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:

A slow tune: The Braes of Locheil

I first heard the tune on a recording by Sprangeen in the early 1980s. An all-female band that included the harp duo that would become Sileas, the diverse lineup included flute and concertina player Ann Ward. If you haven’t heard it, it’s worth checking out.

At that time very few people had recorded Scottish traditional music on the flute and it became became an inspiration for me as a beginner on the instrument. Later on I had the good fortune to play alongside Ann and for a couple of years the Thursday flute and whistle classes that became FluteFling were held in her house in Edinburgh. On that recording she plays Boehm system flute, but she also plays wooden flute as well as cello.

A popular tune, there are many more recordings, but I next heard it by fiddler John Martin recorded it with singer guitarist Billy Ross on The Braes of Locheil. The two had been half of the Ossian lineup for two recordings and Billy Ross sings the song in Gaelic (Braigh Loch Iall), which is where the melody originally derives.

This BBC Alba link is to a setting of it sung by Art MacCarmaig and the Tobar and Dulchais/ Kist o’ Riches web site has 17 entries, including this one, sung by Captain Donald Joseph MacKinnon of Barra.

Another flute player to have recorded the tune is Belfast’s Desi Wilkinson, who plays a highland pipe setting on Shady Woods. He plays it in a staccato manner using tonguing for emphasis that suits the pipe march rhythm.

The tune itself first appeared in the Simon Fraser Collection that was published in 1816, but much of which was collected in the late 18th Century. There are reprints of it but a scanned PDF of it is available from the Petrucci digital archive of public domain music. One of my favourite earlier collections, many of the tunes are accessible to whistle and flute.

There is more on the background of the tune at the Tune Archive.

Resources for this tune are available on the Resources page for the classes.

Photo: Sunset on Loch Eil by Duncan McNeil, some rights reserved.

New tunes for Autumn: Johnny Faa and The Little Heathery Hill

FluteFling classes resumed this week with the Slow and Steady group. We had a gentle return with the air of a Scottish song, Johnny Faa and a look ahead to the tune that I hope will go well with it, an Irish set dance called An Cnoicín Fraoich which translates as The Little Heathery Hill or The Little Heathy Hill

Johnny Faa was first published in 1720 and features in Robin Williamson’s Penny Whistle Book, which is where I first came across it. The book is not only clear with good advice but I like the way the author, a professional storyteller and founder of The Incredible String Band, provides background stories for many of the tunes. Somehow it gives the music further depth and respect, which is helpful when first encountering playing traditional music.

Johnny Faa was an historical character, the King of the Gypsies in Scotland during the reign of James IV (1473-1513) or James V (1512 –1542) of Scotland, depending in which source you reference. The tune is the melody for a song that is related to The Raggle Taggle Gypsies and other ballads and is set in Ayrshire. For the academically-minded, I found this fascinating-looking paper (free to register to view online) on the cultural background to Johnny Faa and Black Jack Davy. I hope to get the chance to read it properly.

The only time I have heard the tune played was in a pub during a gathering of traditional flute players in Aberdeen in 2001 by either Eddie McGuire or Chris Norman, who were exchanging tunes on a piccolo. They are both excellent exponents of the Scottish flute, so needless to say they brought the place to a standstill.

Music and a recording for this tune can be found on the new Resources 2013-14 page.

The Little Heathery Hill is an Irish set dance or long dance from Munster in the SW of Ireland, a tune that has particular steps for a solo dancer associated with it. Not to be confused with set dancing, which is a social type of dance.

There aren’t many recordings of this tune, although YouTube has a few, including this nice version played on 5 string banjo. Furthermore I have never heard it played by anyone else, despite coming across it initially in Bulmer and Sharpley’s collection in the 1980s. It needs to be heard more I believe. A little background to the tune, first published in the 1860s, can be found on the TuneArchive web site.

The tune features F natural, which can be a challenge on a keyless flute or whistle. However, it occurs with an E before and after the note, it becomes possible to slide the E finger to bend the note up and then back down, which fits well with the overall feel of the tune and its shifting modes.

Set dances have a kind of hornpipe feel, but this tune can also be played in a more stately way too, leading out from Johnny Faa. I play it both ways in my recording, which can be found on the resources page for the term.

Photo of North Hill of the Eildon Hills by Bex Ross, published under a Creative Commons licence.