Learning to Play Irish Flute

Learning to play Irish music on the flute involves three broad areas of focus, each of which can keep you occupied for a lifetime:

  1. Blowing technique, including breath control
  2. Fingering and ornamentation
  3. The music

This guide aims to point you to resources for more information, not to replace a good teacher or instruction book, so I won’t go into much detail in these three areas; instead I’ll point you to places where you can learn more.

Blowing and Breath Control

Learning how to get a sound out of a flute is best accomplished by going to a teacher or learning through trial and error. The next-best thing to having a teacher is to watch a video: you can do a search on youtube to find many free instructional videos (aimed mainly at classical flute players) that can help you get started. Grey Larsen’s The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle has some tips as well.

In the very beginning stages it’s easiest if you take the head joint right off the flute and blow into the embouchure hole until you can get a sound. If your flute’s head joint can’t be removed, you’ll have an easier time learning to get a sound out of the flute if you play the G (the note that sounds on a D flute when just the top three holes are closed). The lower notes can be harder for beginners.

If you watch any number of traditional Irish flute players you’ll see a wide variety of mouth shapes and blowing angles: this is one of those areas where the end result is more important than the technique used to produce it. You will find some videos online of James Galway demonstrating how to play the flute using a relaxed embouchure; he insists that flute players should avoid the more common tight “smiling” embouchure but in fact that’s what most traditional Irish players use. I don’t think the technique matters so much as long as you can get the right sound.

What’s the “right sound?” Listening to a range of Irish flute players will give you a range of possible tones, from breathy and rhythmic to dark and pure. My advice is to listen to lots of different players until you feel yourself gravitating toward a sound that you like, and try to emulate it. If you’re a beginner it may take a long time before you can produce a strong, steady tone; there aren’t any shortcuts. Once you are able to get notes in the second octave, try playing long tones on the highest notes with a goal of making them as clear and pure as you can (without a lot of breath sound). That’ll strengthen your own embouchure and help you get a stronger, more consistent tone and better tuning throughout the flute.

Breath control is another important topic that’s best learned from a teacher, video, or book. By “breath control” I really mean two things: 1) the ability to maintain a strong and steady tone through to the end of a musical phrase—whether that phrase is long or short—and 2) the skill of separating notes by stopping your breath between them. This is a big difference between classical flute playing, where tonguing is used to separate staccato notes, and Irish flute playing, where glottal stops are more commonly used. Plenty of good Irish flute players use tonguing, but it’s done more sparingly than in classical music, and most traditional players use glottal stops instead of tonguing (classical teachers train you to avoid glottal stops!).

If you don’t have a teacher, check out the books listed below, which will be useful not just for blowing and breath control but ornamentation, learning tunes, and other aspects of Irish flute playing.

  • Grey Larsen’s  The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle, published by Mel Bay in late November, 2003, offers a wealth of instructional material that will be useful for anyone learning to play Irish music on either the simple system flute, the Boehm system flute, or the whistle. Described by Matt Molloy as “essential reading for anybody interested in getting it right,” this 480-page book with two companion CDs provides guidance on breathing and phrasing, ornamentation, and transcriptions of tunes as played by leading traditional flute players.
  • June McCormack’s tutorials, Fliúit and Fliúit 2 with companion CDs (76 tracks for Fliúit and another 78 for Fliúit 2), are another useful resource for flute players. Fliúit includes detailed ornamentation exercises from beginner to advanced Stages; ornaments covered include cuts, long rolls, short rolls, elongated cuts, bounces, D crans, short cran on high D, and DED cuts. There are 64 tunes complete with breathing and ornamentation guides. Fliúit 2 is most suitable for intermediate and advanced flute players. More information, including prices and ordering details, can be found at www.draiochtmusic.com.
  • The Irish Flute Player’s Handbook, by S.C. [Hammy] Hamilton is another excellent resource for beginning (or even expert) flute players. The latest edition, published in 2009, tells you everything you need to know to get started, including what to look for when purchasing a flute, how to play the flute in the Irish tradition, repair and maintenance, useful addresses, a bibliography, a discography, and an acompanying CD.
  • Conal Ó’Gráda published an excellent flute tutor in 2011, entitled An Fheadóg Mhór: Irish Traditional Flute Technique. It may be ordered online from his website.
  • In 2013, Fintan Vallely released a new edition of his classic 1986 book Timber: The Flute Tutor, a self-teaching book for the simple-system flute, including tunes. It can be ordered online directly from the author.

