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Off'n Ensemble

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NEFFA 2009

Copyright 2009 by Robert J. Yarbrough

The following are materials for the flute and whistle workshop taught by Bob Yarbrough at the New England Folk Festival Association on April 25, 2009. 


"Leitrim Fancy"

MP3 as written - This is the basic tune without articulations or variations but including breath pauses.

MP3 "bones" of the A part - This is how I work out variations.  First I simplify the tune to its essence, then I substitute cuts, taps, rolls, tongued sequences, pauses and substituted notes for the simplified parts of the tune.

MP3 with variations - Once through the tune with  variations inserted.

"First Light of Day"

MP3; .pdf - We did not get to this tune, but it's a great tune for learning.

"Innis Oir"

MP3 - Another great learning tune.

Written Materials


My background is the wooden flute and the tin whistle. I am not, and have never been, a Boehm (silver) flute player. Some of the techniques below may be useful to players of Boehm flutes, particularly the discussion of aesthetics.

Why discuss wooden flutes and whistles in the same workshop? The two are closely related and the fingering is identical. If you can play the whistle, then the only thing that you need to learn is your embouchure, or how you hold your mouth and lips. When you blow across a bottle to make a pitch, you are using an embouchure.

1. Keeping it quiet - making and using the whistle mute.

Start with a ball of modeling clay about the size of a pea. Flatten the ball to form a disk of modeling clay about 1/4 inch thick. Press the disk of clay edge side down so that it covers the center part of the blade of your whistle (the flat thingy that splits the air when you blow into the whistle). That’s it. You want to block some, but not all, of the air flowing across the blade.

You may have to fool with it a bit to get it to work, such as making the disk of modeling clay thicker or thinner and nearer to or farther away from the edge of the blade. Once you get the hang of it, you can reduce the amount of noise coming from the whistle and still play into the second octave. The modeling clay reduces the effective size of the blade, reducing the volume of the whistle.

2. How to hold ‘em.

There are a few things that you will notice about the wooden flute or whistle. First, there are six holes. To each of these holes is assigned a finger. The finger can either close the hole or not. If a finger closes the hole, it effectively lengthens the vibrating air column and lowers the pitch

Bad posture on the wooden flute can cripple you through carpal tunnel syndrome or at least make you very uncomfortable through hand cramps. Wooden flutes require a bit of a stretch to play. It is tempting to fold your left wrist backward to more easily reach the finger holes. Resist that temptation. Learn instead to keep your wrist straight and use the three-point support method. The three points: 1) your lower lip and chin, pressing outward; 2) the first knuckle of your left hand, pressing inward; and 3) your right pinky, pressing outward.

Using the three point grip, you are not dependent on your playing fingers to hold the flute – they can be doing other things, like playing. You also are not dependent on your thumbs for gripping the flute. Your thumbs can be relaxed and used to support the flute from below against the pressure of your fingers covering the holes.

Other grips are available, such as the piper’s grip using the pads of your first and second finger joints. You’ll have to find a piper to tell you about that, because I don’t use it.

Gripping the whistle, at least ‘D’ whistles or other high-pitched whistles is straight forward. Hold the whistle between your thumbs on the bottom and your index through ring finger covering the holes on the top. Some people like to cover the holes with their finger tips. I prefer the flat pads of my fingers. I feel that using the flat pads makes it easier to achieve an air-tight seal.

So what do you do when you need to play a C sharp and all of your fingers are off the holes? Doesn’t the whistle just fall to the ground? Well, not usually. But it certainly can move around so that you lose control over it and nothing pleasant comes out. Some people grip the whistle between their teeth, which wears out whistles quickly. Another technique is to support the whistle from below with your left thumb while holding the whistle against the thumb with your right pinkie and your upper lip. Others don’t play many C sharps.

3. Time to make some noise.

Try a ‘D’ scale. That’s moving progressively from the lowest pitch, with all holes covered, to the highest pitch in the first octave, with none of the holes covered.

