ur motif as we planned the Minnesota Scottish Harp weekend was music and camaraderie amongst Scottish Harpers, honing skills in a supportive community, and playing it forward for the next generation. So how did that go for us? Great! Not always as planned, but improvisation is very much a part of the Gaelic harp tradition, right? We embraced it fully!
We wanted a harp competition judge who is steeped in the tradition and could bring both insight and encouragement to our competitors, as well as provide a workshop to expand the musical horizons of the harpers attending. Sue Richards, a wonderful central figure in the Scottish arts community in the US and abroad, fit the bill all the way — and, to our delight, agreed to come.
Variation OneAnd… the night before the workshop foul weather on the East Coast made it impossible for Sue to fly to Minnesota!
Panic! Deep breaths! A phone call to the other coast of the US, where the weather was tractable.
Result: the esteemed and gifted Scottish harper and judge Seumas Gagne agreed to drop his plans and come to the Midwest, flying all night on a redeye to get here in time for the Friday workshop. Our weekend was rescued from an untimely & shambolic demise!Next, all participants were called. Folks took the last-minute switcheroo news with good cheer: while, of course, disappointed that Sue Richards couldn’t make it, the general gist was people were excited to work with Seumas, whom many had met in 2017. And they wanted to get together to play this music!
Accordingly, Friday afternoon harpers gathered at The Celtic Junction Arts Center in St Paul for the workshop ‘Gaelic Music on the Harp’. Seumas taught a selection of melodies from the world of Scottish and Cape Breton fiddle and Gaelic song. The music was taught by ear to improve skills level in that traditional method, and the dots were handed out as well as a reference. The tunes Seumas taught were an 18th century slow air “Coilsfield House” by Nathaniel Gow, and 2 tunes from Cape Breton; the strathspey “Mabou Coal Mines” and reel “The Mortgage Burn.”
“I particularly enjoyed Seumas’ tune selections” commented participant Chad McAnally, “but also the way Seumas connected each tune to its background story to give us context for how they should be played.”Following the workshop, some folks headed down to the Minnesota Scottish Fair and Highland games to catch a performance by our own fabulous Scottish Harp Champions Stephanie Claussen (2018) and Chad McAnally (2009) along with Siobhán Dugan singing in Gaelic and English. Stephanie played on lever harp and Chad on wire-strung harp, as well as on wooden flute. Said Siobhan “I had not heard wire-strung and lever harp played together before, and I was struck by how beautiful they sound together, the timbre of their harps so different from one another and so complementary. No lie in it – we were as limp as steamed lettuce in that 110 degree heat index out there, but the music was mighty as these two masters tossed the harmony and melody back and forth to each other, interweaving.”
Stephanie adds “1000 times ‘Thank You!’ to MN Scottish Harp weekend participants and others who braved the extreme heat to come out to hear us play. You kept us going when the going was rough!”
Minnesotans mock themselves for talking a lot about the weather, but we have our reasons! As in: the next morning, the day scheduled for the harp competition in the nice, airy tent out at the Scottish Fair dawned blustery and proceeded to ramp up ferocious.
Thus, while the stalwart pipes stayed, the harps were blown indoors by the horizontal rains and tent-destroying wind. We ‘missed’ the tornado sirens that went off late morning, having already fled for shelter.
More frantic Plan B phone calls/emails ensued to tell all of the contestants of the new location at Chad and Siobhán’s home. “It had to be hard on the folks with the jangly nerves that can come with performance, and especially in a competition”, Siobhán comments, “but everyone was just so gracious and so flexible.”
