My Harp Journey

Learning to play the harp was, for a long time, an unfulfilled dream for me. Growing up in Northern Ireland and coming from a Protestant background, I didn’t have the opportunity to learn Irish harp. The harp held a mythical quality for me. I was a reader and was aware of its special properties through Greek mythology and the bible. It seemed to me to be a magical, heavenly and otherworldly instrument.

It wasn’t until I embarked upon a BA Honours Degree in English and Music at Queen’s University in 1998 that I first encountered the harp in a live setting. As part of a first year Ethnomusicology module, renowned Irish harpist, Janet Harbison, visited our class to teach us about Irish traditional music and culture. Janet played and sang ‘Mná na hÉireann/ Women of Ireland’. I was spellbound, enchanted and fell utterly in love with the sound of the harp. I longed to learn to play it.

Our study, as ethnomusicologists, was on the music of traditional cultures. We were learning about how Irish traditional music was a part of the lives of families and communities and how tunes and the learning of instruments would have been passed down from generation to generation, from player to player. This was not something I had experienced in my life. For me, music was something I learnt through school and exams. Regrettably, rather than following my desire to learn how to play the Irish harp, I foolishly felt that any attempts to learn it as an adult would be inauthentic and not true to the spirit of traditional music.

It wasn’t until 14 years later, in 2012, when I gave up my career as an English teacher to look after my young family, that I decided to buy myself a harp and go for it. As a diploma level classical pianist, I was fascinated about the process of learning music without notation and committing tunes to memory. Alongside teaching piano privately, I finally began my journey of learning traditional harp.

However, my journey was a lonely one, fraught with performance and exam anxiety. As an adult learner, I squeezed my practice around work and family life and my desire to pursue exams made it difficult for me to just enjoy the process of learning beautiful music on a beautiful instrument. I knew no other adult learners and I turned up at exams surrounded by talented children and teenagers, feeling the full weight of my nerves and my age! So many times I felt like giving up. Nevertheless, I eventually achieved dipLCM in Irish Traditional Music performance in 2018 and I also achieved an ALCM diploma in classical piano performance during this time.

Now, as founder of Causeway Harp School, in the seaside village of Portballintrae, Northern Ireland, it is my joy to introduce people of all ages and abilities to the music of the Irish harp and to help build a local community of harpers. I teach individuals and groups of children and adults ranging from ages 6-79, the majority of whom have no formal musical training and little or no experience of Irish traditional music. The feeling of community around these groups is just wonderful.

Pupils as young as eight are already developing a love for ancient Irish harp music. We love learning the background to the tunes and the stories behind them. We love that the music we are playing is ancient and part of our land and our heritage, yet to us it feels new, fresh and very much alive. We truly feel part of a vibrant and very special cultural tradition.

We now have an enthusiastic community of harpers of all ages here on Antrim’s north coast and I am delighted that learning the Irish harp has become more accessible here, regardless of age, musical experience or cultural background. The community aspect of playing, learning and performing together and sharing the ancient music of the harp with our communities is the most rewarding part of my journey so far with the Irish harp.

National Harp Day 2021

Harpists playing at the beach for National Harp Day 2021

This year for National Harp Day, seventeen harpers from Causeway Harp School gathered together at the beautiful East Strand in Portrush, County Antrim to play in ensemble together.

Whilst this was a wonderful experience, it was difficult to capture the sound as the sea was so rough that day!

Following on from this, two pupils of Causeway Harp School, Mollie Flack and Phoebe Kelly performed my arrangement of Planxty Hewlett by Turlough O’Carolan in beautiful Portballintrae. You can watch our performance here:

Causeway Harp School, National Harp Day 2021

Cambrian Harp Festival

Harp Workshops in the sun ☀️

What a treat for me to travel to beautiful Wales to teach an Irish Harp Workshop as part of the very first Cambrian Harp Festival, in association with the wonderful Derwent Harp School. Participants of all ages and abilities leaned to play Planxty Irwin, by 17th century composer and harper, Turlough O’Carolan, followed by a beautiful slip jig by contemporary musician and composer, Liz Carroll.

Harp Workshop in the Festival Bell Tent 🏕

The fabulous Welsh harpist, Harriett Earis, also taught a workshop on Welsh tunes and I was absolutely delighted to take part and learn two beautiful Welsh tunes: Dwr Glan and Ar Ben Waun Tredegar.

