Playing the Six Holed Flute

Your First Notes

Like any flute, the easiest note to play is the one produced by the head joint alone. Hold the head joint up to your mouth, pressing the embouchure to your lips as if kissing.  Now let the head joint roll down your chin, so that the embouchure hole turns outwards.   Smile slightly to draw the corners of your mouth inwards and upwards. Open a very small gap between your lips and direct a stream of air at the far edge of the embouchure hole. While you blow, adjust the position of the head joint sideways and by rotating it. Experiment with the shape of your lips to find the clearest sound. Keep this up until you can produce a clean sound every time.

Assembling the Flute

Assemble the flute with a screwing motion to avoid damaging the tenon cork. If you meet any resistance, pull the joint apart again and apply cork grease to the cork.

The flute is correctly assembled when all the holes line up. Some players prefer to turn the embouchure hole back towards them, yielding a darker though somewhat flatter tone. Some also prefer the bottom joint to be rotated a little to one side or other of the middle joint. Be careful not to take this too far, as it may cause a cramped posture.

Holding the Flute

Hold the flute with the first three fingers of your left hand covering the three holes in the middle joint. Cover the bottom three holes with the first three fingers of the right hand. Use the pads of your fingers, not the tips, to cover the holes - your fingers should be flat on the instrument. Don't squeeze hard - a light grip should be adequate.

 Bring the embouchure hole up to your lips with your left elbow close to your chest. The lowest joint of your left-hand first finger should press against the front of the flute to support it. Your thumbs should be holding the flute from below somewhere between the first and second fingers. You should be able to let go the right hand and still hold the flute against your lip.

Left-handed people might be tempted to reverse the above instructions. This is not a good idea. Both hands work equally hard on the flute, so there is no advantage to be gained. Further, if you decide later to get a flute with keys, you will be at a serious disadvantage as the keys only work one way.

You should sit or stand upright, with the flute horizontal or drooping just a little. Do not support the top end of the flute on your left shoulder and do not stick your left elbow out. Keep your neck straight. All of this keeps the breathing passages clear and prevents tiredness and soreness developing in the neck and arms.

When raising fingers from holes, do not raise them too far and try to raise them all a similar amount. This enables you to play faster and more evenly. Practicing in front of a mirror helps to get all these things right.

Fingering the Notes

Hold the flute as above, but with all holes uncovered. Blow this note (c#) and adjust the position of the instrument for best tone. Put down the first finger of your left hand. If you cover the hole properly, a new and lower note (B) should sound. When you can play that note clearly, put down the next finger and so on until you can play all the notes of the bottom octave.

Second octave notes generally use the same fingering. "Overblow" the notes by tightening your embouchure - the gap between your lips - and blowing a little harder. The note "G" is a good one to start on. Once you master overblowing, try out all the notes on the fingering chart.

Note that there are three alternative fingerings given for low C natural. Use any or all of them. Covering half the top hole can be particularly effective in slow tunes.

The third octave notes are given in the chart for the sake of completeness. They are difficult to form and are rarely (if ever) used by most players.

Keep in mind that you don't have to stick to the formal fingerings for your flute, particularly when negotiating tricky passages. For example, a quick passage d,B,d requires swapping every finger, leaving no fingers to support the instrument. If you leave your right hand fingers down, only the fingers of the left hand have to change. The instrument is held securely and no one will notice the unorthodox fingering.


Tonguing (silently mouthing the letter "T" at the start of each note) is used by woodwind players to articulate notes. Classical musicians and school recorder groups are taught to tongue every note that isn't written with a slur to the previous one. Try that with Irish music and you end up with a very tired tongue and music that sounds more like a series of notes than a tune.

Think rather of the notes as words in a song. The words are grouped into phrases and sentences, separated by punctuation marks including full stops and commas. Tonguing is a form of punctuation that marks the start of a phrase. Depending on the tune, the phrase might have a few notes or many. Tongue the notes you want to stand out and slur the rest.

A far better way to articulate Irish music on the flute is by the use of ornaments...


The cut is the first ornament in Irish music. It consists of the note itself, a brief cut up to a higher note and a return to the original note, all done without re-tonguing. The first part of the note and the cut up to the higher note are both very short. A cut on the note E might thus sound EAE......E. It doesn't matter which higher note you use, because it's too short to tell the pitch. For this reason, it is unnecessary to use the formal fingering for the upper note, just momentarily lifting any finger produces a satisfactory cut. A cut that starts with the grace note can be effective too, especially to emphasise a high note beginning a phrase.

Cuts are useful to break up notes of the same pitch and to give emphasis and life to the tune.

Rolls are the next ornament and consist of the note itself, a cut to a higher note, return to the note, a tip to the note below and a final return to the note. A roll on E therefore might sound EAEDE..E ("did-dle-dee").

Real flamboyance comes from combining a roll with an additional cut - again all on one breath. This is often a useful way to deal with the long note at the end of a tune and would sound EAEDEAEE ("did-dle-dee-dum").

