Friday, February 02, 2007

Silver Flute or Irish Flute?

I am in the throws of a decision. From here on, do I want to work at playing Irish traditional music on the silver orchestral flute or the wooden flute which has become the standard in traditional Irish music circles?

A year ago, the silver flute was my logical choice. I started learning Irish music on the whistle, but its high register began to hurt my ears so I switched to the silver flute. I already owned very fine flute (a handmade Haynes solid silver flute) because in college I majored in music with a concentration in classical flute. Even though I didn’t play for 20 years while my son was growing up, I still have good coordination in my fingers and consistent practicing puts my embouchure back in shape. I took some lessons with Joanie Madden (see my post from July 20, 2006) and learned a few tricks about how to make the ornamentation sound “right” on an instrument that is over-engineered for the demands of Irish music. Until recently I was working on producing a darker sound and was getting some pretty good volume on the low notes.

Then a friend of mine got a new keyless Irish flute, handmade by Patrick Olwell. His wooden flutes are highly regarded, and I just went ga-ga with envy.

About the same time I dropped my own flute. It was the first time in my life I had ever done that. The lid came loose from the the case, and the flute slid out onto the floor, bending the low C# key. While it’s in the shop I’m borrowing my friend’s "student flute" - a Pratten-style Seery polymer flute.

Flutes pictured immediately above are made by Terry McGee.

The wooden flutes from the 19th century had keys and could play the entire chromatic scale. This keyless version is a "relative" of the mid-19th century flute. It lacks the keys of its historical relative, however it's conical construction as well as the shape of the embouchure and spacing of the fingerholes are much the same. Apparently this keyless version was invented in the 1970's during the Irish folk revival. By that time Jean Pierre Rampal's influence in the classical world had made the flute enormously popular. These two factors meant many flute players wanted Irish flutes. Keyed wooden flutes cost at least double what the keyless version costs, and the wait time can be up to four times as long. Therefore, the keyless Irish flute was an ideal solution. 90% of Irish music can be played on the keyless flute, which is pitched in D major but can function in G major as well and the relative minors of those two keys. When playing any of the remaining 10% of the Irish tunes, players of keyless flutes artfully skip certain notes or pick another note in the chord instead. Or just step up to the bar for another beer!

But getting back to the Seery, I confess that it's hard for me to cover the holes. The right-hand position in particular is very different from what's required on the silver flute. I must stretch my fingers as wide as possible and use the middle section of my finger rather than the fingerpad to cover the holes. I’ve been at it a week now, and it’s getting better. (Note that I said better, not more comfortable.) I need to rest after each tune because I don’t have the strength to maintain the stretch for too long, and my tempos need to be slow to consistently cover the holes.

The question is this: which flute do I want to spend my time on? I'm definitely enjoying the novelty of the Irish flute. The fingering is the same as the whistle so it’s easier to switch back and forth. And I like playing the instrument that most traditional players use. There’s a good bit of acceptance in that. However, the silver flute is really more "playable." By that I mean that one can play in any key. The hand position is comfortable. It’s just that the finger coordination needed to accomplish conventional sounding ornamentation is more difficult than what is required on the Irish flute (assuming one has mastered covering the holes on both instruments).

I’ll admit it: I am looking for the shortest route to the level on which I want to play. I’m better on the silver flute, so even though it’s harder in certain respects, I have an advantage because of all my years of study on it. But the coordination is less demanding on the Irish flute – so even though I have to backtrack a bit, it might be worth it in the long run. I’m not worried so much about acceptance of others or the sound the instrument can make. If I play well with a dark, strong tone, I don’t think it will really matter (although some players might disagree).

Unfortunately, writing this post hasn't helped me decide. If you have an opinion, please post a comment. Meanwhile, I’ll experiment with the Seery for a while longer, at least until I get my Haynes back. Then, who knows? All I can say is: I'll keep you posted. (GROAN!! very bad pun, sorry folks!)

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement


Kipluck said...

I know NOTHING about music. But they certainly are PRETTY little instruments aren't they?

Want to know something odd? In Hawai'i the flutes are played with the nose because that is supposed to be the "purest" air... the breath of life through the nose and all.

swise10 said...

Sam Wise comments

An open-holed silver flute is a pretty powerful tool, where some of the Irish flute embellishments, such as slides, can be played. The addition of a wooden flute headjoint can bring the sound and increased bottom octave power of a good Irish flute to a fine silver flute.

See for Mark Hoza headjoints, which are available in two voicings, one optimises the bottom two octaves, the other provides a wooden tone colour to the whole Boehm flute register. There is a also a range of superb playing wooden flutes available at relatively low cost, especially considering how well these play.

Finally, there is some adaptation in moving to the wooden flute dark sound. Usually you will find it helpful to learn to play with the headjoint rolled in so that the far edge bisected the centre-line of the keys. And then there is the correct hold that will release your left thumb for a keyed simple-system flute. This benefits Boehm playing as well. Move your right thumb position halfway to the back of the flute until you get a good balance with right thumb, left hand (thumb released) and chin only.
Now, pick your favourite players. Mine are Jean-Michel Viellon and Grey Larsen. Listen to their sound and stand in your stairwell adjusting your embouchure and head position until you start to produce the same tone colour that you like. You may have to rebuild embrouchure strength.
My experience is that all this will help your orchestral sound as well as allowing that Irish sound to emerge. Good luck.

Linda said...

Sam Wise's comment appeared twice, so I deleted the duplicate.

Sam -- if you revisit this post, please email me how to contact you offline. I would be interested to talk further after I've checked out some of your suggestions. My email address is in my profile.


JerryS said...


In this millenium, there's no reason you can't get an instrument sized to fit you hands, and fingers. There is software available that can be used to design a hole layout to suit your physical requirements. Don't assume that if you find a "traditional" instrument design difficult, that you "just have to live with it". If a flute maker can't take advantage of the technology that already exists, find one who can.

Kimwei said...

I too am somwhat confused by the dilemma. I'm being called upon to play folk flute for ceilidhs with some eastern european stuff thrown in. I am struck by how easy the irish tunes are on the whistle compared to the flute, because of the fingering and the keyless aspect. But I'm finding the whistle a little unsatisfying. I'm therefore toying with getting an irish flute as well for playing the traditional stuff. I couldn't "switch" and leave my silver flute at home because I'd need the chromatic notes for the eastern european stuff, yet is it ultimately going to be a hard and overly difficult slog to try and get the irish tunes up to speed on it? Glad some others are having the same dilemma.