Congratulations on deciding to learn the Irish Flute! It’s a great instrument and with patience and consistent practice, will bring you and your listeners much joy!
This is my introductory course for the Irish Flute and is perfect for anyone just starting out or for those that have been playing a while but want to brush up on some foundational concepts.
- Irish Flute Diagram
- Getting a Sound
- Grip & Posture
- Covering the Holes
- D & G Major Scales
- Embouchure & Tone
- Throat & Tongue Articulation
- 4 Simple Tunes
- 4 irish Traditional Tunes
Section 1: The Basics
Practicing any discipline takes lots of patience! Be patient with yourself especially in Section 1 where you might want to jump ahead to “Trad Tunes”. In the first section, for purposes of example and ease of learning, I use simple tunes such as Mary Had a Little Lamb, London Bridge, etc… This is done on purpose! Since you are already familiar with these melodies, less time is spent on learning the tunes themselves thus allowing you to focus more attention on the concepts & techniques I’ll be trying to communicate.
Learning by Ear vs. Notation
I have provided both video footage and written notation of all examples, exercises and tunes. While being able to read music is a good skill to have, it is not necessary for the traditional Irish musician. I strongly encourage you to learn the examples by ear (through the video examples) as Irish Traditional Music is best learned this way. You will find as you progress that written notation falls very short of communicating Irish traditional music’s finer and more defining points.
If you are left-handed and wish to learn this way (foot-joint of flute pointed to your left) then you will need to substitute “left” for “right” in this tutorial. If you are just starting out you might decide now to learn right-handed (foot-joint pointed to the right) as it will make it easier on you down the road when purchasing a flute (especially if you are looking at second hand instruments). It can actually be an advantage to have your left hand be the more dexterous hand when playing the flute right-handed.
Below you will find a diagram of an Irish Flute with 8 Keys. The flute that I will be playing in the following video clips actually has no keys. A keyless flute such as mine is perfectly suitable to play Irish Traditional Music. However, it is nice to have keys for the odd tune that requires them or for playing other types of music.
A few comments on the diagram…
There is a stopper, usually made of cork, inside your head joint. This is positioned by the maker of your flute to ensure that it plays well in tune throughout the octaves. It is best left alone unless you feel that your flute isn’t performing as it should. In which case, the best thing to do is to consult the maker or retailer you purchased it from.
The embouchure is the hole that you blow in/across to sound the flute. The term “embouchure” is interchangeably used to describe the small hole created by your lips that focuses a steady stream of air in/across the embouchure of the flute.
The Tuning Slide
The tuning slide enables you to tune your flute to a specific pitch. Just as you hear an orchestra tune before a performance (they tune usually to A=440hz), you will also hear musicians in a session tune to a fixed pitch instrument such as an accordion.
The Keys & Finger Holes
For our purposes in this tutorial, we will only be looking at playing using the finger holes. If your flute does have keys, feel free to play around with them. We will be discussing their use in upcoming tutorials.
This exercise involves the use of the head joint only. Take the head joint and place it so that you can blow in/across the embouchure easily as you would to get sound out of a bottle top. Cover the opening of the end of the head joint with your right hand so that the sound that you produce is lower and easier to tolerate! Now, just blow in/across the embouchure and experiment with the shape and position of your lips until you get a consistent tone. If you do this in front of a mirror, you will find that once you are getting a good steady tone, the hole created by your lips (your embouchure) will and should be very small. If you are hearing a lot of air escape and are starting to feel dizzy, you need to focus your lips more to create an even smaller embouchure with them. Don’t forget to take breaks!
After you have practiced this and can consistently get a good solid tone, try getting the next highest tone by focusing your embouchure even more. Look carefully at my lips in the video clip. You’ll see my lips slightly tightening and pushing forward to get the next highest pitch. The idea here is that you want to create an ever smaller and faster stream of air. Being able to do this is very important for us to move on so take as much time as necessary to master this foundational technique. Again, take breaks as necessary.
In this section we will learn how to hold the flute properly with good posture. Over the years, I have seen many great flute players hold the flute in many different ways. Use the below instruction and photographs as an initial guide but feel free to experiment with a grip that suits you best.
Holding the Flute
Assemble your flute.
Pick up your flute with both hands so that the foot joint is pointing to your right.
- Cover the 3 holes closest to the head joint with the pads of your fingers, starting with your index finger.
- The flute should be resting on the third section of your index finger. I like to call this the “crook of your index finger”.
- Your thumb should be lightly touching the side of the flute closest to you. You never want this thumb gripping the flute tightly as this can lead to injury. Also, if and when you have keys, your thumb will be used to operate the Bb key.
- Your pinky should float freely. If you have keys, you will use your pinky to operate the G# key.
- Cover the next 3 holes with the pads of your fingers, starting with your index finger.
- Position your thumb comfortably.
- Your pinky will find a comfortable position naturally. If you have keys, it will be used to operate the Eb key.
Note: Many players have their thumb positioned directly below or slightly to the right of their index fingers with their fingers curved slightly so that the first pad of their fingers cover the holes.
