September 28, 2016

It's a mistake to worry about mistakes!

John Cleese, legendary funny person and noted actor is quoted as saying, “Nothing will stop you from being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”

And truly, that is not funny.

We are often our own worst enemies, telling ourselves repeatedly that our mistakes are not creative, just errors, cowering in our harp space not playing so we don't miss, harboring the fear that we are not good enough to be creative, that other people are creative and we just appreciate their gifts because while they make charming mistakes. our own mistakes come out more like farts.


So how will you get around this?

  • Acknowledge that mistakes are not failures.  Not getting where you meant to only means that you have an opportunity to learn from where you ended up.
  • The cool stuff only arises from “mistakes”.  Pay attention to where you landed and how you got there – some of the best tunes only get captured by turning on the recorder and collecting everything that comes out of your harp, good, bad and indifferent.
  • There really are no mistakes – there are sometimes elements that are not as pleasurable as others but they are stepping stones to the next note.  And if music is too perfect, it gets boring.
  • Acknowledge that, like fine wine, sometimes an idea needs to age or mature before it is really what you wanted.  Give yourself time for creativity to happen.  You have no idea how many times the creator tried before you get that perfect "Pinterest" photo!
  • Failure – what’s the worst that could happen? While you’re alone in your harp space something you didn’t intend comes out?   Get over it and move on!  Unlike the movies, creativity is not going to smite you with virtue…you’re going to have to work at it…and take the good with the bad.

Some of the best stuff ever has arisen from having the wrong levers set, not quite remembering how the tune starts, landing on the wrong chord, or some other mistake.  So, make a beautiful noise and work with it – nothing that comes out of your harp is a failure!

September 21, 2016

Where do tunes come from?

I often get asked about tunes, their provenance, their history – in other words, where do they come from?  Whether you are just generally curious, preparing for a Scottish Harp competition, or you simply want to correctly catalog your tunes, knowing where the tunes come from can tell you a lot.

First the easy answer – tunes come from all over and are held everywhere (and sometimes nowhere).  Many people learn the tunes they pick up in lessons or workshops, enjoy them immensely and go on.  Some learn tunes from popular books (such as Sylvia Woods’ many collections or the copious books available from MelBay, Afghan Press* and others) and play them for their own enjoyment. Some musicians learn tunes, play them, and are there for the tune and nothing more.  Take off your judgment hat – because there is nothing wrong with that!

The second answer is a little more nebulous – tunes are everywhere.  Some are breathtaking, but difficult to find and others are in every book you pick up (or so it seems) – so where do you find new tunes?  Here are seven places to look for your next best loved tune:

  • You can go to workshops – some workshop tutors are known for their scholarly approach to the tunes and you can learn a great deal at these events.
  • You can listen, listen, listen.  Find tunes you like being played (and remember to look beyond the harp – there are spectacular tunes out there being presented by pipers, fiddlers, whistle player, concertina, guitar, piano – it’s the tune that’s the thing, the instrument is simply the vessel.
  • You can hunt up stuff on the internet Part I – there are a lot of interesting nooks and crannies in the web, patience, perseverance, and a good scratch pad are all you need (the scratch pad is to note the search terms you have already tried and to capture ideas for additional search terms as you go.
  • You can hunt up stuff on the internet Part 2 – there are also some easy to find caches of tunes including or or  these are a bit “wiki-er” so they are a great place to start but if you are searching for authenticity, I’d suggest keeping on looking after you find a tune you like.
  •  You can hunt up stuff on the internet Part 3 – YouTube - while this might be a corollary of the first bullet, you can often find a couple of different renditions of a tune (which for me makes it easier to "hear" the melody).  This works best if you look for a specific tune title and then daisy chain yourself through a bunch of links.
  • You can chat up a music librarian or the reference librarian at the local university or community college - it's amazing what is in those libraries.  Of course this is much easier if you live near a music school but, don't let those plain facades fool you, libraries hold some amazing stuff!
  • You can  build your own assemblage of published collections books.  There are loads of collections, printed in various ways (I have hardbound, softcover, pdf). Some are old (like use gloves and turn pages ever so carefully old) and some are new (like smell the ink new).  Some are noted for piano, fiddle, pipes – remember it’s the tune that’s the thing so the notation just gives you an idea where to go.  Many of the collections include other important information that is helpful – the story of the tune, the composer, the times, all of which might be helpful for arranging the melody when you decide to present it.  And you know, the appropriate number of books to own is much like the appropriate number of harps – one more!  You’ll find these collections on line, in (regular) bookshops, and in used book shops. 
Do your homework and you will be delighted to find your next favorite tune!

