I’m working on the 3rd edition of my book Progressive Lessons. I decided to be more focussed and concentrate only on the three beginners’ tunes from the testimony of Patrick Quin and Denis O’Hampsey. Looking again at the manuscript sources, I am seeing a lot of things that I had not paid attention to before, and which are worryingly different from the way I have been playing and teaching these tunes up to now.
The most significant think that has come out of this study is consideration of hand position on the harp. I have written here recently about Patrick Byrne’s hand position, on alternating strings to give a “chord” shape. But I have been looking more closely at the portraits of Quin, O’Hampsey and other harpers, and I am seeing a consistent positioning of the left and right hands differently. I see two main grups of portraits; the 19th century harpers (Patrick Byrne and Patrick Murney) hold their hands higher, with the fingers drooping a little, perhaps influenced by French pedal harp technique.
But the 18th century harpers have a distinctive strong hand position,. I would characterise it as having the left hand curled, with the three fingers placed and the thumb lifted high out of the way; while the right hand is very flat, stretched out with the thumb high and the fourth finger stretched out to a low string.
The combination of these hand positions, with the notations in Bunting’s manuscripts of Mailí Bhán and Burns’s March, give a very different system for playing early Irish harp from what we have all been doing up to now.