Nancy Hurrell Workshop April 26 in Ottawa

Sunday, April 26th, 2-4pm
Harp Workshops with Boston Harpist

  • Playing in a Harp Ensemble
  • Renaissance Dance Music for Harp
  • Ottawa Mennonite Church
    1830 Kilborn Avenue
    Admission: $30 at the door
    And in advance:
    The Leading Note, 370 Elgin St.
    The Ottawa Folklore Centre, 1111 Bank St.
    Contact: Mary Muckle 613-825-1379


    We’ll begin with a short session on Playing in a Harp Ensemble, learning a multi-level ensemble arrangement by Nancy. All levels of playing are welcome, and music is provided. Ideas and tips to improve an ensembles’ sound are given, plus brief comments/demo on performing the ensembles in her new book, ‘The Ring of Harps’.

    The main workshop is Renaissance Dance Music for Harp. We’ll play Renaissance dances from the 16th century, and also learn the dance steps! Knowing the tempo and pulse of the dance is important for playing the music. We’ll also do some improvisation and discuss sources for music from the period. All levels of playing are welcome. (There will be a short tea break around 3:00pm.)

    Information courtesy of M. Muckle

    Renaissance Dance Harp Workshop, January 23 (Morrow, Georgia)

    January 23, 2009 – Improvising on Renaissance Dances, with Paula Fagerberg, historical harpist.
    Join us while we learn some of the most popular ground basses and dance chord progressions of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and explore concepts in period-appropriate improvisation on the tunes. Come jam with us and let your creativity go! For all harps. Chromatic harps (lever, pedal, multi-row) will have the easiest time, but diatonic harps will work too. Lever harps are available to rent for those who need an instrument. Ask for details.
    What: Sixth Annual Midwinter Workshop (sponsored by The Atlanta Early Music Alliance)
    When: Friday, January 23, 2009, 6:00-9:30 PM; Saturday, January 24, 9:00 AM-6:00 PM.
    Where: Clayton State University, Music Education Building, Morrow, Georgia (
    Fee: $95 (includes box lunch for Saturday) plus music fee.
    For more information and a registration form, please see, or contact Jorg Voss at or (770) 998-3575.

    More Harp Events Here.

    Changing a String

    You are sitting comfortably in the other room, reading a book, and you hear a god-awful bang…. It sounds like your harp has split in two! Don’t worry – it’s just a broken string. But you’ve never changed a string before! It can seem quite intimidating the first time you have to wrangle with a slippery, uncooperative nylon string, but it’s really quite a simple process that just takes a bit of practice. For anyone who may not have a teacher or harpist friend to show them how to tie that special “harp knot” (it’s really not hard, essentially just a loop within a loop), the folks at Wm. Rees have an excellent set of instructions, including pictures, here. If you know someone with the old standard, Sylvia Wood’s teach-yourself harp method book, she also has a good diagram with instructions in the back of the book. You can practice the knot with a piece of string a few times first; I also recommend practicing on the broken string, since the nylon is stiffer and more likely to slip than a piece of twine.

    Strings don’t just need to be changed when they break – it’s also a good idea to change them if they start to sound dull, or have developed obvious weak spots (which might mean they are prone to breaking, and you don’t want that to happen in the middle of a gig). Some people change their strings periodically just as a matter of course, to keep the harp sounding bright; if you’ve had the same set of strings for a number of years, it might be time to consider gradually replacing them with new ones. Some people dive right in and change the whole set all at once, but this isn’t necessary; you can start by changing the ones that sound a little dull, or all the bass strings, or one octave, and do the others over a longer period of time. Or, you can set aside an afternoon and do the whole harp.

    Keep in mind that any new string will take a while to settle in (nylon strings stretch); you’ll want to check its tuning several times a day for the first couple of days, and should probably tune it every day for a week after that. If you absolutely have to change a string during a performance, you will need to tune it during every break, and possibly after only a couple of songs. If you’re worried about taking the time to tune the string frequently, you can either try to leave that note out of your playing, or you can explain to the audience what you’re doing. Most people will have no problem with you tuning a bit more often, if it means the harp will sound better. Our medieval ensemble regularly has to re-tune after several pieces; we usually delegate one of our members to be MC and talk to the audience a bit while we’re doing it. If you’re playing solo, you can use the time you’re tuning to talk a bit about the harp, or the pieces you’re playing, or tell a story or amusing anecdote.

    Celtic Jams, Sessions & Ceilis (Part 2)

    Time Signatures for Dance Tunes & Celtic Music

    One thing that can really help find the beat in Celtic music is to know your time signatures. This applies to playing for English Country Dancers as well. In Celtic music, time signatures are often associated with a particular type of dance, which helps to inform how Celtic players will approach them. All time signatures each have their own unique rhythmic feel. The treatment of them in dance tunes can be notably different, however, from how they are treated in, for example, classical music. The following are some of the most common examples.

