, even though harp players are told over and over again to listen to other instruments to learn the style. Even musicians who don’t play the harp but who are overly familiar with it may be a problem, if they’ve already *accepted* certain conventions in harp playing as just “the way Irish music has to sound on the harp.”

Fleadhanna always have people judging instruments they don’t play--that’s nothing new. Here’s a situation where that could actually be a positive rather than a negative thing. At an advanced level, it doesn’t matter what the competitors’ technique looks like. What matters is how they sound, and if the judges are going to be behind screens anyway, which I would really like to see happen, they’re not going to be the “thumbs up” police anyway.

Also, technique and command of the instrument are only supposed to count for 20% of the marks, while traditional style is supposed to count for 50%. A harp player is more likely to get dazzled by technical mastery and count that for more than they are supposed to, which does seem to happen. If someone’s technique is really interfering with their ability to play Irish music, that’s going to be obvious whether you can see them or not, whether you’re a harper or not. That 20% is about asking, are they or aren’t they in posession of the skills to communicate something with the harp?

Part of my problem with the fleadh, as with many music competitions, is that too often it becomes a technique contest. In classical music, many people bemoan this, but it may be inevitable for a lot of complicated reasons that encompass the whole history of 20th century music. BUT, this is what the fleadh is explicitly supposed to avoid. One thing that the adjudicator’s manual states that I don’t think has changed in 20 years is that judges are not supposed to award technical merit over an understanding of Irish style.

is a fairly common occurrence to see a confident young classical violinist who’s played a sumptuous, vibrato-laden set of tunes losing to an old guy with scratchy tone, sketchy intonation, only half the right notes, and an energetic, danceable pulse that clearly shows an understanding of Irish style, even if he’s not *quite* pulling it off. That probably makes a lot of sense to most of us who frequent the yellow board; there are threads upon threads here geared to fiddle and flute dealing with how to “move away from classical.” A classical player who showed up at the fleadh with a violin playing in the style I described above and getting mad that they didn’t win would seem pretty ignorant and arrogant, but a harp player doing a similar thing *would not find it an obstacle to winning.* That’s obviously assuming that the players are not simply doing stylistically inappropriate arrangements, since the vast majority of judges would not have any trouble recognizing this, and would be highly likely to penalize it. What harp judges seem to have trouble recognizing is the problem of actually playing the tune itself in a stylistically inappropriate way, which seems to be easy for fiddle and flute players (judges) to recognize.

It’s also very rare to find this sort of thing taught, for any instrument--hence the recurrence of these discussions on this site and the constant admonitions to listen, listen, listen. Many Irish musicians, on all instruments, seem to believe that this sort of thing either *shouldn’t* be taught or *can’t* be taught.
There are those who do believe in teaching it, but they’re in the minority; they include, interestingly, Maire ni Chathasaigh’s early teachers at the Piper’s Club.

Which provides a segue into a very basic delineation of the two schools of thought on playing the Irish harp. As SL* mentioned, you do look at this in a different way as a professional, and of course there are all kinds of players including some really brilliant ones who don’t necessarily consider themselves affiliated with any particular school, but I do think that the different various views of Irish music exemplified by people who *do* associate themselves with one school or another affect all of us who play Irish music on the harp, to different degrees, whether we realize it or not. The only way it wouldn’t is if you’re totally playing in a vacuum, with no cds of any Irish music, no workshops, no concerts, no listening to or playing with others on the harp or any other instrument, etc. The question of what makes Irish music Irish, and how that translates to the harp, is one that we each connect to when we first claim to play “Irish music.” Do we play Irish *music* or just the notes to Irish *tunes*? Or is there even a difference? Any connection we have to the music world outside of ourselves influences our answers to these questions and are going to affect how we play, what players we prefer to listen to, and what we value in harp playing and in Irish music.

So basically, the different schools seem to loosely prioritize and value different things. This information about the rift and the difference between the two schools was given to me by an American harper who had studied with Janet Harbison and several of her students, and learned of it from one of them. As you mentioned, Andee, there are easily observable differences between different harpers’ playing, but I didn’t have confirmation until recently that these differences are not incidental and that they reflected specific philosophies.