A fabulous time was had by all as we joined in musical camaraderie with the harp competition, Seumas Gagne at the helm. After quickly tallying the scores, we presented our awards.Here are this year’s graded results:
- Beginner – 1st Under 17, Eisa Collins
- Novice – 1st Open, Dianne Rowse
- Novice – 2nd Open, John Hinners
- Journeyman – 1st Open, Allison Stevick
- Journeyman – 2nd Open, Hannah Scheele
- Journeyman – 3rd Open, Sarah Schmidt
Last, but not least, our competition has two special awards. These awards are unique to our event, and allow us to recognize something the judge sees in the competitors apart from their scores in the standard graded competition. Seumas awarded “Most Promising Harper” to Eisa Collins for the intrepid spirit she showed in playing for us on a strange harp during a day of several stressful vicissitudes.Seumas awarded the “Charlotte Fairbairn Award” to John Hinners. The award was created by MNSHW’s patron, John Fairbairn, in honor of his mother. Fairbairn explains: “Charlotte Judd Fairbairn was a person who exemplified dedication. Once she determined that she was going to do something, she threw her heart and soul into it, overcoming all odds and difficulties. One of her favorite phrases was, ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing my best.’, which is etched on the front of the beautiful glass trophy. It is that kind of dedication which this award recognizes, the greatest effort to do something well for the enjoyment of others”. Hinners is well-deserving of this award for his deep commitment to playing harp well and with real musicality, despite having taken it up later on in life.
After the applause and congratulations, spontaneous session started up afterwards. Folks snacked, tippled, and played music and the craic was mighty. Some, including Emily Taege, headed back down the Scottish Fair in the calm that had drifted in and set up an impromptu Harp Petting Zoo in the (still-standing!) harp tent. This was a way for non-harpers to get a chance to touch one of these magical instruments and learn their role in Scottish history and culture. This proved so successful that we hope to do it again next year. “It really is a great experience for people who would never get near a harp otherwise and also opens the gate perhaps to possible future students”, Emily noted.
Playing It Forward!
Another spontaneous cultural event popped up Saturday night with Seumas leading an interactive language learning game called ‘Language Hunters’ to teach a few folks some Scottish Gaelic. The idea is that it is a way to learn as we did when we were very young, by hearing and asking questions. And have fun doing so!
Interlude: Sunday Scottish Brunch and Music SeiseanAs in her playing, Stephanie puts together her meticulous effort and artistry to make the brunch a special event for her guests. It was a divine feast in a cosy setting, an opportunity to talk more with other harpers while enjoying egg – and – tomato tarts, and tasty sweets: homemade scones, cranachan (Scottish Trifle) and shortbread. The meal was complete with good, strong Scottish tea served in Stephanie’s family heirloom teapots.
What did we learn? Newbie organizers Chad and Siobhán jokingly respond: “Always have a back-up plan—or two! More seriously, we learned that the Scottish Cultural community here is not only full of talented and dedicated musicians, but folks who are absolute peaches as people. The great good humor and flexibility we met with as we wove our way through the weekend’s maze of weather calamities made our hearts sing. We appreciate the feedback to all who filled out our survey on the event so we can get better at it. ‘It was a fabulous experience, and I really enjoyed meeting other harp players. The language hunt and the harp workshop were exceptional! Thank you!!!’ wrote one attendee and ‘Can we do it again next year?’ asked another. Universally panned? ‘The WEATHER’ Hey, we’ll do what we can!”
To all the participants—“Thank you!”
And special thanks to Seumas Gagne and to our fellow event organizers, Stephanie Claussen and Emily Taege.
—Siobhán Dugan and Chad McAnally
A Heartfelt Thanks to All Our Sponsors:
- John and Mary Fairbairn
- Jen Narkevicius
- John Hinners
- Reuben Correa
- Rachel Christensen
- Sheryl Hogg
- Rush Creek Research Co.
- Dennis and Vicki Schminke
- Stephanie Claussen
- Dianne and Nick Rowse
- The Celtic Junction Arts Center
- Cormac and Natalie O’Shea
- MN Scottish Fair/Don Cogswell
- Musicmaker’s/ Jake Nelson & Matt Edwards
- Erin McLean
- Seumas Gagne