How to Play the Irish Wooden Flute Like Matt Molloy
Published: February 19, 2021
When you think of traditional Irish flute playing, there is one name that immediately springs to mind. Matt Molloy has become a household name, synonymous with the Irish flute. He is rightly considered one of the most influential traditional Irish musicians of all time.
Matt Molloy is responsible for bringing traditional Irish flute playing to a completely different level. His cosmopolitan style is probably the most imitated in traditional Irish flute playing today.
This innovative flute playing has inspired countless generations of Irish flute players, not just in Ireland but around the world.
When God made Molloy he broke the mould… There’s only one Molloy.
– Seamus Tansey
But what is it that makes Matt Molloy’s playing so special?
Keep reading and together we’ll explore his iconic flute playing style, as well as his approach to traditional Irish music. Soon you’ll be able to emulate your favourite flute player and take your own flute playing to the next level.
Immerse Yourself in the Tradition
Most of our greatest traditional Irish musicians have one thing in common. They grew up listening to the music of their predecessors.
These master players were immersed in traditional Irish music from a young age. Matt Molloy himself was born into a musical family of flute players in an area renowned for its flute playing.
When opportunities presented themselves to meet with and learn from older musicians, he listened greedily, absorbing as much as he could.
If you’ve not been born into a family of Roscommon flute players, don’t despair. Access to high quality recordings has never been so widespread as it is today. In this digital age, inspiration is only a click away.
You also have one huge advantage over a young Matt Molloy – you can listen to his entire collection of brilliant solo albums.
Each of Matt Molloy’s albums is a treasure and a true masterclass in flute performance. His debut album, simply titled Matt Molloy, will always hold a special place in my heart however.
Released in 1976, this recording was truly something special. It immediately cemented Matt as one of the greatest Irish flute players the world had ever heard. Not only did it show his prowess and creativity as a flautist, but it was filled with promise of what was yet to come.
Not a single album since has disappointed, but none has moved me quite as passionately as that first record. It was love at first listen.
My favourite track to this day, and a brilliant showcase of Matt’s playing style and technical ability, is The Gold Ring. Ask any musician, anywhere in the world, what their favourite performance of this iconic jig is, and I guarantee they’ll respond with this one. Have a listen:
Matt’s Musical Collaborations
In addition to being a virtuoso solo performer, Matt Molloy has collaborated with some of the greatest musicians traditional Irish music has to offer.
He was a member of both The Bothy Band and The Chieftains – two of the most influential Irish music groups to ever take to the stage. Matt was an integral part of each group, bringing not just his iconic flute playing but also his vast repertoire of tunes and creative musical arrangements to the mix.
One of my favourite musical arrangements of Matt’s is The Strayaway Child. While he performed this tune with both The Bothy Band and The Chieftains, his recording with The Chieftains is, in my opinion, far superior.
Just listen to the atmosphere he creates. Opening with a haunting solo flute, tension continues to build throughout the piece, creating a rich musical landscape with dark undertones:
The Secret to Great Ensemble Playing
It’s no surprise that Matt Molloy has always been in great demand as a performer. He has played and recorded with the likes Donal Lunny, Paul Bray, Tommy Peoples, Seán Keane, John Carty and Arty McGlynn to name but a few. Each collaboration offers something new and exciting.
As a result, there’s no shortage of material to listen to for inspiration and to hear this master of his craft in action. Have a listen to one of my favourite’s below – Matt in action with the brilliant John Carty:
Matt truly excels as an ensemble player, which may have been surprising to some in the early days, given his dramatic flair as a soloist.
Great duet or ensemble playing comes down to one thing however – the ability to listen to your fellow performers. While a good command of your instrument definitely helps, there’s no room for ego in a group performance.
If you’re playing with somebody, what’s the point of trying to play against them? It doesn’t make for good [music] – if you want to do that, go play on your own… You talk to one another musically and off you go, easy.
– Matt Molloy, Sé Mo Laoch, TG4
That’s not to say there’s no room for some exciting solo breaks from time to time. After all, if your band is made up entirely of virtuoso players who are master of their craft, it’s okay to show off a little every now and then. Here’s Matt in full flight during a Chieftain’s performance in 1997:
Matt is a proponent of the Sligo Roscommon flute style.
Sligo Roscommon flute playing is typically fast, with heavy use of rolls and ornamentation. Most ornamentation is achieved with the fingers rather than tonguing.
Melodic phrases tend to be long, with each new phrase accented by a strong puff of air. What emerges is a rhythmic, yet legato flowing playing style. These phrases are then ornately embellished with melodic variations and ornamentation and rounded off with a smooth, even tone.
While this is a fairly accurate description of Matt’s flute playing style, his playing is also hugely personal and unique. His playing style is instantly recognisable and distinct from that of his fellow Sligo Roscommon flute players.
So what is it that makes Matt’s playing stand out from the crowd?
