Tunes, lyrics, Hogg and Burns: a late January update

The January workshop couldn’t have taken place without a nod to Robert Burns and it turned out that much of the music we covered had lyrics or associations with words.

Gordon demonstrates how to engage the diaphragm while playing the flute. Photo (c) Oonagh O’Brien

We also tried out some different flutes and whistles and explored learning to use the diaphragm.

When playing while lying down, the diaphragm has to be engaged. The sensation is then recreated when resuming a vertical position in order to better support the breath.

Other technique covered included rolls, cuts and strikes and longer phrasing.

Leaving Lismore

We began with Leaving Lismore as a slower piece to warm up. A retreat march in D by Mrs. Martin Hardie (of which nothing seems to be known), there is a harmony for fiddle by Christine Martin from Breakish, Isle of Skye that I have adapted for flutes and whistle. There are some good opportunities for simple decoration and space to concentrate on tone and breath support.

Once we had the slow waltz feel down, we tried introducing the harmonies to good effect, with the whistles adding to the range of sound. While I have taught this tune before, it was new to the group and is one of a few pieces that might be suitable for working on as an ensemble.

Kye Comes Hame

A strathspey I have never heard others play but is undoubtedly related to When the Kye Comes Hame, a song written with James Hogg (“The Ettrick Shepherd”) and first published in 1822 in his novel The Three Perils of Man. There’s a good historical overview of the song at the National Library of Scotland web site which suggests that the tune may have already been well known.

I learned my version many years ago via Kerr’s Merrie Melodies and I think it was the lyricism of the tune that appealed to me at the time, although I was unaware of the song at that point. Being aware of the lyrics can often help with phrasing and is often recommended for slow airs that derive from songs. However, without the words, the opportunity opens to emphasise the rhythm and bounce of the tune.

In D, this tune goes well with Leaving Lismore.

Here are the Tannahill Weavers with their version of the song:

Green Grow the Rashes

Green Grow the Rashes O is a poem of 1787 by Robert Burns with a very long and detailed history. Some information here from the Scottish Country Dancing perspective and also some lyrics analysis from this website, which says there were three other pre-existing versions that Burns took as inspiration.

However the Traditional Tune Archive has more on the melody that can be traced back to 17th Century lute collections and became known in a different format as Grant’s Rant. As the Grants were traditionally in the Rothiemurcus area, this might suggest it is from the heart of strathspey country.

I had thought that the version we learned is based on one from Donegal, but listening back to my sources which have some of the Scotch snaps shaved off, I think that other influences may have overridden it. Our version is more like a Highland or west coast strathspey, in its bounce and punch and certainly not at all like Dougie McLean’s wistful version of the song, which shows how versatile a melody it is.

Our version is in G and sits on flutes and whistles nicely, with opportunities for typically Scottish short rolls on the G in particular. This tune goes well after Kye Comes Hame.

Flutes at this afternoon’s workshop. @tribeporty

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Och Is Duine Truagh Mi

While looking through some teaching material that Rebecca Knorr gave to me a few years ago, I came across the west coast pipe reel/ port a beul Och Is Duine Truagh Mi (Alas I am a forlorn man). It’s a lovely tune that was recorded by the influential Ossian a good few years back, with Iain McDonald on pipes, flute and whistles.

Rebecca’s version is in G to sit on the whistle more readily, which is how we did it, but I also provided music and a recording of it in A, which is how it would normally be played. The version in G features long G rolls and follows nicely out of Green Grow the Rashes, keeping the key but changing the rhythm.

It’s a really useful skill to know a tune in more than one key, particularly if you know it well. It’s like seeing someone in different clothes in that it brings out different parts of the personality. However, it also builds up technical skills in terms of fingering and anticipation. Neither the A version nor the G version are particularly difficult on flute or whistle, but if you try it out you will have to think of different fingering and phrasing transitions which is useful.

Niall Kenny on The Session says he got this from Allan McDonald (Iain’s brother, who with Dr Angus McDonald make up the three piping brothers of Glenuig ) and that it may originally hail from Scalpay.

There are some lyrics to the reel and I have found a couple of intriguing versions, one with pipe variations. This first one has a slightly different title, but features whistles as well as pipes played by Seoanaidh MacIntyre with Ross B. Wilson on keyboards. There are two variations on each part, effectively making it a six part tune. The video includes the sheet music:

The second version is by fiddle and harp duo Jenna Moynihan & Mairi Chaimbeul:

Dhomhnuill a Dhomhnuill

Dhomhnuill a Dhomhnuill is a piece of mouth music (port a beul) from the isle of Skye that I learned from Gaelic singer Michel Byrne. This was part of the repertoire for The Big Squeeze Ceilidh Band for many years when we both played in it together. We didn’t spend much time with it, but it would go well after Och Is Duine Truagh Mi in either key. I taught this reel a couple of years ago and at the time wrote about it here.

February workshop

The next workshop will take place on Saturday 24th February and will be taken by Sharon Creasey. It’s a rare chance to spend some time with Sharon, who plays Boehm system flute as well as whistle.

