The contrast between the frustration of travelling in the Friday traffic and the calm cordiality that greeted us on arrival at the ‘The Friars’ could not have been greater. Dark had already fallen but the reception staff were patiently waiting to welcome us and issue our keys. Lights were on in most of the windows and there was activity everywhere as harps of all sizes were carried into the main ‘gathering’ room and baggage humped to the bedrooms which we found to be warm and well-furnished. By now, supper was being served in the lofty Pilgrims Hall and we hurried along to enjoy the first of the tasty and more than adequate meals which were served throughout the weekend. Here, greetings were exchanged and introductions made but we were then urged to hasten over to the St Joseph Chapel where Kathleen Loughnane, one of the tutors, was waiting to perform some of her lilting Irish dance music.
Ever since a young age Kathleen has played the harp and has become an authority on traditional Irish dance music and as she charmed us with her uniquely rhythmic tunes it was difficult to resist the urge to leap about and join in dancing. However, the rather stark sanctity of the chapel deterred us from doing this, but there was certainly some audible foot tapping! With this foretaste of the outstanding talent of our tutors we went to our beds full of excitement and anticipation for the morrow.
Saturday morning began with a hearty breakfast, before or after which people had the chance to survey the mellow stone buildings of the monastery which is home to a community of Carmelite monks, and the extensive riverside park area of the grounds with its resident colony of Canada geese and dabbling ducks, all enhanced by the blue sky and brilliant sunshine.
The real business then began and we were divided into five groups according to our abilities and introduced to our respective tutors. The ages ranged from school age pupils to pensioners and grandparents! Altogether there were 17 adults and 13 children. Amongst these there were four children in one family all playing the harp and another three from a second family – a total of six harps in two families! Luisa-Maria Cordell and Mike Parker took the children, in two groups and the three adult groups rotated so that we each had a session with three of the four brilliant tutors, Kathleen, Danielle Perrett, Cheyenne Brown and Sue Rothstein.
The emphasis during these workshops was perhaps more on encouragement and enjoyment rather than achievement but none the less we learned a great deal about timing, listening and concentrating, and eventually mastered most of the tasks.
Throughout the weekend harps were available for hire, music was on display for purchase and representatives from Pilgrim Harps were available to offer help and advice.
It was then time for an interesting and skilled display of Tai Chi from Bruce Halls who started practising the art seven years ago when he said he was considerably less agile than he is now !
Later Cheyenne Brown entertained us with a selection of vibrant Scottish folk tunes played with amazing agility in a very nonchalant and effortless manner. Cheyenne is not only a master of traditional Scottish music but has a flare for improvisation and introduces blues, African and Indian music into her playing with equal ease.
After lunch we changed tutors. Our session with Kathleen was next and she had a strong conviction that Irish music should be handed on aurally and played from memory, and that by reducing it to conventional musical notation it loses its energy and vigour.
None the less although we all agreed in principle and did our best not all of us were up to the task and shamefully begged the music to take home – keen not to forget what we had remembered !
We then all gathered in the main room to be entertained by the children. It was a delight to hear and see the competent handling of their instruments, some much taller than the diminutive players! Their experimenting with the range of sounds produced by threading paper through their harp strings and adding tapping and percussive elements to the sounds, plus the addition of some ghostly masks gave an ‘eerie’ effect suited to the run up to Halloween!
In terms of audience entertainment it was a hard act to follow but Danielle Perrett was more than a match for them and riveted us all with a masterly recital, ending with the beautifully calming ‘Farewell to Stromness’ by Peter Maxwell-Davies.
After supper we all quickly tidied ourselves up for the Saturday ‘Ceilidh’ where the bolder members among us performed our ‘party pieces’ either as solos or in small groups. The sum total resulted in a most pleasant programme of varied music from a wide range of abilities and ages. The atmosphere was charged with the thrill that we all felt and shared whilst listening to the beautiful and diverse sounds of the harp.
Then came a post-party supper with a spread of delicious cheeses, fruit, chocolate and wine, where we all had a last chance to chat and mull over the success of the day, and whether or not we had been a lucky raffle winner we all went to our beds feeling that it had been a most memorable day!
Sunday morning’s programme began with an ‘optional’ Pilates Workshop run with dynamic enthusiasm by Danielle. There was hardly a space left on the floor for one more mat! A number of us had felt our neck and shoulders stiffening up after the long day of playing on Saturday and were keen to take advantage of Danielle’s demonstration of how to prevent this, as well as the whole gamut of movements and exercises which she performed so effortlessly and with such agility, interspersed with her witty ‘asides’.
After a later breakfast we all gathered in the main room for a very instructive demonstration by Mike Parker on how best to tune our harps – simple when you know how!
Jeanne Lynch-Aird gently lulled us into total relaxation with her soothing and soporific voice, and just in time roused us all again so that we were wide awake and in a good responsive frame of mind for our final group session where tutors put us through our paces as we learned and played our last pieces. Fortunately for our group Sue Rothstein’s own composition ‘Little Dynopaurs’ was not too demanding! She also listened to each of us performing a chosen piece and offered helpful suggestions for improvement. We were all then more than ready for lunch which also provided an opportunity for exchanging addresses, music, etc and joining in the lively hubbub of conversation.
The most spectacular moment of the weekend was to come. Both children and adult pupils, plus tutors all gathered in the main hall with their harps of all shapes and sizes, approximately 30 in all, for the final ensemble. I found this wonderful sight quite overwhelming, such that I felt the need to pinch myself to ensure it was not some wild dream. As each group performed the pieces we had learned, I reassured myself that it was indeed real and not only the end of a truly most thrilling weekend but the beginning of a whole new wonderful experience of harps, new harpist friends and making music together. I look forward eagerly to next year’s event.
(review by Barbara Thompson, photos Bruce Halls)