Harp Workshops ☀️☀️🎼🎼🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿

The festival culminated in a concert in which we had the pleasure of performing our new tunes (amongst much more) for a live audience in Aberystwyth. The highlight for me was listening to the immensely talented Harriet Earis perform a solo set of her original compositions.

Cambrian Harp Festival Concert, featuring Harriet Earis

Another highlight of the weekend was the wonderful Welsh storyteller who entertained us by the fire in the evening!

Traditional Storytelling by the fire

It’s wonderful to be part of a revival of traditional arts and culture. I love how people of all ages can get together like this, learning and playing music together, sharing songs, tunes and stories. Traditional music has such a special place today in connecting people with their land, history, culture and with each other. I have made some great friends this weekend and we are already looking forward to a harp weekend with me next year in Ireland!

Harping by the fire pit

You can watch some of the videos and hear some of the tunes from the weekend on Facebook: Irish Tunes; Welsh song

Group Lessons at North Coast Trad

Group Classes at North Coast Trad, Portrush

I am delighted to be teaching the harp classes at North Coast Trad on a Tuesday evening during term time in Portrush. We currently have a kids’ class and an adults’ class running.

This is a wonderful opportunity for pupils to enjoy the social aspect of learning music. Traditional music is inherently social, so learning and playing together is a fundamental element of the music. We will be learning tunes from the North Coast Trad repertoire as well as learning some special harp tunes from the Irish Harp repertoire.

North Coast Trad offers many opportunities for us to get together with other musicians throughout the year through sessions, concerts and summer schools. All events are family friendly and suitable for all age groups.

Get in touch if you would like to find out more. Classes recommence in September 2021.

Harp Class at North Coast Trad

Dunseverick P.S. Summer Harp Concert

Dunseverick P.S. Pupils performing together

I teach harp at Dunseverick Primary School to pupils in P3 and above. Irish harping has been thriving in this wee school since 2017 when I first introduced harp lessons to the school. These young pupils perform regularly for school and community events and in their local church communities. In February 2019, they performed for the Remembering Edward Bunting Festival in Belfast and in March 2020 they were invited to perform for the Joint British and Irish Intergovernmental St Patrick’s Day celebrations at the Titanic Hotel, Belfast. Sadly, this event was cancelled due to Covid-19.

In March 2021, we were delighted to have been awarded funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to purchase harps for the school. Since then, Irish harping is going from strength to strength in the area.

We learn a mixture of Irish and Scottish traditional tunes to reflect our shared heritage here in North Antrim. The pupils thoroughly enjoy their lessons and the many opportunities they have to perform for their families, friends and local communities.

Watch Part 1 of our summer concert here

Colmcille 1500, ‘Strings of Heaven’

Harpists representing Harp Schools from the Causeway Coast and Glens area at Downhill Demesne. Photo Credit:

I was delighted to take part in this wonderful project by Nodlaig Ní Bhrollaigh of Scoil Ruaidhrí Dall which celebrates 1500 years since the birth of Colmcille. Comcille, also known as St Columba, is linked with the Causeway Coast and Glens area. Nodlaig’s original piece of music for harp and voice is entitled ‘Strings of Heaven’. You can watch the beautiful video here:

The video includes footage from the stunning Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne and was filmed at St Aiden’s Church in Magilligan. This is also the burial place of Dennis Hempson, the last of the great Irish harpers.

There is an incredible revival of Irish harping in the Causeway Coast and Glens area right now, and it was very special for Scoil Ruaidhrí Dall, Dungiven, Ballycastle Harp School, Hempsey Harp School, Garvagh and Causeway Harp School, Portballintrae to all get together to celebrate our very special shared heritage and tradition.

You can read about the project in more detail here:

New Christmas tune for Irish Harp

The last time my parents visited the stunning Glenveagh National Park in Donegal (somewhere we used to visit as children), they brought me back this wonderful CD by Manus Lunny.

By the time I got to track 4, Nollag sa Gleann, I didn’t get any further! I just had to learn this tune on the harp! It is so beautiful. You can listen to the tune on Manus Lunny’s website here.

I always look forward to teaching Christmas tunes to my pupils at this time of year, but this is something so different and special. As it is not well known as a Christmas tune, it is something that can be played all year round too which is a real bonus! Such an elegant tune would be well suited to perform at any event.