Fingering and Ornamentation

The books listed above are all good resources for learning how to play a scale and how to play Irish-style ornamentation on the flute.

Fingering charts for the simple-system flute are available from these online resources:

Learning the Music

Listen to other flute players to get a sense of the range of possibilities. You can also get ideas from listening to pipers, fiddlers, whistle players, accordion players, singers, and other musicians. Hammy Hamilton’s Irish Flute Player’s Handbook has a good discography of Irish flute players, including listings for recordings of the classic older players like Peter Horan, Seamus Tansey, Seamus Cooley, Paddy Taylor, Roger Sherlock, and Josie McDermott.  If there are other flute players in your area, ask them if they have any recordings or field tapes that you could borrow.

Check out the Flute Guide’s list of recommended players — there are a lot of them, and you’ll learn much about Irish flute playing by listening to any of them. Brother Steve’s tin-whistle pages, written by Steve Jones, is a great online learning resource for flute players as well; much of what he says about ornamentation applies to the flute as well, and his site is full of good advice and perspective on how to approach Irish music in general.

The great Belfast flute player Michael Clarkson has created a site where he plays dozens of tunes, both slowly and at regular tempo. It’s a wonderful resource, and his witty commentary is icing on the cake!

You can also check out Tony Lawless’s free social networking service, Trad Connect to find and connect with other flute players and Irish musicians in your area or around the world.

Kieran O'Hare and Desi Wilkinson

Kieran O’Hare (left) and Desi Wilkinson playing on the street in Miltown Malbay. Photo © Peter Laban, Miltown Malbay

Going to a teacher is especially valuable in the beginning when you can easily pick up bad habits if someone isn’t around to observe and correct them. If you live in the U.S., you might be able to find a flute teacher in your area by checking out takelessons.com, which has a large, location-searchable listing of flute teachers.

A number of people give online instruction on the flute, including Blayne Chastain.

Some well-known flute players also give master classes or lead flute workshops that are worth attending if you’re serious about the instrument. In North America, for example, Chris Norman runs the Boxwood flute festival and workshop each summer, and there is usually at least one flute instructor at the Swannanoa Gathering, the Lark in the Morning summer camp or during Irish week at Augusta. Also check out the Irish Arts Week in East Durham, New York. There are also lots of opportunities to learn flute in Ireland during the Willie Clancy Summer School, and other festivals and music schools. In particular, check out the annual Flute Meeting in Cork, run by Hammy Hamilton and Conal O’Grada. In the UK, the annual Burwell Bash is popular.

If you’re interested in the Bb flutes played in marching bands in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and parts of England, you’ll want to check out Stuart Boyd’s books Fluter’s Companion and Irish Tunes for Bb flute, available from his Lulu publishing page.

If you want to learn Irish music on the Boehm-system flute, check out Mel Bay’s Complete Irish Flute Book, which is geared toward that instrument. The book’s approach is from a classical perspective and should be especially useful for a classically trained player who wants to play Irish music. The book covers ornamentation and includes many good tunes, along with a brief history of the flute in Irish music. The accompanying CD has a selection of tunes, mainly flute with synthesizer backup. Grey Larsen’s book has a few pages of tips for Boehm-system players as well. To hear other recordings of Irish music on Boehm-system flute, listen to Noel Rice or Joanie Madden.

There are many good books and some online resources for learning traditional Irish tunes from sheet music. Look for O’Neill’s Music of Ireland and the multi-volume Ceol Rice na h’Eireann (Dance Music of Ireland).

In 2003, flute player Skip Healy published a book-and-CD set called Have Ye This One? which includes transcriptions and recordings of a nice selection of marches, jigs, hornpipes, reels, and waltzes. On the accompanying CDs, Skip plays each tune through three times, once slowly with no ornamentation, a second time faster with basic traditional ornamentation, and a third time in a more uptempo and improvisational style. The book contains transcriptions of the bare-bones setting and the one with basic ornamentation.

The last section of this guide focuses on flute maintenance and repair.