* I don’t have the good sense to do affiliate marketing so this is just my opinion – there’s no kickback from Sylvia or Mel Bay, this is simply an observation.

September 14, 2016

Harp 2017 is coming

We are excited to be doing a Harpa trip in 2017!  (If you want to go on the Harp the Highlands and Islands Tour, start planning – we’ll be going in 2018!).  We are scheduling the trip for 11 - 25 May 2017.

Join Sue Richards (Concert Mistress), Beth Kolle (Harpa Founder), and me as we travel to the Isle of Skye, the Borders and more.  We will meet old friends and new.  And we’ll be playing lots of music.  We will also perform and give back through concerts for good causes.  Bring your harp and have a good time – we will have some ensemble parts to share.  

You don’t have to be a harp player - we welcome other (small) traditional instruments and appreciators.  We are delighted to be going back to Scotland and the opportunity to see some new places.

While the schedule is still taking shape, but we are looking a trip along the lines of the following:

Day 1 – Collect everyone in Edinburgh and head to St Andrews
Day 2 – Head to Ft William via Aberfeldy, Falls of Dochart, and Glencoe
Day 3 – Go on to three days on the Isle of Skye
Day 4 – See Scenic Skye including Dunvegan Castle
Day 5 – Visit the Talisker distillery, the Fairy Falls and Eilen Donan Castle
Day 6 – Travel to Loch Lomond, and the Trossochs and Glasgow highlights
Day 7 – Spend the day in Glasgow
Day 8 thru 13. While we're finalizing the specific days, we will visit Ayrshire and Dumfries (Burns country) and will have five concerts including performances at:
  • Culzean Castle (for National Trust for Scotland)
  • Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
  • Dumfries House (for the Prince's Trust)
  • Others are still in work
Day 14. Return to Edinburgh

Remember that we will have only 14 seats on this trip.  You will (as before) need to bring your lever harp (we learned last time that hiring a harp there was in the “just too darn hard” category).

As we have updates they will be posted on the website.  I’m already taking places so let me know if you are interested soon.

As always, questions welcomed and encouraged.  

I’m so looking forward this trip – I know we’ll have a great time! Hope you join me –

Contact me for more information and to reserve your place.  And watch this space for updates.

September 7, 2016

A la Mode

Sometimes, you’re trying to put together a set of tunes – some jeels and rigs or a march, strathspey, reel set – and you might be at a loss on how to begin.  You could just slap a few tunes together, and there are many ways to go about this. But for now, let’s think about theory and how knowing a little more about music structure might help us make some better decisions.

First, we are harp players so we’ll already be doing a lot with our hands, so we need to put together tunes that don’t require lever changes (or maybe just a couple but, really we’re going to try for none).

Second, we want the tunes to sound like we put them together on purpose rather than like we were grasping for any tune that would come into our head next to be played.

So, how are we going to use theory to help us out?  Isn’t theory just a bunch of dry, boring, un-understandable blahblahblah that I will never use?  The answer is a resounding – NO!  Learning theory gives you the tools you need to put those tunes together – in a good way, that will make musical sense, will save you some lever changes, that brings your audience along with you – you want all those things!!

What theory lessons would be helpful for putting that set together?  Well, you’re already part of the way there if you really, r-e-a-l-l-y don’t want to make lever changes! Because when you set your levers, you have automatically put the harp into seven different scales – and there’s probably a great tune in one of those seven scales (ok, really there’ll be about a million great tunes in a couple of those scales and possibly none in the others – but…made you look!).

What are these seven scales?  You already know, but you might not know their names.  The first is the scale you think of when you set the levers – no sharps or flats? You’re in C and you know it.  But you’re also in…

Ionian mode (sounds pretty exotic).  If you move everything up one note (start on the D) you’ll be in the Dorian mode.  You know this one, that’s what Scarborough Fair is written in.  Up another and you’re in Phrygian (someone suggested the theme for Dr. Who is an example).  Start on F you’re in Lydian, but being on G and now you’re in Mixolydian – and if you’re playing trad, you’re used to playing here with its “flatted” seventh (the “pipe scale”).  Start on the A and you’re in Aeolian (also known as relative minor or the natural minor) and again if you play trad, you probably know a lot of things in this scale). One more, start on the B and you’re in the Locrian mode which you would probably avoid because it sounds “wrong” to western listeners. 
So, find some tunes that are in Ionian, Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian and you’ll be well on your way to building a set – with no lever changes!*

*there are plenty of other considerations to putting a set together so don’t be surprised as you go along trying this find that the set doesn’t quite work – we’ll talk about other elements to building sets another time – I’ll let you digest this first!