Sunday, April 15, 2018

The New Flute

Nick playing a (Guinness aluminum) Irish whistle

A dozen years ago I fell in love with Irish music and begin to practice the Irish whistle -- in private, in small groups, in various Irish sessions in Santa Cruz and as part of a band named Blarney.

Last month my friend and bodhran virtuoso, August O'Connor and I played for a party in a cliff-side hacienda called "the SkyPad" with gypsy fiddler Elijah Ray -- we really rocked, one of the most memorable moments of my musical career. A couple of weeks later, August and I were eating supper with Baron, the proprietor of the SkyPad, when he offered me a concert flute that he had just acquired.

"Sure, Baron, compared to the whistle, it takes a thousand years to learn to play a flute."

"Well, bring it back if it doesn't work out for you"

Armstrong 201 Student Flute

So, for better or worse, I now possess a concert flute to experiment with.

The difference between an Irish whistle (also called a "fipple flute") and a concert flute is immense. Like going from riding a tricycle to riding a bicycle. Or, with my moderate musical skill, like going from a tricycle to a unicycle.

Besides a larger number of holes and more complicated ways of opening them (the whistle has only six holes covered by bare fingers), the root sound of the flute is accomplished through a tricky interaction between the player's lips and the flute's tone hole -- a procedure called "embouchure" which is French for something that you do with your mouth to coax music out of a tube's aperture by blowing across it.

To play the whistle, on the other hand, you produce the root sound by simply blowing into its "fipple" which is a fixed, mechanical embouchure made of plastic, wood or metal. Since its embouchure is fixed, there is not much that you can do with your lips to change the sound of the Irish whistle. Most of the whistle's subtlety is achieved by fingering rather than breathing.

The concert flute consists of three parts, the head joint, the foot joint and the body. The head joint is where the root sound is produced and the rest of the flute acts to modulate this root sound in various ways.

The first exercise in taking up the flute consists of practicing with the head joint alone. And exploring how to produce the perfect embouchure that brings out a loud, clear and consistent root tone. Most of the ways that you can blow into the head joint produce no tone at all, only the sound of rushing air. Like so many other things in life, the perfect flute embouchure is surrounded by lots and lots of wrong ways to blow into that tone hole. The path to mastery is bordered by a million mistakes.

Before the Internet, a music student would seek out a tutor to guide him or her over the rough spots, to show first hand how one can learn from mistakes, and to serve as a living example of what you might be able to accomplish some day. I will certainly seek a few personal lessons, but for starts I'm going to the web where there are dozens of people who want to teach me how to play the flute.

For instance, this nice lady with glasses gives you a first lesson in embouchure. If one picture is worth a thousand words, one video is worth a thousand pictures. I've watched this video a dozen times and still can't easily produce a root tone. But each day I am getting better.

Learning to play the head joint (closed position)
The Internet has the ability to put the student in contact not only with talented amateurs and teachers but with instrumental super stars, such as Sir James Galway (who, among other honors, played flute and Irish whistle for the film version of Lord of the Rings). Galway has produced a series of short YouTube videos called "first flute" that includes this wonderful little lesson on playing the head joint.

Galway playing the head joint (open position)
Taking up a new musical instrument is like traveling to an invisible new country, populated by people with a wide range of experience, stories and accomplishments on that instrument. The process of learning to play the flute consists of letting the instrument itself teach you a new way of kissing (embouchure) that opens up the secret door to making music in this peculiar way. Suggestions for exploring the flute country abound. My friend, Kim Fulton-Bennett, member of Blarney and flute player since his teens, suggested that after practicing with the head joint, I mindfully consume a bottle of Guinness stout and play with my embouchure by blowing across the top of the empty bottle.


Bring attention back to breath
Hours of mindful focus on lips
Is the flautist a species of musical Buddhist?
Do flute players give unforgettable kiss?

Now breathe from your belly
Set thinking on "Less"
Proceed with compassion
Pay heed to the beat.

Lip kiss the Emptiness.



Lord Krishna playing his flute