My thoughts on flutes, let me show you them

Today my friend Aron pinged me on Facebook to ask me my thoughts on flutes, since he’s thinking of getting himself one. He’s a newbie to flute playing as well as to playing tunes in general, but is taking well to whistle and likes flute as well, and wanted to know what my thoughts were on his getting a keyed flute.
BOY HOWDY do I have thoughts on this! (And it was rather a relief to see that I was coherent enough to present a cohesive opinion on the topic. Yay, medical recovery!)
Maybe you’re brand new to instruments and don’t know which one to pick. Or maybe you’re like me, and you’re coming out of a school band background, but you’ve found trad music and you want to see if you can take your previous school flute experience and apply it to playing trad tunes.
Here’s the thing though–that flute you played in school band is perfectly capable of producing tunes. It is not, however, exactly a traditional instrument. And if your eventual goal is to play in a session environment, your chances of getting frowned at if you show up with a Boehm-system keyed flute are sadly pretty good. Your mileage on this will vary depending on the session; some sessions may be more amenable to flexibility in instrument choices. But don’t rely on that. You should default in favor of choosing an instrument which will get you taken seriously if you show up at a session with it.
With that in mind, how should you choose an instrument to play?
Suppose you say to yourself, “Okay, I like having keys. I’m comfortable with those. Good clear accidentals are my friend!” Should you try looking at Irish flutes with keys?
Here’s the problem with that–Irish flutes with keys are super expensive. The reason for this, based on my own research across different makers, is because the keys get made out of silver. And that can run you up a pretty hefty price tag with each additional key you put on there. As a concrete example, Casey Burns sells his basic keyless D flutes for $700 each. And each additional key runs you up another $450.
Do the math, and that means a flute with several keys on it, capable of producing whatever accidentals you may need in whatever key you may want to play in, is going to run you a lot of money really fast. This right here will be THE reason I don’t have a proper Irish flute of my own with keys on it yet. That kind of money is up there with the most expensive Apple laptops!
At this point you may now be boggling and wondering what the hell that kind of pricing is based upon, if you’re coming out of a background like mine–wherein you may have paid a couple hundred bucks at most for a flute played in school. It’s very important to keep in mind though that the vast majority of Boehm-system keyed flutes, the kinds of flutes that do get played in schools, are a) mass-produced, and b) specifically targeted for the student market. By contrast, if you’re looking at Irish flutes, the makers of those are not making mass-produced instruments, and they’re not targeting students with them. They’re putting more individual care in the quality of instrument produced, and they’re going to be working with better materials, all with the goal of producing serious sound.
And if it helps lessen the sticker shock, think of it this way–you wouldn’t want to play that flute you played in school if you were joining a serious orchestra, either. If you wanted to be a professional-level player in, say, the Seattle Symphony or something of that scale, you’d be going for concert-grade instruments. And those are going to be running up the price tag considerably as well. I can assure you that I boggled quite a bit at the pricing on some of the concert-grade piccolos I’ve looked at over the years!
In short, if you want to get into playing trad music, go keyless first. The Casey Burns Folk Flute I have is an excellent starter flute, and he sells them for $375. Similarly, I am VERY happy with the carbon fiber flutes I’ve recently acquired from Carbony Celtic Winds. The big D flute I got from them clocks in at $455, and the two smaller flutes I have from them are proportionally less pricy than that. The carbon fibers have great voices on them, and I’d recommend them as a viable alternative to wood if you have concerns about where the wood in a flute may have come from. Also of important note, I’ve been very happy with the exchanges I’ve had with Rob from Carbony, who was very helpful working with me to get a big D flute suited for the reach of my hands and was willing to do custom hole placements for me if need be.
One more maker you might check out is Sweetheart, who also came highly recommended when I started poking around for session-class flutes for myself. I have one of their Renaissance fifes in high D, which was really cheap at $49, which is pretty awesome for a starter-grade instrument.
You can get by in a session with something in D, either a big flute or a fife-sized instrument, as long as you can get good clear sound out of it in a couple of octaves. That’ll do you fine for a large number of tunes–you can do stuff in D, G, E minor, or E dorian without much effort at all, and with only having to half-hole or cross-finger the C. If you want to get a bit more ambitious, you might consider a large D with a smaller backup instrument in a different key, if you want to increase the range of stuff you can play in a session. (Which is why I got myself the A.)
But if you’re just starting out, you should definitely go for a starter-grade instrument, just to make sure that you don’t sink a couple K into an instrument you might ultimately decide you don’t want to play after all. If you keep at it, you can always upgrade to a more serious instrument later. And hi, this’ll be me eventually wanting to commission a serious instrument with keys from Mr. Burns.
Any other flute maker recs out there people want to share? Drop ’em in the comments!

