Flute Information Page for Irish flutes, Irish alto flutes, and Irish piccolos
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The traditional Irish flute, also called the session flute, is a crosswind wooden flute with six holes, in key of D, that greatly resembles the baroque flutes of the 17th and 18th centuries. This instrument is chromatic and can fully match the tuning of other instruments in a group (or session). The fingering is the same as for any other D-scale, six-hole flute; the range is over two octaves. This is a popular flute for either folk or classical music, and has a very good tone which is mellower than that of the metal concert flute. These flutes are tuned by sliding the pieces together or apart at the joins; some makers add an additional tuning button at one end.
D is the most popular key in the Irish music world, and a player of Irish music should first buy an instrument in D. Generally low Eb and low E are considered (low) flutes, F up to high C are alto flutes, and D, high Eb and high D are piccolos. These classifications can vary from maker to maker. (Tony Dixon says that "flute" means the low instrument, and one should never speak of a low flute!) For convenience, we will speak of them all as flutes below, because they are all in the same family.
Traditionally, the Irish play flutes with no keys; however some Irish flutes are produced with keys because it is easier to get the most-used chromatic notes on them.
Care must be taken in handling of wooden flutes; they need to be kept away from sunlight and sources of heat. In the north, where homes get very dry during the winter heating season, special care needs to be taken where buildings are not humidified; the moist Irish climate where these flutes feel at home is quite different.
In modern times we are now seeing polymer Irish flutes, and these have a surprisingly good sound. They also do not crack in dry weather (but must not be left exposed to a hot sun, because they can soften if they get too hot).
Flute lengths given below are measured with the flute pieces pushed all the way together.
Some Notes On Playing Irish Flutes
We get a certain number of the large flutes returned to us because of a misunderstanding about the hand/finger positions. You do not need large hands to play these flutes when you play them correctly, and you do not curl your fingers to put the tips in the holes. An Irish flute requires a finger position more like that of playing the bagpipe chanter: the fingers are kept straight and flat. The Irish give no leeway for excuses about small hands or short fingers; they just tell you to spread your fingers out more!
Many players of concert flutes also play Irish flutes: it should be noted that there may have to be some adjustment of the playing position and the embouchure in playing an Irish flute. The fingering for the Irish flute is the same as that for playing the key of D on the concert flute (Boehm system). For keyless flutes, you play the same D fingering no matter what key the Irish flute is. (Irish flutes in different keys have different lengths, but they all are played with the same D fingering.)
If you have never played the flute at all, we recommend that you get some lessons to get started. Total beginners working on their own often find that they can't get any sound out of a flute; this is most likely because they are blowing across the hole, rather than aiming the stream of air at the opposite edge of the hole to split the stream of air. (Yes, those expert flute players make it look very easy, which is small consolation.)
We recommend the Timber book listed on our music books page for all new players of Irish flute, whether you have never played any flute before, or whether you are a concert flute player who is now beginning to play an Irish flute. You all need this book; you can trust us on this.
It may even be best to begin on the low whistle, which is the same size as the Irish flute, and plays in the same range, but is much easier to get sounds out of! With a whistle, you just blow. (However, the low whistle has its own problems for beginners, in that the finger/hand/arm position has to be right. This is discussed on the Whistle Information Page.)
Tony Dixon Polymer Flutes
These Tony Dixon Irish flutes are made from polymer material; they sound surprisingly good, believe it or not. Also, they are not bothered by climatic conditions, whether wet or dry. Professionals find these flutes to be a useful addition to their collection of flutes, because they can play them under conditions where they would rather not play their expensive wooden instruments. Beginners will find that these work quite well for learning on. These flutes weigh less than wooden ones.
We have both tunable and nontunable Dixon flutes. Tunable instruments allow you to adjust the pitch slightly up or down so that you are in tune with other instruments that you are playing with. Why, then, you ask, would anyone buy a nontunable instrument? For one thing, the one-piece nontunable instruments cost less. Also, if you are playing on your own, tunability doesn't matter. And, of course, you can just get your band to tune to you.
Most of our Tony Dixon flutes now arrive in a sort of square plastic tube, which can serve as a case. However, beware: if you play your instrument and then put it into a closed plastic tube, germs can multiply. Always leave the end off the plastic tube to let the instrument dry out thoroughly before closing the tube. For this reason, cloth cases work better, as they allow your instrument to dry out.
Dixon is changing over his polymer flutes from a straight body to a tapered bore. We indicate below what we have in these. Dixon assures us that these new tapered-bore bodies fit the previous flute heads.
The Harp and Dragon
25 Madison St, Cortland, NY 13045 USA
Secure telephone 607-756-7372
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