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 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)


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.


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.

The Legacy: a rolling Irish jig

The first two classes of the term have separately focused on technique for flute and whistle ( breathing, tone, phrasing and ornamentation in particular). Both of these lead into the first tune of the year, an Irish jig called The Legacy.

The tune is based on chord structures in G and has a contrasting Em B part before resolving itself back to G. It’s strong and distinctive and offers some opportunity to vary the melody with rolls in a variety of places (G, B, E, D and A). I have attempted to show some of this in the resources that accompany the tune.

I was surprised to discover that not a great deal is known about the tune. It is associated with Irish-American fiddler Larry Redican (more on him here) and bore his name on some recordings, notably by Bobby Casey (1959) and the Coen brothers’ The Branch Line. No, not the movie makers, but Jack and Charlie from east Galway, playing flute and concertina.

It was first published as The Legacy in Bulmer and Sharpleys’ mid-1970s collections of Irish tunes, but did appear in O’Neill’s Music of Ireland (1903) and also Kerr’s Merrie Melodies (1880s) under other titles (Skiver the Quilt, The Tailor’s Wedding). More detail can be found over at The Fiddler’s Companion website.

I have seen an assertion online that it may be a Scottish tune originally, but no evidence to date, other than the earlier publication date for Kerr’s, which includes Irish and other tunes anyway. Having said that, the strong chordal construction of the jig wouldn’t be out of place in the Scottish repertoire.

By the way, for some ABC settings of the old collections, check out this website.

Pull the Knife and Stick it in Again

An usual title for this Irish jig that completes our pair of spookily-titled tunes (see The Haunted House). Pull the Knife and Stick it in Again is in E minor or E Dorian, depending on your take on it, which contrasts nicely with a G major tune.

It was Matt Molloy who first put it into E minor from A minor and he gives the story that there once was a witch who used to ambush riders by dropping on them from the treetops. The way to break her spell was to stab her and leave the knife in, and as long as one ignored her pleas to ‘pull it out and stick it in again’, one was safe. It was follow to comply with her request, for once the knife was removed the spell resumed. According to the Fiddler’s Companion, the title apparently refers to a County Clare saying that relates to the Hag of Balla, which appears to be near Castlebar in Mayo as far as I can tell. It seems that the tune may also be related to a reel in A minor called Castle Kelly.

The tune goes below the bottom D of the whistles and flutes and there are two strategies that can be adopted when approaching this. One is substitution of the phrase for a different one that both fits the instrument and makes sense within the tune; the other is to more simply play the note an octave above the written one. This is the common approach with this tune.

Resources for the tune are now up. Our version is a little unusual and differs slightly from others in that it shifts into D in phrases, creating some strong contrasts within the melody itself. It is worth checking out the version on Fiddler’s Companion (above) for comparison.

Photo: Our version of the tune written out in the traditional music notation system that forms the basis for ABC notation.(c) Gordon Turnbull

The Haunted House: a flutey, whistley jig

Inspired by the Brownies who were having a Halloween party at our venue last week, I changed my plans at the last minute and made The Haunted House the tune that we focused on, a jig written by the late County Galway flute player Vincent Broderick.

As might be expected, his tunes are very accessible to whistle and flute alike and have become popular in Irish sessions. His tunes seem to fit the traditional idiom very well without trying to jazz things up or change things about, so that fit into the repertoire quite seamlessly. One distinctive trait of his tunes is the repetition of key phrases that then help to emphasise the rhythm in a way that feels quite subtle. My recording and setting are on the resources page.

The jig comes from The Turoe Stone, one of two books his compositions that he produced and there is also a CD available. Here’s a list of the various editions that are available on Amazon.

He received TG4’s Composer of the year award in 2003:


More tunes: Scottish and Irish jigs

A quick post to say that the remaining tunes for the term have been posted up, rounding off a set of Irish jigs and a set of Scottish jigs. Some of these have been discussed previously.

The new ones are The Jig of Slurs (follows The House of Gray and Drummond Castle) and The Mug of Brown Ale (follows The Killaloe Boat). You can find background information on some of these in previous posts, but all resources for them are now up to date, along with all of the other tunes. The Mug of Brown Ale I wrote about when I taught it at the Scots Music Group. The bonus tune is Dónal na Gréine, which we won’t have time to cover this term, but goes well after The Mug of Brown Ale.

Photo: Killaloe by BillH-GSACC, some rights reserved.