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AnnaLee Foster,
winner of the All Ireland Fleadh Cheoil 2010

Having known Annalee for almost 10 years (we met when she was still a teenager), I have watched her grow and learn so much in the world of harping. Last summer, when I heard she won the Fleadh Harp Competition, I was so thrilled for her! I wanted to hear all about it, so we sat down one morning over coffee and talked about her experience. Here it is:

I guess a good first question is what got you started on the harp and when?

When I was a senior in high school, a friend invited my family to go to a Christmas
concert by a Seattle pedal harpist, Bronn Journey. As I watched him play Irish tunes on a lever harp I just sort of had a flash, “hmmm, I can do that.” I expressed my interest to my parents about wanting to learn how to play the harp so for my graduation present from high school they bought me a William Rees Glenn Aulen harp and said, “OK, let’s see how you do.” I took my first harp lesson with Jewel Shield and that was the beginning to the end of the story. My current harp is a Thormahlen Ceili-Mor which is what I used to win the Fleadh Competition.


Do you play other instruments?

My mom always said that I was singing and dancing before I could walk or talk. When I was 8, I convinced my parents that I needed to learn to play piano. I had some pretty iffy teachers back then. The first teacher didn’t seem to be much farther ahead of me in playing skills. She moved away and I got another teacher at 12 who said I was too old to start learning Mozart. So I learned a lot of American folk tunes, nothing serious. I also played clarinet, in elementary band, and I was active in ensemble, choir, and drama. I’ve always been around music, but not until I was in high school did I get serious about it. It took me awhile to find the right instrument.


How did you get interested in Irish music?

I’ve always loved Irish music and have been interested in it since I was 5. In fact I
listened to Thistle and Shamrock with Fiona Ritchie on OPB radio every Saturday night
at 6:00. I made a pact with myself when I was 5 that I would go to Ireland and learn to
speak Irish. I’ve gone to Ireland but haven’t learned how to speak yet.


You attended The Irish Harp Center studying with Janet Harbison. Tell us about
your experience there.

When I got involved with Irish music on the harp, it became my passion. I learned about the Irish Harp Center in a round about way by attending a workshop with Grainne Hambly on one of her Northwest tours. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of the harp and absolutely loved it. I went on line and learned about a workshop on the east coast of Ireland called Cairde Na Cruite, which means The Friends of the Harp. (http://www.cairdenacruite.com/Home.html ) I went there for a weeklong workshop in August where I had my first real immersion in learning by ear. It was a complete shock as before that I was learning mostly by sheet music and a little bit by listening. At this workshop, there was no such thing as sheet music until the end of the day after you already had your head crammed with 10 tunes. Coming away from that experience, I knew that I really wanted to study the harp and get serious about Irish music.

In 2005 when I was 23, I went online again to see where the best place to study would be
and we came upon the website for Janet Harbison (http://www.irishharpcentre.com/),
whose name sounded really familiar. By coincidence later that week, I was listening to
one of Grainne’s CDs and in her liner notes she happened to thank her teacher, Janet
Harbison. I was able to connect that Janet Harbison was the director of the Belfast Harp
Orchestra which was on one of my favorite CDs, Celtic Harpestry, and that she was the
composer of my absolute favorite harp compositions, Earth, Water, Wind and Fire. It was
a big circle. The person who started me on my serious quest for Irish music, Grainne,
brought me back to her teacher, Janet, and when I realized that this person taught Grainne
how to play like she does, I said, “I have to go to that person.”

Being at the Irish Harp Center was the hardest 2 years of my life but also the best.
Basically you ate, drank and slept harp. There wasn’t a lot of time for “a life”. Other students said it was so intense and what about having a real life? When I heard that, I said, “Don’t you realize what you signed up for? This is your life for the next however many years that you’re here. This is your life.” Not only do you get private lessons with Janet, you also get instructed with Irish Harp History, which is tied in with Irish history,  which is tied in with Irish political history. So basically, you’re learning a lot about the sociology of Irish traditional music and how it fits in with Irish culture. You’re sort of becoming a little bit of an ethno musicologist. It’s very comprehensive.

You’re also being taught how to teach. I would observe Janet’s teacher students and I
would also teach my own students, assist with group teaching, 3-4 year old music
appreciation classes, and it was just so much fun.

We would also go once a week to the local children’s school for the handicapped to do
palliative music. Then there were rehearsals for the Irish Harp Orchestra, which was the
professional orchestra, and the National Harp Orchestra, which was a training orchestra,
where some of the members were as young as 8 years old. These girls really knew how to
play. There were a couple of boys, too, who were very, very talented. Always more girls
than boys because of the way the history of the harp evolved and survived. In the ancient
days, the professionals in the Irish Harp World were mostly men. There were a couple of
female professionals. I’m sure there were more, but of the recorded history that we have,
we know of two. After the ancient Irish wire strung harp died out and the rise of the gutstrung
harp took over in the Egan era of the1800s, there were many unsuccessful tries to
revive the old style of Irish harping. The nuns in the convent preserved the harps that they
had, and learning to play the harp became one of the accomplishments for young, refined,
marriageable women. That’s actually where Janet learned to play the harp, in an Irish
speaking Catholic convent school in Cork. It was run by nuns and they had a harp room
and a harp class. At that time they were mostly taught to sing and accompany their voice
with the harp. Her teacher taught people like Moire O’Hara (http://www.maryohara.co.uk/)
and some of the other 50’s and 60’s Irish Cabaret singers.

