Started by Aine Heslin and responded to (in error, it seems) on the Comment Wall. So, here's a repeat. The question was, how to interface the need to breathe with the tunes. Here's my reply:

Well, I'll play: but remember, it's just one man's opinion. First, some important points: the tunes are all about rhythm, and variation in stylish playing is all about how you achieve the feeling of unbroken, inescapable forward movement on the beg beats...but vary the many smaller units in between.

Two: different instruments have different capabilities, both "positive" and "negative" (if you want to think of it that way, which I'm not sure is a good way, frankly, as you'll see...). In other words, concertinas and boxes can't slide from note to note; whistles and flutes don't really like to play in Bb and don't have a low A or get the idea.

As flute players, we live in an era which has been overshadowed by the immense talent of one man—Matt Molloy. Coleman set the stamp of the Sligo style on fiddling for all time, it seems; and Molloy has set the stamp of his highly idiosyncratic style on fluting. I hope not for all time, frankly.

When Molloy appeared on the horizon, all were (rightly) blinded by the brilliance of his technical virtuosity, which is staggering. His idiosycratic genius was to apply that virtuosity to bringing piping style, in all its complexity, to the flute. And he did, and does, it wonderfully. As one man's style—an amazing parlor trick—it is fantastic. If this were the 19C, he'd be on the variety stage. But the same power of recording that made Coleman's style THE style has made most fluters ape Molloy's. The good news is: we live in a time when many young players are attracted to the music, and are good enough to pull it off; the virtuosity you can hear among many 20-something fluters is astounding. But I think we're losing something along the way, and that (to my way of thinking) is....actual, idiomatic, flute playing.

The flute—when compared to the pipes—is distiguished by the need for the player to take breath; this must, of necessity, break the melodic line. We can either try to hide that fact ingeniously (the current style), or we can make the most of it and use it to create an authentic, flute-style phrasing, which will be unlike a piper's phrasing, or a fiddler's, or a box-player's. This is the older, and I think the more authentic style—not in a good/bad sense, but in the REAL sense of the word, meaning being part-and-parcel of what something is.

That's all philosophy, of course. The nuts and bolts of "how-to" you've already struck upon—deciding what can go, and still keep the forward movement (or, on the other hand, be an interesting "ornament" by the silence it imposes) and being free enough to have several different ways to change it up so that the ear of the listener is, if not "fooled", kept interested and pleased at the variety.

Now, that's a long answer, and I hope you might find something worthwhile in it. Keep working on your breath control, and don't forget that your embouchure has a great deal to do with how much air you expend when're cutting an airstream with the edge of the hole...and only the part that goes down the bore is doing anything for you; the rest is wasted, as far as the music is concerned. So maximizing the tone you get for the amount of air you expend is perhaps the best thing you could do, I think. Good luck, and let us know how it's going! Slán!

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Replies to This Discussion

Wow, great stuff. As many other folks, I certainly enjoy Molloy's playing, and its obvious how he has influenced so many other flute players to come after him. I think I read somewhere where Seamus Eagan said he basically wanted to be Matt Molloy. And while I love Seamus' playing I often feel the actual melody of the tune gets lost among everything else that is going on.

I can't say I think much about where to breathe during tunes. It just kind of happens at what I feel is the most appropriate spot. Some tunes have a quarter note that I can cut short to sneak in a breath. For others there is a point in the phrasing that lends itself towards pausing and taking a breath without interrupting the flow of the melody.

As far as style I tend to prefer people like Mike Rafferty and also how folks from Belfast seem to play, with alot of huffing and rhythm.

thanks so much for your comments! I am new to the celtic music scene, so forgive me if I get some things wrong. I played a silver flute for many years and i still play it. I feel my strengths have always been in phrasing, musicality, and emotion in a piece of music. Once I began celtic music on my Casey Burns folk flute I began to feel like I was supposed to start sounding like other instruments rather than a flute in order to be "authentic" or being correct in my traditional interpretation of the tune. I am very interested in learning how to convey emotion using techniques unique to an open holed flute, however, I do not feel like I should have to suppress my abilities of conveying emotion through my tone, embouchure, and breath. Do I fuzz up my tone and sound breathier so the technique can do the work of the emotion to be properly celtic? Can I bring different styles to bear depending on the tune? I also enjoy the huffiness and rhythm that can be achieved with an open holed flute, but I would like to let the tune speak to me and bring something of myself to the tune. Maybe someone can help me get my head straight so I can move forward? : )

Welcome, Danna! Well (as they say...) you asked for it; so—here it is, my take on it at least. Remember: that's just what it is—MY take on it. To me, the thing is—you've got to decide what it is you're doing/trying to do. If you just "like the sound of Irish music" (i.e. the "haunting melodies" school)...lather away and do whatever you like. But don't tell people you play traditional music. 

The fact is, traditional music is...well, traditional. And, if you wish to become part of that tradition, you must learn and respect those traditions. And "emotion" is conveyed in traditional music through very, very different means than it is in modern western music. Pure and simple. If you have ever had anything to do with historical-performance baroque music, say, it's the same thing (and, actually—and unsurprisingly—very analagous, as the forms and styles of Irish traditional dance music were created at just that time); listen to a good performance of a slow movement by someone who plays in the full 19C romantic style and then a good performance by someone who plays in the period-correct 18C style and you'll see what I mean.

The fact is, this music is the sweet fruit of the tree which produced it—all of traditional Irish culture—and, to truly understand what the music means, and how to play it well, you have to get inside it and [at least try] to understand something about the physical, mental, and spiritual world of those whose artistic expression this music was. If you mistake the fruit FOR the tree, or don't even know the tree exists...very strange things will happen. Look around you...

My advice? When you play silver flute, play silver flute. If you want to play trad....find some recordings of flute players you REALLY like, listen to them a lot, and start trying to sound like them. You've already got the technical chops to make sounds on the instrument...but be aware you might need to change your embochure to get the kind of sound Irish players prefer. You may have to go back to square one for a while. If you have a good fluter in your area whose style you like and who can/will give you lessons, so much the better—that's the way this stuff has been passed down from the start—by ear. Stay away from the books. Forget you can read music and you'll save yourself a lot of trouble. Take my word for it! But that's another rant, I suppose.

If you want to play trad, give it the respect its traditions deserve and learn them; having learned them, make them your own. This is the old way of learning any traditional craft: the old painters or composers learned by copying; when they could copy perfectly, THEN they went on to create their own style...they did not come to the craft assured that they had something so important personally that they didn't need to learn the conventions of their craft. Neither should you.

All of this sounds, I suppose, like a fairly daunting task. It is. If you decide you want to do this, it's something that will take many years to become a master at. But, if you do it conscientiously, at the end you yourself will be a tradition-bearer and can honestly pass the tradition on to those who follow you.

Good luck and let us know how you make out. Remember—it's just one man's thoughts. Slán!

Beautiful advice. Thank you Kevin.

My feeling on breathing is yes, it is a good idea! If you make sure you take in enough breath, you can then choose where in the tune to take the top-up breaths, rather than have your body force you into taking breaths at inappropriate times. I find that if you inflate your chest and also use your diaphragm to maximum effect by expanding the stomach, then you get lots of air into the lungs, at the expense of looking rather pot bellied.


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