Having trouble getting a clear low-pitched sound? There are two likely explanations: 1) you are not completely covering the holes, or 2) your instrument has an air leak. To test for an air leak, cover the holes with cellophane tape. If your low note emerges clear and strong, the problem is in your fingers.

Try a ‘D’ scale in the second octave. Whistles get very shrill above high ‘B.’ I rarely go there. While you can jump into the second octave on a whistle by just blowing harder, try focusing the air into a tight, fast stream. It’s really the speed of the air that causes the octave jump. If you can control the air stream, you will have much more control over the whistle.

The ‘D’ scale is all well and good, but the flute and whistle really shine in the ‘G’ scale, which includes the keys of ‘G’ and ‘E’ minor. To play in ‘G’ you need to learn how to play a C natural. There are several ways to play a C natural, so pick the one that best fits the intonation of your instrument. The fingering most commonly used is to put down only the middle and ring fingers of your left hand.

4. I can already do all that. How do I sound like an Irish flute/whistle player?

Grey Larsen has published two wonderful books with accompanying CDs on flute and whistle playing. He notes that the essential aesthetic of Irish playing is legato, an Italian word that in this context means do. not. punctuate. every. note. Classical flute players (I am told) are taught to articulate every note, which (I am told) they accomplish through ‘tonguing.’

In Irish flute and whistle playing, articulations are the exception, not the rule. Articulation is used for special rhythmic emphasis and is not used to separately state every note. Larsen teaches that there are three basis types of articulation: finger, breathe and tongue.

Of the three, finger articulations are the toughest and require precise timing to sound good. I’m still working at it. The finger articulations come in two basic flavors: cuts and taps.  The cuts and taps can be combined into longer rolls and crans.

A breathe articulation is a puff of air from your diaphragm.  Breathe articulation is great for flute players, but has less utility for whistle players, for whom the puff can cause the whistle to pop into a higher octave.  I rarely use a breathe articulation by itself, but frequently combine a puff of air with another articulation, such as a cut.  The puff gives the cut more attack and emphasis. 

'Tonguing' involves saying a consonant that stops the flow of air while you are playing a note.  Try sounding a 'g' (three fingers down) on your instrument and saying "too" in the middle of the note.  What you should hear is a steady 'g' interrupted momentarily by the 'T' sound.  That's tonguing.  Tonguing is NOT blocking the end of your whistle with your tongue.

Tonguing articulations can also be strung together to form “double tonguing” or “triple tonguing.” To triple tongue, put the whistle (or flute) in your mouth and say “tookootoo.” Try it again, this time say “doodlloo.” The first phrase is hard and percussive, the second is softer and smoother. Either can be used to separately state three notes, such as a quick three-note run up the scale.  Remember that articulations, especially tonguing, are the exception and not the rule.

5. So where do you put these articulations?

When and how to use articulations, also known as ornaments, is a matter of musical judgment. Single cuts are frequently used to divide two notes and to accent a beat or an off-beat. This is the single most effective articulation. You can use one pretty much anywhere on the instrument except for C sharp or C natural.

Other ornaments require a longer duration. Any note that is two eighth notes long can be broken into two separate notes by an articulation. Any note that is three eighth notes in duration can be divided into three parts by a roll or cran.

I find that the most effective rolls and crans divide the eighth notes evenly. The tendency of most people, myself included, is to rush the middle portion of the roll.

6. The importance of timing.

I used to believe that the reason that I didn’t sound like Matt Malloy or Seamus Eagan was because of intonation. I worked very hard on my intonation by using a tuner and matching the pitches of other instruments. I even built my own flute because instruments with good intonation did not seem to be available. I still didn’t sound like Matt Malloy or Seamus Eagan.

I now know that intonation is not everything. Timing is everything. The difference between a so-so flute and whistle player and a really good flute and whistle player is how evenly the notes are spaced, particularly the very fast notes and articulations.