Feel free to play my arrangement of this tune, just please acknowledge me as the arranger and link to my website. I hope you enjoy playing it as much as I do! I would love to hear your performances too so please link to me if you record a performance 😊🎼. Enjoy!

New Book: Traditional Irish Music for Small Harps

I am delighted to announce the publication of my first book of Traditional Irish Music for harp. This is a book of arrangements for small harps of 20 and 26 strings. It is the culmination of my work teaching harp to beginners, many of whom begin on small harps. It is a fabulous way to begin learning the harp and you will soon know whether or not you would like to eventually move on to a larger harp. Indeed, many experienced players (myself included) enjoy playing a smaller harp in addition to a full size harp as it is much more portable and therefore suitable for taking out and about to play in sessions and with friends.

‘Traditional Irish Music for Small Harps, Arrangements for 20 and 26 string harps’ by Katy Bustard

This is an ideal resource for teachers to use with beginner-lower intermediate players. The range of tune types also makes it a useful resource for preparing pupils for graded exams in Irish Traditional Music. The tunes and arrangements included in this book are suitable for grades Step-Grade III.

Each tune includes a 20 string and 26 string arrangement, with just slight changes in the accompaniment to make best use of the strings available. Simple ornamentation is also included in the 26 string arrangements. I have omitted ornamentation from the 20 string arrangements as it is a good idea to learn the basic tune first, adding ornamentation as confidence and fluency develops.

To accommodate harps without levers, all of the arrangements in this book can be played with the harp tuned in G Major (with the exception of the 26 string arrangement of Elizabeth Kelly’s Favourite which has an F natural in the accompaniment).

‘Traditional Irish Music for Small Harps: Arrangements for 20 and 26 string harps’ by Katy Bustard is available to purchase in paperback or PDF on the shop page of my website.

Sets of books for harp schools and teachers are available at a trade price discount. For more information, please get in touch via the contact page.

Covid-19 Update

My contribution to Harp Ireland’s Online Concert Series, ‘Harps for Hope’

It was my pleasure to contribute to Harp Ireland’s ‘Harps For Hope’ concert series during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Sadly, all classes and workshops were cancelled due to the Covid 19 lockdown. However, I am still offering individual tuition online via Skype and have a limited number of starter harps available for beginner pupils.

In September 2020, I am looking forward to the popular Saturday Morning Adult Harp Classes beginning again, with limited numbers to ensure proper social distancing is adhered to. Classes will run with full adherence to government guidelines regarding Covid-19. I am delighted to offer a new class for adult beginners commencing September 2020. To pre-book your place, please get in touch via the button at the bottom of the page.

I shall also be offering Beginner Harp Classes via Zoom to members of Causeway U3A. These classes will take place on Monday mornings 9.30-10.45am. To book your place, or to find out more information, please get in touch via the button below.

The Irish Harp: UNESCO status as Intangible Cultural Heritage

Katy Bustard, Janet Harbison and Aibhlin McCrann
Photo credit: Mal McCann

On Thursday 20th February 2020, I had the honour of speaking at ‘The Irish Harp: Reception to Celebrate the recent UNESCO status designation of the Irish Harp as an Intangible Cultural Heritage’.

I spoke about my own journey of learning the harp, which was quite a lonely one, and of how I have come to create a thriving community of harpers on the North Coast of County Antrim through Causeway Harp School.

Through my harp school, it is my aim to provide learners with a sense of community and fun around learning their instrument, as well as preparing pupils for exams. It is my passion for this beautiful heritage instrument to become more accessible, regardless of age, formal musical education or cultural background. I have a real passion for the harp and its repertoire and I am seeing this ignite in so many of my pupils now too, which is so rewarding.

Organisers of the Edward Bunting Festival at the Irish Secretariat, Belfast

It was such a pleasure and honour to be speaking alongside Aibhlín McCrann, Chair of Harp Ireland, who pioneered the UNESCO status designation of the Irish Harp. World renowned harper, composer, teacher and academic, Dr Janet Harbison also spoke and entertained us with a stunning performance of her arrangements and compositions for harp. It was such an inspiring evening in honour of this beautiful instrument and our unique cultural heritage. I am thrilled that my work through Causeway Harp School is helping to keep the living tradition of Irish harping alive.