Matt Molloy was the first to pioneer a number of flute playing techniques, largely borrowed from fiddle and uilleann pipe playing.
One such technique that has been copied the world over and become part of the bedrock of Irish flute playing is the hard D. Matt wanted to imitate the powerful tone of the uilleann pipes by overblowing the low D on his flute, creating a harsh sound with plenty of overtones and bite.
One thing to remember when you’re trying to achieve this signature sound however:
It’s never going to sound like the pipes. You’re talking about a reed instrument, as opposed to blowing across an embouchure. So you’re never going to crack it as good as you would like.
– Matt Molloy
A handy step towards achieving the correct tone is to copy Matt Molloy’s embouchure. Make sure your lower lip is pressed flat against the flute, with both lips tensed slightly. You should feel the muscles engaged at the sides of your mouth.
Those who play with a more rounded embouchure may struggle to achieve this powerful, barking tone.
Matt is also responsible for introducing the use of crans as ornamentation in flute playing.
Crans are another piping technique that involve a series of grace notes played in quick succession. They are used to embellish the note low D in particular. This rapid finger movement requires immense skill and dexterity.
Crans evolved as a way to ornament a low D, as this note can’t be rolled due to the lack of a lower note to tap with. Instead, this series of cuts was established and has continued to grow more elaborate over time.
The are many ways to play a cran. In its most simple form it’s performed by playing a low D and adding cuts using the F and E fingers, in the same way as you would when playing a roll. The tap is replaced however by the second cut.
Matt Molloy is the master of the cran. Listen to his iconic performance of The Bucks of Oranmore below to hear the hard D and crans in action. Though here Matt is playing on his Eb flute, so it’s technically a hard Eb (E flat):
A Little Something Extra
There’s more to Matt’s playing than technical skill.
Like all great musicians, Matt has an innate sense of musicality. His playing mesmerises the listener and carries you away. There is a deeply personal connection to the music that is evident in every tune he plays.
Without that emotion a performance will fall flat.
The real art form, as far as traditional music is concerned, is actually playing solo, that’s what it’s about. It’s the interpretation that you can give a melodic line… You stand or fall on your interpretation of that particular piece.
It’s no use playing it the same way I play it. Or me taking something and playing it similar to someone else. You have to put your own particular stamp on it. And be that good, bad, or indifferent, at least it’s you. It’s your personality. Ultimately that’s what you stand or fall on.
– Matt Molloy, A Guide to the Irish Flute
In Matt’s own words, it’s important to put your own stamp on the music.
Many modern flute players have been accused of being clones of Matt Molloy. A compliment on one hand, yes. To reach the level of technical brilliance and virtuosity to be considered an equal to this legendary flute player is commendable.
If all you want to do however, is emulate the style of another player without ever letting your own personality shine through, then you’re playing music for all the wrong reasons.
So use Matt’s expert level of playing as a goal. Master his playing techniques and complex use of ornamentation. Then go away and really engage with the music. Make it your own. That’s what will truly set you apart as a musician.
A Little Hard Work
If you have somebody who’s naturally gifted and they’re willing to put in the time and work, that’s when that rare thing happens, and that is Matt Molloy.
– Michael Flatley
While there’s no denying that Matt Molloy is a gifted performer, I’m not a firm believer in the idea of natural talent.
Some people may seem to take to music like a duck to water, yes, but if they’re not willing to work hard then they’ll soon find themselves stagnating.
Practice makes perfect – or at least gets you one step closer to perfection. It really is that simple.
Matt Molloy has reached the level of playing he has today as a result of hard work and determination. His skills and technical ability have been strengthened and reinforced over the years through repetition. How else do you think he mastered the cran and other complex forms of ornamentation?
How can you achieve this?
Establishing a daily practice routine will work wonders for your playing. This might sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be drudgery.
When it comes to music practice, even a little goes a long way. A daily 20 to 30 minute session is far more beneficial than one long practice session a week for example.
A regular practice routine will help you build stamina and develop muscle memory. Your fingers will thank you! Daily immersion will also help you to easily commit tunes to memory.
If you need a little guidance, why not check out my blog post on effective practice methods which may shed some light on the matter and help you to establish your own effective practice routine.
The Irish wooden flute requires a lot of stamina to play, particularly when it comes to breathing.
Strong breath control is absolutely fundamental to good flute playing. Mastering your breathing is one of the most important steps toward mastering any wind instrument, and the Irish flute is no exception.
If you listen to any of the greats, you’ll notice they all have one thing in common – lung power. In fact, Matt Molloy’s playing is so smooth that it sometimes appears as though he’s not breathing at all.
So how do you develop lung power to rival this magician?
Breathing exercises are a useful practice tool that will help to improve breath control and increase your lung capacity.
Rember, breathing affects not just the tone of the instrument, but also the rhythm and flow of the tune. Strong breath control will help you master techniques such as Matt’s iconic low D.
