February workshop: some Winter Merry Melodies

We looked at two tunes, both of which can be found in Kerr’s Merry Melodies for the Violin. Published in the 1870s, they have proved to be an enduring a source for a variety of Scottish, Irish and other tunes common at the time — including popular airs from opera. These tunes would have been an important part of the repertoire of most performing musicians when they were published.

Repertoire

Our tunes were the Schottische/ barndance A Winter’s Night Schottische and the strathspey Gloomy Winter. I also included a reel, Feargan and one of my own compositions, The Slipway.

Recordings of the tunes are below and can be downloaded. I encourage you to listen to them and other versions of the tunes as much as possible to help internalise them.

A PDF of the music will be uploaded after some server errors have been ironed out. In the meantime, there was some discussion about ABC music notation, an open source music notation system for traditional instruments and repertoire. Find out more about it here.

A Winter’s Night Schottische I first came across and learned as a barndance from Hammy Hamilton’s recording Moneymusk, where he duetted with a young Paul McGrattan. Hammy Hamilton is a flute player and maker from Northern Ireland, now long resident in Co. Cork. His flutes are excellent but can take some filling and he has both written a guide to the Irish flute and runs Cruinniú na bhFliúit (Flutemeet) every April (some spaces still available at time of writing). Flutemeet was one of the inspirations for our annual FluteFling Scottish flute weekends.

Flute session in Sandy Bell's, Edinburgh

Flute session in Sandy Bell’s, Edinburgh, November 2016: Cathal McConnell, Sharon Creasey, Rebecca Knorr, John Crawford and Kenny Hadden. (c) Gordon Turnbull

The repertoire or Northern Ireland has many examples of Scottish links and there are a host of strathspeys, for example, that are played as Highlands or barndances. A Winter’s Night Schottische is known in Ireland as Eddie Duffy’s Barndance, Eddie Duffy being a fiddle player from County Fermanagh, honoured in the annual Derrygonnely Festival. I was reminded of this tune after the November workshop when it was played in Sandy Bell’s by Sharon Creasey and Cathal McConnell. Sharon worked with Cathal on the Hidden Fermanagh project and it was Cathal who helped to spread the music of Fermanagh into the wider world. A version of the tune appears in Kerr’s with our title.

For a history of the schottische, a dance once popular throughout Europe, Wikipedia has an overview of its complex history.

The tune has a heavily dotted but regular rhythm, very much akin to a hornpipe and similar to a barndance. There is a fluidity to some of the definitions of these tune types but the dances for them are distinct. Using glottal stops to pulse the breath and push the beat along, there are opportunities to decorate sparsely in the main, but with some variation possible too. We focused on the phrasing to help bring out the overarching structure of the tune.

I came across Gloomy Winter in Kerr’s while looking for a companion piece for the schottische. It’s actually a strathspey setting of Robert Tannahill’s 1808 song Gloomy Winter’s Noo Awa’, but should perhaps be more accurately called Lord Balgonie’s Favourite, since that was the original tune that the words were set to. The excellent Sangstories web site has an account of the story behind it. The old tune books have many examples of song airs put to dance tunes.

Robert Tannahill was a poet, weaver and flute player from Paisley and the inspiration behind the Tannahill Weaver’s name. More about him from the Robert Tannahill Federation.

There are a few settings and titles for this tune, which featured in Michael Nyman’s score for The Piano:

An attraction about the Kerr’s setting in A minor is in the challenges is presents to the flute and whistle. It doesn’t sit neatly under the fingers, drops below the range of the instruments, both holds and pulses on the weaker c’ that also requires tricky articulation. However, this can be used to bring out a sense of vulnerability in the melody, something that Dougie MacLean does with the downward inflections in the phrasing of his version of the song and served as a model for thinking about the phrasing on the flute:

And finally, here’s The Tannahill Weavers playing the song, with Phil Smillie on flute and Lorne MacDougall on whistle:

We also looked at a couple of ways of articulating C natural in particular, leading to a digression that included demonstrations of The Bibble (as played by Ruairidh Morrison and also Munro Gauld) and The Wipe (as played by Phil Smillie and Malcolm Reavell on the whistle)

While looking for final tune to go with these tunes, I came across Feargan (a pet name for Fearghus), a simple but hypnotic reel with a sense of port-a-beul about it. I can’t find much about it at all. As well as being in Kerr’s (1870s), it’s also in the Athole Collection of 1884. Something about the structure of it and the possible meaning of the name makes me think it may be a west coast or Highlands tune originally.

Feargan could go well out of Gloomy Winter as they share the same key. Consider playing it at a slower than usual pace for a reel or possibly even as a strathspey first, then as a reel.