When I was in the Irish Harp Orchestra, I traveled to Belgium, France, Germany Austria,
Cypress, Tennessee and Ireland with the orchestra. We also played at Wedding events. So
there was plenty of practical experience as well as learning. It was like an apprenticeship.

I have heard you talk about the vision you have of a harp school in Portland.
Tell us about that.

My goal is to build, in America, something similar to what Janet has in Ireland. People from all over Ireland come to study with Janet. She’s one of the best teachers! I would one day like to aspire to be as good a teacher as Janet. I would love to foster a school of
Irish traditional music, playing music on the lever harp, at such a standard that people
really realize how versatile it is. I want us to be just as numerous as guitar players.
Your time at the Harp Center was part of preparing for the All Ireland
Championship, what did you do more currently to prepare.

First of all, I had to decide what I wanted to play because unlike a lot of other
competitions, they don’t dictate what your repertoire is supposed to be. They don’t tell you what to play. They give you a guideline of accepted styles of tunes. You can play a jig, reel, hornpipe, air, slow air, mazurka, fling, etc.

Part of the judging for the adjudicators, is seeing what kinds of tunes you choose, which
tunes you choose, how you arrange and ornament them, how you put your own flavor
into the tune and still make each tune individual while keeping it traditional. The level of
competition was very high, some of the players were oozing with talent, so for me to get
the honor of champion, in some ways, I still can’t believe it. The standards were very
high. They look at your musicality, your technique, your ability to take a tradition and
make it your own, creative and new but still keep yourself tethered to the tradition
without going into left field. It’s a big balancing act.


Did you get to watch the other people in the competition?

I was able to watch the 12-15 year old competition and the 15-18 year old competition. Also in my own competition, I was smack dab in the middle so I got to hear what wentbefore me and what came after me.

What ran through your mind? Did you wonder, maybe I should play this one first instead or that one, or I shouldn’t play that tune?

No I didn’t, I basically spent the year leading up to the Fleadh, consciously thinking about what tunes I wanted to play. The tunes I pick have to grab me.


What tunes did you play?

When I chose my tunes, I first decided what categories I was going to play. I always try
to play a jig and a reel. They’re like the gold standard in Irish music. The newest tune I
played was a reel composed by the fiddler Edward Reavy called Love at the Endings.
Some of his tunes have been ingrained into the tradition and others are more obscure in
keys that are less common and thus less accessible. Another tune was a 6-part jig, the
Stray Away Child composed and played by fiddler from Sligo, Michael Gorman. I heard
it on Thistle and Shamrock and I knew it was one I needed to play. I also chose a slow
air, Blind Mary, by Turlough O’Carolan and a hornpipe, the Ahane, which is actually the
name of a town near where I lived in Ireland. It is an absolutely charming hornpipe.


Did anyone else play the tunes you chose?

Nope, not in my competition. I think one of the younger competitors also played Blind
Mary.


What is the format to the competition?

You basically sit down and play your first piece, wait for the judges to nod to you that
they’re ready for your next piece. You play your next tune and so forth. When you’re
done, you get up and walk away. You can announce your pieces if you like, but you don’t
have to. You’re basically telling the audience and adjudicators who you are as a musician
by the flow of your program, how you carry the energy of the music and how you craft it.
That’s what they’re looking for.


How many were in your competition?

There were 12. They are chosen through county and regional competitions. There are 4 regions in Ireland: Ulster in the north, Connacht in the east, Munster in the south, and Leinster in the west. The top 2 from each of those competitions go to the Fleadh. I qualified through the competition in Chicago earlier this year. And there is another Fleadh on the American east coast.

What was it like while you were playing? Did you feel like you were doing well?
Yes and no. You’re always your own worst critic. If you feel like you’ve made a minor mistake, you’re right on top of it. I can get very nervous. But I felt like I played the best I ever played in competition. Ultimately, I’m really in competition with myself, not with the other participants. I did think, “Oh maybe I could have played that better,” but in leading up to my competition, I did all the preparation I could do, I practiced as hard as I could and it’s just a matter of how I play on that day. The adjudicators makes a difference too in how they feel about the music you play. They might not like your style, or think you’re too traditional or too modern or too this or too that. I think of harp competition as
more like running track. Track is a team sport, but you’re really not competing against
the other people, you’re competing against yourself. At the Irish Harp Center they have
examinations that graduate you to different levels. There are adjudicators for that as well.
I got high distinctions in all of my exams and these helped prepare me for competing. I
think competitions are more stressful than examinations. There’s more on the line. If I
play my best, do the best I can, play the best I’ve ever played in competition then I’m
happy. If I don’t win, it’s not the end of the world. I’ll still be able to teach, I’ll still be
able to perform and I can go back to Ireland and try again. Now that I’ve won, I don’t
feel like I need to compete again.