So. As I said before, Janet Harbison and her students roughly form one school of thought and philosophy about harp playing. There seems to be a more coherent set of ideas and standards passed down among her students than among the other school, because the other school seems to encompass a lot of different professional teachers and performers with different takes on things rather than one teacher’s vision. The other group seems generally to have focused more on performing than on teaching, while Janet has developed the Harbison Harp Method, and is a very prolific teacher, as are many of her former students, both in Ireland and abroad. Therefore her ideas are rapidly becoming very widespread; the other group has a less unified vision and are largely persuing individual performance projects that leave little time for teaching. The summerschool that Cairde na Cruite hosts for a week in Termoneckin every July is their major teaching activity.

Here’s a *very general* outline of how members of the two schools *might* approach different issues:

Harbison CnaC

Ornaments: fewer, simpler more, complex,
strung together

Fav Triplet: 432 212

Tempo: more relaxed, faster, driving,
flowing rhythmic

Left hand: more open fifths, counterpoint,
syncopation, 7th chords,
rhythmic muffling more complex

Words: Natural, clear, Detailed, specific,
uncluttered, meticulous, breathless,
effortless, stunning, amazing,
lyrical, sparkling scholarly,
Not overly intellectualized Can justify any
musical decision

Who’s most
responsible for
Dance Music
On the Harp? Janet Harbison Maire ni C.

Sheet Music: Totally avoided Not as stigmatized

Repertoire: More modern Less modern

Aesthetic: More modern, Less modern,
harp-specific less harp-specific

Now, not everyone associated with one side or other is going to agree with everything I said, but as a general guide, hopefully this answers your question and lines up with observations you’ve made about how people play and what they say.

So, reactions?

Re: Harp Time!!!

Oh no, my formatting on the chart got totally screwed up. So, basically, everything that sounds contradictory is because it refers to the other side. Tell me what you’re confused on and I’ll clarify.


Re: Harp Time!!!

Hi Ostrichfeathers,

Thanks for the informative posts!

My main reaction: I don’t think it’s constructive to argue about whether either of those schools of thought is more authentic, more traditionally Irish, etc. Not that I hear you doing that, but it sounds like some of those closely allied with either school must be. I think most of the differences you bring up--e.g., preferred tempos, amount of ornamentation, effortlessness vs. virtuousity--are differences found among individual styles, not to mention regional styles etc., for good players of any ITM instrument. We all have opinions about whose playing we prefer, whom we want to sound like, etc., but that doesn’t necessarily make others’ approaches less valid. Of course this makes establishment of standards problematic for fleadhanna etc., not just for the harp but for any instrument. That seems to be a common complaint.

Re “Who’s most responsible for Dance Music On the Harp?” I’m not sure exactly what you mean. If you’re referring to priority (who did it first), I thought the general consensus was that Maire ni Chathasaigh was responsible. I’ve attended workshops by Michael Rooney and Grainne Hambly (both nominally members of the other school?), and IIRC both cited Maire as the originator. But I don’t believe that fact makes her approach more traditional or valid than anyone else’s. I think it’s very possible to approach the harp, or any instrument new to the tradition, with similar motivations (make traditional-sounding dance music, emulate style and ornaments from other instruments, while taking advantage of the instrument’s unique capabilities, etc.) and wind up with very different results.

Basically, I think too much homogenization, or aspiration toward any universal “standard” for a given instrument, is a bad thing. I suppose there are fiddlers who think that the Sligo/Coleman style is the end-all of ITM on that instrument, but thankfully not everyone feels that way.

I also think it’s OK that dance music may sound different on the harp than on other ITM instruments--after all, it sounds different on every other instrument anyway. Today I was listening to a John Carty album on which he plays several tunes on tenor guitar, and his melodic style on guitar is light years away from his fiddle playing, more rhythmically even and less ornamented, but still lovely. I suppose he’s playing what sounds good to him on each instrument, and there’s no reason that his guitar playing should sound exactly like his fiddling.

Incidentally, in a workshop Michael Rooney mentioned that at some point (maybe in the 80’s?) when Janet Harbison’s students were consistently winning at fleadhanna, an adjudicator remarked that all of her students sounded (too) similar. He said that she took that to heart and started encouraging her students to develop more individual styles, a case in point being him vs. Grainne Hambly, both very successful players but with quite different styles.