Incorporating some simple exercises into your daily practice routine will help you gain full command of your breathing, your instrument and your playing.
To help get you started, I’ve put together a few suggestions: Exercises and Technique to Improve Your Flute and Tin Whistle Playing
These exercises will have you fluting fit in no time at all, and believe me, they’re far easier than a 5km run!
The Many Flutes of Matt Molloy
Matt’s first flute was an anonymous German flute that his father bought in Wurlitzers in New York. It had small holes and a sweet tone.
It served him well for his early years as a flute player and was fine for solo playing but he soon found that it didn’t create enough volume for session work and céilí band playing.
He was soon presented with a beautiful Rudall and Rose flute which he used for performing, recording and touring with The Bothy Band.
Matt Molloy was one of the first traditional Irish musicians to play in Eb. He bought an Eb flute from a friend who used to play in a brass and reed band. He was thrilled with his purchase, particularly the powerful tone of the flute, but was unsure what to do next.
Luckily, fiddle player extraordinaire, Tommy Peoples, heard Matt play the new Eb flute and loved the strong, bright tone it produced. So Tommy cranked his strings up to Eb and away they went, breathing a new lease of life into their music.
Matt went on to record his first solo album with his beloved Eb flute. Unsurprisingly, playing in Eb has since become quite popular.
The Perfect Flute
This is the flute Matt played with The Chieftains, and his solo album, Shadows on Stone. A large holed instrument with a beautiful woody tone, it’s the flute that Matt has returned to time and again throughout his long career.
It suits me, my type of playing. I feel it gives me the sensitivity when I need it. It’s got power when I want it, and it gives me a rich woody timber sound.
– Matt Molloy, A Guide to the Irish Flute
You can hear it in action below during a performance at the TG4 Gradam Ceoil awards during which Matt was awarded Musician of the Year:
The keen-eared amongst you will have noticed that Matt plays in a variety of keys on instruments in D, Eb and Bb. His Bb flute is a Hawkes – an exquisite old instrument from the 1880s (or thereabouts). This is a truly beautiful instrument with a warm, mellow tone.
In addition to this collection (and believe me, this isn’t the full collection) Matt Molloy also owns an Olwell flute by the great American flute maker Patrick Olwell.
The Modern Maker
Olwell flutes are highly sought after, and for good reason. Patrick Olwell is a gifted craftsman who understands the needs of flute players. His flutes are highly responsive instruments that are remarkably easy to fill.
I’d say arguably the best of the contemporary makers would be a guy called Patrick Olwell from Virginia. He’s an excellent flute maker. He plays the flute himself. He just understands the instruments. When you try to impress on him what you want in an instrument, when you start talking about ranges and colours and tones, he can interpret what you’re talking about, and reproduce that, which is rather a serious talent in itself.
– Matt Molloy
The waiting list for an Olwell flute is long, but not hopeless. If you have your heart set on owning one someday, I’d recommend putting your name down on the list now. By the time you’ve fully mastered the flute, you’ll have a magical instrument on which to show off your skills.
Recommended Irish Flute Makers
If you were hoping to get your hands on the same flute as Matt Molloy, you might be feeling a little disheartened, but don’t despair.
While you may not be able to find an original Pratten Perfected Boosey flute, or an Olwell might be beyond your budget currently (prices start at around €4,000), there are still plenty of brilliant flute makers out there crafting instruments to rival Matt’s.
In Ireland there’s Hammy Hamilton, Sam Murray, Brendan McMahon. They’ve all improved their technique in instrument making. It was hit and miss in the early days, but they’ve all evolved. They’ve all got excellent reamers. All making good flutes, all very acceptable instruments. It’s incredible, for an art that was nearly dead.
– Matt Molloy
The above quote is from 1997. The future of Irish flute making was looking bright twenty four years ago and it’s in even better shape today. There’s no shortage of brilliant flute makers crafting beautiful instruments.
A name that’s still highly sought after, even all these years later, is Sam Murray.
Sam is a renowned but elusive flute maker from Belfast. He has been honing his craft for almost fifty years and is celebrated the world over for the quality and craftsmanship of his superior flutes. He took a break from flute making for a few years but was in such demand that he made a return to the craft.
A Sam Murray flute is a worthy investment. His blackwood flutes produce a sweet, mellow tone, but plenty of volume. These flutes can carry you through any stage of your flute playing career.
With the right instrument in your hands you’ll be a flute maestro in no time at all.
If you’re not looking to break the bank just yet, our McNeela African Blackwood Flute is a great flute with an affordable price tag.
Made from African Blackwood – the tonewood of choice amongst traditional Irish flute players – this flute is one of our bestsellers.
It offers a full bodied resonance, producing a strong tone and great volume. This is a surprisingly powerful instrument that’s easy to fill, and absolutely perfect for session and ensemble playing.
You’ll easily achieve that signature Irish woody sound with this beautiful keyless flute.