Newbie can play folk, can’t play harp.

Posted In: How To Play

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    mae-mcallister on #60580

    So, the folk learning process is somewhat failing for me on the harp since I am the only harp player in my session. In fact, I am the only folk harp player I know of in Cambridge(shire). I am a somewhat decent Irish whistle player, and I can hold my own on a bodhran (honest, honest I can). I live every Sunday in the pub and play/practice with my friends quite a lot during the week. I can do folk….but I can’t do harp. Or rather, I’m only getting very, very slowly better just by sheer exposure, but I’m not learning so much because I have no one to learn off for the specific folk-harp things.

    So, I need the help of you very nice folk harp people on the internet. Ornaments, how? Favourite/suggested chordal accompaniment patterns (i.e patterns of playing chords, not chord sequences)? Is it normal to only be able to play waltzes to speed (barely) at this point? Jigs and reels, are they ever going to happen? Like, ever? They are damn fast for a harp. I don’t have any trouble playing by ear, but my fingers won’t move anywhere near as quickly. Do I just move too slowly? Should I stick to playing accompaniments? Should i go find myself an English session (please no)? Should I stop trying to play the tunes and an accompaniment in the LH at the same time, or what? How the hell do you roll on a harp? Or cut? Or are there a completely different set of ornaments for harps?

    Answers and tips much appreciated. Youtube can only get you so far…

    Lastly, if there ARE any folk harpists in the Cambridgeshire region that are happy to help, please tell me where you session and I can shyly come and invade. In return, I’ll bring a box player with me, everyone likes those. And fear not, I promise to leave the bodhran at home.

    Tacye on #60581

    Hi Mae, It is possible to play Irish at speed at the harp, but most of the people I know who can do it have many years of study and technique, sometimes classical, behind them. (Listen to Harriet Earis or Triona Marshal for instance, fast tunes can be done.) My advice would be to play chords or other accompaniment in sessions and work on technique and tunes at home aiming for playing all the tunes at speed in about 10 years. Sorry – it is a hard instrument to play fast. (If you look at the Edinburgh Harp Festival you will see it has a slow session every year.) Have you been in contact with Rohan Platts? She does a lot of teaching around Cambridge and I am sure could help with technique, whatever music you want to apply it to.

    On many instruments you make each noise individually – if you want an A on the whistle you know how to finger it. On the harp as with the piano which finger depends on where you have been and where you are going. Further, on the harp you make the sound not by placing, but by removing the fingers so need to place ahead. All this adds up to really needing fingering rules so you use the same fingers each time and eventually finger sensibly without thinking too much about it. And relaxed technique so you don’t get muscles fighting each other and can turn under and over confidently for scale runs, and can play evenly or put the accent on whichever finger you wish. Carl Swanson who posts here has a lovely definition of technique – the ability to make the sound you want, when you want it, without damaging yourself. At the beginning stages the guidance of a teacher can help ensure that your technique not only works for early tunes, but will work for more complicated ones too.

    Tacye on #60582

    Evidence of what is possible

    Tacye on #60583

    And another

    andee-craig on #60584

    I have to disagree, having a classical background in harp is *not* necessary to play the tunes quickly! I could name loads who have come out of the folk tradition and do it quite well–Grainne Hambly, Michael Rooney, Michelle Mulcahy to name just a few. After a few years of weekly lessons I was playing the tunes in sessions and up to speed.

    My advice is to keep the left hand simple. Is there a chapter of the Clarsach Society near you? I’m from Leeds and we recently had a fantastic workshop with Fiana NiChoinaill (a former student of Janet Harbison) and she taught everyone how to do cuts, rolls, and other ornamentation in one day.

    Tacye on #60585

    Andee, I am hurt that you think I am such a blinkered classicalist I would write that a classical background is necessary. I didn’t. I went on in praise of technique and said ‘sometimes’ classical. I wished to counteract Mae’s assumption that she needed a folk harpist to help her – also a blinkered view, especially if there aren’t good people around! It would be untrue to say either that classical study is necessary or useless.

    When I look at videos of Grainne and Triona it seems to me their technique came out fairly similar in the end!

    andee-craig on #60586

    I’m sorry Tayce, didn’t mean to be hurtful. I misread and misunderstood. I think good technique for folk harp has to be taught just as it does for classical to avoid bad habits. I see that is what you are saying as well. So we agree! In absence of a folk harp teacher a few lessons with a classical harpist would be a good idea. But I would stop once the lessons progressed to learning tunes if the teacher was not able to teach them by ear as it really is a different thing altogether than learning them from written music.

    I do think think that with practice and a handful of lessons Mae could be playing some tunes up to speed in a session a lot sooner than 10 years from now, though.

    mae-mcallister on #60587

    Thanks for both your replies, they were very helpful! To clear a few things up…

    I was brought up a classical musician and I have equal respect for both traditions, both in terms of things that I love and cherish and things that drive me nuts:) I spend a lot of my time playing and practicing from “classical” sheet music at home, and I play folk with my friends in the pub. Although I mostly play folk music these days I have not forgotten nor deserted classical music.

    I thankfully followed the wise advice from many people here and was not stubborn enough not to find a teacher, so I have been having the odd lesson with Rohan every now and then to keep me on track and am constantly in contact with her. She leased me my first rented harp last summer, helped me acquire and buy my first owned harp when the rental had to return and was on the other end of the phone with helpful advice when I was flapping around the FH36 excitedly in Edinburgh this April. In our last lesson I asked her a variety of different questions, and the ones she said that she could not answer were the specifically folk related ones as she plays and teaches primarily classical harp.