Re: Harp Time!!!

Hi again,

Thanks for taking the time to respond! I’m glad you found it interesting. I tried very hard to word everything so that there were no implicit value judgements of the different styles, so I’m glad that it came off the way I intended. As you surmise, though, this can be quite a hot-button issue, and it’s good to have a discussion about it for a variety of reasons.
For one thing, it can be very confusing and frustrating to study with different players or get comments from different adjudicators and have them telling you contradictory things about “the only way” or “the best way” to play Irish music. For another, if your playing reflects the influence of one school or another, people will sometimes assume that you have an automatic partisan association with a given “side,” and will treat you differently, whether better or worse, because of this. Meanwhile you, of course, are completely oblivous and have no idea that the real issue has nothing to do with *you* and that there is no reason to take anything personally. There are a lot of incidents I can think of that were completely inexplicable at the time but that in retrospect, with the benefit of all this information, become perfectly clear. And to remain outside of all this, which I’m sure is what most of us would prefer to do, we do have to be informed, so that we don’t become drawn in unwittingly.

You make a very valid point that some of the differences I mentioned are reflected in different regional styles and personal styles on a variety of instruments. This is not *supposed* to present a problem for the fleadh, and in fact individuality and preservation of regional styles are supposed to be rewarded, although this can bring up the difficult problem of comparing apples and oranges. It’s a big problem for all instruments and although judges are exhorted to be open-minded and efforts are supposed to be made not to choose judges with a strong personal bias for or against certain styles, this is much easier said than done. It all gets back to the problem of setting clear standards for a minimum definition of what defines Irish music as Irish—separate standards for each instrument—for both competitors and adjudicators. And of course, adjudicators must be given the training to uphold those standards. Homogeneity is certainly to be avoided, and even the fleadh professes to agree with this sentiment, believe it or not. But it can and certainly should be part of adjudicator training to set basic standards while educating the judges on how these relate to encourage the development of regional and personal styles.

As far as the “Who’s most responsible” question, I can see how the meaning is unclear. I guess that was kind of purposeful in a way. For example, people could probably respectfully disagree on the question of “Who has done more to promote the Irish harp and the best way of playing it?” But the more seemingly straightforward question of *priority*, who did it first, is actually the more complicated and divisive one.

I was doing research on a similar topic about a year ago and came across a paper that Janet Harbison had presented at the Crossroads Conference in 1996. I wish I had it here with me to quote, but I don’t have it anymore, and it’s not easy to get ahold of. I got the distinct impression from the article that the author wanted to portray herself as the primary force behind the dance music revival. The paper was about “The dilemma of the place and identity of the harp in Irish music-making.” I remember thinking when I read it that it seemed like there was a deliberate effort to exclude Maire Ni Chathasaigh’s work from the discussion. This possibility is enhanced if certain rumors, supposedly originating with people in a position to know and circulating for quite some time now, are to be given any credence. Whatever the “truth” is about the development of the dance music tradition on the harp, this particular issue looks to have become a complicated one and some of the bad blood stemming from it can well up in unexpected places.

But you’re certainly right that *priority* alone does not inherently make anyone’s approach more traditional or more valid than anyone else’s—other things may, but not that. The priority debate seems to have been made an issue only *after* the surfacing of the rumors that certain people wanted to *make* it an issue.

Regardless, if Ni Chathasaigh’s, or anyone else’s, approach was to be considered more “traditional” or more “valid,” the support for that would have to come from the actual content of what the player was actually trying to accomplish and how well it succeeds. Of course it’s possible for people to approach the same instrument with the goal of playing Irish dance music and wind up with different products, but as always, there are certain basic minimum standards or characteristics that both must wind up with if both wish to keep the music still within in the realm of Irish traditional music that would be recognized as such by an Irish musician. What those minimum standards are, who or where they should come from, how they relate to different instruments, and whether or not given players or schools are following them, is a whole other discussion (or maybe I should say “battleground!”) Since this basically amounts to asking “What is Irish music?” it’s not exactly easy to answer!

