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:

November workshop roundup: a Galician waltz and an Irish reel with variations

The FluteFling November workshop was surprisingly sold out with as many as fifteen people attending, so firstly my apologies to those who were unable to make it.

It’s only the second of this new monthly series, but it has been well- attended and I am delighted with the level of interest. Plans are already being made for January-April and beyond.

The next FluteFling workshop will take place on Saturday December 17th and you are welcome to join us for a coffee or beer afterwards.

Flute and whistle players take a well-earned break at November's FluteFling workshop.

Flute and whistle players take a well-earned break at November’s FluteFling workshop.

Technique

We played long tones to begin with and help us warm up ourselves and the flutes. These tones were based on arpeggios associated with the tunes we were going to look at and get our ears and fingers used to the tonal centres and shapes within the tunes themselves.

An arpeggio is basically a broken chord, meaning the notes of the chord are not all played simultaneously, but one at a time. These arpeggios are to be found within the tune structures of all music genres, including traditional music. When learning by ear it is a useful and important skill to understand that, for example a tune in the key of G will feature phrases that include G, B and D with linking notes and runs of notes. So if your fingers are familiar with the relevant shapes and positions, then the melody can be anticipated and more readily picked up.

If you aren’t familiar with chord structures, then for our purposes all you need to consider is that a chord triad (three notes) consists of the first, third and fifth notes. (There are many permutations, but all we are concerned with here is understanding how a traditional tune may be structured and how we can use that to help us play by ear.) For a tune in G, the G is the root of the chord, or first note, A is the second and not part of it, so B is the third, C the fourth and D the fifth, giving us a pattern of G-B-D.

So for a tune in G, we would expect to hear phrases that incorporate these notes. Furthermore, these notes could be expected to feature prominently. This is useful in learning the tune as we can after listening hear and understand the shape of the phrases and try to translate this to our fingers and breath.

Repertoire

The tunes were the Galician waltz A Bruxa (The Witch) by Antón Seoane, which I had transposed into B minor and hung on B-D-F# and The Sunny Banks (The Flowers of Ballymote), a traditional Irish reel very much in D and hanging on D-F#-A. The sheet music for this can be found here and on the Resources page. Click on the links below for my recordings of the tunes or follow me on Soundcloud and access more that I have done.

We stood up, walked about as we played and felt the movement of the tunes in our legs and at one point had a number of us unconsciously swaying gently together like grasses in the wind. We also has a look at phrasing across parts of the tune, especially with the wistful descending phrases of A Bruxa, giving more air to the opening of the phrases than the conclusions.

Our setting of A Bruxa in B minor has an A# (or Bb) in the final phrase. This is fine with a keyed flute, but we looked at cross-fingering to flatten the B natural on keyless instruments and on the low whistles a half-holing measure was also found to be useful. Although tricky, this was better than a setting in A minor that had many F naturals and a G#. If you’re interested in how that might look or sound, there are versions on The Session web site, along with discussion of the title.

The original version was recorded by Milladoiro (official web site here), with hurdy gurdy player Antón Seoane being a founder member.

The tune has an Edinburgh history as there are recent musical connections between Edinburgh and both Galicia and Asturias in northern Spain.

The Easy Club recorded the tune in the 1980s, and The Tannahill Weavers did so later on. John Martin played fiddle with the former and has been with the latter for many years. One of the bands which gave rise to Shooglenifty in the late 80s and early 90s was Edinburgh band Miro, who included mandolin player Iain MacLeod, but also fiddler Simon Bradley (who plays with Asturian band Llan de Cubel) and at various times flute players Rebecca Knorr and Niall Kenny; Shooglenifty’s fiddler Angus Grant Jr., who sadly died recently, also appeared with them on occasion.

Another notable recording of A Bruxa is on Senex Puer by Lá Lugh, from Dundalk. You can hear a sample of the tracks on Eithne Ní Uallacháin’s web page and it is worth exploring the rest of the site to learn more about the group’s singer and flute player and her legacy.

The version I taught is here:

Flute player and teacher Kenny Hadden joined us for the second tune, an Irish reel called The Sunny Banks (also generally known as The Flowers of Ballymote and in Bulmer and Sharpley’s collection as The Flying Column).

Again, we looked at arpeggios for the tune and then learned the bare bones. We walked about and found our own acoustic spaces. A discussion then followed about how variations feature in traditional music, in particular in Ireland. The Session web page for The Sunny Banks includes a number of versions that show it is open to interpretation and variation, but it is still the same tune.

As it happens, Kenny Hadden had posted a YouTube clip of The Cheiftain’s playing it, with a Matt Molloy solo for the reel. They precede it with a slip jig (9/8 time) entitled Top it Off, which is a version of the same tune.

Here’s the clip:

Quoting Cathal McConnell, Kenny made the point that once you learn a tune it is yours and you can do what you like with it. Variations are your way of expressing what you enjoy about the tune and for me I would say that exploring variations is like turning the tune around and viewing it from different angles in order to know it better. It embeds it in your mind and you become more comfortable playing it. I would say that a tune existing as both a reel and a slip jig is another example of somebody somewhere and at some time trying out variations, too.

Here are some of my variations:

I generally agree with Kenny that this is more common and accepted in Irish music. However it also exists historically in Scottish music in the form of set variations of tunes published in the 18th and 19th Centuries and in the Highland and Lowland piping repertoires. Fiddler Alasdair Fraser also commonly plays variations on his recordings.