Northeast flute gathering success

Davy Maguire with Claire Hawes and Martin MacDonald, headlining the FluteFling Aberdeen concert. Photo (c) John Crawford, used with permission.

First FluteFling Aberdeen weekend fuels appetite for more

Gordon Turnbull with Kenny Hadden

The first weekend of November saw Scottish traditional flute players gather together for the first FluteFling Aberdeen weekend. The event was supported by Tasgadh funding and saw 16 people attend the workshops with others also attending the Saturday night concert and weekend sessions.

Davy Maguire (c) John Crawford

Davy Maguire came over from Belfast and Sharon Creasey from Dumbarton, to teach, perform and encourage others as part of the ongoing Scottish traditional flute revival. Workshop students came from Aberdeen, Stonehaven, Brechin, Stirling and Edinburgh and local tutor and FluteFling colleague Kenny Hadden, assisted by Gordon Turnbull, ensured everything ran smoothly, from sessions to workshop and concert. The event took place almost exactly 16 years after the original one in 2001 that has inspired four years of FluteFling weekends.

An underlying theme connected the music of Northern Ireland with that of Scotland as Sharon’s extensive knowledge of the music of County Fermanagh complemented Davy’s own experience as a musician and flute teacher. The overlapping blends between strathspeys, highlands and barndances dance forms apparent to all and as tunes were shared over the weekend, the variations that emerged seemed to endlessly stimulate the recollection of others.

Friday saw people gather for tunes in The Blue Lamp, which was also the centre of Saturday evening’s activities and a supporter of the weekend’s events.

Saturday workshop

Davy Maguire explaining a finer point of technique (c) Gordon Turnbull

At the Saturday workshop, Davy Maguire taught a Scottish jig, a Highland from Donegal (which one of the Aberdeen students identified as a strathspey originally from Orkney), and a reel composed by Shetland fiddler Tom Anderson. Sharon Creasey taught 4 tunes — a 6/8 pipe march from the Willie Ross collection of 1875, a reel by Scott Skinner, a jig from the Northumberland tradition, and a jig from Co. Donegal. The afternoon ended with a question and answer session led by Davy, which rounded up the loose threads from the day.

Sharon Creasey demonstrates My Love is the Fair Lad #fluteflingaberdeen

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The selection of tunes was fairly wide-ranging, and quite challenging, but the students enjoyed being pushed a bit in their abilities, and also the variety of tunes which were taught and demonstrated. The high standard of the teaching and levels of encouragement from the tutors was commented upon by several.

Saturday concert and session

The Aberdeen Traditional Flute Players led by Kenny Hadden (c) Gordon Turnbull

The Saturday concert upstairs at The Blue Lamp opened with the Aberdeen Traditional Flute Players playing some tune selections. The ensemble was led by Kenny Hadden and comprised of people who have attended his flute classes at Scottish Culture and Tradition (SCAT) in Aberdeen. They were ably accompanied by Claire Hawes (bodhrán) and Martin MacDonald (guitar), who also accompanied others throughout the evening. Watch out for more from the flute group in the future and thanks to Claire and Martin for their support too. Kenny, hard working all weekend, went on to perform a solo set and was joined by John Crawford for a flute duet.

Malcolm and Janice Reavell (c) John Crawford

Local flute player and composer Malcolm Reavell followed, with Janice Reavell on guitar, playing a fine set of rare tunes and some of his own compositions. Gordon Turnbull played a mixture of traditional tunes as well as music by contemporary Scottish composers such as Dougie MacLean and Freeland Barbour.

Sharon Creasey demonstrated the suitability and versatility of the classical Boehm system keyed flute for both Scottish and Irish traditional music, playing tunes in the keys of F and G minor as well as the more common keys. Davy Maguire ended the two-hour concert with inspirational solo sets of flute music mainly from the Northern counties of Ireland.

Sharon Creasey with Claire Hawes and Martin MacDonald (c) John Crawford

Gordon Turnbull (c) John Crawford

A member of the audience remarked on the variety of flute styles being performed, a comment which echoed similar observations at Edinburgh performances. This response highlights one of the reasons for events like this — to hear and pick up on different ideas to take away to your own music. For traditional flute players, who are relatively thin on the ground in Scotland, the opportunity to come together with like-minded musicians is a key motive behind FluteFling events.

Sunday farewell session

Flute session conversations (c) Gordon Turnbull

Just as Saturday evening ended with another fine session and a chance for everyone to be involved and share their tunes and music together, Sunday lunchtime picked up the threads and the tunes and conversations continued where they left off.

This time in the snug of Ma Cameron’s with its fine acoustics, people shared tunes, ideas and tried out different flutes. Making connections and arrangements before having to head home.

Davy and Alice in Ma Cameron’s, Aberdeen

The Sunday sessions are always more relaxed and often sees the emergence of rare musical gems that have surfaced over the weekend.

Thanks again to everyone involved for their hospitality and time. Thanks too to Tasgadh, for helping to fund the event — a memorable weekend to fire everyone up over the winter.