Maybe this would be a fun experiment, though: To you, what are the most obvious defining features of Irish music? The sound of it, that is. What is it that differentiates it from related genres like Scottish or Cape Breton? What is it that you’re missing when classical musicians try to play it? All I want is your personal, non-technical opinion, that is, no right or wrong answers, but of course if someone wants to post a more technical opinion, that’s fine too. If the answer is, “I don’t know, I can just tell,” hey, nothing wrong with that. Maybe I’ll post this as a separate discussion if no one’s reading this thread anymore. And I promise not to jump in with any technical mumbo-jumbo…

Thanks for sharing the info from Michael Rooney, by the way. My observation has been that the biggest difference between his playing and Grainne Hambly’s is actually in the left hand. Their right hands, how they play the tunes themselves, seem more similar than different to me, the main difference being certain flashy little syncopated licks that Rooney tends to use, particularly as variations or in his own compositions.

Re: Harp Time!!!

(Argh, I just attempted to reply and my post disappeared in the ether . . . so I hope this gets through once and only once.)

I wonder if anyone else is still reading here . . . I’d be interested in hearing responses from others who’d been posting earlier. Ostrichfeathers, if you want to post a new discussion along these lines, I’ll be interested to see what develops.

First off, on the point of priority/responsibility for dance music on the harp, I should probably emphasize that I don’t recall the exact words that GH or MR said in their workshops, and that both individuals spoke very highly of both JH and MnC. Enough said there, I suppose.

Re “what is Irish music”, that’s something I’ve been struggling with since I’ve been seriously trying to play ITM, about 3 years at this point. I don’t think there’s any easy answer. Many easily described aspects--rhythm, tempo, amount/type of ornamentation, intonation, amount of variation--differ so much between regional styles, individual players, and even the same players in different circumstances or on different tunes. I think the only solution is to listen to as much ITM as possible, including different players/instruments/styles, and eventually an understanding of the appropriate vernacular/accent should develop. I think I’m getting there, though I know I have a long way to go.

It seems easier to describe what ITM is not. Things that sound obviously non-Irish-trad to me include: rigid rhythm (e.g., perfectly straight eighth notes or dotted rhythms), complete absence of ornamentation, uncharacteristic ornamentation (trills, glisses, etc.), licks or stylistic elements from other genres (classical, jazz, rock, bluegrass, etc.), melodic improvisation that clearly departs from the tune, harmonization (except for chordal accompaniment), dynamics used for dramatic effect (e.g., crescendo/diminuendo), “dance music” that you can’t dance to, and I’m sure the list could go on and on . . .

Last night I attended a contra dance with music provided by a great band playing in the New England style, which incorporates Irish/Scottish/Canadian/etc. tunes but has its own distinct sound. They were playing lovely, danceable music with great lift, lilt, and swing, but one thing stood out glaringly to me--the fiddler was using essentially no ornamentation. Of course that’s perfectly valid for that style and situation, but it sounded jarring to me now that I’m immersing myself in ITM. A few years ago, when I was mainly playing contra-dance style, I wouldn’t have noticed at all.

So ornamentation seems key, but more ornamented does not equal more traditional. Limited use of ornamentation, in appropriate ways, can create a great traditional effect. I’ve lately been listening to a lot of ITM recordings from the 78 rpm era, and some of those players doled out their ornaments much more sparingly than is the fashion today.

As for other related styles, differences between ITM and Scottish, Cape Breton, etc. trad styles are hard to pin down. Some things seem to be clearly true on the average (Cape Breton music may be more swingy and jazzy, Scottish music straighter), but I don’t think those are necessarily the essential differences. It comes down again to lots of listening, and I haven’t listened to those styles intensively enough to understand them with any depth.

Re: Harp Time!!!

I hate when computers eat my posts!

Yeah, sometimes it’s a lot easier to define it by what it’s not…I’m going to post the separate discussion now. I would also love to hear from people who were posting earlier here…Andee? SL*? You out there? 🙂

Nice talking to you, by the way. Doug, right? Seeya!

Re: Harp Time!!!

hey, well i’ve bin reading all your stuff. My background; i go to scoil eigse every year, i’ve known Janet for years, i really respect her. I’ve beein entering the fleadh all my life. I’ve been beaten more times than i care to remember by Americans! Though interesting thing about Cormac. Janet and Cormac did a concert together in the summer at the World Harp Congress and I’ve played in concert with Janet and Cormac, they get on well together.

