Adventures at the
Edinburgh International Harp Festival
by Rebecca Harrison
“I’m going to Edinburgh International Harp Festival,” I announced to my husband, David, just before I booked my tickets on one snowy January afternoon. I paused, trying to find the words carefully. “You can come with me if you’re interested—but if you do, please keep in mind I’m going for me. This will be like when I come along to one of your guitar concerts and stay in the background to support while you perform. Our friends, Trevor and Sandra, live just a 30-minute walk from the Merchiston Castle School, where the festival is held. They can put us up.”
When dreaming about going to a harp festival, that budget-time constraint worried voice in my head always won. Thus, I had never attended a harp festival. After a rather frustrating few months, I quieted all my critical voices and booked.
David understood my perspective and, to my surprise, he decided to come along. As promised, he gave me space to have my own experience during the day, while we enjoyed concerts and sessions together in the evenings.
Our adventure from Oslo, Norway to Edinburgh began on Good Friday. For the first time in years, I felt excited about flying. Finally, I was doing something completely for myself. Armed with curiosity and the desire to have fun, I was ready to have an adventure.
A Day at the Festival
Saturday morning, I walked to the festival grounds and checked-in. The festival had a high demand for rental harps. While on the waiting list, I did some searching and arranged a private rental with Heather Downie. She met me at the reception with a sweet sounding 15-year-old 34-string Camac harp, the heaviest and the best sounding rental I have ever used.
After stowing the harp in the handy harp storage room, I headed to my first workshop, “Learn how to Manage Stress More Effectively.” One hour later, I came out armed with a new technique from Tana Collins: Square breathing. Or as I’ve come to call it, breathing in 4/4 time:
- Breath in one measure (to the slow count of four)
- Hold your breath one measure
- Breath out one measure
- Hold your breath one measure
- Breath in one measure
- Continue for about two minutes
I have been using breathing in 4/4 time for several months and find it does wonders to help me focus before presenting professionally and playing concerts. Of course, Tana offered more tips, but you will need to attend next year to find them out—I won’t give out all her secrets!
Directly after the workshop: lunch. The café offered food at a very reasonable price and, in spite of my various food intolerances, I could eat well. Meal times turned out to have two advantages, first an opportunity to meet interesting new people, second the Lunchtime Open Platform. On the café stage, any festival goer, especially new musicians, have an opportunity to perform. David Anderson at Accusound, ran the sound system, boosting the sound level to allow everyone to enjoy listening to the music or having a conversation. I enjoyed the open platform until they wrapped up and headed to my afternoon course “Harp and the Spoken Word,” with Heather Yule.
Our cozy group of seven relished learning how to make new sounds on the harp, develop story ideas, and collaborate by setting poetry to music. My only complaint: I would have enjoyed a week long course to cover more material and have additional time playing with music, words, and learning from Heather and the group.
On Monday I tried the Open Platform stage. I told myself I would take a later time so the young artists could have full opportunity to play for the lunch crowd, not because I felt nervous. At the spur of the moment I asked Enid, a participant in a workshop I’d attended, if she’d like to accompany. She bravely said “yes.” David at Accusound produced a hands-free mic and together we wove the story of Maggie, Patrick, and the fairies.
On my great adventure, I wanted to try everything. Volunteering was one of my best choices. Volunteers are the gears that make the festival turn and almost everyone doing an official job is a volunteer.
I found volunteering gave me a superpower. I love meeting people even though I am slightly shy. Put a badge on my chest, give me a task, and suddenly I can meet people because it’s my job. I had an in-depth conversation with a young lady taking a year off to travel and play music and met a remarkable international student at Edinburgh University all because of two hours of donated time. In addition, volunteering gave me a chance to attend several workshops that I would not have signed up for on my own. After checking in the attendees, volunteers are free to attend. Thanks to volunteering, I have become smitten with the Cape Breton step dances and have a new destination on my bucket list.
A confession: I have never had a lesson from a traditional folk harpist. When I began learning in Stuttgart, Germany, a classical harp teacher gamely put up with my fondness for folk music. After a few years she stopped asking when I’d buy a peddle harp and gave up complaining about all those minor-key slow airs I insisted on.
Booking lessons at the festival was easy. Deciding who to book with, however, was next to impossible. I read the bios of the teachers and considered picking at random but finally decided on Heather Downie, owner of my rental harp.
Eleven years of classical piano lessons in my youth had left me with great music reading skills and absolutely no trust in my ears. Working with my folk-singer and guitar playing husband has taught me to hear the correct chords. But I wanted more—wanted to learn how to play melodies by ear. Heather taught me.
In two lessons, she broke down the techniques I needed and started me on two lovely tunes. I’ve always been addicted to technique exercises, and Heather happily fed my habit, giving me several that have shown great results in the past months. I also use additional exercises on her effective Technique Tuesday Facebook group.
If you take lessons, I suggest you have an idea about what you’d like to work on and then see where things go. For me, lessons from a folk teacher made a difference and I’ll be taking folk lessons over Skype.
Every night, after the concert, the sessions started. I attended only one festival harp session. A small concession stand sold drinks while we formed a large circle with about fifteen harps. A group of fiddlers sat along one wall, politely playing softly. Normally someone leads the session. The night I attended was the one night without a leader. As with most sessions filled with strangers, a few brave people played tunes between a good deal of quiet banter before things got started and then the music flowed naturally. Playing with so many harps is an experience I’ll never forget.
