Fèis Fhoirt flute and whistle resources

Thanks to everyone who came along to the whistle and flute workshops in Callander. It was good to meet you all and participate in such a great event. It may have lashed it down with rain, but that just meant the best place to be was inside, playing tunes.

As promised, here are some links to things we covered, talked about and discussed. If I have missed anything, just drop me a line and I’ll include it.


For flute and whistle, we spoke about tonguing on the beat using a soft and flexible “diddle-diddle” action that mirrors that of singers, mouth music and diddlers. This seems more appropriate to traditional music than the “tuh-kuh” action that many books suggest and is common in classical approaches to music. Having said that, bear in mind that having a range of techniques is no bad thing. We also discussed that in Scottish music, tonguing is used for flute and whistle more than in Irish music.

Both classes looked at Sylvain Barou’s method for learning cuts, strikes and rolls. Remember a single grace note can work wonders and is the foundation for more complex decoration. Decoration happens on the beat, as does tonguing and glottal stops.

Flutes looked at the Rockstro technique for headjoint aligment. We also considered varying the volume over a phrase, either increasing or decreasing, in order to introduce more expression. Conal O Grada talks about this a bit in his book.

Repertoire and books

PDFs of the tunes we looked at or I was prepared to teach can be found on the workshops resources page. A few people asked about which tunes to learn and where to find them. There isn’t a single book, but there are a few good collections that have currency in different parts of Scotland.

  • Nigel Gatherer is based in Creiff and plays mandolin and whistle. He teaches extensively and has produced numerous inexpensive tune books that you can buy from his website, some of which you can download for free. His Joy of Sets series is popular in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, where he regularly teaches. Look out for events he puts on as well.
  • Scotland’s Music is home to Isle of Skye publishers Taigh na Teud who have an extensive catalogue. Their session books are full of a variety of good tunes and are all recommended. Look out too for their Highland Fiddle collections, which are a major source for Highland session tunes. Their ceilidh tune collections feature many old favourites that were played at the Fèis Fhoirt ceilidh.
  • A number of people had the Blackford Fiddle Book, which looked to be a useful collection of tunes played locally.
  • And The Fèisean website shop has a couple of useful Gaelic repertoire books that have some nice arrangements and advice on playing the tunes, plus the Hands on Scottish Whistle book by Fran Gray in Gaelic (also available in English from Scotland’s Music, above).
  • Kerr’s Merrie Melodies is a cheap, but good value series of of four densely-printed books of fiddle Scottish repertoire from the 1870s. Available from many outlets, but Nigel Gatherer has a good introduction to them.
  • I also mentioned some books that I have in an Amazon book shop and you can browse them here. These include Geraldine Cotter’s book and Robin Williamson’s book. Davy Garrett’s Highland whistle book is also recommended.
  • For flute, June McCormack’s books Flúit and Flúit 2 are very good for those beyond the beginner or improver stage. With CDs and music.
  • I find Conal O Grada’s book very interesting too. It talks about introducing musicality into your playing more than any other book I can think of. With CDs and music.
  • Hammy Hamilton’s Irish Fluteplayer’s Handbook is essential I would say. Lots on looking after your instrument too, plus history and background. It was the first major book on the flute in Ireland. His flutes are also recommended and he runs the annual Cruinniú na bhFliúit (flute meet) in County Cork every year. I need to buy the updated one.
  • The first tutor was Timber by Fintan Vallely. I have the original, which is slim but useful. I haven’t seen the updated version however, which is much bigger.
  • Gray Larsen’s flute and whistle books are comprehensive and useful, but can be dry

Whistle tunes

  • Patrick O’Connor’s No. 2 Polka: An Irish polka, learned from a recording by The Monks of the Screw, entitled Brathar na nÓl. The web site has excerpts of both Polkas, the No. 2 one being called the Anascaul Polka on the recording. I played both polkas for you and provided the music as well, so maybe you will feel like playing them together, whichever order suits you. A look around has produced this recording of them:
    And here’s something I wrote about it on The Flow Music Workshops website a couple of years back when I taught the tune to my class at the Scots Music Group (SMG) in Edinburgh. There is some discussion on the second polka over on The Session. As you will see, it is best to treat entries there with a pinch of salt, but different versions and settings can be useful in that you might be able to borrow from them for your own variations.
  • Laridé de Portobello: This is a two-part Breton ridé that I have been playing for a while that has organically grown arms and legs over the years into a stately multipart piece suitable for many instruments, but particularly whistles and flutes. When I wrote about the tune for my SMG class, it had just six parts, but it now has 9 and I have plans to revisit it sometime. The original is the second tune in this set played on German bagpipes:

