On Saturday 2nd November, 2019, a group of harpers gathered in Portballintrae Village Hall to build their very own harps, using a ‘Build a Harp’ kit, developed by Brian Waugh of Turmennan Learner Harps and Build a Harp, Ireland.
Renowned harpmaker, Mervyn Waugh (Turmennan Harps, Ireland) and his son Brian, expertly guided us through the process and, by the end of the afternoon, each participant had completed the building of their very own 26 string harp.
As a harp teacher, I cannot overstate the value of this endeavour. The changing of harp strings can be tricky and as we generally don’t have to change strings very often, it can be difficult to practise the process until we feel confident with it. After knotting and winding 26 strings however, it now feels as natural as tying shoelaces!
Pupils are now working on the tuning of their harps, as strings will stretch and fall flat for a few weeks until they settle. This process too helps pupils to become more confident with tuning their instruments, attuning their ear to how it should sound when in tune.
All in all, this was a highly educational, enjoyable and unique experience for all involved. And what a huge sense of achievement we all felt when we completed the build. Well done everyone! We are all very much looking forward to beginning our next set of beginner harp classes, especially those of us with our very own self-built harps!
I really look forward to my days in school teaching harp. Pupils as young as 7 have begun their harp adventures with me in school, some of whom, by age 9, are already working towards Grade IV in Irish Traditional Harp Performance through the London College of Music. To date, all of my pupils have achieved high merits and distinctions in all their exams.
Learning tunes by ear is a truly musical experience for the pupil and is a skill that, once developed, will remain with them for life. Not only does such musical training provide an invaluable education for the individual, but it also contributes hugely to the life of the school.
School assemblies, carol services, prize days, open days, spring teas and concerts are greatly enriched by the addition of a harpist or harp ensemble. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for young, aspiring musicians to develop confidence and skill in performance situations.
Learning the harp at any age is a deeply rewarding experience. Its mellifluous sound and warm, resonant tonal quality have a relaxing effect on the mind and body. Even the most simple of melodies sound extra special when played on harp so it really is a rewarding experience from day one!
There was once a time on the North Coast of Antrim when every great house had their harper and it was traditional that the harper must be able to play music for three distinct purposes: to calm and bring forth rest; to evoke emotion and bring forth tears and to inspire gladness, dancing and smiles. The music of the old Irish harpers was an oral tradition and after the Flight of the Earls in 1607, the harpers of the great houses found themselves out of work and many became wandering minstrels. The once great tradition of Irish harp music was in danger of disappearing from memory altogether.
In an attempt to preserve the dying harp tradition, the Belfast Harp Festival was organised in 1792, in which harpers from all over Ireland were called to attend and to compete for prizes (interestingly, only ten turned up; many of them very old and blind). Nineteen year old organist and pianist, Edward Bunting, was commissioned to listen to the the airs and pieces played by the old harpers and record them. Bunting published 66 of these tunes in the first volume of his collection, ‘A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland.’
In February 2019, 10 pupils from Causeway Harp School were invited to perform at the ‘Remembering Edward Bunting Festival’ concert held at St George’s Church, Belfast (this was the very church in which Edward Bunting was organist). The girls gave a stunning 30 min performance of solo and ensemble pieces for a large public audience and were a huge success!
Although this was a wonderful experience for all involved, we have decided to keep our performances more local this year. I hope to hold a Causeway Harp School charity concert in the Spring/Summer months in Portballintrae so keep an eye for details to follow after Christmas!
In September 2019, ten women and girls gathered together in Portballintrae Village Hall to learn the Irish harp. After only 3 lessons together we have learned to play the traditional air, ‘The South Wind’ and a polka known as ‘Johnny Leary’s’. Each week we focus on good hand position and playing technique as well as learning tunes from the traditional Irish harp repertoire. We learn tunes using the aural method and commit them to memory, rather than reading from musical notation. Each lesson is followed up with a recording of the tune and each pupil has their own harp to practise on throughout the week. I am absolutely delighted at the progress everyone has made in such a short period of time!
At the end of the 6 week course, many of the participants have signed up to take part in a Build a Harp Workshop, hosted by Causeway Harp School and Turmennan Learner Harps, during which they will build their very own 26 string harp under the expert guidance of Mervyn and Brian Waugh of Turmennan Harps and Turmennan Learner Harps.
I am so delighted to have the opportunity to make learning this beautiful instrument more accessible to people in this community. There was once a time when every great house on the North coast of Antrim had it’s harper and it’s traditional music repertoire and I’m so excited to bring something of this great tradition back into the homes and communities in this area.
Summer 2019 saw 26 harpists, ranging from age 6 to 60, meet in Bushmills Community Centre and in Portballintrae Village Hall for Beginner and Intermediate level Harp Workshops led by Katy Bustard of Causeway Harp School.
In September 2019 a new 6 week Beginners’ Harp Course will be held on Saturday mornings in Portballintrae Village Hall. This course is already fully subscribed, but keep an eye on the ‘What’s On’ page on the website, or on Facebook for details of more courses running throughout the year. Places are limited so please don’t hesitate to get in touch to book your place or to find out more.
Individual Harp Tuition is also available and pupils may work to attain qualifications in Irish Traditional Harp through the London College of Music, learn just for fun and relaxation or to achieve specific personal goals.
Group Workshops for improving and intermediate level harpists also take place at various times throughout the year. These intensive workshops are designed to not only expand repertoire and develop technique and style, but also to provide valuable opportunities to play together as a group and to meet other harpists. Our next scheduled Group Workshop is a Christmas Harp Workshop on 16th November! See the ‘What’s On’ page for more details!
Harp Taster Sessions and Beginners’ Classes for schools, community or corporate groups, or for a group of family and friends may also be arranged. Please get in touch via the website contact page for more information.