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.


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


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:

Spoots and Salmon

This week we consolidated the two tunes that Amble Skuse taught the class while I was away. She focused on examples that are built on the pentatonic scale, illustrating with the Shetland reel Spootiskerry and the march/ rant/ polka Salmon Tails Up the Water.

Spootiskerry is so well known that it is easy to forget that it is a modern tune, written by Ian Burns from Shetland and named after his farm. A skerry is a shoal of jaggy rocks usually found offshore protruding out of the water (from the Old Norse language and also found in Gaelic), while a spoot is a razor shell, which can be found and harvested on beaches.

The reel fits the flute and whistle very readiily and has some syncopated phrases that are quite distinctive. My version is a little different from Amble’s, and it may be one that I have developed in order to emphasise that rhythmic play. However, the version that I have recorded is Amble’s.

There is some good discussion on it at The Session, including an intriguing comment from Kenny Hadden who suggests that it fits the whistle in A as well. I haven’t tried that but it is very tempting. Kenny will be teaching again at this year’s Flute Day on 9th May.

Amble’s other tune, Salmon Tails Up The Water, I am less familiar with to play, but I have been aware of it for many years and should have known it. It is one of at least two tunes going by this title and this version is also known as The Banks of Inverness. I have seen it in Scottish collections, (but possibly the other tune with this title) and it feels to me like a march, but I see online it is claimed by Northumberian pipers as a rant, written in the 18thC by piper Jimmy Allen, who sounds like a colourful character.

There is once more some decent discussion on The Session, where it has also been associated with Irish singer and mandolinist Andy Irvine, once of the influential Planxty. It seems that the tune may be part of The Siege of Ennis set of Irish ceili tunes, probably as a polka. Good tunes tend to stick around and gain acceptance in other traditions.

We consolidated the tune and explored a couple of settings of it, one as taught by Amble, the other published by Nigel Gatherer in one of his many fine tune books. I have recorded and provided music for both of these, as well as music for Spootiskerry, on the Resources page for this year. Thanks are due to Amble for teaching these fine tunes and to Sarah and Adelheid for joining me on the recording.

 Photo: Salmon Jumping by Karen Miller, some rights reserved.

A Shetland midwinter tune

Da Day Dawn marks a fitting end to the term and the year. A Shetland tune traditionally played by the nightwatchman in the streets of Lerwick before dawn on New Year’s Day, Mairi Campbell describes it as a generous tune that can take all interpretations.

Although I had come across it in tune books in the past, I didn’t really look at it properly until I came across it in the Scots Music Group’s Songbook in which there was an arrangement of a song that was written to this tune. The song was arranged by Mairi Campbell for the Sangstream choir with instructions for a free and loose arrangement, which immediately caught my imagination. The modern lyrics are by Jane Hazelden and catch something of the spirit of people sharing hospitality in midwinter while moving out of darkness and towards Spring.

So I adapted the idea, transcribed the tune into a flute-friendly key and added some very simple harmonies in the spirit and take an approach inspired by Mairi Campbell’s arrangement.

I learned this on a melodica at first, then flute, piano, whistle. I find that each time I play it, it is different, which is always attractive about a tune. Here’s a version I recorded on a Bb flute with Sean Paul Newman on keyboards:

There are a number of versions of the FluteFling group playing this together on my Soundcloud page. Resources are up for this, with Adelheid Cooney playing the melody on the recording after learning it at the class last week.

This week we’ll be at the Dalriada Bar in Joppa from 9pm to have a few tunes at the end of the class. Hope to see you there if you can make it.

Photo: New Year’s Day 2012 – Sunset over Standing Stones of Stenness (c) slynkycat Some rights reserved.

Winter at Dalmeny Kirk 2013

Winter at Dalmeny Kirk 2013Back in early December, FluteFling returned to Dalmeny Kirk to play some of our music for our own enjoyment in an amazing setting, with a handful of friends listening in.

This is the fifth time we have had an excursion and the second time we have been to the historic Dalmeny Kirk. Thanks to Ian Slee and Dalmeny Kirk for their kind hospitality. You can find out more about this amazing and  historic church at their website.

These are social and informal occasions and we hope that you enjoy listening to the music too:

Jack Broke Down da Prison Door and other news

We finished up the term a few weeks ago with a third Shetland reel to complete our set, Jack Broke Down the Prison Door.

The tune is in G and fits flutes and whistles very well. It’s in a few collections, some from Hand Me Doon Da Fiddle, which did much to popularise many Shetland tunes. There’s a recording of us all playing it in the class and the music can now be found on the Flute Fling classes Resources page.

A discussion of the tune on The Session quoted from the original source:

From the book: “Hand me Doon da Fiddle” (Tom Anderson, Pam Swing).

Dis een wis made up be an auld fiddler named Jack Goudie frae da Ness. Some said dat he’d hed a dunt on his head whin he wis young dat gave him queer turns. He wis a very good fiddler an made up loks o’ tuns. Wan night in Lerook wi a dram in him he got a queer turn an the poliss lockit him up ida auld prison. He waited til dey wir sleepin an dan he brook doon da prison door an made fir hame as fast as he could. Da poliss wir awaur it he wis gaen, bit tocht it better to let be fir let be, so dey didna geng efter him. Whin Jack got hame he took his fiddle an made up dis tun an caaed him, “Jack Broke da Prison Door”. If da listens to da first twartre notes du can hear hit sayin dat.

Further background can be found at the Tune Archive website, including a list of printed sources.

One of the books listed is Irish Traditional Fiddle Music by Randy Miller and Jack Perron (1977), who transcribed the tune form the playing of Aly Bain and Mike Whellans. Containing primarily transcriptions of tunes from commercial recordings, I have found it to be an invaluable book that appears to be little-known on these shores. I happened to come across it many years ago and even had my original copy stolen. You can get an updated edition of the book directly via their web site, although some shops may carry it. I found that link via Alan Ng’s useful Irish music site, which has a page on publications.

We ended the term with a few of us going to The Dalriada pub in Joppa and played a few tunes together as part of the regular session that goes on there. Gica Loening from Fun Fiddle was also there and we all shared some positive ideas for the new year that it will be good to follow up.