Crans are piping ornaments, sometimes used on the flute, particularly for low D. (Because there is no note lower than D, a roll on D is impossible.) A cran consists of alternating the note in question with several higher ones. A D cran might sound DADF#DADD (also "did-dle-dee-dum").


There is a great temptation, especially among music notation readers, to breathe only at the end of parts of the tune. This usually means that a lot of the tune is played weakly for want of air, that breaths are long and loud and that parts of the tune get lost. Experienced players find smart places to breathe often, and turn the pauses for breath into punctuation. Smart places include long notes, which might otherwise be rolled. So, for example, a long G might be played as G......G, or rolled as GBGF#GGG, or used as a place to breath as GslurpG. In this way the need to breathe is turned into a virtue and the breath, instead of becoming a hole in the tune, becomes a statement, a rhythmical variation. Varying where the breath is taken can also add variety.

A good tune to try out some of these tricks is The Leitrim Fancy. Keep in mind that jigs should have a happy skipping rhythm (each bar will sound "tick-e-ty, tick-e-ty"). Rendered into "FluteSpeak", the Leitrim Fancy might sound like this:

G roll, F# roll | E slurp B, B cut A B |
G roll, F# roll | D slurp A, A cut F# D |
G roll, F# roll | E slurp B, B cut A B |
G cut B, d B G | A cut B G, F# cut E D |

(repeat first part)

G cut B , d B d | e roll , d B A |
G cut B , d B G | A cut B G , F# cut E D |
G cut B , d B d | E roll , d e f# |
g cut f# e, d B G | A B G , F# cut E D |

(repeat second part)


Experienced players know that there are some better ways to practise:

  • Play new tunes very slowly at first, concentrating on getting the notes right at a good, steady rhythm. Once you can play right through without a mistake at the slow speed, gradually increase speed. If you start to stumble, slow down again. This might seem a laborious approach, but it's faster and surer in the long run.

  • Some players find the use of a metronome helpful in keeping them to a steady pace. One danger with the use of a metronome is the tendency to iron out the rhythm. Setting the metronome only to mark the bars and half bars might help get around that danger.
  • When you come across a difficult passage in an otherwise straightforward tune, practice just that passage until it's up to standard.
  • Whenever possible, learn by ear. It goes in faster and stays in better.
  • If you are playing from the written notation, learn the tune by heart right from the outset. Play a phrase, then close your eyes and play it again. Then practice the next phrase in the same way, close your eyes and play both phrases. Then work on the third and fourth phrases. Once learned, join them to the first and second. Continue all this slowly, until you can play the tune entirely with your eyes shut. Only now start speeding up the tune.
  • Another trick is to play the tune from the written notation slowly on to a tape.  Now work from the tape.
  • If you are going to a teacher, bring along a portable cassette recorder and tape the tune you are learning, played slowly at first and then at speed.
  • If you can find a tape or cassette recorder with two speeds, try recording tunes at the higher speed and replaying at the lower. This reduces speed to a half and pitch by an octave, so you can still play along. This technique is great for working out what just what those great musicians on records are up to.  A number of computer programs can achieve the same thing.


The most important learning aid for playing Irish music is to listen to good players. This music is from an aural tradition - the notes in the tune can be written down but not the style of delivery. CDs and cassettes of great players are now readily available so there is no excuse not to immerse yourself in the music. Don't confine yourself to flute players - whistle players and pipers also have much to offer the flute player. And, if you are interested in the airs as well as the dance music, listen also to the great singers.

Some suggestions:

  • Matt Malloy
  • Seamus Tansy
  • Eddie Cahill
  • The Southerly Breeze, a new CD featuring six of Australia's leading flute players.

Sources of Tunes

As previously mentioned, the best source of tunes are those you pick up by ear from other players, either live or off record. Books of written tunes are useful however for filling in the gaps and for finding tunes you can't find elsewhere. The classic tunebook is O'Neill's 1001 gems : The Dance Music of Ireland, Waltons, Dublin. A more recent collection is Ceol Rince na hEireann (The Dance Music of Ireland), 3 Vols, Breandan Breathnach, Education Department, Dublin. See The Preface, Ceol Rince na hÉireann, Vol 1 for a copy of Breathnach's own translation to the introduction to Vol 1.  For those with Internet access, an increasing number of tunes are available from Web sites such as Ceolas or TUNEdB.

The Importance of a Good Teacher

While these notes will help you get going by yourself, you will make much faster and surer progress if you can find a good teacher. Make sure that the teacher can play in the style you are interested in. Talk to us about finding a teacher in you area. If a teacher is unavailable, the next best thing is a learning tape.

Quiet Practice

If you live in an apartment or have a young family you might need to practice quietly.  Try this trick.  Make a small blob of Blu-tac (the putty-like substance used to hold posters to walls) and stick it on your flute just beyond the playing edge of the embouchure hole.  It really messes up the aerodynamics, with the result that your nice powerful flute is reduced to a whisper.  Experiment with the size, shape and placement of the blob to get just the result you need.  The good thing about this approach is that you can blast away as if in the pub without bothering anyone.