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 Belfast Hornpipe and some tricky triplets

This week’s tune is The Belfast Hornpipe, a three part tune with some technical challenges that has in its time been a showcase tune.


Hornpipes are an unusual type of tune that form a smaller part of the repertoire than jigs, reels, strathspeys and marches, certainly in Scotland. However, they are an old form of tune, perhaps originally in 3/2 time which can still be found in tunes from Northumberland and the Scottish Borders.

An introduction on Wikipedia explains the different sorts of hornpipe quite neatly. There is a relationship with some Scottish reels as well. Loch Leven Castle is a Scottish reel that we covered a while back and is known in Ireland as a hornpipe called Tuamgraney Castle. Hornpipes seem to be related to barndances, and some long dances or set dances and clog dances too, so playing hornpipes is a way into those less obvious tunes.

Here’s the famous Alla Hornpipe in 3/2 from Handel’s Water Music, dated 1717:

Here’s footage from 1963 of John Cullinane, from County Cork step dancing the Liverpool Hornpipe; Seán O Cearbhaill from Limerick on the fiddle & looking on are the members of the Tulla Céili Band.

And here’s the version of the Belfast Hornpipe played by The Dubliners that was the inspiration behind the request to look at this tune, a very different way of playing:

Our version of the tune comes from Miles Krassen’s edition of O’Neill’s Music of Ireland. This is the controversial “updated” version of the 1,850 tunes collected in the early 19th Century by Captain O’Neill of the Chicago police. An ABC version of the original book can be found on John Chamber’s web site. You may be able to get the original from music shops in Edinburgh or online at Custy’s Music Shop (Ennis, County Clare), Walton’s (Dublin) or even Amazon (I have a shop). If you’re not sure, check with me first.

We play the tune with a dotted rhythm (long-short) and hornpipes are often played this way, although not always notated so. Try putting more breathe on the beat (the longer notes) to help generate a pulse. This is useful practice for reels.

Much of the melody sits on a series of broken chords and this is the key to understanding where the fingers go because the direction at times seems counter intuitive. Many hornpipes became showpieces for technique and this is most apparent in the third part, which consists of strings of descending triplets. Beware speeding up here, which is very common. Instead, try to focus on the underlying sense of the tune by substituting triplets with the main notes; in ABC notation, this means

| 3(fgf 3(ede 3(ded  3(cdc |


| f2 e2 d2 c2 |

Once you have this secure in your playing, introduce the triplets once more and it should be easier to maintain the rhythm (emphasise the first of the triplet notes with more air) without the tune running away under your fingers.

Although we had no problem with finding space to breath, if you wish to do so it is possible to play the first note of the triplet and drop the remaining two. Having done the previous exercise it should be possible to do this without too much thought.

Finally, we considered how much air to give the triplet runs. While there is a practical consideration to gradually decreasing the volume of air over the phrases — and running out of air is another reason why people speed up on this — there is a more compelling musical reason too as it adds contrast to the passages. Hornpipes can sometimes be dramatic and stagey, which may be related to their popularity in the 19thC.

The Resources page has music and recordings for the tune.

Hornpipe titles tend to be a little apart from those of other tune types. They might celebrate ships (The Great Eastern, The Great Western, Royal Belfast) as well as more far-flung places (Off to California, The Saratoga Hornpipe), which are also celebrated in ship names and reflect the expansion of the western world during the 19thC. The Belfast Hornpipe has a few names too: http://www.tunearch.org/wiki/Belfast_Hornpipe_%281%29


On the subject of Belfast, concertina player Jason O’Rourke writes short stories that draw inspiration from his observations of Belfast life and is highly recommended. If you’re ever in Belfast, you may be lucky enough to catch one of his Vernacularisms walking tours that takes you to the locations in which the stories are set. He’s also a dynamic musician.

Main photo: mural collage from the Household Festival, Belfast 2013 (c) Gordon Turnbull

Flute and whistle classes in Edinburgh this Autumn

FluteFling classes will resume on Thursday September 4th and run into early December. There will be two groups once again, running alternate weeks for a total of seven classes each.

I have found description of classes and experience levels in traditional music settings to be limiting as people learn and acquire skills at different rates and in different circumstances. For simplification I have opted to rename them in order to show an approximate sense of progression:

  • Flute and whistle 1: for complete beginners and those with less than 1-2 years experience.
  • Flute and whistle 2: for those with about 2-3 years experience
  • Flute and whistle 3: for those with about 3-4 years experience or more.

The regular Thursday night classes will be for Flute and whistle 2 and 3 only, following on from previous years.

I am delighted to say that Flute and whistle 1 will be organised and run by the multi-talented and inspiring Amble Skuse, who works and teaches in the Edinburgh area and with Horsecross Arts in Perth. An experienced teacher in many settings, I am looking forward to liaising with Amble in this new partnership.

Update: unfortunately the Flute and whistle 1 class does not have sufficient numbers to run at the moment. If interested, please contact Amble and a new session will be organised when it will be possible to go ahead.

Photo of flutes and whistles (c) Gordon Turnbull

Summer term begins this week

Pentland Spin by Barney, on FlickrA quick update to remind everyone that the Summer term resumes this week with the Slow and Steady class. The Improvers and Beyond class resumes next week.

There are five classes and no mid-term break. All dates can be found on the Diary page.

A reminder to book for the Scottish Flute Day on 10 May if you haven’t already done so. Booking is not through me, but through Tradfest. The response has been promising and spaces are limited, so make sure you aren’t disappointed.

Image: Pentland Spin by Barney, some rights reserved.


The Longford Collector

After the recent challenges of The Tarbolton Reel, the Improvers and Beyond class looked at the next reel in the Michael Coleman set, The Longford Collector.

This tune in G sits nicely on flutes and whistle and offers some scope for variation, particularly in the B part. There is not much known abut this tune, which is strongly associated with this set. There are a few variations on the title, and an account of how Michael Coleman gave it its current title on Alan Kuntz’s Tune Archive web site.

Some information on recordings of the tune can be found on Alan Ng’s site Irishtune.info, which puts the earliest source of the tune as 1936, when it was first recorded.

I have put resources for this tune and The Sailor’s Bonnet up on the Resources page for this year.

Photo: Summer sky in Longford, Ireland by Paul Wilson, some rights reserved.