Some tunes practice tonight

Rossignolet is rapidly becoming my practice flute of choice–at least, as long as I’m not trying to play along with any recording that isn’t actually in A. If I pretend I’m playing a D flute and ignore how I’m actually a fourth up, this flute’s responsiveness is wonderful for just trying to get fingering patterns down into my muscle memory.
Plus, I just love the way Rossignolet sounds. I posted these to Facebook but for giggles and grins and posterity, here are sound samples of me playing Swallowtail Jig on my three primary flutes of the moment, including the new one!
Anna Plays Swallowtail Jig on New Flute (Rossignolet in A)
Anna Plays Swallowtail Jig on Norouet (Big Flute in D)
Anna Plays Swallowtail Jig on Shine (Piccolo in D)
Tonight, I went through all seven of the Quebec tunes I know so far and then through most of the non-Quebec ones, including Swallowtail. I didn’t hit Si Bheag Si Mhor or Da Slockit Light, but only because my embouchure started getting a bit wibbly and I wanted to work on Pigeon on the Gate, which I need for the Bone Walker soundtrack.
Fun observation of the evening #1: on Rossignolet, trying the embouchure exercise described in Grey Larsen’s Irish Flute and Whistle book, I was able to get three octaves of A as well as the intermediate E between the second and third A’s. That’s hard, people. And leaves me a bit swimmy-headed in a way I rather clearly remember from when I was first learning how to play piccolo!
Fun observation of the evening #2: TunePal can play tunes for you if you bring up the sheet music for one in it. You tap the play button and it’ll start playing through the tune on the screen in MIDI piano, and you can adjust the tempo too. So I fired up Pigeon on the Gate and went through it slowly several times, trying to follow the sheet music. Then I did it a few times more with my eyes closed, to see if I had it in muscle memory yet and if I could play along by ear. Then, I shut up TunePal entirely and tried to play it through slowly by myself.
This actually appeared to work. I cannot play this tune at speed yet but it may actually be getting into my fingers. Even though it’ll take me a bit to polish it up, just because those jumps in the first couple of measures from B down to E then up to D and down to E again are a bit of a bitch on the flute.

Reading Grey Larsen's Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle…

… and even though I’m only into Chapter 1 thus far, already I’m finding this thing highly informative.
Some of what he’s going over in the first chapter is familiar to me–basic stuff about how time signatures work, for example. And the difference between a tongued note and a slurred one. I remember these things from my years in band in middle and high school.
What I never had to deal with before, though, was modes. When I started playing again in my adulthood and started hearing about modes of tunes–especially at session, before our Renton session imploded–I had a bit of time trying to bend my brain around what the hell a mode actually is, and what the difference between it and a key is, for a tune. Larsen’s book explains this beautifully and simply. I’d kind of already bent my brain around this a bit, but to have it clearly spelled out is very, very helpful.
(For the curious who may not know–if you know how a basic scale works, do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, and assuming you’re doing it in a major key, that’s actually what’s called Ionian mode. You can change modes if you take that exact same scale and just start it on a different note! So the key is still the same, but the resulting base note for whatever tune you may be dealing with is NOT.)
Here’s another thing that was incredibly helpful to have spelled out, since I DO come from a background that’s more or less “classical”, even if I only bounced briefly off of that in Symphonic Band and in Wind Ensemble my freshman year (mmmmm Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony Finale mmmmmmm). To quote Mr. Larsen:

The classical wind player is taught that all notes are to be tongued unless there is an indication in the notated music, such as a slur, to do otherwise. Most Irish players use tonguing and throating intuitively as an expressive device against a general backdrop of slurring.

Speaking as somebody coming out of a more or less classical background, I read that bit and went WHOA. Because he’s right–I was totally taught that I was to clearly articulate every note unless the music said to do otherwise. But here’s the fun thing–when I’ve been playing Irish or Quebec tunes, I’ve totally found myself, by habit, mostly slurring stuff! It was always easier to me, and I never really thought about it.
So yeah, that suddenly made something just click HARD in my brain.
And if this book’s doing that to me in the very first chapter, I can’t wait to get to the more complex stuff–and especially to see if I can learn from this text some of the more complicated tonguing tricks I was never able to learn well in school. One could argue that if I’m in my 40’s, it’s probably too late for me to REALLY pick this stuff up properly… but screw it, I don’t care, it’s the journey that’s fun. Learning how to improve my flute playing AND learning a whole shiny new language exercises my brain! And my fingers!
This is going to be fun, you guys!