I position my thumb slightly to the left with my fingers fairly straight and flat. This position is most comfortable for me but I have to be very careful that I do not leak air with the first joint of my fingers.
Again, experiment with what works best for you.
Now that you are covering the finger holes, position the flute so that it’s embouchure is close to your lips.
Before we start playing the flute, let’s first check our posture
- If you are sitting, your are sitting up straight, sitting on your “sit bones”. If you are standing, you are standing up straight with your weight distributed evenly over both feet.
- Your hands should have found a comfortable position at this point. It may feel awkward for a while. You shouldn’t be in any sharp pain. If you are, experiment with a grip that works for you.
- You want your left wrist to be as straight as possible to prevent injury. To help facilitate this, try to keep your left elbow down and not “flying” in the air. As you see in the picture above, my wrist is bent slightly. This is ok. People with smaller hands tend to have a harder time getting their wrists in a comfortable position. Over time you will find what works best.
- Aim for your neck and shoulders to be facing straight ahead. Your shoulders should be down and relaxed.
- If the flute feels like it’s going to fall out of your hands, this sensation should go away as you get more familiar with holding the instrument. You should be able to hold the flute upright in position with all but your right thumb raised.
There is really a lot going on here to hold the flute properly and comfortably. Take your time with this before proceeding to the next step.
Now that we’ve learned to hold the flute properly, let’s start making some noise!
We’ll start off by playing a simplified version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” that uses just fingers T1, T2 and T3 (see picture above – “T” stands for Top- Hand/ “B” stands for “Bottom-Hand”). The trick here is that you seal each hole completely. If,for example, you do not seal the note “B” (T1) completely, the next note below – “A” (T2) will not sound fully or at all.
Mary Had a Little Lamb
Articulations: Glottal Stops & Tonguing
You should notice from the video example that we have to interrupt our air flow to sound out repeated notes (for example: “lit-tle lamb”). This technique is called Articulation. I mostly articulate with my throat or glottis – using it as a valve to stop or free the air coming from my lungs. The act of articulating with your throat is called “glottal stopping”. When performed, it feels a bit like lightly clearing your throat.
You can also articulate with your tongue by “saying” syllables such as “ta” or “da”. Articulating in this manner is called “tonguing”.
Now, try playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb in D”. This will require you to be able to seal all six holes properly since the lowest note in the tune is the low D note.
Mary Had a Little Lamb
At this stage you should be able to seal all six holes of the flute properly so learning the D Major Scale will be easy. All you need to do is add the notes C# and D’ and violá!
D Major Scale
Practice this until you can play up and down the scale smoothly and accurately. Make sure that you remember to lift your left hand index finger for the higher D’ fingering.
Now, try playing a couple more tunes in the key of D before moving on. Experiment with the various types of articulation we looked at in the previous page.
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
To warm up, and to get our ears back in the key of G major, try playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” again in G, this time playing the D’ note. Don’t forget to raise T1 when playing D’!
Mary Had a Little Lamb
Before we learn the G Major scale, we’ll need to warm up and condition our embouchure to be able to play in the second register of the flute with relative ease. This exercise is similar to the second exercise we did in “Getting a Sound” where you first play the fundamental tone on the head joint, then focus your embouchure to produce the next highest tone. The only difference here is that we are going to do this with the flute put together and over a series of notes.
Make sure that you’re not just blowing harder to get the higher notes. You need to focus your embouchure so that it is projecting a smaller and faster jet of air in/across the embouchure of the flute. Also, make sure the transition from E to E’, F# to F#’ and G to G’ is as smooth as possible. If practiced correctly, this exercise will teach you a lot about proper embouchure technique.
G Major Scale
You are now ready to learn the G Major Scale. Note the special fingering for C and again, don’t forget to lift T1 when playing D’.
G Major Scale
A Few More Tunes
Before we move on to the next section, play through these simple tunes to help you become more comfortable with playing in G.
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
At this stage you should be able to play fairly comfortably all the way up to G’ in the second register of the flute. We’ll want to be able to play up to high B’ (and even a bit higher in future lessons). The majority of traditional Irish tunes never go above a high B’.
Octave Jump Exercise
To warm up, let’s try the octave-jump exercise, this time playing up to high B’. Again, watch the movement of my embouchure. Notice that I am not blowing harder to achieve the second register. Play around with this until you can get a good solid tone out of both registers. Your aim should be for the lower register to sound rich and the higher register to not sound strained but clear.
Octave-Jump Exercise (E to B)
D & G Major Scales – Extended Range
To complete our study of the D and G Major scales…
Practice playing the D major scale all the way up to B’.
D Major Scale
Practice the G major scale starting on G (circled) all the way up to B’. Then continue the scale all the way down to D and back up to G to finish.
G Major Scale
A Few More Tunes
Practice playing in the second register with these simple tunes.
Mary Had a Little Lamb
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
Trouble with Second Register?
You are not alone! It took me quite a while (longer than most!) when I was first learning to be able to play in the second register with ease. Be patient with yourself. Making a stick with a bunch of holes drilled in it sound like a musical instrument takes patience and persistence.
After you have taken a nice break (could be a few minutes – could be a day), go back to practicing the octave-jump exercise. Also, try playing long steady tones in the second register, adjusting your embouchure as necessary to produce the best tone for each note (clear and unstrained). Again, make sure that you are taking plenty of breaks – especially if and when you start to get tired or frustrated.
Congratulations! You’ve come quite a long way! You should be very proud of your achievement. Learning to play the flute well isn’t easy!
To review, at this stage you should be able to:
- Name the different parts of the flute.
- Hold the flute properly with good posture.
- Play the D and G Major Scales all the way up to high B’.
- Be on your way to developing a good solid tone (rich lower octave and clear second octave).
- Play in both registers of the flute (low and high).
- Perform a few simple tunes in both registers of the flute.
- Articulate notes by using throating and/or tonguing.
Section 2: Trad Tunes
Before we get started, let’s talk about breathing. In the tunes that follow, I have indicated good places to breathe within the tunes with a red single quotation mark. You don’t have to breathe every time you see the mark if you have enough air to make it to the next mark. As you learn more tunes you will start to intuitively learn where to take breaths without affecting the flow and rhythm of the tune.
Make sure that you are breathing from your belly. This will allow you to take in the most amount of air. It’s a common mistake to breathe in a way that just fills in the area around your rib cage. Since your ribs aren’t that flexible (like the area around your belly), you simply can’t breathe in enough air. A good way to get a sense of proper breathing is to lay on the floor and put a heavy book on your belly. You will naturally breathe from your belly when in this position and the book will go up and down as you breathe. Try to breathe in the same manner when standing or sitting. If your shoulders are raising when you’re breathing then you know you’re not breathing from your belly!
It might help to practice this type of breathing in front of a mirror so that you can watch to make sure your belly fills with air and that your shoulders stay down and relaxed.
Chances are that you’ve heard this tune somewhere before. A beautiful and simple air for us to get started with.
This is a great tune to work on your breathing with as it is meant to be played fairly slow. Make sure you are taking nice deep breaths from your belly.
Dawning of the Day
A Polka is one of the many types of dance tunes in traditional Irish music. Polkas make up a large portion of the repertoire in County Kerry where, judging by the title, this tune originated from.
I’ve harped on this before but make sure you are lifting finger T1 when playing D’. This is a good tune to practice this good habit as it only comes up twice.
The Kerry Polka
The jig is one of Ireland’s most popular types of dance tunes.
At this stage you might be tempted to play fast. Make sure that you can play the tune without mistakes and without any tension in your body (hands, neck, shoulders, etc…) before you speed things up. You may actually need to play slower if you are having trouble getting through the tune or are experiencing tension. If you are having trouble with the same section every time, practice that specific part (could be just 2 or 3 notes) slowly until you get it right.
Also, remember your breathing! Are you gasping for air? If so, you aren’t breathing deep enough. Again, practice the tune s l o w l y and pay special attention to your breaths. Fill your belly NOT your chest!
Out on the Ocean
The Reel is Ireland’s most popular dance tune type. I’ve been to some sessions where all that was ever played was reels!
This is your first trad tune that goes up to high B’. You may want to warm up with the octave-jump exercise or practice playing long tones in the second register. Make sure that your second octave is sounding nice and clear and your first, rich and robust!
Congratulations! At this stage you are well on your way to becoming a great flute player! I’ll leave you with a few thoughts before we finish.
Listen to the Masters
If you haven’t started already, it’s time to start building your music collection of great flute players. It’s very important to your development that you listen to great music since “you are what you eat”!
- Matt Molloy: Self Titled
- Kevin Crawford: D Flute Album
- Harry Bradley: As I Carelessly Did Stray
You might want to get yourself a tune book and start learning tunes, applying the concepts that you’ve learned here. Of course, learning by ear is best. You might start trying to learn tunes by ear off recordings. A great tool to do this with is a program called The Amazing Slowdowner (Mac/PC). I use it just about every day in my own learning of tunes off of CDs and MP3s.
Keep Reaching for That Tone!
If there’s one thing that I’m always working on, it’s my tone. Without the tone that we as flute players put into the flute, the instrument is just a stick of wood with holes drilled in it. Compare this to an instrument such as a piano where all one has to do to get a good tone is press a key!
Listening to great flute players will help you in understanding what kind of tone to reach for. This is one of the many reasons why listening and learning by ear is SO important!
As if i haven’t harped on this subject enough! Without proper breathing, you’ll never have the tone you’re reaching for. Not only that, your tunes will suffer because you’ll be breathing in awkward places thus interrupting their rhythm and flow.
One thing I do when I practice is start out with a tune I am well familiar with, playing it slowly and focusing on my breathing. Because the tune is familiar, I can play it without thinking thus being able to focus in on my breaths (quick, deep breaths from my belly). If there’s anything that slips in my own playing, it’s my breathing. This is why it is so important to practice it regularly and properly.
If you wish to play fast, you’ll only get there by practicing slow. Make sure that you can play what you are playing without mistakes and without tension before speeding up.