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This article was written by Pat Higgins in 2004 for the quarterly Flute Focus magazine (now an online publication) and is reproduced here with the permission of Flute Focus and Pat Higgins.

Pat Higgins playing a nineteenth century Rudall & Carte fluteThe simple-system wooden flute has been relatively rare in New Zealand; and in comparison to the Boehm instrument, it still is unusual. However, in recent years we have seen a steady growth in interest in this instrument. It used to be that people would say, “but that’s not a flute… ” on seeing a wooden instrument, obviously expecting the Boehm instrument familiar to thousands from school music classes. The increase in numbers of people becoming interested in and playing this instrument has come about as people became exposed to the sound of the wooden flute as part of the enormous world-wide surge in interest in Irish culture over the last ten years or so. (Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, Guinness Tours of New Zealand, etc…)

The wooden simple system flute [also known as Irish flutes] is used almost exclusively for Irish traditional music, (though there may be professional musicians using it for classical performance, as is the case overseas). The author is aware of one musician in Wellington, Barnard Wells, who uses the simple system flute for playing Cuban and Latin music in a band situation. In nineteenth century Ireland, traditional music survived amongst the poor and impoverished; the classical music of the drawing room being the preserve of the rich. In 1831 Theobald Boehm invented his metal flute and sometime after, the wooden instruments it replaced gradually became un-fashionable; thus becoming affordable or at least more available to ‘folk-musicians’. It is not known (at least to the author) when exactly this occurred, but the transition must have been slow as classical musicians would have had to re-learn a whole new fingering system. In any case Irish traditional music formally played on pipes, fiddle and whistle could now also be played on the simple system eight-key wooden flute.

The first examples were small holed eight-key German instruments, and gradually large-holed English flutes (Charles Nicholson flutes etc.) became available. These became highly sought after in the 1970s as their big sound was able to produce a better tone for the noisy environment they are played in. The instrument is played like a tin whistle; the keys (if any) are ignored, as most of the Irish repertoire is in D, G, A minor, E minor and A major. The melodies tend to lie inside the two octaves above middle C. The ornamentation (rolls etc.) that so characterise Irish traditional music depend upon the fingers having contact with the holes; which allows the player to slide from notes and to articulate the grace notes. This makes the Boehm instrument unsuited to traditional Irish music. One exceptional player who does play Irish music successfully on a Boehm instrument, is the US based musician Joanie Madden.

Irish players learn by ear, staff notation is considered an impediment to the feel of the music. Notes slur over bar-lines and a legato style is preferred, although there is a more staccato Northern playing style in the North of Ireland which is related to Scottish music. Performance of Irish music is always done from memory, never sight reading. Tonguing is not used, though debate rages on this topic. Articulation is achieved by use of the throat or the fingers. As the tunes are often quite fast, sight-reading does not help ‘the flow’ of the music. The ornaments are rhythmic effects, not actual melody notes. They are there to enforce the rhythm as this was originally dance music that has, in the last one hundred years or so, found a listening audience of its own.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a classical musician attempting to play Irish music is getting the ‘feel’ of these ornaments. Also the tone prized by Irish flute players is quite different to that sought by Boehm players. The Irish session player wants the flute to have a searing reedy tone with a solid, chunky bottom ‘D’ (the lowest note available on the instrument, assuming the C and C# keys are missing). This is often referred to as the hard D. In the author’s experience, classical flute players like a more rounded “beautiful” tone. This is because the flute is attempting to emulate the Irish Uilleann pipes.

Usually this music is played in pubs; in ‘sessions‘. A session is a group of friends (not a band) coming together to play tunes. The music is always unison playing as harmonies are not considered traditional. The melody is not improvised; rather each tune has an accepted standard version and this will be played two or three times before someone gives a signal to move to the next agreed tune. There is improvisation or ‘variations’ on phrases which are considered as a sign of good playing, i.e.: to play the melody exactly the same each time is not admired. The skill is in putting in these variations and still staying inside the frame-work of the tune. The real test of traditional Irish flute playing however is in the exposure of solo playing. It’s in a solo performance that the beauty of the melody and its ornaments is to be heard.

In New Zealand an incorporated society – The Celtic Flute School of New Zealand [now known as Ceol Aneas] – has been formed to promote this skill. In five years great progress has been made and the school has grown to attract students to its annual master-classes in Nelson from all over the world. Originally starting out as eighteen keen flute-players, the school has taught as many as 120 students in June 2004 in Nelson. They studied Irish flute, fiddle, bouzouki, Uilleann pipes and concertina. Ceol Aneas has now become an annual fixture each June, held over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend holiday, in Nelson.

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For more information about Irish traditional music sessions, classes and Ceol Aneas, kindly contact Pat Higgins.

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