    • Jig = 6/8, usually two groups of three eighth-notes, with more emphasis on the first note of each group (so, “ONE two three, TWO two three, etc.), played semi-legato, e.g. DA-ya-da, DA-ya-da. Note that Irish whistle and flute players will often tongue very little if at all, and will instead use ornaments to emphasize certain beats and add texture and colour
    • Slip Jig = 9/8, usually three groups of three eighth-notes
    • Reel = 4/4, often played quite quickly, with emphasis on the first note; tends to be played semi-legato, i.e. neither separated nor slurred, e.g. DA-ya-da-da, DA-ya-da-da
    • Polka = 2/4 (or 4/4), more detached than a reel, with an unmistakable ONE-two ONE-two feel
    • Hornpipe = usually 4/4, often written in even eighth-notes, but meant to be played more like dotted-eighth-sixteenths; if you play them too much like dotted-eighth-sixteenths it will sound stilted, so they are usually played with a bit of a swing
    • Waltz = 3/4 or 6/8; exactly like waltzes the world over, except that the 6/8 “waltzes” (often O’Carolan tunes and the like composed before the waltz as a dance was invented) may move a little more quickly or have a bit more of a lilt to them
    • March = 2/4 or 3/4, depending on the rhythm – it will be obvious by the regular “walking beat” feel to it

    There are other forms in Celtic music as well, which don’t necessarily fit into a particular time signature, for example:

    • Air = usually a slower piece; this is one of the few that may be treated “tempo rubato”, or more freely with regards to rhythm and timing; often it is based on a song, and thus played in a very lyrical fashion
    • Set Dance = often a longer piece, designed to accompany a particular dance; the musical cues will tell the dancers which part is coming up next, so it’s important to know exactly how many times to play each part through, and in what order

    Celtic tunes are often divided into 2 or 3 parts – these will usually be referred to by the letters A, B, C, etc. (A being the first part, and so on). So if someone says, “let’s start again at the B part”, they mean to start at the beginning of the second section of the piece. Usually one or more of the parts is repeated (so some common patterns would be: AABB, ABB, AAB, etc.)

    The best way to get the feel for Celtic music is to listen to it – often! Get yourself a handful of CD’s, preferably from different groups, different regions, different instruments. Listen to fast dance tunes, slow airs, songs, whatever you can find. Best of all, attend as many live performances as you can. Listen in on jams and sessions in your area. Even excellent sight readers will not be able to capture the “feel” of Celtic music without hearing it first.

    Celtic Jams, Sessions, & Ceilis (part 1)

    Sorry for the long wait between posts, I was away all this weekend visiting with old friends.

    Since so many harpists are fans of Celtic music, a lot of them are interested in jams and ceilis – what they are, how a harpist can participate, and so on. So this will be the first in a series of posts about that very topic. I’ve already got a fairly detailed look at Celtic Jams and Sessions up on the Celtic Harp Page, but I will go into each in a bit more depth here. To start with….

    What are Celtic jams, sessions (or “sesiuns”) and ceilis (or ceilidhes)? Aren’t they all the same thing?

    Some people use the terms interchangeably (you’ve probably heard the term “jam session”), however some trad musicians distinguish between the various terms. To most of the trad musicians I know, a jam is more of a free-for-all, where new people may show up not already knowing the tunes, but willing to just pick out chords and such on the fly. Often someone will suggest (i.e. shout out) a tune or set, and launch right into it, and everyone who wants to join in does. Quiet instruments and beginners might find the pace a bit breathtaking, and may feel overwhelmed at first. Part of the problem is that you don’t always know what to expect – some days you might show up to find you’re competing with three fiddles, two guitars, an accordion and four bodhran players (of varying skill levels). Singers and harp players may only get to be heard while everyone else is taking a beer break. In these cases, it helps to attend a few jams just as observer, and if possible to find someone to write down a list of common tunes for you (if you’re really lucky, you might even get someone to copy some sheet music for you). Generally, jams are part of the true oral tradition, in that you play by ear (memory). However, at our Sunday Celtic Jam here in Peterborough, no one minds if people drag their music stand along, and it’s quite common to see several battered copies of the Fiddler’s FakeBook in use on any given Sunday. It’s usually best to talk to the local jam’s organizer first to get the lay of the land (we’ll be looking at jam/session “etiquette” later on.)

    A session (or sessiun), on the other hand, may be somewhat more organized, or even more “elite”. Often it is an established group of players who all know the same tunes, and can play them consistently at or above a certain skill level. Session players may meet regularly to learn new tunes, but when performing are expected to be able to lead or follow without getting lost, and to be familiar with the types of sets typical for that group (e.g., for a reel set, someone may call out a familiar set of reels in G major; a “set” is just several tunes strung together, played one right after the other). If you want to join an established session group, likely there will be a group leader you can talk to. They may send you home with sheet music or a tape or CD to learn from, and expect you to show up at the next session (or practice) with at least some of the tunes already learned (generally, this means by memory – Celtic session musicians do not usually use sheet music for performing, although it may be used for learning the tunes initially). However, some people might refer to any impromptu gathering of musicians as a “session” (there can be other kinds of sessions too – bluegrass, blues, jazz, old-timey tunes, folk music, you name it). As above, it’s good to ask the local organizer or a veteran player if you’re not sure.