Finally, a bonus tune that we didn’t look at is The Slipway, a kind of slip jig I wrote while playing about with rhythms. I hope you have fun with it.

The next workshop will take place on Saturday 18th March.

 

4th Annual FluteFling Scottish Flute Weekend dates announced

Very early news of the 4th Annual FluteFling Scottish Flute Weekend. We’re looking at 16th/ 17th/ 18th June. Please pencil this in your diary.

This is going to be just as unmissable as before and the volunteer team of Kenny Hadden, Tom Oakes and Gordon Turnbull are working hard on organising the details.

Stay tuned and if you haven’t already done so, sign up for the newsletter for a timely announcement right to your email.

January workshop roundup: cuts, strikes and rolls

The FluteFling January workshop explored some of the issues around decoration, looking at cuts and strikes, their combining into rolls and the construction of crans. Techniques for finger decoration are the same on flutes and whistles alike.

We focused on Irish music as this generally lends itself to decoration more readily than the Scottish repertoire, there are more examples and anything gleaned can then be applied to a Scottish context.

A method for cuts, strikes and rolls

We began by familiarising ourselves with Breton flute player Sylvain Barou and his method for practicing cuts, strikes and rolls that he demonstrated at a flute weekend at Wiston Lodge a good few years back now. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule (more on that below), this serves as a useful foundation and hopefully allows people to experiment with confidence.

The method is based on scales, applying initially a single cut to each note of the scale as it is played. A cut is a very quick decoration from above, played by momentarily raising a single finger to sound the decorating note; other fingers remain in position, so making the note imperfect. This is because the point is a quick interruption of the note being decorated, not to play a separate note.

The best way to work with these is to think of them as finger actions or movements. For the bottom hand notes, cut using the G finger (sounding a notional A); for upper hand notes, cut using the B finger (sounding a notional C).

A parallel exercise is to try this with strikes as grace notes. A single grace note, the finger below the played note is struck, or bounced quickly to sound the note below. A strikes is also referred to as a tap, pat or bounce. Of course you can’t do this on D, although it could be possible if using keys, however I have never seen it done.

Rolls consist of a cut followed by a strike, so the next exercise is to combine these elements following the methods already explored. By doing so, a five note combination is created. For example, with grace notes in brackets, a roll on A would become:

A-(cut)-A-(strike)-A

OR

A-(c)-A-(G)-A

A roll on D or d is not possible, but a cran is. Borrowed from uilleann piping, the cran consists of three cuts from above. There is more than one way of playing these:

D-(A)-D-(G)-D-(F#)-D (standard)

OR

D-(A)-D-(F#)-D-(G)-D (my version, also June McCormack)

We looked at working in the lower register, but of course you can try this out using the full scale and octave jumps too. Arpeggios and other note combinations are possible ways of extending and building upon these exercises. When working on these, try them slowly at first and then build up speed as your fingers get used to the actions.

When learning tunes, consider applying cuts as grace notes as a way of building up to rolls. You can add the strikes at a later point.

Some thoughts

Rolls and decoration should be used as appropriate. It’s a matter of taste and it is also possible to lose the tune or timing in a flurry of notes. Micho Russell, Conal O Grada and Harry Bradley (see below) are examples of flute players who don’t use very much decoration or if so, simpler decoration.

Taste too, dictates which notes are used to perform these decorations. I learned with a note above and a note below, for example. However a greater contrast (and thereby definition) can be found using high cuts and low strikes. Most people will use a variety.

Double cut, casadh, condensed rolls, shortened condensed rolls, shortened crans and others are all variations on these techniques and worthy of some time in forthcoming workshops.

You probably also need to check out Roger Millington’s excellent Brother Steve’s Tin Whistle Pages, in particular the “dah-blah-blah” method. Be sure to explore the site, including the recordings of various recitals and sessions.

Repertoire

I suggested that the Irish repertoire is a better place to pick up many of the rudiments than Scottish music. Flutes have a friend in the uillean pipes and share a common decoration language. Of course such spaces do exist in Scottish music, but they are less abundant.

The tunes we explored are below. A PDF of the written music is here:

The Golden Stud: a reel that rolls

I find that this is a good tune for getting the fingers going. There are a few ways of playing it, but at some point you will play ascending rolls. It’s the middle tune here:

Rolls – the long, short and middle of it

As promised, here is a link to Niall Keegan’s paper on The Parameters of Style in Irish Music, which has a particular lean towards flutes. Published in Inbhear, The Journal of Irish Music and Dance, it’s a long read with plenty of clips of Niall illustrating the points he makes.