Re: Harp Time!!!

oh and Cormac adjudicated me once at Ulster Level and gave me 1st. The girl who got 1st this year 15-18 is called Niamh Denmead and you can’t say the fleadh doesnt show good harp players. I can safely say she was the best one there. Eileen Gannon was adjudicating.

Re: Harp Time!!!

This is my 8th year harping and hopefully i can go on for about 80 more!! I’m playing on the very first Andrew Thom harp from the ‘Millenium’ Series, it’s got such a fantastic sound. It’s got a weird balance on it though which annoys me. Ugh, we’ve been ordering a nylon/gut combination string for the past 3 years now [i didn’t know they were nylon] and we wondered why they never seemed to last too long! I don’t suggest it unless you’ve had your harp checked for any sharp edges, because a couple of times i put brand new strings on and they snapped within days! I’m looking for a small, portable harp with at least 32 strings, has anyone got suggestions? For my performance pieces I need 32 strings, so a little lap harp just can’t cut it :( Does anyone know of a place you can get them?
tata taki

Re: Harp Time!!!

I’ve been harping for about three years now, so a beginner comparably. My harp is a thirty-six string Livia made by Salvi, which has been used both in my irish and classical (yes, I am guilty of dabbling in classical) studies. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a few people I consider great harpers since I started including Marta Cook from Chicago, William Jackson, and Grianne Hambly, all of whom I listen to, along with Maire Ni Cathasaigh. Unlike some of my fellow harpists, I don’t really believe in what seems to be a universal concept that we are meant to play slow pieces when at our best. I for one do not keep many slow airs in my repertoire, I prefer playing dance tunes. Slip jigs especially. My greatest challenge has been arranging left hands to tunes. I know how, but I envy melody players who can learn twice as many tunes in half the time. Anyone with a few more years under their belt able to advise me on this?

Re: Harp Time!!!

I’m really intrigued by the whole “is / can the harp be a trad instrument” question.

I’m a harper, I play the lever harp as a musician in general but also specifically (& hopefully stylistically) for folk music, dance tunes and song accompaniment. I’m thinking a lot about what I’m going to do and where I’m going to go with this music, and so this is one of the main things I’m thinking about.

Going to harp festivals there is a definite sense that the harp (or even just the clarsach and separately clairseach) has its own little world. Harpers explore trad repertoire all the time, but it doesn’t necessarily make it a folk instrument.

Ostrichfeathers do you really think that a, the harp has been adopted as a trad insturment and b, the way it has will limit the future stylistic standards? I’m more aware of the scottish scene than the irish (Edinburgh harp festival, Comunn na Clarsach and all that) where the emphasis is less on a “Scottish harp style” than “Scottish music that is being played with an scottish harp”.

What I see in the scottish scene is a desire to make interesting music that takes the repertoire out to new audiences - but for instance say the Poozies - but isn’t necessarily prescriptively scottish harp in style. There are exponents of a strong traditional style, interested and active in preserving it, but that is one aspect of the genre not the whole.

Sometimes I think about the irish& scots wirestrung harp tradition and I view it more as a branch of early music - if you’re preserving something so strongly that it can never change then it is an exhibition piece. I definitely think there is a place for such music, but for that is not what trad music is all about.

Whether incorrectly or not, my sense of trad music is that it is this body of music which everyone has an opportunity to interpret, a common ground with which to communicate. If I’m playing something that I’m describing as “trad” I always strive to get a taste of that style in. I spose really what I’m trying to work out is what is folk music, on an instrument that historically isn’t one.

In answer to a couple of questions above:
yes, electric harps exist, made by Camac. They have a solid body, a pick-up on each string and work like an electric guitar (no noise unless you’re plugged in). They have an amazing bass sustain and you have to learn to damp or else it all goes mushy! Lots of fun.

Learning tunes is mostly about having your finger patterns and placing really well learnt. Especially if you are learning by ear your pre-learnt patterns can act like building blocks, so you don’t have to remember ABCD you just remember “that” hand shape on A in G maj. Way simpler.

