Category Archives: About Irish Music

The Irish Wooden Flute

Flûte traversière irlandaiseThe Irish flute is a 6-holed transverse wooden flute, directly descended from the standard classical flute of the 19th century. Like the bodhran and whistle, what is unique to Ireland is not the instrument itself, but the way of playing it. The flute has the same fingering as the tin whistle, and is often a logical progression for beginners who start on the whistle. Although it gained enormously in popularity in the last century, it is not as widely played as the fiddle, for example.

History of the Flute

The flute is an import in Irish traditional music, with quite a short history. It became popular in the 19th century, when classical flutes were first used to play Irish traditional music. Classical flutes in this period were wooden, with 6 fingerholes and several keys – it was only later that the Boehm design became popular. As with other instruments, the flute became much more widespread with the advent of mass production, which made it more readily available, and cheaper in price

Types of Irish flutes

In the 19th century, there were two main types of flutes; what we call today “German flutes”, and flutes by English makers. German flutes were generally anonymous mass-produced flutes of low to medium quality; while English flutes, by makers such as Boosey and Hawkes, or Rudall and Rose, were of excellent quality, had a large bore combined with larger finger holes, and a characteristic “big” and rich sound.
It is the English-model flute that was adapted by Irish traditional musicians, and many of these 19th century flutes are still played today, and models in good condition are particularly sought after.

Rudall and Rose Flute

Rudall & Rose Flute (Photo : Terry McGee, McGee Flutes)

Modern Flutes

Although antique flutes such as Rudalls or Boosey’s “Pratten” model are still excellent instruments, there are some disadvantages to playing them. Other than the obvious disadvantage of price and the difficulty in finding a them, it is also worth mentioning that many of these flutes may be higher in pitch than modern instruments – English “concert pitch” could be as high as A=455 in the 19th century (today, the standard is A=440) Instruments initially made for this pitch would have to be adapted to play in modern concert pitch, an adaptation that would have to be done by a maker.
Makers in the 20th century started making flutes, based initially on Rud all and Pratten models. Each maker adapted the model according to their own preferences, so that today, although we still speak of flutes being “Rudall” models, it is more accurate to speak of them being unique to a particular maker, and his adaptation or interpretation of the initial model.

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Playing the flute

Like the whistle, the keyless flute has six finger holes, and plays the scale of D. Producing a sound on the flute is not as simple as the whistle, however, as the embouchure requires a certain amount of work.

Gamme sur la flûte traversière irlandaise

Styles of flute playing

The flute is associated with several regions in Ireland: such as the Sligo, Roscommon and Leitrim area, or East Galway. There are several distinct styles of flute playing. The Sligo style is in general quite fast, flowing and ornamented. One great exponent of the Sligo style is Matt Molloy. The Leitrim style is highly rhythmic, less ornamented, and with much use of glottal stops and even tonguing, as in the music of John McKenna. The East Galway style is more relaxed in tempo, and also quite flowing, with many tunes in unusual keys – Paddy Carty, who played in this style, used a fully-keyed wooden flute.

Ornamentation on the flute

The flute makes use of fingered ornamentation such as cuts, rolls and crans. Depending on the player’s individual style, he may also use breathing effects such as glottal stops to a greater or lesser extent as an element of ornamentation.

Some flute players

Matt Molloy
Seamus Tansey
Paddy Carty
Kevin Crawford
John McKenna
Roger Sherlock
Fintan Vallely

 

The Irish tin whistle

The Irish Tin WhistleThe tin whistle is a small fipple flute or flageolet, and like the bodhran, exists in many forms in many different cultures. What is uniquely Irish is the playing and musical style, again like the bodhran.

The whistle is one of the most popular Irish instruments, as it is small, cheap and durable, and can be easily obtained in music shops. It is often used for beginners as an introduction to the world of Irish traditional music, and is a popular school instrument. Although it is a small, simple instrument, it can be and is played to a virtuoso level – for example players like Mary Bergin, Donncha O’Briain or Paddy Moloney.
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Tin Whistle

gen2a.jpgThe simplest, and most popular, instrument in Irish music. A small 6-holed flute, in D, like a simplified version of the classical recorder. It is easily played in the keys of G and D.

It is simple and robust in construction, affordable and easy to play, and very versatile, it is often used as a repertoire-learning instrument, before progressing to more difficult instruments like flute, fiddle or pipes.

In its present form, the whistle dates from the 19th century, and has changed little since then. The low whistle is the bass version of the tin whistle

Recommended listening: Mary Bergin, Feadoga Stain 1 & 2

The “Low Whistle” is the bass version of “tin whistle”. The standard model is the low whistle in D, which sounds an octave lower that the soprano whistle. There are also other keys, of which the most common are F, G and A.

The low whistle has a very soft sound, and is perfectfor the interpretation of the slow airs and other slow tunes. Recommended listening: The group Lunasa, who use low whistles in F in 3-part harmonies to a unique effect.

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Irish Flute

mecoco4.jpgThe Irish flute date from the 19th century, and the flute manufacturers of the time, such as Rudall and Boosey, are still used as models for today’s flutes.
Six-holed , the flute has the same fingerings as the whistle, it is wooden (often blackwood or rosewood) or polymer (a synthetic material)
Recommended listening: Matt Molloy, Kevin Crawford, Desi Wilkinson, Fintan Vallely

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Bodhran

ang3.jpgThe bodhran (the name comes from the Gaelic bodhar, meaning deaf) is a gat-skinned drum, as is found in many cultures around the world. What makes it special is its playing technique, using a wooden stick (beater or cipin)
It has existed for centuries in Irish music, but became known in its present form in the late 50’s. Since then, it has become a subtle and virtuosicpercussion instrument, especially in the hands of musicians like John Joe Kelly (Flook), Ringo MacDonagh (De Danaan), Frank Torpey (Nomos), or Kevin Conneff (The Chieftains).

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Fiddle

Or violin; similar to the classical violin with a different style of playing and unique bowing techniques. A very versatile instrument in Irish music; there are distinct regional styles (Sligo, Donegal)
Players: Kevin Burke, Tommy Peoples, Liz Carroll


Uilleann pipes

Bellows-blown bagpipes operated by the elbow, with chanter, three drones and regulators, the uilleann pipes (uilleann = elbow in Irish) has evolved from the 17th century bagpipes, and in its current form dates from the 19th century. The standard key is D, but the pipes also exist in C, and B-flat. An interior instrument , it has a soft sound compared to the Scottish bagpipe, for example.
Players: Willie Clancy, Leo Rowsome, Patsy Tuohy, Liam O’Flynn, Cillian Vallely