    Although there are obviously many shared skills and techniques between the two traditions, both have specific skills that the other one doesn’t share. Reading music from sheet and playing by ear are equally valuable but different skills. At the moment I am struggling with some very folk-specific things. I am also struggling with sight-reading on the harp, but I know that this is something that Rohan can and will be able to help me with so I am keen to find out about the other things, if that makes sense.

    At the moment, I am playing the harp in some of the ceilidhs I do as an accompaniment thing which is hard work for both my fingers and brain but good fun. I also gave my first ever public performance on the weekend when I accompanied a friend of mine singing folk songs at a folk club (terrified….went well…but left my tuning key behind…d’oh!) I am painfully aware that though that as with all instruments in making the transition to folk there is a big difference in sounding like a harp player and sounding like a folk harpist. I can hear it in some of my friends who play the whistle but started out as classical flute players – it’s not until they start ornamenting and leave behind their constant tounging that they are taught to use classically that they finally start to sound and think and feel in a folk style. I have no idea how to do folk properly on the harp and no one to learn it off. I’m going to try asking Rohan in our next lesson if she can help with this, I’m sure she must have some contacts, but I have you guys, so I thought I’d try that too.

    Tacye – your post makes me feel better about playing slooooooowly. I am content to play slowly now in the knowledge that if I keep at it and work hard, one day I will be able to play quickly. I was just worried that it was something I should be able to do by now but can’t.

    Andee – The nearest branch of the Clarsach society to me is in Hampshire…! If you look on the map, there’s this massive hole of no branches in the whole of the east and middle. Damn, because that sort of thing sounds perfect. I reckon too that 10 years is probably on the conservative side, but again, I am happy to know that it’s ok not to be anywhere near there yet. It’s frustrating – my brain knows many tunes, but my fingers just won’t play them anywhere near fast enough! Is it possible to explain the ornaments with words, or should I keep hunting for someone who can just show me…?

    Both of you – Having come from one and switched to the other, the perceived rivalry between the classical and folk traditions is a source of endless fascination to me. In my own experience, folk musicians tend to think that classical musicians think that they are better than they are (like with anything, quite a number do and quite a number don’t) and lash out at classical music in a sort of anti-snobbery move. It’s hilarious. Both traditions are awesome and have much to commend them. You are both incredible and enlightened but different harpists. Best of both worlds perhaps?

    And finally, technique=good. Yes.

    andee-craig on #60588

    Hi Mae! Yes, there is a bit of ‘best’ in both worlds (classical and folk).

    Ornamentation is not really all that difficult, but to describe in words is much harder than just showing someone. Anytime you want to come up to Leeds I’ll show you what I do in like 10 minutes and you’ll pick it up quite quickly, I’m sure!

    If you can afford it there are a few Irish harp intensives in Ireland this summer. That would fast-track you for sure!

    Tacye on #60590

    Hi Mae, I am glad you are using the resources available to you. I jumped to completely the wrong conclusion and feared you were learning to play just by session practice which would be possible, but inefficient – Sorry. I agree you want a folk player! The most comprehensive way to get your questions answered would probably involve hopping on the train. London is close by and perfectly doable for lessons as I did it for a couple of years and Leeds usually only one change. Train and tube travel with a Pilgrim is easy enough, your new friend may be less convenient. Ailie Robertson is based in London at present, and I am sure there are other great Irish players there too.

    My rare attempts at Irish music are rather lacking in the right feel, and for that matter effort or practice on my part, but have done the odd workshop (one was even called folk for classical players – very kindly we were given written music;-) ) and been an audience member quite a lot. My impression is that ornaments are mostly fingered the same as they would be if the same notes occurred in classical music. So for instance very often an upper grace note will be played with the thumb, but sometimes a 2 or 3 if they are nearer. The problem is getting the right relative weights of the notes which seems to be down to practice, control and hence technique. The main difference I have noticed is that the Irish ornaments tend to be fingered using the option which minimises the repeated use of one finger. So a trill dede which is a nice example even if you don’t want to play it can be fingered 2121 or 4321 with the 2 placing over the 3 (or 4231) and a turn edcd could be fingered 1231 or 2341 (or 1232). The second of these options seems to be the one more often chosen by Irish players, and is very often the one I would prefer for lighter ornaments in classical music. However, an alternative is that some players look to the wire string harp and use the thumb much less – see Bunting Vol 3 from p 24,_Edward%29 and

    The one ornament I know which is used Irishly but I can’t remember every coming across classically (it doesn’t work so well on high tension) is a repeated note played by striking the same string with 4 3 2, feeling to me a bit like playing an arpeggiated chord that I haven’t placed in advance. You can see this in the second video above including at 25-30 seconds.

    Andee, I rely on you contradict me on the ornament front, especially if I have the wrong end of something that isn’t even a stick! Apologies for my earlier outburst, I over react to feeling misinterpreted.

    allegra on #60591

    The clarsach society London and Southeast branch covers East Anglia – if you go to their website, they show ‘local branches’ within it, and it looks like there are some regular meetings in both Norfolk and Suffolk, as well as various concerts and workshops both in East Anglia and London – so doesn’t have to be as far away as Hampshire.

    andee-craig on #60592

    No need for apologies Tayce! I am sometimes quick to contradict non-folkies when it comes to my beloved Irish music, so we are even (and friends!).

    achillisle on #189349

    if you’re in Cambridgeshire, try the local Cambridge branch of the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (Association of Irish Music) that was created in Ireland to spread the folk tradition of Irish music and its playing style. It is held on Wednesdays in the Rathmore Pub on Cherry Hinton Road. Colm teaches harp the traditional Irish folk way (by ear – though he will give you notation if you ask). It is a busy night with lessons in whistle, concertina, fiddle, uilleann pipes, etc etc, and occasionally ends in a session. It is a drop-in style evening, and you pay as you go. They also take groups to Ireland and many of the members compete in the fleadh.

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