7. How can I play evenly?

Some people are born with the gift. The rest of us have a hard slog. You will need a metronome that can subdivide beats. You will also need to learn tunes by playing them slowly and smoothly before you speed up the tune. Learn the tune with your metronome set at a leisurely pace, like 80 beats per minute. After you are comfortable and smooth at that speed, slowly increase the speed of the metronome. For ‘Catharsis,’ a modern tune with serious syncopation, it took me weeks to reach dance tempo, which is usually about 116 to 120 beats per minute. Recording your playing and listening critically to the recording helps a lot, too.

8. Breathing with the rhythm

The problem with any wind instrument is that you have to breathe. Stringed instruments have sustain, meaning that the instrument can continue to make noise for a period of time after the musician stops playing. Wind instruments have no sustain. If you stop blowing, the wind instrument stops making noise instantly. When you pause to take a breath, there will be a period of silence.

Your job as a wind musician is to make sure that the silence created by your breath pause fits the music. Properly used, the breath pause can add variety and excitement and can lift the dancers’ feet. So where do you put the breath pauses? The end of a line (the end of an ‘A’ or a ‘B’) is usually a good place.

If you breathe anywhere except the end of the ‘A’ or ‘B,’ you MUST leave out all or part of a note to give yourself room to breathe. DO NOT try to play the full duration of all the notes and fit a breath in between. If you try to play the full duration of all the notes the tune will sound rushed and you will destroy the rhythm.

A. Jig Rhythm

So which notes do you leave out? Let’s start with the jig rhythm, indicated in the figure below. If you do not read music, disregard the musical notation. Pay attention instead to the numbers and the syllables.

Jig rhythm is a six-count rhythm consisting of two groups of three notes:

Jig rhythm notation

For jigs, the breath pause should come on the ‘2’ count or the ‘5’ count. Say ‘deedldee deedldee.’ That is a jig rhythm. In the same rhythm, say ‘dee (space) dee deedldee.’ Now leave out the word ‘space’ so that the phrase becomes ‘dee ___ dee deedlldee.’ What you have just done is to leave out the ‘2’ note. Try it again, now taking a quick breath in the gap you created. That breath pause will lift the dancer’s feet right off the ground.

B. Reel Rhythm

Let’s try the same exercise for reels.

Reel rythm notation

Reels have a four or eight count beat (depending on how you count) and present a more complicated breathing challenge. Do not breathe on the downbeats. Those are the ‘1’ and ‘5’ counts. You will usually tap your foot to the downbeat and it is important to sound those notes. Next in importance are the off beats. The off beats fall on the ‘3’ and ‘7’ count. They also are important, because it’s the off beats that lift the dancers’ feet. Don’t breath on the off beats. So where can you breath in a reel?

Everywhere else. Say ‘deedlldeedll deedlldeedll.” That’s a reel rhythm. Say ‘dee____deedll deedlldeedll.’ You have just left out the ‘2’ note. Try it again, taking a quick breath in the space you just created.

9. Variations

Accomplished Irish musicians rarely play a tune the same way twice. How do they do it?

Variations are like shorthand or speed reading. You learn musical phrases that fit in particular situations. Whenever that situation occurs in a tune, you can drop in one of your musical phrases that fit the situation. Some spots in a tune lend themselves to variations. Probably the best is a series of three repeated notes, such as the ‘1-2-3’ phrase in the example of the jig rhythm, above. What can you do with that situation? A few examples:

a. You can use your tongue to articulate each of the three notes (“tookootoo”).

b. You can play a roll on the three notes (finger articulation).

c. You can leave out the middle note and insert a breath pause (“dee___dee”).

d. You can play a single long note equal in duration to the three notes (“deeeeee deedlldee”).

e. You can change the pitch of the middle note.

Unless you are one of the gifted few, you can easily spend the rest of your life learning to play variations.



 Often Ensemble - engraving of boy playing whistle