Playing the transverse style flute is much easier than you may think, and starting with a “simple system” or good bamboo flute is a great way to learn. You can easily adapt these techniques to a “Classical” metal or “Irish” wooden flute as well.
Most beginning folks try too hard at first, i.e. covering all the holes first, making an “O” or a whistling shape for the lips, and blowing very hard… losing all their air. Below is a simple step by step process, guaranteed to get good results. So relax, take a breath, and forget everything you know…
How to Play the “Simple System” Folk Flute:
Hold the flute with a hand on each side, left hand closest to the mouth hole, the flute pointed to your right, with all finger-holes open. Place the edge of the mouth hole firmly against the center of your lower lip. (Don’t try covering any holes just yet, but have them at the ready.)
Next, make a small, flat opening in your lips and blow a thin, steady stream of air across the mouth hole. To do this just close your lips together, take a deep breath, and pronounce “phuuuu”, blowing hard at first and then backing off a bit. Don’t bring your lower lip in, let it stick out proudly… yes, even normally, covering about a 1/4 to 1/3 of the mouth hole. You should be able to feel it.
Ideally, one should try to divide the stream of air in half with the opposite edge of the mouth hole. Roll the flute slowly back and forth to find the correct angle to catch the air.
The tone may sound weak and breathy at first, but with a little practice and experimentation, the tone will develop into a clear, rich sound. Breath is good. Breathe deep, and exhale with slow steady pressure and support. (Like singing or humming a long tone…) Once you feel confident with a tone (remember, don’t try fingers until you have a good tone first) now you are ready to use those digits.
Next, with your left hand, begin covering each finger hole, adding (not switching) one at a time, starting with the one nearest your mouth. Make sure that you cover each hole completely; otherwise a weak tone will result. (Click on thumbnails for larger image.)
Go slowly down the line (scale) covering, then blowing, for each note, then the next… until you have covered the first three holes. Now continue with the right hand in the same manner (three holes per hand) until you have covered them all. You now have played the full 7 note “diatonic” scale!
1. Don’t attempt to cover the next hole until you have gotten a tone on the previous one. If you can’t get the next note, chances are you have a small air leak with one of your fingers not sealing the hole completely. (This is akin to having “leaky pads” on a keyed flute. Luckily, you will never have to pay for an expensive re-pad job on these flutes!)
2. Gently extend the fingers and use the finger “pad”, not the “tip”.
3. If the flute jumps up in pitch as you go down, try blowing more softly.
4. To play the higher octave, (the same note, only higher by an octave) pinch the lips a bit tighter together (I don’t say “pucker” tighter, because you may start trying to make that “whistling” shape with the lips. The lips are actually more of their normal shape… or like a “Mona Lisa” smile if anything… so relax and be mysterious like her). Now imagine being Mona Lisa spitting out a watermelon seed going “phuuu” (perhaps not a pleasant thought… but thats the shape you want!) Tighten that a bit, and the smaller lip opening with a little more air pressure will make the flute note “jump” an octave.
5. Be patient with yourself. Like any new skill (if young… talking, walking) it takes a bit of time. If anything, I liken it to riding a bike… do it for 15 min. a day and before you know it, perfect balance. Then it all starts to come naturally and the awkward part is over very fast.
6. Watch the Videos! I will be putting up more “how to play” videos soon, but just watching how I approach it will help.
NOTE: Sorry, but I will not have much time to respond to individual inquiries on instruction . Most of what you may seek is widely available online. Do a search and you can find a lot of great free info. or visit the flute forum at www.chiffandfipple.com.
7. A simple fingering chart is below, but you can achieve the entire chromatic scale (all the sharps and flats) by using half hole coverings on the last finger in the line (half- steps). Also cross fingerings will achieve many of the chromatic notes as well. (such as OXX-OOO for the C natural.) There are some great alt. fingering charts at the Tinwhistle Fingering Research Center. It’s for tinwhistles obviously, but the fingerings for simple system flutes and Irish whistle are basically the same. There’s also lots of great info. on Irish ornamentation as well, if you are into that sort of thing.
8. You don’t have to learn to read music notation if you don’t want to. Many great musicians play by ear, and in folk music (even jazz started out as, and still is a form of folk music) it’s common. Tunes are handed down from one generation to another just like stories… and once you know the story intimately, make it your own, and embellish it with your own story.
Reading music can help though, and if you read music or want to learn, free sheet music for many Celtic and other early European folk tunes can be had at The Session site. (click search, type the tune you want… for instance “Greensleeves” then click “sheet music”.) This is a great free resource, but don’t stop there. Visit the “comments section, and learn something about the tune as well. You may love it and feel it even more if you connect to it’s history.
9. Listen, and collect recordings of folk flute artists. You can play or emulate most any world music style on these flutes from Celtic, Middle Eastern, South American, East Indian, Japanese, Native American, etc.
10. Don’t let those “fast” players intimidate you. You don’t have to play fast. Learn an “aire” or improvise your own tune. Play from the heart and enjoy. Speed will come later if you so desire.
Private Lessons: If you live in the Roanoke, Blacksburg, or Floyd, VA area, I am available for lessons. Just drop me a note at billymiller(at)swva(dot)net.
Thanks so much. Cheers,