Learn all about practice and Irish flute maintenance in this post is a wonderful extract from ‘A Complete Guide To Learning The Irish Flute’ By Fintan Valley.
You can purchase this expert guide here.
This is a most important part of playing. Once you have a repertoire, you will be able to meet play with friends occasionally. But if you want to learn new tunes you must play on your own. Having the right conditions is critical for this – do you have a room where you have peace, or where the intrusion is no bother to anyone else? For listening to music prior to learning it, wireless headphones are invaluable. Have a look at your typical day or week, and decide where you want to fit in your practice. If you are in control of your living accommodation you may find it easy to practice at any time.
One way of making sure you practice is to leave the flute out and assembled, standing in a corner perhaps, so there can be no excuse. Five minutes practice here and there throughout the day is valuable – it adds up over time, and maybe you will get in more practice overall if you can do it this way. Having an old flute, or a cheaper, plastic or small band flute is ideal for this purpose if you fear that your proper instrument might get damaged.
Preparing for Performance
Make sure that for public performances you practice pieces adequately on the good instrument though. No point in being brilliant on the old instrument and a wheezer on the good one. Every flute has its own playing and blowing technique, and while blowing any old flute will be good for your embouchure overall, you still must get used to the peculiarities of the main instrument. To sum up:
1. Practice regularly.
2. Decide when and where you are going to practice.
3. Have a set programme of tunes that you play each time.
4. Set yourself a target of a new tune a week or each month.
S. Decide on something special for each practice – register, breathing, decoration, etc.
There are scores of tune books suitable for flute. The web has many tune-dedicated websites too, among them thesession.org, worldtrad.org (a flute-related site), norbeck.nu, the uilleann pipers’ organisation pipers.ie and itma.ie, The Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, where you can access thousands of tunes.
Tips and Learning
Choose different kinds of tunes to work on – an air, polka, jig, hornpipe and reel at least. Playing them in this order addresses the most important things in learning: the air develops control over tone; the polka is a gradual move into faster playing; the jig introduces a strong rhythm; the hornpipe takes it further; and the reel is a good test of stamina. Choose the more simple melodies in the beginning – this is important so that you are not over-taxing yourself, and it also allows you to give attention to rhythm, something which is more easily done when there is less clutter of notes.
When you are learning to play, be aware that you are also building up a repertoire for personal satisfaction and maybe also for semi-public playing at family functions or public sessions. Work each piece to perfection. You will constantly change the way you play even your best material, so don’t be reluctant to come back to tunes that you learnt in the past – each re-visit will help you realise how much you have developed.
Summary Practice Advice
Personal targets: Give your self a target in each practice session. Decide what you are going to play, and stick to it.
Precision: Concentrate fully on what you are practicing. Do it slowly, completely and correctly.
Posture: Keep your head up and back straight. The posture you develop in the beginning will be with you all of your playing life.
Lips: Make sure your lips are firm, but not too stretched while playing, and that the space between them is a relaxed, thin almond shape.
Tone: Experiment with the tone of the flute by moving it around on your mouth.
Relax: Relax your mouth, throat and lungs from time to time by yawning.
Lungs: Work at increasing your lung capacity. Practice by breathing in deeply, feeling yourself push down your diaphragm. When you think your lungs are totally filled, make an extra effort and take in an extra, final breath.
Wind: When practising, play to the very last trace of air in your lungs and then try to push for a further final flurry of notes by pulling in the stomach and upper body muscles; over time this develops lung capacity and confidence.
Tempo: Play dance tunes at a slow pace to start, but build up to the standard tempo as soon as possible: jigs and reels are not slow airs.
Shortcuts: Play all the notes as heard or written: don’t fluff or take shortcuts. They fool nobody. You are either play the tune or you aren’t.
Tongue: Use your tongue to articulate the notes sparingly and with thought. Preferably use the back of the mouth ‘kh’ sound, and get control over it by regularly picking out every note of a tune on it, even on a reel or jig.
Correct register: Always play ‘in octave’ – the correct pitch for the part of the tune you are on. Use the higher or lower octaves where they are supposed to be, as a general rule. Use the ‘wrong’ octave only deliberately and selectively – for decoration, emphasis, bassing or to indicate a change of tune.
If you are running out of air before you have planned to take a breath, take a breath, but do not lose time – leave out the number of notes you missed ehen taking the breath.
Emergency wind: If you are running out of wind at the end of a part, as an energy saver do break into the high octave in order to get to the end (it uses less wind).
Mistakes: Make as many mistakes as you like when practicing. But work on public performance pieces too, and on these play only as many notes on each breath as you can comfortably manage, and play all notes off the tune through to the end always.
Time: Keep time with your foot, and in the beginning watch other players’ tapping feet too in order to keep in touch with their time.
Repertoire: Avoid the temptation to limit yourself to only one type of tune that you find easy. Spread your learning over a range of tunes; each of them develops different aspects of your playing.
Knocks and bangs may seem the obvious enemy of your flute. But so too is moisture – either too much or too little. The condensation that forms as you play does not all drip out the bottom – some soaks into the wood, swelling it, and also provides a comfortable home for fungi and bacteria to breed and multiply. Happy indeed they may be, but they gradually erode the wood.
So mop the instrument out when you have finished playing with a cloth threaded on the end of a flute rod. When dried off, follow this with a rub of a cloth damped with almond oil, so that when you look through the sections there is a faint sheen.
Almond oil can be bought in chemists’ shops, the larger the quantity the lower the price. A quarter-litre container will last you for a lifetime, and will cost perhaps only four times as much as one of the tiny bottles. Do not use cooking oil – it decays. Do not use thick oils like linseed oil – it dries out and cakes into a destructive sludge.
