Browsing Tag

irish music


My thoughts on flutes, let me show you them

Today my friend Aron pinged me on Facebook to ask me my thoughts on flutes, since he’s thinking of getting himself one. He’s a newbie to flute playing as well as to playing tunes in general, but is taking well to whistle and likes flute as well, and wanted to know what my thoughts were on his getting a keyed flute.

BOY HOWDY do I have thoughts on this! (And it was rather a relief to see that I was coherent enough to present a cohesive opinion on the topic. Yay, medical recovery!)

Maybe you’re brand new to instruments and don’t know which one to pick. Or maybe you’re like me, and you’re coming out of a school band background, but you’ve found trad music and you want to see if you can take your previous school flute experience and apply it to playing trad tunes.

Here’s the thing though–that flute you played in school band is perfectly capable of producing tunes. It is not, however, exactly a traditional instrument. And if your eventual goal is to play in a session environment, your chances of getting frowned at if you show up with a Boehm-system keyed flute are sadly pretty good. Your mileage on this will vary depending on the session; some sessions may be more amenable to flexibility in instrument choices. But don’t rely on that. You should default in favor of choosing an instrument which will get you taken seriously if you show up at a session with it.

With that in mind, how should you choose an instrument to play?

Suppose you say to yourself, “Okay, I like having keys. I’m comfortable with those. Good clear accidentals are my friend!” Should you try looking at Irish flutes with keys?

Here’s the problem with that–Irish flutes with keys are super expensive. The reason for this, based on my own research across different makers, is because the keys get made out of silver. And that can run you up a pretty hefty price tag with each additional key you put on there. As a concrete example, Casey Burns sells his basic keyless D flutes for $700 each. And each additional key runs you up another $450.

Do the math, and that means a flute with several keys on it, capable of producing whatever accidentals you may need in whatever key you may want to play in, is going to run you a lot of money really fast. This right here will be THE reason I don’t have a proper Irish flute of my own with keys on it yet. That kind of money is up there with the most expensive Apple laptops!

At this point you may now be boggling and wondering what the hell that kind of pricing is based upon, if you’re coming out of a background like mine–wherein you may have paid a couple hundred bucks at most for a flute played in school. It’s very important to keep in mind though that the vast majority of Boehm-system keyed flutes, the kinds of flutes that do get played in schools, are a) mass-produced, and b) specifically targeted for the student market. By contrast, if you’re looking at Irish flutes, the makers of those are not making mass-produced instruments, and they’re not targeting students with them. They’re putting more individual care in the quality of instrument produced, and they’re going to be working with better materials, all with the goal of producing serious sound.

And if it helps lessen the sticker shock, think of it this way–you wouldn’t want to play that flute you played in school if you were joining a serious orchestra, either. If you wanted to be a professional-level player in, say, the Seattle Symphony or something of that scale, you’d be going for concert-grade instruments. And those are going to be running up the price tag considerably as well. I can assure you that I boggled quite a bit at the pricing on some of the concert-grade piccolos I’ve looked at over the years!

In short, if you want to get into playing trad music, go keyless first. The Casey Burns Folk Flute I have is an excellent starter flute, and he sells them for $375. Similarly, I am VERY happy with the carbon fiber flutes I’ve recently acquired from Carbony Celtic Winds. The big D flute I got from them clocks in at $455, and the two smaller flutes I have from them are proportionally less pricy than that. The carbon fibers have great voices on them, and I’d recommend them as a viable alternative to wood if you have concerns about where the wood in a flute may have come from. Also of important note, I’ve been very happy with the exchanges I’ve had with Rob from Carbony, who was very helpful working with me to get a big D flute suited for the reach of my hands and was willing to do custom hole placements for me if need be.

One more maker you might check out is Sweetheart, who also came highly recommended when I started poking around for session-class flutes for myself. I have one of their Renaissance fifes in high D, which was really cheap at $49, which is pretty awesome for a starter-grade instrument.

You can get by in a session with something in D, either a big flute or a fife-sized instrument, as long as you can get good clear sound out of it in a couple of octaves. That’ll do you fine for a large number of tunes–you can do stuff in D, G, E minor, or E dorian without much effort at all, and with only having to half-hole or cross-finger the C. If you want to get a bit more ambitious, you might consider a large D with a smaller backup instrument in a different key, if you want to increase the range of stuff you can play in a session. (Which is why I got myself the A.)

But if you’re just starting out, you should definitely go for a starter-grade instrument, just to make sure that you don’t sink a couple K into an instrument you might ultimately decide you don’t want to play after all. If you keep at it, you can always upgrade to a more serious instrument later. And hi, this’ll be me eventually wanting to commission a serious instrument with keys from Mr. Burns.

Any other flute maker recs out there people want to share? Drop ’em in the comments!


Some tunes practice tonight

Rossignolet is rapidly becoming my practice flute of choice–at least, as long as I’m not trying to play along with any recording that isn’t actually in A. If I pretend I’m playing a D flute and ignore how I’m actually a fourth up, this flute’s responsiveness is wonderful for just trying to get fingering patterns down into my muscle memory.

Plus, I just love the way Rossignolet sounds. I posted these to Facebook but for giggles and grins and posterity, here are sound samples of me playing Swallowtail Jig on my three primary flutes of the moment, including the new one!

Anna Plays Swallowtail Jig on New Flute (Rossignolet in A)

Anna Plays Swallowtail Jig on Norouet (Big Flute in D)

Anna Plays Swallowtail Jig on Shine (Piccolo in D)

Tonight, I went through all seven of the Quebec tunes I know so far and then through most of the non-Quebec ones, including Swallowtail. I didn’t hit Si Bheag Si Mhor or Da Slockit Light, but only because my embouchure started getting a bit wibbly and I wanted to work on Pigeon on the Gate, which I need for the Bone Walker soundtrack.

Fun observation of the evening #1: on Rossignolet, trying the embouchure exercise described in Grey Larsen’s Irish Flute and Whistle book, I was able to get three octaves of A as well as the intermediate E between the second and third A’s. That’s hard, people. And leaves me a bit swimmy-headed in a way I rather clearly remember from when I was first learning how to play piccolo!

Fun observation of the evening #2: TunePal can play tunes for you if you bring up the sheet music for one in it. You tap the play button and it’ll start playing through the tune on the screen in MIDI piano, and you can adjust the tempo too. So I fired up Pigeon on the Gate and went through it slowly several times, trying to follow the sheet music. Then I did it a few times more with my eyes closed, to see if I had it in muscle memory yet and if I could play along by ear. Then, I shut up TunePal entirely and tried to play it through slowly by myself.

This actually appeared to work. I cannot play this tune at speed yet but it may actually be getting into my fingers. Even though it’ll take me a bit to polish it up, just because those jumps in the first couple of measures from B down to E then up to D and down to E again are a bit of a bitch on the flute.


This year’s Norwescon!

I’ve had more fun at Norwescon in recent years, in no small part because it’s actually pretty cool to be Dara’s water fairy–i.e., the person who runs water to the musicians she’s bringing in for the concert tracks. It means I get to hang out listening to all the music, and every so often, somebody’ll play something really awesome.

For example, this is the year I discovered Molly Lewis and Hello, the Future!, both of whom involve awesome geek girl singing. And ukeleles. I’m totally now hearing the Doctor in my head saying “I play a ukelele now. Ukeleles are COOL.” And while nerdcore remains not really my Thing, I did nonetheless quite enjoy what I saw of Klopfenpop and Death*Star, in Dara’s MONSTARRS OF NERDCORE concert.

But I also had quite a bit of fun attending three excellent panels. One was a complete geek-out about the movie edition of The Hobbit, in which I amused the panelists by announcing I was reading the book as we speak, in two different languages (and I was told that why yes, that IS extremely geeky). I was particularly pleased that one of the panelists was a young woman who’d just taken a semester on Tolkien at the U-dub, in fact–and that the two men on the panel cheerfully deferred to her as their expert, since her knowledge of the canon was significantly more current.

It will probably surprise none of you that the entire room was pretty much in agreement that 1) yes, we all liked the movie, 2) yes, we all had issues with the movie, and 3) yes, we’re all going to go see The Desolation of Smaug, probably two or three times. I was also quite, QUITE amused at one dude talking about how they prettied up Thorin, Kili, and Fili to get them to appeal to the “tweens and twenty-somethings”, at which point I and the fifty-something woman behind me were all “whaddya mean, twenty-somethings?” Because yeah, we were on board with the Unexpected Hotness of Dwarves.

Another panel was excellently moderated by Diana Pharaoh Francis, and was about Rogues and Anti-Heroes in Fantasy and why we love them and such. We had a delightful discussion about the differences between those character archetypes, and moreover, I was quite charmed by Diana’s purple hair. And Browncoat lanyard. You can’t go wrong with a Browncoat lanyard.

The third panel I quite enjoyed was one on Big Publishing Vs. Small Publishing Vs. Self-Publishing, which, for reasons that should be obvious, is Highly Relevant to My Interests. I wasn’t terribly surprised to see the guys who run small presses of COURSE being all “but of course you should send your stuff to big presses and if not then the small presses”… and this was where I started diverging in opinion from them, because I’ve come to believe that whether or not you submit to a big NY press should in fact depend on what your goals are and how much patience you have. Meanwhile, though, the two women who had more experience with self-pub had stern opinions about whether or not big publishing had worked for them (spoiler alert: it hadn’t, not really).

And in particular, I was pleased to note that Karen Kincy, an author whose book Other had been recommended to me, was on this panel. She spoke quite passionately about her experiences and why she chose to run a Kickstarter for the fourth novel in her series. As a Kickstarter author myself, that was pretty much the most interesting part of the panel for me.