What was going through your head during the announcements of the winners,
especially after they named the 3rd and 2nd place winners and neither one of those
was you?

The person who got third was a gentleman from Cork by the name of FIERKRA. He played gorgeously and was very creative. He was a very gripping and dynamic
performer. My friends and I thought he would get first place, so when he got 3rd, I figured there was no way I was going to place. Then DIERDRE NEVREDRAN from Claire got 2nd. I thought, “she deserves that, she played very well and she’s a good solid player.” At that point I was thinking, “OK if FIERKRA got 3rd and Deirdre got 2nd, who’s getting first? When they announced my name, my first reaction was, “What!” Then it sunk in and I walked to the front for my medal. It was surreal. I still can’t believe it. It was a very strict
and hard competition.


Did Janet watch you compete?

Janet was at the Fleadh event the week before the actual competition teaching some workshops, but during the competition, she was visiting her husband’s parents in England. There were a few other students of hers in the younger divisions. I was her only student that won this year.


As a teacher, what is your approach to teaching the harp?

It’s about having fun in a way that won’t hurt your body. The age group makes somewhatof a difference. I have a few students that are around 5-7 years of age. With them, and actually with all of my students, if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. It’s also about expanding your horizons. At a young age, I teach them the tools to arrange for themselves. We start with the straightforward chord choices but then I show them some chord options and substitutions and let them decide what they like the sound of. You start with a place of comfort and then talk about what other things you can do. By the time they’re done playing the tune, it’s their arrangement. We’ll block the chords, we’ll run the chords, we’ll walk the chords, play with the voicings of the chords, but in the end they get to choose how they fit it all together. And also as they advance, I give them ideas for ornamentation or tasteful ways to play around with the rhythm so they are empowered by the music they’re learning. As they progress, they can go back and revisit the simple arrangements they had at the very beginning and gain tools to expand on it so they can take something simple and embellish it, flush it out so it develops as they progress 3 or 4 years down the line.

So having fun is one thing, expanding horizons is another, empowering the students to
think for themselves musically is another. I don’t want to produce clones and I don’t want
to produce harpers that only play fixed arrangements.

And forget about perfect. Practice makes easy not perfect. No matter how difficult it is at the beginning, the more you do it, the easier it gets. With me, the tunes that give me the biggest struggle to learn, I like to play the most. It gives me the most sense of accomplishment. I’m a bit driven, and I tend to thrive on the drama of deadlines. I like to surmount challenges. I used to mountain climb and to get to the top you have to go over some big obstacles. Then when you get to the top, you’ve got that high of “I made it.” Then you realize there’s another mountain to climb. It’s the same type of idea. Knowing where your student is and breaking down an insurmountable challenge by saying, “Ok, we can get here and now that we’ve gotten here, see that over there? Let’s see if we can do that. OK, we’ve done that but we’re still not done.”

I think music should be fun but I also believe in being firm about having good technique
and that there’s a method to the madness. There’s a way we do certain things to
encourage healthy posture and healthy technique. Janet says, as far as fingering goes,
“simple fingerings for simple shapes.” Breaking down the tune, if the phrase happens
more than one place, do the fingering the same way. If it worked the first time, it’ll work
the second time. If you change the ornamentation, you might need to change things
around, but keep it simple. You don’t have to be fancy.


Do you do the same thing with your older students?

Basically yes although the repertoire will be different. With the younger kids we’ll do more nursery rhyme type tunes and they sometimes make up their own verses. One of my favorites was a verse made up to What Can You Do With a Silly Sailor? (I changed it from Drunken Sailor). A little girl who loves Disney said, “Put him in a dress and call him Cinderella.” I get them writing their own verses. There are some nonsense tunes that Janet composed for some of her younger students. One of them is the Castle Connell Train. They learn a walking bass line left hand melody with a boom chuck right hand while singing and making up their own verses about what they’ll do and see at the train station. I just love teaching the little ones.


Do you have recommendations for beginners? Intermediates?

Get a teacher. Don’t necessarily settle for the first teacher you find. Shop around and find
a teacher that will teach what and how you want to learn. If you can’t get a teacher, you
can try Skype. I would recommend going to workshops on the topics that interest you. Go
to harp conferences. Get input from as many people as you can. Listen to other musicians
than harp players. Listen to the fiddlers, accordion players, singers, pipers, whistle and
flute players, who are playing the tunes you want to learn. How they interpret a tune will
be different from how a harper might interpret that same tune. Listening will give you
ideas. You might not be able to do what they do, but it can inspire something new for
you. It doesn’t matter if it’s Paraguayan, Irish, Balkan, or Breton music. Listen to the
sources. With the Internet, you can hear a lot of great stuff. CD Baby, that’s your best bet.
If you can, travel to the area where the music you like is popular and immerse yourself in
it.


Thank you so much Annalee for talking with me, and congratulations on winning
the All Irish Fleadh 2010!

Sharon Thormahlen

Thormahlen Harps | 1876 SW Brooklane Corvallis, Oregon 97333 | (541) 753-4334 | harps@thorharp.com