A lot of the flutes in circulation are quite old, many of them antiques. But, while most antiques are merely looked at, flutes are in constant motion, being transported in all kinds of vehicles over all sorts of roads, in high humidity and low humidity, left in hot rooms and sub-zero plane holds, stuffed into pockets, sitting in the sun on hot windowsills or car dashboards. They are being rammed together and jerked apart often several times a day by people who might not be fit to be in charge of even a wheelbarrow, they are being filled with air and distilled saliva, tobacco smoke and tar for hours on end, often for an entire weekend or even a week.
They have such a spectrum of vibrations passed down their lengths and a beating of fingers on their holes that it is a wonder they don’t fall asunder from fatigue, and they are regularly knocked, dropped shaken and even sat upon. If damaged, the faults piece can be repaired, but the injury may keep recurring. There’s nothing surprising in this, for what other piece of ancient woodwork could, or would be expected to, stand such abuse as a flute gets? If you have a busy playing life, don’t be surprised if you need yearly repairs.
That said, flutes are still fairly robust instruments and the models without keys can survive plenty of knocks. But with keys they are delicate, and very easy to put out of commission.Temporary repairs however, are easy for all kinds of flute damage. The major areas of damage will be in the head-joint cork, the tuning slide, the joints between the pieces of the instrument, the hinges, springs and padding of the keys, and the wood of the flute itself.
The cork should be a comfortable fit in the head joint – if it is too loose it will leak air, and affect the tone. A temporary repair measure is to soak it in water, or to smear its sides with cork grease, or re-wrap it in soft cotton thread as well.
The tuning slide should always be kept greased. It should be firm, but easy to push in or out, not loose. If it is too loose you will not be able to keep the head-joint in position on your mouth. It can be firmed up or sealed with a thick layer of cork grease, but if it is so far worn that it needs that treatment, it is time to get it replaced or re-silvered.
The joints between the sections of the flute body can dry out and warp. But the most typical joint damage is excessive compression or wearing out of the thread or cork binding. Again, cork grease can compensate for this, or an extra few turns of soft cotton thread. Some people use plumber’s jointing tape to make up for excessive play and air leaks. The joints should fit together firmly, but not so tightly that they have to be twisted violently or with force to assemble or take apart.
The metal pins which act as hinges for the keys can wear thin or bend, causing the key to make a bad connection with the hole it covers. So too with the springs – these can simply weaken.The pads themselves can dry up or disintegrate too. In each of these cases a rubber band around the flute at the pad end of the key may keep it seated properly. Or, the age-old process of rinsing the flute with water to seal any leaks around the keys or joints will work well as a temporary measure. Again, a leaky joint can be taped over with adhesive tape as a temporary repair; the hole under the key pad can be sealed up altogether with adhesive tape too in an emergency, all with little effect on your tone.
Cracks and Body Repairs
The body of the flute itself may also crack if it dries out too much – but again, covering the crack with a Piece of tape can work miracles. Cracks will be sealed up if the flute is rinsed out with water too. For all of these cases, if the trouble is minor you will probably find that the flute may be hazy to play when you pick it up in the beginning, but improves soon after. This is because the condensation from your breath fills the stray cracks and poor key-pads and joints.
Older Players used to empty the nearest liquid to hand – often a beer – into the instrument to ‘fill’ cracks. But while this is fiercely dramatic and inspiring of tales, it is a form of slow death for the flute. For not only does the liquid expand the wood and open up the crack further, but the sugary composition of beer begins to decay in the cracks, promoting fungus growth and thus eating away the substance of the instrument – leaving you with a living instrument, yes, but lifeless in tone and response.
If you spot damage or a fault, by all means make an emergency repair. But as soon as you can, or can afford it, take the instrument to a repairer. For serious problems like slides, key work and joint replacement, it is better to go to a flute maker, but remember that this is tedious and time-consuming work and it may leave you without a flute for a few weeks.
The simplest way to protect your flute is by keeping it in a case. Make sure you have a case for it – they can be bought reasonably, usually made of wood, fibreglass or high-impact plastic, or in a padded, roll-up fabric form. Make sure the case is secured too, with a working catch, or put a strap around it so that your merry bits of timber don’t fall out on the street when you’re running for the last bus. If you are in a hot environment, it is not a bad idea to keep the flute in a thin plastic bag inside in the case to prevent dehydration.
Tuition and Workshops
Many festivals in Ireland and abroad offer workshop tuition in the flute over a day or weekend. More sophisticated are the summer schools, usually offering a full week of dedicated tuition for a few hours each day, typically given by well-known or at least highly competent players. Local classes are best found by enquiring from players in any locality, or on the internet.
Best known of the instrumental summer schools in Ireland is the Willie Clancy, held at Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare and is always held in the first complete week of July each year. It is followed the next week by the South Sligo School at an Tubbercurry, and the following week by the Joe Mooney School at Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim.
You can do the hat-trick if you have the time to spend, for in each place you will have a different teacher, and a different ethos. Scoil Ada in Co. Mayo follows these in August. There are many other seasonal schools such as the Catskills in New York and Tocane in France. The dedicated flute school is Cruinniu na bhFliuit in West Cork. The social and music environment in each of these places gives you distinctive music experiences in both style and repertoires.
A wonderful extract from ‘A Complete Guide To Learning The Irish Flute’ By Fintan Valley.
This book can be purchased here.
To continue to improve your Irish flute practice and learn more about Irish flute maintenance, have a read of my blog posts: