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Celtic Harp


The Plinkety Plink Diaries Part 2

The harpers have all headed home from the 10th annual Somerset Folk Harp Festival. Here’s a wrap-up of our intrepid Chief Harp Correspondent’s final days at the festival.

Sunday, August 1

First off, I apologize for the less-than-anticipated number of posts. I had originally envisioned cranking one out every day, but quickly realized that I wasn’t going to have time for much of anything other than eating, sleeping and harping.

And actually, looking back on it, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

My last post covered the workshops and concerts, but I now realize I neglected to mention the vendor mall, which was pretty interesting in its own right. I’m not looking to buy another instrument right now, but that didn’t stop me wandering from harp maker to harp maker, sitting down to play with anything that struck my fancy.

The coolest thing I saw there was undoubtedly the new light-weight carbon-fiber models made by Heartland Harps. They’re sleek, shiny, vaguely futuristic looking—and they’re 10 pounds where my harp (a Camac Hermine) is closer to 30, even though they’re the same size. So picking one up makes you feel kind of like Superman. Or maybe that’s just me.

Friday afternoon was a trip through centuries of Irish harp history squashed into three hours with two workshops taught by Grainne Hambly, one on the Bunting Collection and the other on the music of Turlough O’Carolan.

The Bunting Collection is a group of tunes that Edward Bunting, a classically trained organist, gathered from the playing of the harpers at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792.

Good thing: in doing so, he preserved a lot of music that might otherwise have been lost.

Bad thing: he couldn’t leave well enough alone and “corrected” some of the tunes as he transcribed them—some are in keys that the harpers couldn’t possibly have played in.

Really cool thing: many of his manuscripts are now available online as part of Queen’s University Library’s digital collection. And no, I haven’t forgotten about O’Carolan…

On Saturday night after another amazing concert series, a big group of us gathered for the Carolan Marathon. Turlough O’Carolan was a blind Irish harper born in 1670 who is famous for his skills as a composer—he wrote over two hundred pieces of music influenced by the older Irish harp tradition as well as classical baroque pieces. Our goal? To play as many of his tunes as we could over the course of the next few hours.

Somehow we all managed to fit ourselves and our harps into a fairly small conference room, as well as those who showed up just to listen, and a sprinkling of other musicians (mostly fiddlers and a couple of flutes) who came to join in. We didn’t even come close to 200 (thirty would be nearer the mark), but we had a lot of fun. And really, isn’t that the point of it all?


The Plinkety Plink Diaries

Wednesday, July 28

Hello all, and welcome to the first installment of the Plinkety Plink Diaries.

The 10th annual Somerset Folk Harp Festival is about to begin. This event is a gathering for harpers of all levels, taking place this year in Parsippany, N.J., and is run by Kathy DeAngelo, half of McDermott’s Handy and director of You Gotta Have Harp Productions.

This is my first year attending, and I am simultaneously thrilled and horrified.

I am thrilled because I’ll get to meet harpers from all over the world. (The preliminary e-mail from Kathy mentions that there will be attendees from the Netherlands, South Korea and Taiwan.) I’ll also get a chance to listen to and learn from some of the best harp players out there (including Grainne Hambly and William Jackson, who have been featured on Irish Philadelphia before).

I am horrified because I’ve just realized that I have no idea what I am doing, have never bothered to learn what key anything is in and actually my playing is terrible. That’s a moot point, really, because I’ve suddenly forgotten every song I ever learned. Also, my suitcase won’t shut.

My status as a festival first-timer will be marked by a green dot on my name tag. I feel it would be more appropriate to stamp “NOOB” in large red letters on my forehead, but perhaps that would be excessive—after all, I’m not exactly a beginner. I’ve played Celtic harp for roughly six years, took lessons for a handful of them, and competed in the Mid Atlantic Fleadh in 2005.

However, I haven’t had lessons for some time now and, to
perfectly honest, do not practice every day. So I’m not really a total noob, but I am most definitely an amateur and a slightly rusty amateur at that.

Here’s hoping the other kids will want to play with me.

Friday, July 30

On Thursday morning, a low rumble wakes me at seven, and I wonder: was that thunder, or someone’s harp falling over upstairs?

Fortunately, it was only thunder. Within an hour or so, the morning rain cleared up and we had a sunny day for the beginning of the festival.

Figuring I might as well jump in with both feet, I’ve signed up for as many workshops in advance as possible. First up is Creative Marketing Techniques with Pamela Bruner, a Celtic harper and singer turned small business marketing coach. She possesses
apparently boundless energy and is full of smart, no-nonsense info for harpers looking to build a stronger brand and get more gigs.

My favorite piece of advice from her?

“There’s three cases in which you don’t follow up [with potential clients]: if they’re dead. If you’re dead. If they tell you to buzz off. And that last one’s negotiable.”

In the afternoon I have back-to-back workshops with Billy Jackson and Grainne Hambly: one is an introduction to Scottish music for harp, the other is on Irish traditional dance music.

Both classes are full to bursting, and at times they both gently remind us to stop noodling about on the strings. And with good reason: when twenty-some harpers all begin practicing trebles at the same time, they tend to sound like a room full of drunken

By the time we’re finished, I have the beginnings of quite a few new tunes to work on and I’m pooped.

Luckily, we all have a chance to relax at the first of the evening concerts. Tonight’s performers are Nancy Hurrell, Janet Witman and Nicolas Carter. What strikes me most about the performances is how different their individual styles are, from Witman’s jazzed-up hornpipes to Carter’s more percussive Paraguayan pieces.