    While I don’t know very much about Breton dances (here’s an overview), it seems there is more than one form of ridée. Here’s a Canadian group demonstrating it as a snaking, stately dance, similar to ours in tempo and musical form:However, it is worth looking at some other clips on Youtube for more energetic forms being performed. If you’re interested in it further, here’s an interesting-looking English language site with lots of examples from Brittany (and elsewhere in France) and there are plenty of French ones too. With many instruments, our Portobello tune sounds like this:How it works: this came about after discovering that the A and B parts can be played at the same time; the C part was initially developed as a harmony for the B part. However, you can approach this tune in a number of ways, it’s really up to you:

    • Play parts A and B (the original tune) an agreed number of times, then look at the remaining parts before returning to the original tune to conclude. Here are some suggestions. You could…
      • play them all in order then return to the A and B part at the end
      • everyone choose a part to play an agreed number of times before  returning to the A and B parts
      • As above, but play ABAC as the main melody
      • everyone choose an agreed number of parts to play an agreed number of times before returning to the A and B parts. A less confident player could just repeat a part, say four times, while a more confident player might choose four different parts; both contribute to the overall piece equally but in different ways.
      • some people keep the main tune going, while others play some of the other parts.
      • improvise with the parts, keeping eye contact to signal whether you will change, end or continue
      • develop another part to play, either a melody, drone or percussive line
      • have fun!

 Flute tunes

  • The Duke of Gordon’s Birthday. Composed by William Marshal, some information on the tune can be found on The Flow Music website from when I taught it a couple of years ago. We tongued on the beat of the snaps, not on the offbeat, which we truncated to reference the dynamics favoured by North east fiddlers. We varied breathing dynamics across some of the phrasing too.
  • The Cameronian Reel, is an Irish version of The Cameronian Highlanders, transposed so that it fits the flute well. We used it to explore the dirty bottom D and to work on a pulse, with more air forced on the beat. I mentioned the flute tone mini project with Amble Skuse, a traditional flute player coming from a Böhm perspective. Here is her blog on it and my take is here.

Links and further listening

  • Brother Steve’s whistle pages. Lots of useful thoughts about the instrument in Ireland and archive recordings to illustrate.
  • Brad Hurley’s Guide to the Irish Flute Everything you need to know, including lists of makers around the word and a guide to buying a wooden instrument.
  • If you haven’t visited The Flow, my resources web site on wooden flute playing, maybe you should. Includes whistle, links, tunes etc. Admittedly in need of updating.
  • Check out my traditional music teaching resources on this very site too.
  • There are very few Scottish solo whistle recordings. My first inspiration was in the recordings by Ossian, who used the whistle extensively. Nigel Gatherer has written about the whistle in Scotland and has a list of people and recordings.
  • Nuala Kennedy is a fine flute and whistle player and one recording in particular focuses on the flute and whistle with an exclusively Scottish repertoire. A Wee Selection is available from her website.
  • Calum Stewart’s name came up a lot and his recording with fiddler Lauren McColl is particularly recommended. Earlywood is an earlier recording — the first solo Scottish flute album ever — also worth listening to, but it doesn’t seem easy to track down to buy online. It might be worth contacting Calum directly about that.
  • Claire Mann has a fine extensive back catalogue that is worth checking out, but is not exclusively whistle and flute.
  • Piper, fluter and whistler Iain MacDonald made a great recording with fiddler Iain MacFarlane a few years back that was to that point the most a flute had been heard playing Scottish traditional music on an album. I listened to The First Harvest again recently and it is better than I remembered. He also appears in various band lineups.
  • I must mention Phil Smillie, the flute player and whistler with the Tannahill Weavers who has been playing Scottish music on flute and whistle with them since the 1970s. I need to learn more about his music, but I was pleased to discover that he released a solo album last year, The Sound of Taransay and I look forward to hearing this.
  • Rebecca Knorr has been teaching flute and whistle in Edinburgh for many years and recorded with Calluna, who made just one CD. Rebecca plays with great clarity and rhythmic accuracy, which makes her playing of the Scottish repertoire, in particular pipe marches to my mind, quite compelling. She is equally at home with the Irish repertoire and continues to play with Islander Ceilidh Band.
  • Finally, I’ll mention Canadian baroque flute player Chris Norman who plays with fiddler Alisdair Fraser but has also explored early Scottish flute repertoire. His approach is definitely classical rather than traditional sounding, but it is another approach to the Scottish repertoire to consider.
  • Finally finally, flute players in Ireland with a Northern repertoire that sometimes references Scotland include Desi Wilkinson (also with Cran), Frankie Kennedy with Altan, and Harry Bradley. Also check out Belfast flute player Michael Clarkson’s site, which has lots of downloads that are also available as podcasts.
  • Finally finally finally, Böhm (or related system) system players within traditional music include: Sharon Creasey, Joanie Madden, Paddy Carty, Paddy Taylor, Billy Clifford, Sean Moloney.

Updated 4th November to include links for Rebecca Knorr

Photo: Ian Stevens and Mark Gene-Hughes at the Saturday night session at Fèis Fhoirt, Callendar (c) Gordon Turnbull

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