    A ceili (or ceilidhe) differs notably from a jam or session in that it is often intended to accompany dancing (although some people will use the term “ceili” to mean a jam/session, or even just any party or get-together where music is played – just to confuse the issue!). In some ways, a ceili (the kind for dancing) is similar to a session, but may be even more restrictive in terms of who is allowed to play, and what they’re expected to know. If you want to play for a ceili, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with all the traditional time signatures and tune types – e.g. reel, jig, strathspey, slip jig, polka, waltz, etc. In a Ceili, usually the caller (the person calling out dances) will lead, and give indication to the band what tunes are needed. Often the tunes will be done in sets of 2 to 4 tunes at one time, sometimes in the same key, but often switching keys or going into relative minors or majors of that key. For a harp player, this can be a bit tricky, but usually you can get away with it by using, say, the first (“A”) part of a tune to flip levers, and coming in on the repeat. As a harp, keyboard, or guitar player, if you’re invited to play for a ceili even though you may not know all the tunes, you will be expected to have some proficiency in picking out chord patterns to accompany the tune. If you’re a drummer, you will be expected to know the typical rhythm patters, and you must be precise in your timing, so as not to throw off the dancers or the other musicians. Some local Ceilis happen on a regular basis (e.g. once a month), and are open to any local musician (with outsiders being considered guests; it’s usually best if you’re invited by a local). Just keep in mind, that while at jams you are just there to play music and have fun, at a dance ceili you’re actually performing a function – keeping the dancers happy and energized, as well as pleasing the audience. This doesn’t prevent it from being loads of fun, of course! But they will expect you to be in tune and know your stuff.

    Here’s a short jam/session newbie checklist:

    1. Know Your Chords – It really, really helps to know how to play basic chords, and to know your key signatures. To practice, FakeBooks or other collections of lead-sheet music (melody line and chord markings) are great. Playing along with CD’s or DVD’s can also be helpful, as it should give you an idea of what it’s like to play with people going full speed.

    2. Have a Way to Tune Your Harp in a Loud, Crowded Room – You’ll want to tune your harp perfectly before you go to your local jam, but as we all know harps don’t always want to stay in tune, especially if they’ve gone from house to car to unfamiliar location. It helps to arrive early to let the harp get adjusted to its new environment. For tuning when there’s lots of background noise, bring an electronic tuner and a pickup. Tuning by ear is a great skill to have, but won’t help you much when you can’t hear yourself! If hearing yourself is really an issue (you should at least be able to hear yourself a little while playing), then you might want to ask if it’s okay to bring a small amp. Some groups are okay with this, but in some places it’s completely taboo, so check first!

    3. Know Your Local Group – Every regional group operates in its own, unique way. Talk to the organizer, talk to some regular participants. Most regular session players are friendly and helpful, and should be able to tell you all you need to know (such as, what playing level they expect you to be at, how fast it goes, how big the group is, if it’s okay to bring music and/or amplification, and so on).

    4. Bring Your Own Stuff to Play! – People actually like taking a break from the rousing jigs and reels to listen to an occasional slow air. Bring a few favourites already memorized, and your audience will usually love it. The fast players can use this as an excuse to grab a beer or go out for a smoke, but you may be surprised at how many people stick around to listen. Harps are enchanting after all, and have an old, rich tradition in Celtic culture.

    5. Don’t Give Up! – It may seem fast and furious at first, but don’t worry – if you get good at chording along to tunes, you should be able to start by picking out simple bass lines, then progress to more elabourate chords and rythms, and then on to counter melodies and harmonies. If the regulars don’t mind, you can bring a tape or digital recorder and record each session, then practice playing along at home. If you can find a tune list and sheet music, or if you’re good at picking up stuff by ear, you can gradually learn to play along with the melody lines as well. Consistent fingering helps to play those really fast tunes.

    Free Handout #1: Beginner Exercises

    Harp Exercises Thumbnail - Click on picture to get printable versionClick on the picture to get a larger printable version (it usually works better if you right click and choose “save link as”, or “save target as”, and then print it from your computer later; some browsers have a hard time printing high-rez images at the right size).

    These are a few easy beginner exercises that you can use to start getting those stiff fingers a little more flexible and coordinated. All linking (“walking”) exercises can be continued for a full octave (or, up the entire harp if you prefer!). Fingering inside square brackets means all fingers in the brackets should be placed before beginning to pluck the first note. The little “x” in the crossing-over exercise indicates when to cross the fourth finger under the thumb (or, when to cross the thumb over one of the other fingers).

    These exercises aren’t meant to be a substitute for a proper exercise book, just something to get you started.

    For lever harps, I highly recommend Deborah Friou’s “Harp Exercises for Agility and Speed”; it’s the one all my students use. It covers just about every exercise you could possibly need on a lever harp, and would be equally helpful to pedal harp players. You can get Deborah’s books at the Sylvia Woods Harp Center, Melody’s Traditional Music & Harp Shoppe, and most other harp stores.

    For more free handouts, check out the Harp Center Handouts section of the Sylvia Woods website.