Starting Fresh a Year Ago

It’s January, and many of you are still in for months of snow and ice.  Yet just a few days ago, I noticed that the copper flowers had opened overnight on the witch hazel in the front garden.  That, along with the sight of crocus leaves popping up through the mud, is certain evidence of spring’s arrival.  The signs become clearer after Brigid / Imbolc, at the start of February.

Witch hazel in the garden, January 2011. Photo by Sue.

Now is a good time to take stock of the changes I have made over the past year, and whether I have made some progress toward my goals.  Just over a year ago, I switched to playing on the left shoulder.  It was a neurologically challenging experience for the first few months, and one that I had avoided by making all sorts of excuses for a few years.  Initially, when I thought of changing shoulders, I thought it would be too difficult.  It felt like a long reach through the harp, or across the strings, and I didn’t like the fact that the strings now appeared farther away from me, as they fell from the left side of the tuning pins, quite away from my face when playing.

At some point I’m going to write a great deal more about changing from the right to the left shoulder, but for the present, suffice it to say that all my excuses for not changing shoulders were just that:  excuses.  Yes, it’s difficult, and somewhat confusing to the poor brain.  I had to make some adjustments, as I’d been playing on the right shoulder for a few years, and worked with a wonderful local harper and teacher, Doug.  As you’d imagine, I had a fair amount of repertoire on that shoulder.  I could play all sorts of Breton dance tunes, some pretty Irish tunes, Morris dance tunes, and a fair number of pieces from Ann Heymann’s Coupled Hands for Harpers on the right shoulder.  What became of all of that when I switched?  I still have it, but I don’t use much of it anymore unless I turn the harp and place it on my right shoulder.  Some people are truly shocked to see me switch back and forth between shoulders, but it isn’t as difficult as it seems.  My brain simply knows one set of patterns for all the old repertoire, and a different set of patterns for everything I’ve learned since the change.  My style is quite different on each shoulder, too, which is rather strange, but I suppose it makes sense.  Over time, my expectation is that I’ll come up with a new way of playing music I want to keep by moving it over to the left shoulder, and that will be that.  For now, I spend over 90% of my time playing left shouldered, and only switch when I visit a friend and play my old music with him.

A year ago I decided, too, to begin studying historical harp technique and repertoire, and began taking Skype lessons with Simon Chadwick in St. Andrews, Scotland.  The discipline of a weekly lesson has been a great help to me.  I think that the change of shoulder, accompanied by a rather abrupt change of harping style, have slowed down my progress, but all to good effect.  Some of you might get testy when you read what I’m about to write.  After working on historical harp technique for a year, I think that it requires much more work and practice than playing in a more standard style.  There is so much to know that I wish I had started as a flexible adolescent with a speedier brain and quick hands.  Although I still like the sound of some of my old music played on the right, much of it sounds blurry and unfocused to me now.  It’s too ringy and lacks power in the bass range.  I am acquiring new music more slowly in favor of learning all sorts of curious and arcane skills that will later help me play with the control I want. You know what?  It’s been worth it.


Oidhreacht Dhonncha Uí Ámhsaigh: The Legacy of Denis O’Hempsey

The Downhill @ Guinness. Photo by Sue, August, 2009.

Well here is a rare opportunity to see several of the world’s best harpers perform.  As you’ll see in my previous post, TG4, the Irish Language TV station, created a documentary on the legacy of the mysterious blind harper, Denis O’Hempsey, who was an old man back in 1792 when Edward Bunting noted down the music he and several other harpers played at that last great gathering of early Irish harpers.


Take a look at each of the three parts of the film.  The coverage is a little bit choppy, and cuts  back and forth between the performer on stage and the small talk of the participants behind the scenes, preparing for their turn to perform.

Who will you see?  Ann Heymann plays Feachain Gleis on a Downhill replica, which I understand from Michael Billinge was made by Jay Witcher.   Her gorgeous Kortier Trinity is also on the stage, but unfortunately, whatever she played on the Trinity was not included in the film.  Alison Kinnaird plays her handsome Lamont replica, made, I believe, by Bob Evans.  Paul Dooley and Laoise Kelly both play clarsachs made by Dooley, as far as my eye can tell.  Two Breton harpers, Alan Stivell and Myrdhin, play more modern instruments, but are a pleasure to watch.  I was thrilled to see Alison Kinnaird play for the first time.  That was rather exciting.  The Downhill replica played by Nollaig Brolly was made by Seamus O’Kane, and is a handsome thing.  Take a look at this article from the Derry Journal to learn a bit more about the project.

It’s  fun to look at everybody’s styles up close, and appreciated having a close-up look at their manicures.  I was amused to see one of the harpers working on his nails before the concert.  We can all identify with him.

Special thanks to Karen Loomis, who mentioned the broadcast in the first place, and to Michael Billinge for further information about the film he was central to creating.  With good wishes for the end of the year,


More on Banríon an Cheoil: the Harp Recital in Belfast, Nov. 2009

Thanks to the sharp eyes of friend and doctoral research student Karen Loomis, I understand that TG4, the Irish language TV station, has presented a program this evening showing a number of the participants in the November 2009 Belfast harp recital.

The harpers include some of the luminaries, such as Ann Heymann and Alison Kinnaird. Several months ago TG4 released a documentary on a lever harp player, Nollaig Brolly, who sought to recreate the music of Denis O’Hampsey by learning to play a replica of the Downhill Harp.  Here’s the original post.  If you’d like a quick look at a video that includes an Irish language interview with Brolly, and shows, most interestingly, O’Hampsey’s grand Downhill being removed from its glass prison at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, I’d recommend this short clip.  Remember that Brolly is a lever harper, as you can see from her hand positions when she plays the replica.

As soon as TG4 posts the concert documentary, I’ll add it to this blog. After all, I’m extremely eager to see the harpers, and to hear their choices of music. To learn more about the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792, here is a helpful link provided by Simon Chadwick. He’s added some downloadable PDF links if you’d like to take a look at Edward Bunting’s published works inspired by his transcription of the music at the festival.

For some in-depth information about the Downhill harp, here’s a good starting point.  You might also take a look at Armstrong’s chapter on the Downhill.  Take a look to the right at the link for Armstrong (it’s a very big PDF file–you’ve been warned).

Solstice good wishes,

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