For years, the harp has softly faded into the background of many folk band performances, carrying the tune, but often unnoticed.. Yet the arrival of one teacher on the Isle of Man ten years ago altered the local perception of this instrument.
Culture Vannin’s recent announcement of a series of online harp tutorials has opened the doors to new music for young artists. Traditionally associated with magic, the harp’s unusual, but beguiling appearance has strong connotations linked to Greek mythology and folk tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk. Saying that, it has also made appearances in its fair share of films (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is but one to name), but what power and influence does it actually hold in Manx culture?
Islandlife’s Tia Welsh spoke to Harpist Tutor Rachel Hair to find out more:
Many of us have come across a harp at some point during our lives but not many of us have tried to play beyond a few strums. The harp is not something we see in our everyday band and surprisingly, its history dates back to Ancient Egypt.
But, for Rachel Hair the instrument is a normal part of everyday life. Since picking up the harp for the first time at her primary school in the North West Scottish Highlands, Rachel fell in love with playing and began teaching at the start of university. More than thirteen years on, she has continued with some and she has students achieving high accolades including winner of BBC Radio 2’s Young Folk Artist of the Year 2018, Mera Royale.
During her regular visits to the Isle of Man to teach the harp, Rachel has fallen in love with the island and its Celtic music scene.
She said: “I kept popping over to the Isle of Man and some of the Manx harp players always asked for a few lessons,” she explained. “Culture Vannin wanted someone who could do more of this teaching, since there was only one harp tutor on Island at the time. He taught primary school children but as soon as they left there was no one to continue the education.”
“A lot of the time playing the harp was done to allow local dance groups to perform.” Rachel admitted “There’s a really close connection between music and folk dancing, when compared to Scotland, and that’s something I really like about the Isle of Man!”
Lessons are carried out once a month, with no grading required. “It just took away all that pressure of learning to read music” she added. “Learning the harp was purely for enjoyment, fun and part of the culture. Harp playing is a creative process and you have different options - you could be a melody player or an accompanist, soloist or in a band.
Scottish harp playing tends to be more traditional tin the fiddle and pipe tunes used, but the music from the Isle of Man… I can’t describe it. It’s like Scottish music and it’s like Irish music - you can never tell!”
Whilst the harp may offer the freedom to experiment for many aspiring musicians, it also comes with a cost. “It’s an expensive - you’re talking £2,000 for just an entry level harp.”
Though, this archaic instrument may often be seen a piece of elaborate ‘artwork’ and ‘elitist’ its’ ability to inspire, capture and compel audiences with its beautiful Celtic nostalgia, remains untouched.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Culture Vannin’s harp tutorials, please visit Rachel Hair harp lessons: Mannin Aboo! | Culture Vannin | Isle of Man.