As emerged at the workshop, there is more than one way of playing and writing out rolls and part of it is to do with their duration: are they long or short? If so, where does the emphasis lie? For my money, a long roll tends to have a lead-in or lead-out note, which a short roll does not. I suspect that short rolls may feature more than long rolls in the Scottish repertoire.

Niall Keegan’s take on decoration is on this page.

If you really wish to explore this further in reading, parts of Gray Larson’s book can be found in this link.

An old new jig: Jane Craggs

The second tune we learned was one of my own, named for a friend on her birthday in 1987 and so 30 years old this year as was pointed out. I had included the jig for reference but somehow it caught people’s interest. It was picked up by a few people, including Tom McKean of the American band Dun Creagan:

When I play the tune today I tend to use rolls on the long B and F# notes but initially didn’t do so very much as they were still a challenge, especially on the flute due to hand positions. So feel free to play them either way. The high B jump also presents a little technical challenge.

Other tunes

I have included music and recordings for two Irish jigs, The Legacy and Sonny Brogan’s, and The Green Mountain, an Irish reel I learned from Skye-based uillean piper Duncan MacInnes.

Other resources and inspiration

We mentioned a few interesting people. I have included links, but it is worth googling them to find out so much more:

The next workshop takes place on Saturday 18th February.

Winter workshop dates for flute and whistle

Taking a break at the November workshopSaturday afternoon flute and whistle workshops in Edinburgh are set to continue following a successful Autumn trial, with a further three dates confirmed.

In addition, I will be directly in touch with those who have expressed an interest in beginner whistle classes and a slower flute and whistle workshop to explore date options. Please note that these will be on a Saturday.

Future dates will take place on the third Saturday of the month and will be announced once the annual FluteFling Weekend dates have been finalised. The monthly workshops will be limited to 15.

For further details, see the Workshops page.

Tickets:

  • Individual workshops:
    • Standard price: £22.50/ Concession: £17.50
  • All 3 workshops (see January):
    • Standard price: £60/ Concession: £45

Dates and technical focus:

  • Venue: Tribe Porty, 19 Windsor Place, Portobello EH15 2AJ
  • Time: 1pm – 4pm

December workshop roundup: Seasonal Basque and Shetland tunes, exploring breath control

This month we looked at some seasonal tunes, including Gabriel’s Message, taken from concertina player Paul Hardy’s Xmas tune book (available as a free PDF download) and the Shetland slow air Da Day Dawn. We also explored some flute technique, in particular breath support – also useful for any wind player – and embouchure.

The next workshop will be 21st January. Details will go the the website and be announced in the newsletter very soon.

Technique

Notes below the range of the flute

We played long tones on Em (E-G-B) to warm up and then learned Gabriel’s Message by ear. The tune features a B below the range of our instruments, so we looked at strategies for accommodating it. In this case we settled on playing the B in the low octave – i.e. an octave above what is written – but when we then played the melody entirely in the upper register, we played the same B. Other options include playing a low note that harmonises, such as E or F#. Keeping it low respects the feel of the melody.

It is not uncommon for traditional tunes to drop to G string on the fiddle. What strategy is adopted depends on the tune and how those notes feature.

Breath support

We looked at a few ways of employing the diaphragm for more efficient use of air in producing a sound. This included exploring playing the flute while lying on our backs, as described by Ciarán Carson in Last Night’s Fun:

Playing the flute while lying on your back encourages use of the diaphragm. Photo: Alan Chan

We included a refinement that brought us closer to the Semi-Supine position in the Alexander Technique.  Bringing the feet up the body and supporting the head. This may be helpful in developing good posture while playing the flute.

We thought about extinguishing a candle flame with directed and controlled breath and keeping it spluttering. We also looked at keeping a piece of paper to the wall using breath:

Flute exercise

Eileen demonstrates pinning a piece of paper to the wall using the breath. This helps to develop stamina while training the embouchure to focus and be efficient. Photo: Alan Chan

We explored whistle tones to find the embouchure sweet spot (see Jennifer Cluff on this) and tried singing and playing to open up the throat. Flutecolors lists some of the benefits in its extended techniques pages. Larry Krantz’s web site also includes an exploration of technique.

Books

Books that were brought in or mentioned and look at extending technique:

Repertoire

The tunes we covered and some others are on the Resources page. The written music will follow on. Gabriel’s Message is a Basque carol but SW England song collector Rev. Baring-Gould translated the lyrics and it is widely sung, here by Sting:

The other tune was Da Day Dawn, which I have written about previously. Mairi Campbell’s version and recording of the modern song is here.

Finally, I recorded a version on the Bb flute: