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The harp that twice… Alex Monaghan enjoyed a double helping of harpist Lily Neill on the Welsh border

I was tempted over the old border still marked by Offa’s Dyke and into the fringes of Wales by the promise of an exceptional workshop. It was late March, but thick drifts of snow still lay in the deep valleys, and the air was redolent of wet earth and wetter sheep as I headed to Rhydycroesau to meet Maryland harpist, Lily Neill. Hiding between Oswestry and a very large blank space westward, until you reach Bala and Snowdonia National Park, the village of Rhydycroesau actually straddles the modern border; its main distinguishing feature is its absence from many maps of both Shropshire and Powys, but they know their harp music there.

The lavishly appointed Village Hall was to be the venue for a harp workshop on Saturday, but as night fell on Friday, I continued through Rhydycroesau and onwards to the fully Welsh settlement of Llansilin and a concert in St Silin’s Church.

I don’t play the harp, but I have long admired Lily Neill’s music, so when I heard she was teaching not 10 miles from my mother’s house it seemed too good an excuse to miss for a meeting and an article. Writing about a workshop may seem a crazy idea, but in reality a lot of folk musicians spend significant amounts of time in workshops, either teaching or learning, and sometimes both. A few emails later everything was set, including the added bonus of a pre-workshop solo performance by Lily – not to mention a fine fish supper and a long chat with my mother beforehand.

The concert was as outstanding as expected, Lily’s harping a delight despite the wintry temperatures in the church which forced her to augment her smart Stateside evening dress with a muffler and a good thick raincoat. In between hot cups of tea, the audience enjoyed two hours of very varied material, starting with early compositions of Irish harper Carolan and building up through more recent Irish and Scottish pieces to Lily’s own compositions in traditional and contemporary styles, and to Finnish dances learnt during her studies at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.

Saturday morning’s venue was much warmer, to everyone’s relief, and with half a dozen harpists plus a few spectators there was an intimate and informal atmosphere. Nevertheless, Lily started with some serious warm-up exercises: apparently warm and loose hands are essential for playing the harp, and fingerless gloves were soon shed as the exercises brought a pleasant glow to the players’ hands. One participant preferred not to be photographed, but you can see from close-up shots the range of different instruments brought along and the closeness between teacher and students.

Some attendees had travelled hundreds of miles, and their shared repertoire was small, but Lily soon found pieces which were new to everyone: one of her own, and the Irish slip-jig, The Butterfly. Learning by ear or from music was encouraged; participants were able to record Lily playing the pieces, or indeed the entire workshop if they wished, and written music was handed out in standard notation with accompaniment and ornamentation included. Everything was extremely well prepared, and the local support with setting up the venue and organising soft drinks and snacks ensured that the whole morning went smoothly. Allowing for arrival and tuning, and chatting afterwards, participants enjoyed at least two and a half hours of dedicated time, and everyone left well satisfied with the experience.

Participants were mixed in their playing level, their background and their ability to pick up new skills. From teenagers to pensioners, professional musicians to dabblers, each had a different instrument and different techniques. Although all were playing European folk harps, the tuning and range varied, and some also played pedal harp or other instruments, but their interest in the workshop was surprisingly similar: they all wanted to learn new techniques, and those who had attended the previous evening’s concert wanted to know how Lily did some of the things they had seen. Lily was patient and painstaking in explanations and demonstrations, giving each participant the individual attention they needed without wasting time for the others, and she managed to cover a large number of techniques, using melodies as a vehicle for teaching rather than an end in themselves.

For a non-harpist such as me, it was fascinating to see how a harp arrangement is put together: the rhythms and counter-rhythms, the left hand accompaniment playing against the right hand melody and then switching so that the right hand provided accompaniment in the higher octave, and the ornamentation which needs to be thought through quite carefully when you’re playing a five-foot hundred-pound zither with a range of arcane tunings. Another eye-opener, for me and for the workshop participants, was the range of sounds which can be produced by a harp string, depending on where you pluck it, how you pluck it, when and if you damp it, or whether you use Lily’s techniques of gripping or “chopping” the string before you release it.

I can’t say that I was inspired to take up the harp – too complicated for me, and too cumbersome, with plenty of illustrations of Lily’s tongue-in-cheek tune Life On Wheels as harps were wheeled and carted in and out. Lily herself plays a Californian-made harp which she has had since age 10 (she decided to become a harpist at the ripe old age of three), with a complex lever arrangement for accidentals. Other harps in the hall had removable pedestals and screw-in legs and a range of lever systems which all bore testament to the ingenuity of harp makers as well as their eschewal of anything resembling a common design. What I can say is that I hadn’t realised the amount of forethought and physical effort which goes into playing the harp – at least the large folk harps which are common nowadays – and the number of innovative techniques which can be learnt from the right teacher.

What I also hadn’t realised beforehand was that Lily Neill is now resident in the UK, having recently settled in the east of England, so we can expect to have more opportunities to hear and learn from this dazzling young harpist. She will also be back in Rhydycroesau before long too; this was her fourth visit, and the locals still haven’t had enough! Look out for her future appearances from coast to coast. If you are not already familiar with Lily Neill’s music, she has two albums which can be found on the internet along with my reviews: I highly recommend them.