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Irish Harp Taster Session Success

11th of April 2024 

With many individuals starting the new year looking for something new, harper Janet Harbison, who has been living in Warwick for over 4 years, presented two taster sessions for anyone interested in playing harps in sessions at St Patrick’s Club – and over 30 adults and young people attended including two under-10 year olds. Everyone was delighted with the day and signed up for news on future harp-related events.

The day was spilt into a morning and an afternoon session – the morning session were for existing players, and the afternoon was for complete beginners. Janet brought along 10 harps from her studio and many of the morning session participants brought their own harps. The morning session allowed experienced players to try out session playing, with training in chord-skills as well as experimenting with dance-tune. This is challenging, as there is the ‘left hand dimension’ (what to do with the left hand when the right is taking the tune). It’s not as easy as it might sound! Another interesting occurrence was that about 6 already-established strong traditional players on other instruments came to ‘try out’ the harp, and they were very fast learners! The branch had a few old instruments that were donated and now they are tuned and back into operation.

The afternoon session was for total beginners and at least 2 people shared each harp. This worked particularly well as everyone learned basic chording and how to play a jig – yes, a jig! 'Out on the Ocean' was performed by everyone, even if only some played ‘just the big notes’ to start with.

For many players, and parents of young musicians, the harp can indeed present a cost challenge – as a decent student instrument will cost over £1,500 - and then there are lesson costs on top of this. As a result of the January 27th workshops, Janet and her colleages in the Leamington Spa Branch, are embarking on a quest to raise money for instruments, to request donations of harps not in use. Her aim is to start up classes for teen and adult beginners, and also for improvers and advanced. These will probably run from her studio in Warwick (where she can loan harps to those who might have difficulty in transporting their harps every week). These classes will feed into the regular lessons and sessions hosted by the Leamington Spa branch – which should see harps actively appearing more regularly in sessions in the region.

“On the day of the workshop, over 30 people signed up voicing interest in getting involved. This was enormously encouraging and I hope that regular classes will start in September. I am happy to teach under the CCE banner and to create a vibrant harping scene in the British Midlands going forward.” Janet 

Janet and the Leamington Spa branch are looking forward to establishing more sessions like this in the future and creating a strong Irish harp tradition in Leamington Spa. We can’t wait to see what they have in store. 

To find out more you can contact them here or visit leamington spa’s facebook. You can also contact Janet for information about future sessions. 




How is an Irish harp different to a classical harp?

The instrument is referred to as cláirseach or cruit in Irish and is Ireland’s most ancient, formal musical instrument – renowned throughout Europe from the Middle Ages. It first appears on the high stone crosses of the 9th century and is the ‘mother’ instrument to the larger, late 18th century ‘gothic’, ‘concert’ or ‘orchestral’ (pedal) harps. The Irish harp (aka the celtic/folk/Scottish/small/lever harp) doesn’t have pedals but with its extensive history, has an enormous repertoire of music from planxties to epic pieces and lamentations – as well as trad and folk music.

Why are Irish harps closely associated with Ireland? 

The harp in Irish society was important and the harper was a member of the ‘bardic order’, which, along with the poets, comprised the most esteemed performing artists in early Irish society. In the 16th century, it was formally established as the national emblem of Ireland with its image being minted on Irish coinage in the reign of Henry VIII. The sound of the harp was considered to be magical – it could lead clans into battle, and accompany songs of love and war. Look out for the harp on Irish euro coins!


Are Irish Harps played with the left hand? 

Traditionally the Irish harp was played against the left shoulder meaning the left hand played the upper strings and the right hand played the lower strings. However, today many harps are played with the dominant right hand.

What is the distinction between a harper and a harpist?

A ‘harpist’ is the proper term for a classical player and ‘harper’ the term for a traditional player. In the 16th-17th centuries, it became fashionable to give food and music French names. Roasted cow adopted the name ‘beef’ from the French ‘boef’; sheep became ‘mutton’ from the French ‘mouton’; and in music, fiddlers became violinists, fluters became flautists. However, while occasionally harpers turned into ‘harpists’, those who didn’t play European music, as well as, the uilleann pipes remained harpers and pipers.

Janet Harbison from Leamington Spa Branch at St.Patrick's Club
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