On Sunday night, our Edinburgh friends invited us to join their Shetland Island Fiddle Session at the Athletic Arms Pub. I brought my phone to record tunes and jotted down names like “Shetland Times and Taters” so, next time, I could bring a harp and join in. Of course, being in a Scottish pub, I tried a dram of whiskey and showed off my prowess as a super lightweight drinker. Next time I’ll know better.
The concert series presented diverse harpists. My husband believes in having a preview before attending a concert so we spent an evening searching YouTube and listening to wire-strung, jazz, classical, and many variations of folk harp before making our concert selections.
At the festival, I had a few minutes to speak with Isobel Mieras, one of the Joint Artistic Advisers. “We try to have a wide variety of styles with artists around the world. We feature both pedal and lever harpists.” In 2018 Isobel noted that four of the Scottish performers were originally festival attendees. The two home-grown artists we had a chance to hear in concert played with heart and soul, leaving us wanting more.
As performers, we eventually learn that there is a place where an eager audience and your own channeling of music or story combine to create a space where there is a magical connection between music and listener. One evening concert we attended felt magical. Maeve Gilchrist (harp), Nic Gareiss (dance), and Mr. Macfall’s Chamber orchestra wove this connection between music, performer, and listener and took us through a world of sound and rhythm.
Nic marked rhythms on a sanded floor for Maeve’s harp, creating an intimate dance between harp strings and feet —a wonder to see and hear. Mr. Macfall’s Chamber joined Maeve to premier the commissioned work she wrote for the festival, “Pasture’s Red,” which wove traditional sounding tunes with modern music and words from Watt, by Samuel Beckett. This creative and daring performance was the highlight of the festival for my husband and me.
Walking into the exhibition area was a stroll into a little harp heaven. I spent hours immersing myself in harps. First, I admired the many shades of wood – blonde maple, blushing cherry to dark secretive walnut and shapes of harps. Next, I felt the smoothness of the finish and finally this shopper played as many harps as possible, unabashedly poking her nose in sound boxes to better catch the scent of the wood. The harp makers and models on display were too many to list. I counted six rooms of harps with twenty-three exhibitors taking part in the exhibition. For a size perspective: the exhibition was in various rooms of a school, not an exhibition hall.
The rooms always had a knowledgeable sales person, if not the harp maker present. Usually there were another one or two harpists browsing and we entered into deep conversations, discussing the merits of strings type and brands (many are fluorocarbon/carbon-fiber converts, although some still hold that gut offer the best sound) and which levers you preferred.
Naturally the selection went beyond harps. Beginners trying a melodeon could often be heard, various harp accessories were for sale, a wide selection of music, instrument insurance, and a record label were all well-worth a long browse—I left with a lighter pocketbook.
Friday morning, we left snowy Edinburgh to return to an almost snowless Oslo. Then came the best ending to any holiday, our overjoyed Labrador Retriever wiggling in full body exultation to greet us.
The Edinburgh International Harp Festival helped me renew my creative energy, make some valuable contacts in the folk-harp world, and expanded my musical horizons. I’m already making plans to go again.
Festival at a glance
When I first looked at the festival’s book and the five-day schedule, I felt overwhelmed. There was so much to choose from! While the program does vary from year to year, here are the basics: There are courses, workshops, concerts, private lessons and masterclasses.
- Courses are scheduled in three 90-minute time slots throughout the day. Some courses last two days, over the weekend, others four days.
- Workshops take a 60-minute time slot and are a stand-alone experience, happening once daily.
- Concerts usually are twice daily: in the afternoon, for 60 minutes, and evening for two and a half hours. Concerts focus either on one artist or group, or feature two artists/groups. The exceptions are the Family Ceilidh, a dance evening with a live band and the From Scratch Concert, where festival attendees have a chance to play in an afternoon concert.
- In 2018, the harp festival tried something new: A three and a half-hour masterclass option on the last day of the festival.
- Private lessons are available with many of the artists attending the festival. They can be booked when you arrive at the festival.
- There is on-site housing available for participants at a very reasonable price.
I don’t want to miss anything, so I often do too much. Next time I will book significantly less. Learn from my mistake, know what you can comfortably manage and schedule accordingly.
What to bring
Coming from Norway, where “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,” I didn’t notice the bad weather until horizontal snow arrived with a lashing cold wind. Keep in mind the time of year and check the weather before you travel, to pack accordingly.
I came to the festival armed with curiosity and the desire to have fun, and found both knowledge and enjoyment. While there I meet a few individuals who came assuming everything would fit certain expectations. They had a very different festival experience. A festival is what you make it, pack your sense of wonder, fun and flexibility to fully enjoy yourself.
Rebecca Harrisson supplements her professional harp playing and storytelling with her day job as a writer and communication coach. Originally from Michigan, she is now based near Oslo, Norway, with her husband, British folk singer David Harrisson, and dog-child, Jamie Oliver. Rebecca and David are often found playing at local folk-music sessions and performing at concerts and private events in Southeast Norway.
- Photos by Mark Wild
- This article was originally published in the Folk Harp Journal, a quarterly harp magazine published by International Society of Folk Harpers and Craftsmen. To discover more and sign up to receive it visit https://folkharpsociety.org/folk-harp-journal/