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

A post shared by Gordon Turnbull (@gordontheflow) on

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.

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.