Meanwhile, I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of local authors I’d seen at a previous Norwescon–Tiger Gray and Vivien Weaver, who have a couple of books in a shared universe that are published under the moniker of Hard Limits Press. When they found out I was an author as well we had quite the delightful chat about each other’s covers–and when I told them I had a book coming out from Carina, they were all “ooh, Deb Nemeth” and I said quite happily that she’s my editor. I quickly bought both of their books in trade, and then came home and bought them again in digital form just so I’d have them easily at hand for my commutes.

And. AND! I sold five print copies of Faerie Blood, three of which were with the help of the lovely people of Book Universe. I sold them on consignment so I didn’t get as much money for them, but hey, they were sold, and I was quite happy to give them a cut for doing the work of selling the copies for me!

Music-wise, I had huge fun at the Find Your Instrument panel, in which I totally bugged userinfosolcita to show me her violin. Because RESEARCH. Also because AWESOME. I finally got it explained to me exactly how a violin does in fact physically differ from a fiddle, and even managed to get a few coherent notes off of Sunnie’s instrument. WOW, holding that thing felt weird to flute-player me, since it was at a completely different angle. And playing it felt even weirder, since I had to try to figure out how to angle the bow to get it to make proper noises against the strings.

I did learn two things that may eventually become useful when writing Kendis, though. And those are: 1) there’s not really any such thing as a chord on the violin, but you can sometimes play two strings at once and that seems to be about as close as you get; 2) if you want to do quick staccato notes, you will want to bow down rather than up, since you get more force that way. (Since one of the questions I asked Sunnie was how to know which direction to bow when.)

Cascadia’s Got Talent was fun again this year, even if it was short, and was sadly lacking in a gong. But that was okay, since nobody was really bad enough to deserve being gonged, and a couple of people were actually actively funny and sang well. And I did love Dara’s schtick about the grand prize of Metro bus passes to Kenmore (“Kenmore! It’s on the way to Bothell! Kenmore! We used to be interesting, thank God THAT’S over! Kenmore! Where the appliances go to die!”).

Dara and I closed out the con with what’s becoming a tradition–the Intro to Irish Session panel, which is small but fun and eventually I’ll have enough damn tunes to actually carry a fair share of one of these. But in the meantime, this time, I heavily geeked out about podorythmie and Quebec music as opposed to Irish music, and had the delight of a lady in the audience name-checking Le Vent du Nord. “YES!” I proclaimed happily, as the aforementioned userinfosolcita beside me gestured in my direction in a “why yes she IS a raving fangirl” sort of way, “I love them!”

And I got told by Alexander James Adams that my singing was good on the GBS fanvid that Dara and I showed off to him. Which was awesome. <3


Reading Grey Larsen's Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle…

… and even though I’m only into Chapter 1 thus far, already I’m finding this thing highly informative.

Some of what he’s going over in the first chapter is familiar to me–basic stuff about how time signatures work, for example. And the difference between a tongued note and a slurred one. I remember these things from my years in band in middle and high school.

What I never had to deal with before, though, was modes. When I started playing again in my adulthood and started hearing about modes of tunes–especially at session, before our Renton session imploded–I had a bit of time trying to bend my brain around what the hell a mode actually is, and what the difference between it and a key is, for a tune. Larsen’s book explains this beautifully and simply. I’d kind of already bent my brain around this a bit, but to have it clearly spelled out is very, very helpful.

(For the curious who may not know–if you know how a basic scale works, do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, and assuming you’re doing it in a major key, that’s actually what’s called Ionian mode. You can change modes if you take that exact same scale and just start it on a different note! So the key is still the same, but the resulting base note for whatever tune you may be dealing with is NOT.)

Here’s another thing that was incredibly helpful to have spelled out, since I DO come from a background that’s more or less “classical”, even if I only bounced briefly off of that in Symphonic Band and in Wind Ensemble my freshman year (mmmmm Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony Finale mmmmmmm). To quote Mr. Larsen:

The classical wind player is taught that all notes are to be tongued unless there is an indication in the notated music, such as a slur, to do otherwise. Most Irish players use tonguing and throating intuitively as an expressive device against a general backdrop of slurring.

Speaking as somebody coming out of a more or less classical background, I read that bit and went WHOA. Because he’s right–I was totally taught that I was to clearly articulate every note unless the music said to do otherwise. But here’s the fun thing–when I’ve been playing Irish or Quebec tunes, I’ve totally found myself, by habit, mostly slurring stuff! It was always easier to me, and I never really thought about it.

So yeah, that suddenly made something just click HARD in my brain.

And if this book’s doing that to me in the very first chapter, I can’t wait to get to the more complex stuff–and especially to see if I can learn from this text some of the more complicated tonguing tricks I was never able to learn well in school. One could argue that if I’m in my 40’s, it’s probably too late for me to REALLY pick this stuff up properly… but screw it, I don’t care, it’s the journey that’s fun. Learning how to improve my flute playing AND learning a whole shiny new language exercises my brain! And my fingers!

This is going to be fun, you guys!