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We probably underestimate how connected Ireland was with other parts of Europe right back to medieval times.

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You have to remember this was a high class high art. There would have been be no expense spared. With the amount of work that went into decorating these harps, they would have been show pieces. Do you think these harps would have been serious pieces of art just visually, as well as to be played?

Without all the decorations these harps would have sounded exactly the same. So the decorations, like on the Kildare harp, that was there to impress the neighbours. In a conversation I had with the late Tristram Robson some years ago, he explained his research into how the harp was played between and in the English Court. This was played by Irish harpers initially, with this Irish harp being adopted as a court instrument played by English musicians towards the latter part of that period. Tristram explained that it became more of a chromatic instrument twelve notes in an octave as it was adopted.

Yes and then the keyboard took over from it, which was much easier to play. Things are bad enough on a diatonic [seven notes in an octave] harp! Apparently Mr Clarke had been playing since the age of five! For someone reading this interview with a deeper interest in harp-making, is there a way for them to follow your work or connect with you? Well some day I might get around to updating my website and put something on there, in the meantime I can always be contacted via email. Can we talk about choosing a harp?

When choosing a harp you need to figure out first what kind of music it is you want to play on it. Then you need to get a harp that suits that music. Try it out first, go to festivals, hire one out if you can. You took a deep interest in Irish dance music when very few playing the early Irish harp were doing that. Is it possible to play if you join in a session?

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That seems like a very difficult thing to do with a diatonically tuned harp. It depends on the repertoire. It is difficult enough for a harp with a semitone system. If you play the piping repertoire, pretty much the standard repertoire, you would be there or thereabouts. If there was a flute or whistle playing you would have all of those keys.

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More and more, it is not realistic to expect to be able to walk in to any session with a wire-strung harp and be able to play all the tunes with everybody. So really, you need to pick your sessions. You have to know the repertoire, and who you are going to be playing with.

Is that to allow you to play with other musicians? The reason for those four extra strings was because they were on other lever harps. The bottom notes at the moment are F-sharp, D, and B. It was to give the same bass range, so I could play the same arrangements as other harps. As it turns out I never did, they are very seldom used. F-sharp is the lowest I go usually.

But you need to have at least an octave below the D to make some sort of a bass line — otherwise you have to climb over your melody line too much. I think of it like this — the treble range is like a tin whistle and the bass range is like a guitar. But I suppose if you learn like this [combining accompaniment and melody in the same range] to begin with it is no problem. Do you have a particular approach to practice, say the speed at which you learn a new tune? You do you seem to play at incredible speeds very accurately. In a few concerts I have seen you go from a slow piece to a fast reel — it is extraordinary to see the dexterity.

The question is to hit the right note. So the more the jumping from one note to another without placing your fingers in advance the more chance you will hit the wrong one. So my approach is not necessarily to actually place fingers on the strings and then play. Instead I sort of walk my fingers on the harp, with certain fingering shapes trained into my hand.

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So I probably overdid it in challenging myself to play very fast. I think of how pipers learn tunes. At the Willy Clancy summer school for example, young pipers are invited each year to perform during the lunchtime concerts, and they will often play a slow reel into a hornpipe.

And you hear them then a year or two later and they are playing at the speed of Patsy Tuohy — just amazing. Clearly they learn their techniques at quite a leisurely speed and then all that technique remains in place and there is perfectly tight playing at much higher speeds. You need to learn those blocks of notes. I guess the best thing to do is to play the tune off the top of your head for a while first and find out where it breaks down and then isolate those places that you need to do something about and sort out the fingering. Otherwise you may get away with it for so long — you might get it right half the time or two thirds of the time — but when it matters you might not!

So the longer you leave it before you do something about it, the harder it is to correct. It can become a bad habit very quickly. But unfortunately when I started learning I was doing my own thing and I had no idea where it was going! Hopefully everyone adds a little bit to the pot and then in a few generations people will just play it at the same level as the pipes are being played today.

That would be fantastic. Can you give an example of breaking a tune down into blocks of notes? Ok say for a reel like Miss Lyons. How would I follow my own advice, practicing in blocks of fingering? This kind of pattern, the idea is to learn it in blocks …[music]… and then …[music]. So you would basically play …[music]… now that becomes quick because you know exactly where the notes are. You have four in a row there, so you keep your hand in that position …[music]. It flows better that way …[music].

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Then the same thing …[music]… then that position there with thumb, gap, two fingers, gap, and four …[music]… so that gets you out of trouble going down that run of notes …[music]. The whole part then …[music]. You seem to damp them quite quickly. Well sometimes I will let it go …[music].

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  • In the bass hand, is it a one- two-chord kind of a thing you are playing? And very seldom is it going to be …[music]… any combination of that a full D triad. What is that chord in the second half? Can you explain your approach to ornamentation for reels and other dance tunes? A lot of the minor tunes [as we call them] are based on two adjacent triads. In other words these tunes often go forward and backwards between two triads — for example, between A-minor and G-major triads — in various fingering patterns. And then in terms of our ornamentation what comes up very often is …[music].

    This is a sort of imitation of a roll on the flute …[music]. If you hit the lower note really loud …[music]… the ornamentation becomes more like an accordion triplet …[music]. So for the same fingering pattern you get three different ornaments, or even more if you end up hitting the bottom string first …[music]. That works sometimes, for some things.

    It sounded like the reel Toss the Feathers at one point there. So you have nice simple chords there — a basic E, and a basic D …[music]. It starts off …[music]… so that pattern there with the B roll off the E first, and then off the high D …[music]. You could do a roll on the bottom …[music]. To make it crispier you could do a triplet on the E …[music]. Then a change of chord …[music]… then your familiar gapped scale with the your fourth finger …[music].

    Then in the second part you could start …[music]… depending on what instruments you want to emulate.

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    On the fiddle you would have no option to roll on the E there of course. So you would have to go …[music]. But a flute would probably do …[music]… and you can do …[music]. Would you do all those rolls? You would put gaps in it rather than roll roll roll everywhere in it.

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    Once you know where they are you can just change them around every time through a part …[music].