FluteFling weekends 2018

FluteFling Aberdeen will return next year, but before then, the FluteFling Edinburgh weekend will celebrate its 5th year in 2018 and plans are being laid for that already.

There was also enthusiastic discussion of events in other locations and we will also explore those possibilities.

Into the slip jigs

Bog cotton on Owenreagh Hill - - 201316

Davy Maguire included the slip jig Na Ceannabháin Bhána in his concert set in Aberdeen and this became the inspiration for looking at this and other slip jigs at the FluteFling November workshop.

Recordings and sheet music for the workshop can be found on the Resources page. This includes music in ABC notation. For more information on this, see the ABC Notation web site.

Na Ceannabháin Bhána

Na Ceannabháin Bhána (roughly, “na kan-a-van won-ya”) is in G (“The people’s key!” – Davy Maguire) and so fits nicely onto the flute. The title translates as The Bog Cotton, but is often erroneously referred to as The Fair Young Cannavanssee a discussion on The Session. As with many slip jigs there are words associated with the melody and these are to be found in that link as well.

We looked at ways of varying the breath, tonguing issues, use of diaphragm, glottal stops, vibrato (or not), flattement (or “ghost trills” as I call them) and simple decoration on the beat, accompanied by a little more air to help accentuate the rhythm.

I mentioned the Irish band Cran and here is their version of the song alongside other slip jigs:

A Fig for a Kiss

A Fig for a Kiss is a fairly well-known tune that can be found in many collections but the version I play has come out of playing it with Absolutely Legless Irish Dancers for many years. I first heard it on a cassette of music by Leeds fiddler and box player Des Hurley. It has evolved to be a little different, but the two versions can be played alongside each other with no significant issue. To compare, again see The Session.

Another flute-friendly tune, it lends itself to variations, particularly in the first part and these were demonstrated in the workshop. Some of these were melodic, but others were rhythmic and produced by varying the breath — punchy and staccato one time round, subtle and legato another.

It needn’t take very much to explore and bring out interest in a melody. Playing a tune many many times over was also a theme and something that Davy mentioned in Aberdeen. Let’s drop the play it twice and move on thinking and instead do the music some service. Three times is good, but why not four times or even five or six? It builds up the rhythm, lets you explore the tune and others then get a chance to pick it up.

Slip jig variants

We had a digression in which I talked about and demonstrated 9/8 slip jigs, which of course feature in the Scottish tradition, hop jigs and other variants, such as Barney Brallaghan. Also there was a look at 3/2 hornpipes, common in the Scottish Borders and Northumbrian traditions (and occurring elsewhere in England), as are 9/8 tunes. Malcolm and I duetted on Aly Anderson’s Dog Leap Stairs and I played Go to Berwick, Johnny (3/2) and The Berwick Jockey (9/8) side by side for comparison.

The 3/2 hornpipe is clearly an old form, which Händel famously used for the Alla Hornpipe in his Water Music of 1717.

James Byrnes’ Slip Jig

In the sessions I tend to play at, (Monday nights, Sandy Bells — less often recently due to work; Captain’s Bar, third Saturday of the month), Donegal and Scottish influences feature and we tend to follow A Fig for a Kiss with James Byrnes’ Slip Jig.

We didn’t have time to look at this, but I demonstrated a breathing variation in the second part, which emerged out of playing in sessions (we occasionally go under the name of Cauldstane Slap; Facebook page here). Here again, a relatively simple melodic part can be enhanced through breathing — in this case leaping octaves to create a counter rhythm. I have included this in the resources and then remembered that The Mooncoin Jig features something similar in the last part and may have been part of the inspiration.

December workshop

Next month’s workshop will take place on Saturday 16 December and there are plans for Kenny Hadden to come from Aberdeen to co-teach. We may make the Dalriada session afterwards (ends at 6) and then the Captain’s Bar in the evening and you are welcome to join us.

If you made the November workshop, you should have a discount code for the next one. If not, please get in touch. I am currently looking at dates for January-March 2018 and will announce these first in the FluteFling Newsletter.

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 resonating flute tune: The Cameron Highlanders revisited

This week we revisited The Cameron Highlanders, a four-part tune originally by James Scott Skinner that changed a little when it went over to Ireland.

I have taught this two-part version a couple of times, but not recently (although I included it in last year’s resources). I may have heard this played by Irish band Stockton’s Wing originally, but it has changed and developed a bit since then.

A nice thing about the setting of the tune in D is that it focuses on D F and A and it is possible to emphasise the bottom D on the flute and really get it to resonate.

Getting that hard bottom D beloved of traditional flute players is a holy grail. For me, it’s the key to unlocking the sound of the whole flute. The entire relationship between you and your instrument can be expressed through this discovery and it is worth spending time working on it. I wrote up some notes on flute tone exploration with Amble Skuse in 2013 and further notes more recently.

Some other thoughts:

Some information on the tune from last year, with links to the recorded music on flute and whistle.  More on James Scott Skinner here and here. The music in ABC format and as a PDF is on the Resources page for this year.

Image: Fronticepiece from the Miller o’ Hirn collection by James Scott Skinner, 1881; University of Glasgow Library.