It has bothered me for some
time that Irish flute players produce and seek a tone quite different
from Classical flute players', yet their way of doing that is not clear.
This difference of tone can partly, but not fully, be explained by the
differences between our flutes. We prefer conical while, these
days, classical music players tend to go with Boehm's cylindrical bore
flutes. Conical flutes do produce a darker tone than cylindrical
flutes, all other things being equal. But the difference in tone
colour is much more than that, and, for some reason I can't explain, the
topic of how to get it hasn't been accorded the level of significance I think it
deserves. We all take our tone seriously, yet teachers of Irish
flute do not seem to go much into it, if at all. Perhaps it's
assumed that new players will stumble on the secrets, given enough time?
Or that they will adopt the ideal approach "naturally" if not lead up
the garden path with an inappropriate approach? Perhaps teachers
are not confident enough of their own ability to go into it? For
whatever reason, there is a vacuum. While there has been some
discussion on some of the Internet forums recently, I'm unaware of any
permanently available, straightforward "set of instructions" on how to
achieve the hard dark tone we associate with Irish flute.
In many ways, I'm not the
ideal person to fill that vacuum. I'm not a flute teacher, indeed,
these days I'm not even a professional flute player. But, in the
absence of anyone better, I'll make the start. Others might like
to tidy up later. Or come barrelling in with a sound refutation!
This is perhaps not the
time I'd choose to present this information. I'm working up to
some serious research on flute tone,
and ideally, I'd finish my preparations and carry out that research first, and
thus be able to present
this information from a more secure footing, with some sound bytes and
technical analyses to back it up. But, time ticks by, and I'd like
to have something available while we wait for the lab results to come in
To complete this list of
excuses, I won't argue that the method I'm about to outline is the only
way, the best way or the right way to produce the kind of tone we
associate with top-class Irish players. If you think you know a
better way, or feel you can present it in a better way, feel free to get
in touch. Indeed, I'd like to know of any other approaches so I
can put them to the test as part of my Flute Tone Investigations series.
(The explanation below is
based on notes I'd prepared some time back, and have been sending out to
customers and correspondents. I've received some good feedback
about it, so hopefully it will help others to gain more satisfaction
from their flutes.)
Getting the hard, dark tone.
Especially if you've come
from the classical tradition, or been influenced by someone who has, you
probably tend to blow "across" the top of the hole towards the far edge.
This gives a bright, lively tone which may not be the tone you are
looking for for Irish music. It also gives a fairly sharp pitch. Try
this two-stage approach for achieving a darker, more mysterious, and
Turn the head of the flute in towards you, typically so the far edge of
the hole is in line with the middle of the finger holes. Cover as much
of the embouchure hole as you feel comfortable doing. None of this is
critical, so don't obsess over it!
Now, time for a little experiment. Blow, in your usual style, a low G note. Listen to the tone. As you
blow, push out your top lip, or pull in your bottom lip, or both, so
that you are directing your jet of air more and more downwards, "towards
the centre of the flute". As the jet aims lower and lower, you should
hear the sound harden and darken, as more of the energy is directed away
from the fundamental of the note, and into its second harmonic. It will
still sound like low G (i.e. we haven't "jumped to second octave G"),
but it will sound firmer and "reedier" - more like the same note on a
reed instrument. It might help you to visualise trying to blow a grain
of rice off your chin. Or, as I've heard it imaginatively put, aiming
your breath at the 2nd button on your shirt.
Now, experiment with wafting
the jet up and down. Up towards the edge, then down towards the
centre of the flute, and you should hear the range of tonal
possibilities available to you. (You'll probably want to adjust the
opening between the lips at both ends of the range to get the cleanest
tone.) And once you've heard the range, and can reproduce it at
will, you're in a good position to decide where along that soft-hard
spectrum you want to be. I'm inclined to be right up the hard end
(blowing toward the centre of the flute), where the reedy tone has more
penetrating power, and you can actually hear yourself over the phalanx
of reeds and strings arrayed against you.
Once you have it working for
G, try it out right across the flute range. You'll find it especially
useful for replacing that wispy, mushy, flabby bottom D with a firm, resonant, "Hard"
When you come to trying the
new approach out on tunes, I'd suggest a slow song tune, or air, so that
you have time to appreciate and adjust the tone. Try your
new tones on friends, asking them if they prefer "this" (edge) or "this"
(centre). You'll know when you're getting somewhere when they much
prefer the harder tone!
Nothing to smile about
Now that we have discovered
how to produce the hard tone, is there a better way to approach the
flute to make it more automatic? Back in my early days (the
seventies), beginner flute players were told to smile, in order to
smooth the lips. But is that good advice for us? Try this
You'll probably find that the
jet that had been hitting the middle of your hand now hits somewhere
down near the base of the palm. So, it seems frowning, not
smiling, sets up our lips better for the "blowing to the centre"
approach. So don't turn that frown, upside down ...
The "blowing down towards the
centre" approach appears to have other potential benefits for players of
19th century flutes that have very flat lower notes, or players of
modern flutes that are close copies of these. We believe that,
using this technique, the energy is directed away from the flat
fundamentals into their harmonics, which tend to be in far better tune
with the rest of the flute, thus overcoming the flatness. This
seems a more plausible theory than the "lipping it up" theory which
preceded it - it doesn't seem likely that one can "lip up" a flute as
flat as many that are being played successfully. We haven't
subjected the theory to clinical trials as yet, but it's on the list!
Fortunately, the converse is
not true - there is no harm in applying the blowing downward approach to
a flute where the low notes are in good tune. Unlike lipping up,
it will not drive in-tune notes sharp.
It might come as a surprise
that not only Irish flute players made use of this technique.
Indeed, it was the staple fare of 19th century classical flute playing.
Interestingly, the great Mr Nicholson, who was a household name in
London in the early 1800s, taught that the hard tone (blowing down)
should be used most of the time, with the soft tone (blowing to
the edge) only being used for special effect. You'll find his
Gunn, a slightly earlier Scottish teacher gives similar instructions at:
And towards the end of the 19th century, Rockstro is holding out for a
tone about halfway between soft and hard! Seems that air-jets were
becoming more upwardly-mobile.
If you want some idea of
what's actually going on acoustically here, see:
I hope something in the above
will work for you. Again, my apologies it's a bit rough, but I'm
moved to get something out there.
Since writing the above, a
product aimed at assisting metal flute teachers get these same ideas
over to young students has been brought to my attention (Thanks,
You-tube videos illustrate well what I've been talking about above.