November workshop

flutes and whistles

Flutes, whistles and fife (c) Gordon Turnbull

Only two weeks to go to the November workshop, but if you’re thinking of coming along, there are just 5 places left. I know a few people have shown interest but have yet to sign up, so don’t be disappointed.

For the first part we’ll be looking at phrasing and the use of Bb on an unkeyed D instrument in a tune. Don’t worry, it’s a slow melody and if you have a Bb key on your flute you’ll be fine. We will also think about F naturals and G# using the same melody transposed.

I have yet to decide on a tune for the second focus, but the use of pulse and variation are likely to feature.

I hope you can make it and can also join us afterwards for a tea, coffee or something stronger at a cafe/ bar around the corner.

October workshop roundup

FluteFling October 2016 workshopThe FluteFling Autumn workshops got off to a great start with ten flutes and two low whistles exploring a range of techniques while learning an air and a reel.

Techniques

We looked at issues around jumping octaves as both of our tunes begin with E-e octave jumps. On the flute, don’t overblow, but use your embouchure to get the upper notes – a fine air stream is required and raising the jaw for the upper notes will push your bottom lip forward very slightly to help achieve this. On the low whistle, ensure breath support is strong to avoid going out of tune.

We looked at using the diaphragm for breath support.

We explored using flat surfaces such as a wall to provide an acoustic mirror and help with understanding our own sound.

Decoration and pulse is used to help emphasise the rhythm. By giving more air to notes on the beat we bring out the colour of the tune. The decoration we looked at began with cuts (single or multiple grace notes from above), strikes (grace notes from below) and rolls (multiple grace notes typically formed by a cut followed by a strike).

The breath can be used as the voice in traditional singing, to provide inflection and context. In the slow air Tha Mi Sgith for example, the breath can be increased and decreased over a phrase or section of the melody

The tunes

Resources
A revised PDF of the music we played can be found here: FluteFling_oct_2016_tunes. I recorded them both but have not been able to upload Sweet Molly to Soundcloud due to technical problems at Soundcloud. I will update it when it becomes possible. However Tha Mi Sgith was successful (see link below).

We had a look at two tunes: Tha Mi Sgith is a slow air that is often played as a strathspey, a march and even a polka. In a modal key, it is the melody of a lullaby commonly played in A Dorian (two sharps), but occasionally in E Dorian (two sharps), which is how we played it. By transposing it down, we brought out the sonority of the flutes and whistles.

Here’s a version I recorded on a whistle previously:

And here’s the version I played in the class on the flute:

According to TuneArch, the strathspey first appeared in the Athole Collection and the Skye Collection of fiddle tunes, both published in the 1880s. There’s some interesting archived discussion at the Mudcat Cafe web site, which includes various translations at a suggestion that it is a fairy love song, with a published version in the 1870s. Marjory Kennedy-Fraser seems to have had a hand in making it popular with her influential Songs of the Hebrides.

I first heard this tune played on Silly Wizard’s Wild and Beautiful, where Phil Cunningham played on a low whistle at a time when the instrument was still relatively unknown. There is a discussion on That Mi Sgith on The Session web site. There’s a recording and some background archived at BBC Alba and the same again here at Learn Gaelic; both sites take you line by line through the song and help with pronunciation.

The second tune was Sweet Molly (or Hopetoun House), published in O’Neill’s Music of Ireland as The Youngest Daughter. The Tap Room is another closely related Irish reel and the opening of Sweet Molly is very similar to the well-known Drowsy Maggie. It appears in various collections, including Kerr’s Merrie Melodies for the Violin, which every Scottish musician should own. Nigel Gatherer has indexed Kerr’s collections and transcribed some of the tunes. Take a look at the alternative titles and variants cited at the Tune Archive website.

Scottish band Sprangeen recorded this in the 1980s as a slow reel, with Ann Ward playing the melody on the flute.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore this tune deeply, but the breath can again be used here to bring out the jumping rhythms of the first part. After some technical issues uploading the file, here’s the recording I made at the end of the workshop:

Thanks are due to Anna from TribePorty for making us so welcome and for sharing the photo.

The next workshop will take place on Saturday November 19th 1-4pm. The following one on Saturday December 17th 1-4pm. Please note that places for both of these will be limited to 15.

FluteFling Autumn Workshops

Gordon Turnbull teaching flute (c) Ros Gasson

Gordon Turnbull teaching flute (c) Ros Gasson

FluteFling returns to Edinburgh this Autumn with a series of three workshops on traditional flute and whistle playing led by Gordon Turnbull. The afternoon workshops will take place at Tribe Porty in Portobello and evolve out of both the successful regular fortnightly classes that had previously taken place up to 2015 and the popular ongoing all-day annual Scottish Flute Day events that will return in 2017.

The workshops will take place on:

  • Saturday 8 October
  • Saturday 19 November
  • Saturday 17 December

There will continue to be a relaxed, supportive and informal style to the teaching, which will not only help develop repertoire from Scotland, Ireland and beyond, but also focus on aspects of technique. As before, the workshops are open to adults already playing whistle, low whistle or wooden flute in D as well as metal classical flutes (Boehm sytem).

Musicians returning to the instrument after a break are most welcome, but the workshops are unfortunately not suitable for complete beginners at this stage.

You can find out more about the workshops on the dedicated page of the reorganised web site, including online booking details.

I hope to be able to accommodate beginners in the near future; if interested, please get in touch and also sign up to the FluteFling Newsletter