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.

Rockstro and thoughts on tone for traditional flute

The question of traditional flute tone comes up often but it seems that it is seldom addressed clearly. It is markedly distinct from the widely-heard tone of classical flute playing and is often described as “dark” and “reedy”, compared with the “bright” and “pure” sounds heard elsewhere.

Richard Shepherd Rockstro, 1826-1906, and Robert Sidney Pratten, 1824-1868. Dayton C. Miller Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Music Division, Washington, D.C. 20540

The hows and whys of this are various and are essentially a complex balance of a number of elements such as the flute itself, personal ergonomics and preferences. For that reason it is often explored in a 1-1 situation rather than a class. What follows is my understanding, gleaned from numerous sources and from observation and experience.

Tones and design

Every musical note on an instrument has other notes in attendance, harmonics. These chime in with the note and can range from very noticeable or very subtly present, depending on the instrument and how it is played.

The promotion of a “dark” tone means that lower harmonics are promoted and higher ones suppressed. A conical flute design such as those used for simple system (sometimes called “Irish” or “traditional”) wooden flutes encourages this. Böhm system (“modern”, “classical”, “metal”) flutes by contrast have a parallel bore and it is my understanding that this promotes upper harmonics and a “bright” sound.

The embouchure design on Böhm flutes is usually square and more open in shape, providing a longer edge and making it easier to produce an acceptable sound and for that matter easier for students. Flute players who have more of their experience on Böhm flutes often find simple system flutes with their elliptical embouchures more of a challenge. However, the elliptical design also promotes those lower harmonics while the more square design encourages the production of noticeably prominent higher harmonics.

For an account of the historical perspectives on different flute design, French and English classical playing styles and dark and bright tones, see the Standing Stones web site.

If you’re still reading at this point, you might be interested in Amble Skuse’s flute tone exploration project. She and I spent some time together exchanging thoughts and ideas in 2013 and we both wrote about it. She then followed this up with a trip to Jem Hammond’s flute restoration workshop and private collection in Wales, which she also wrote about. Amble’s accounts are on her website, while mine is on The Flow Music website.

Individual ergonomics

But of course it isn’t all about the design. Very little is said about the production of good tone in the books I have seen on traditional flute. As I have hinted, some of this is due to the range of personal ergonomics that are required to be in balance. By this I mean face and lip shape, tongue positions, hands, neck, shoulders, spine, posture, stomach, heart, lungs and so forth all have to be working together for the sound to be produced. And then this needs to adjusted depending on how tired you are, how developed your muscle memory is, the situation and acoustics where you are playing. And of course the actual flute that you are playing.

As this is very particular and individual, generalisation or even a detailed account can only take you so far. Gray Larson’s very detailed Guide to the Irish Flute has some good advice on shaping the mouth to produce vowel sounds, but leaves it down to practice, holding your desired sounds in your mind’s ear and awakening

“an inner ability and wisdom that will eventually carry out the necessary physical changes to produce the sound” (p108).

I quote this to highlight the need for personal exploration in order to arrive at the desired sound, but also that language begins to become inadequate to describe the process, much as it struggles to describe the sound in the first place. I was struck by some of the differences in how Amble and I envisaged and described our sounds for example.

The Rockstro Position

However, the starting point of any such exploration has to be the Rockstro Position. Not a chess gambit, not a wrestling manoeuvre, nor an ethical or political stance, it is simply a way of setting up a head joint relative to the rest of the instrument.

Rolling the headjoint in towards the player will not only flatten the pitch but will suppress those higher harmonics; rolling out has the opposite effect. RS Rockstro was a 19th Century musician and theorist (see photo above, alongside the influential Sydney Pratten) who advocated positioning the headjoint so that it is rolled in a little. The flute becomes easier to sound and the tone becomes recognisably dark and reedy. Surprisingly few flute player seem aware of this.

Australian flute maker Terry McGee has written extensively on this and has some related contemporary accounts by others. Terry has also written about getting that hard, dark tone that is also worth looking at once you have set the flute up. You might also want to check out this piece by Jennifer Cluff on flute alignment from a classical flute perspective.