Robinson’s harp shop is great: it’s a shop for harp makers. They sell bulk nylon coils(25 yards) but I believe the can do you a shorter length if you ask them nicely. <a href=“http://www.robinsonharp.com/index.html”>http://www.robinsonharp.com/index.html</a>;

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Re: Harp Time!!!

I play traditional harp. My harp was made by Larry Egar (is that how you spell his name?) and I have been playing harp since I was 4. I am 12 almost 13. I have been playing fiddle since I was about 9, but this is a harp thread so I shouldn’t talk about fiddles.

My favorite harpers (or harpists) are Micheal Rooney and Grainne Hambly. If any of you have not heard Micheal before, you should listen to him albums. His latest albums are recorded with an AMAZING flutist named June McCormack.

Re: Harp Time!!!

wow! there are young harpists like me?!
anyways, im 11 years old and play the pedal harp.

Re: Harp Time!!!

Have read this thread with interest. I wrote a dissertation on the Irish Harp (gut/nylon strung) a few years ago as part of my MA. Thought you guys may be interested in reading it- it’s published to the web, and not too heavy going to read. It covers many of the issues raised in this discussion. It covers these topics:

Chapter One: John Egan’s ‘Portable’ Harp
Chapter Two: Nationalism and Thomas Moore
Chapter Three: Cultural renewal
Chapter Four: The convent schools
Chapter Five: The celebrity harpists and the tourist industry Chapter Six: The folk and traditional music revivals
Chapter Seven: Cáirde Na Cruite: the early years
Chapter Eight: The Irish Harp as a High Art Concert Instrument
Chapter Nine: The emergence of the ‘traditional’ Irish harp
Chapter Ten: Style and technique: Máire Ní Chathasaigh
Chapter Eleven: Style and technique: Janet Harbison
Chapter Twelve: The response from the established musical organisations
Chapter Thirteen: A meeting of minds
Chapter Fourteen: Promotion by Comhaltas
Chapter Fifteen: How valid is the Irish harp as a traditional instrument?

Here is the link: http://www.scribd.com/doc/17116742/The-Irish-Harp#

Re: Harp Time!!!

i play a colm maher harp got it in late january this year couldnt be happier with it but its so heavy to carry around at feises or fleadhs or concert or sessions! michael rooney grew up near where i live so he and cormac de barra are my role models. i play lots of minor tunes because the left hand i can put with it makes it sound haunting. i have been playing for three ears but i learnt nothing at all with my first teacher that i had fpr two years but im improving now that i have a better teacher.

Re: Harp Time!!!

Well that was an interesting skim! I didn’t have enough time to read all the lengthy posts from 8 years ago, but I AM a harper with a few things to throw into the mix…I’ve had harps in my life for over 30 years but didn’t start really playing until about 13 years ago. At that point I also stumbled into the double-strung harps and have not looked back since! That limits me, I know, because I can’t really just walk up to a single and play anything well on it, or, it takes a while for my eye-hand coordination to adjust to the limits that my left hand suddenly has!

But both of my doubles are by Stoney End (29x2 Lorraine and 22x2 Brittany) and they are great harps; sturdy, inexpensive, excellent tone, and light weight…the latter is important because the Lorraine is my harp of choice for bedside playing, and the Brittany (in a hard shell case) travels well to Ireland, New Zealand, Mexico and rafting down the Grand Canyon. Yeah, that was an adventure.

The thing I really wanted to add was that while I have a moderate repertoire of Irish, Scots, Welsh, Breton tunes that I play at a moderate to slow pace (I’m no Hambly!) I play music from wherever it may inspire. And some of it definitely ‘rocks out’! A case in point is music by Canadians Bruce Cockburn and Loreena McKennitt. Also, the flexibility of the double-strung harps is being able to set right hand (usually melody) levers to accidentals in the melody, thus leaving the left hand for accompanying chords. This opens up some jazz - Poinciana, for example, sounds fantastic! And in that vein then, though at a world-class status, there is Deborah Henson-Conant with Mason Williams, composer and player of Classical Gas (sorry about the ads!) http://youtu.be/0vXtywOlayc. The harp she is playing is electric, not amplified acoustic, to answer someone years‘ old questions about electric harps like electric guitars - the short answer is yes. There’s a nicer version, just ’cause we’re free of the ads and dumb comments! http://youtu.be/kL8p6a9m5Qw