Part of the appeal of Philip Boulding’s Celtic harp classes, he said, is the connection the instrument he’s spent over three decades of his life playing, teaching and building has to the roots of musical tradition.
“There’s a mystique to the harp. It’s one of the few archetypal instruments – it’s been around since ancient times, since King David’s harp,” said Boulding, the owner of Magical Strings in Olalla. “And it really hasn’t changed that much, from ancient times until the present day.”
Boulding and his wife, Pam, whom he met when she took one of his classes in the late 1970s, operate Magical Strings from their five-acre home, which includes a studio where Boulding crafts his own celtic harps and hammer dulcimers, and another where he teaches classes. The latest round of beginning and intermediate classes begins in Olalla on Feb. 18, and in Seattle on Feb. 19.
The Celtic harp is much smaller than the large, golden instrument “at the back of the orchestra,” as Boulding described. His harps have 24 strings and are three feet tall, and are played on the lap of the musician.
He’s been teaching since he started offering classes at Seattle’s Market School over 30 years ago, but Boulding said his method hasn’t particularly changed – the unchanging nature of the harp inspired him to teach classes much in the same way people might have learned the instrument in Ireland in the 10th century A.D.
“The impetus was to help people have a direct experience with music,” Boulding said. “So the focus was on helping them learn by ear, which is a time-honored tradition that goes back to ancient times.”
Aural instruction in the Celtic harp first requires, as basic as it may seem, listening. While the harp’s scale is similar to a piano’s and songs are read off of similar sheet music, Boulding will wait to provide his students with written instruction.
“At the beginning, I want them to focus on the sound of the instrument,” he explained. Repetition becomes important: students learn very short sequences of notes, played with either hand, and then repeat these measures over and over. Gradually, Boulding incorporates more sequences and the use of both hands, until his students are playing melodies.
He said that in some ways, learning this ancient instrument is similar to a thoroughly modern activity.
“It’s a little bit like learning to type,” Boulding said. “You don’t think about all the letters you’re hitting, because your fingers know where to go. The same is true with the harp.”
Once these skills are applied, Boulding said his students can consider themselves part of the longtime tradition of bards, who were renowned in Celtic and other early cultures as musicians and storytellers. That’s a powerful appeal for a simple homemade wooden instrument, he said. Learning the harp in the 21st century echoes some of the musical heritage and style of those early bards, and the goal of Boulding’s classes is to recreate some of that history.
“The old Irish bards spoke of what they called the ‘three mystical moods of music,’ the music of laughter, sorrow and repose,” Boulding said. “The master of the harp could play any one of these three forms and no one could listen to their music without either laughing, crying or falling asleep.”
Boulding himself is not of Irish heritage, at least conclusively – his parents were both immigrants, his father from England and his mother from Norway. His mother’s line, Boulding said, is traced through generations of sea captains back to the rampaging Vikings, who would ransack villages along the Irish coast.
“I figure I probably have some mixed Irish blood from the 10th century,” Boulding said with a laugh. “But beyond that, there’s something that’s universal about the Celtic heritage and music that speaks to all of us.”