Yet all of them have that surety, a certain precision of fingering and control over volume (from feeling the bass in the floor to being just barely audible) that marks them as true masters (or
mistresses, as the case may be) of their instrument.

Before Nancy Hurrell begins her set, she says something to the new festival attendees: “You have no idea what you’re in for.”

I’m beginning to get an idea.


Interview With Harpers Gráinne Hambly and Billy Jackson

When you listen to the scarily good Celtic harpers Gráinne Hambly and William Jackson, you might assume that they both started playing before they were out of nappies.

In reality, the Claremorris, County Mayo-born Hambly and Jackson, from just outside Glasgow, were both late bloomers … and their magnificent careers never might have begun at all were it not for a chance bit of window shopping.

“It was my sister who saw the harp,” Gráinne remembers. “She (Róisín) was 7 and I was going on 15. My sister saw it in the shop window and said she wanted to play.”

At the time, Gráinne wasn’t interested. She had started out on tin whistle, and had moved on to concertina, and really wanted no parts of harp. One day, though, the girls’ parents surprised them with a week-long school taught by famed Celtic harper Janet Harbison. It was one of those awkward surprises—like getting pajamas instead of a toy for Christmas. “When I found out, I wasn’t enthusiastic,” Gráinne says. But her apathy didn’t last long. “As soon as I started to play it, I loved it right away.”

For William “Billy” Jackson, the story was not quite the same. “I had started on piano when I was 11,” he says. “I ended up being a bass player in a band. I was in London in the ‘70s, and I saw a harp in a (shop) window.” Jackson had spent a lot of time in Ireland—his parents are from County Donegal—so the music of the harp was not new to him. But on that street in London, something clicked. “Just getting to see a harp up close … I sold my bass, and all my friends said I would never work again.”

Billy Jackson is doing just fine, thank you. It was a rough go at first, though. He took six lessons with a classical harpist. (A Celtic traditional player is a harper; a classical player is a harpist.) After that, he says, he couldn’t afford any more lessons for a time. He took a few more lessons much later on as a student at the Guildhall School in London, but finding someone to teach him specifically about Celtic harp was impossible. “Some (classical harpists) regard the Celtic harp as a toy, not the ‘real thing,’” says Jackson. “They’re reluctant to teach it. I was never taught to play triplets on the harp. Nobody taught me any of it.”

But Jackson, who also plays uilleann pipes, fiddle, bouzouki and tin whistle, somehow managed … and then some. In 1976, he became a founding member of Ossian, the famed Scottish traditional band. As a solo performer, he has played for audiences all over the world. He has recorded numerous CDs and is also the winner of the 1999 “Song for Scotland” competition for his composition “Land of Light.” (Listen to it here.)

Hambly’s early experience on the harp was more nurturing than Jackson’s. In Harbison, she found both a teacher and an ardent advocate for doing things the old-fashioned way. In traditional harp, there is no sheet music. Instead, the student watches and listens to the instructor as he or she plays a line. Then, the student repeats the line, and then another line, and so on, until the whole tune is committed to memory.

“That’s the traditional way to learn in Ireland,” says Hambly. “That’s how I learned, by ear. Janet brought harp teaching back to the roots.”

Age can work against you when you’re starting out on a musical instrument, but for Gráinne, it was a powerful incentive to learn. “Generally children do start learning early,” she says. “I was in a class with 7-year-olds. That was great motivation to learn quickly. Parents often ask me, ‘Is my child too old to start?’ I don’t think any age is too old, especially if you played another instrument first.”

Like Jackson, Gráinne also tours extensively throughout Europe and the U.S. She was a member of Harbison’s Belfast Harp Orchestra, as well as the Irish National Harp Ensemble and the National Folk Orchestra. She too has recordings under her belt. (Listen to An Draigheann, or “The Blackthorn.”)

Over the last couple of years, Jackson and Hambly have been touring together, giving audiences a sampling of harp music from both sides of the North Channel. You can hear them on October 29 in their “Masters of the Celtic Harp” concert at Trinity Church in Cherry Hill. The performance begins at 7.30 p.m.

Like their musical careers, their decision to tour together was a happy accident.

They were playing a concert in Asheville, N.C., two years ago, when, Jackson recalls, “at the end of the performance, “the organizer asked us to do a couple of tunes together.” They did, and the audience loved it. At the end of the concert, Gráinne says, “people came up to us and said ‘you should do more things together.’”

Gráinne, who knows so many players in the small village that is Irish traditional music, asked her friend and fellow harper Kathy DeAngelo of Voorhees to set up some concerts. Jackson and Hambly have been playing steadily together ever since.

And the sound is pretty wonderful—but it isn’t necessarily as effortless as it seems. “It’s difficult to play two harps together,” Jackson explains. “They have to be perfectly in tune, but there are so many more strings, it’s difficult. It’s not like playing fiddle together.”

Fortunately for Hambly and Jackson—and for us—they’re both skilled multi-instrumentalists.

“I’ll play concertina while Billy plays harp,” Gráinne says. “And sometimes, I’m playing the harp while Billy plays bouzouki. It’s a bit livelier.” (Listen to Hambly and Jackson play “Celia Connellan” and “Rectory Reel.”)

Editor’s Note: Gráinne’s new CD, “The Thorn Tree,” will be released Nov. 28. But you can get a sneak preview. A CD release party will be held Saturday, Oct. 28, at 7 p.m., at the Cooper River Yacht Club. For details, call Kathy DeAngelo at (856) 795-7637.