Flutes And Pennywhistles

by Ian Law


Many music stores have a little display offering the standard, cylindrical Generation brand whistles in many keys (in G, Bb, C, D, Eb, and F). Sometimes you will see the conical Clarke whistle (in C or D) and frequently the Oak brand or the Feadog (green mouth pieces ). Conical Shaw whistles are available in most keys and also in the low D. Brian Howard makes nice low D pennywhistles. Ralph Sweet makes a nice wooden "Flageolette" in D and C and O'Riordan makes a set of whistles containing one mouthpiece and two cylindrical bodies -- one in C and the other in D. The Oak and Feadog brands, like the Generation whistles, are cylindrical metal tubes of brass or nickel-coated brass with plastic mouthpieces. People value cylindrical whistles because they play easily, (most) are inexpensive, and most are within the realm of being in reasonable tune.

Many players consider the conical whistles (like the Clarke whistle, Shaw or the flageolette) superior in tone to the cylindrical kinds. One of the nicest I've seen is made by flutemaker Michael Copeland, it's tuneable and has great tone. It comes in brass and silver.

Irish music is generally in the keys of D, G, Am and Em and for that the D whistle works best. Some contemporary players play sharp (you would need an Eb whistle) and some pipers, looking for that mellow old sound, play flat (C or Bb). If you wish to play solo, the Eb or F tends to sound real good. The large octave D whistles have a mellow tone and are in the same register as the flute.


Whistles are low maintenance instruments. The nickel and brass models don't even rust (the Clarke whistles do and they also seem to attract spiders) and the plastic mouthpieces can withstand a lot of chewing. You might like to run warm water through the plastic mouthpiece and use a Q-tip to clean out any accumulated gunk. But it's all optional and most experts find they lose their instrument long before it occurs to them to clean it. Or they put it in their back pocket and sit on it. Once in a while you will find a particularly wonderful specimen that merits special attention but by then you will have your own opinions. It is necessary, however, to blow out any accumulated lint and moisture from time to time. Just cover the holes as normal, put your pinky over the end and blow on the fipple hole.

You can frequently tune a Generation, Oak or Feadog pipe by loosening the mouthpiece, removing it, cleaning it, and then replacing it with a dab of cork grease on the tube. Then you just wiggle it in (to sharpen) or out (to flatten). I usually can't get the red plastic Generations to loosen but the blue ones come free when soaked in a little near-boiling water.

A clever trick is to play two whistles at once after taping up the top three holes of one whistle with masking tape. Another is to half-cover the second hole to play in D minor. Or taking the whistle with the three holes covered and playing Morris tunes with one hand (actually Generation makes a three-holed pipe on which the third hole is on the thumb side).


My friend Jose rushes to the sink to clean his whistle with warm soap and water whenever anyone borrows his instrument. It is worth remembering that colds, flu, and any number of rampaging bacteria and viruses travel on pennywhistles.


You could acquire a vintage instrument or a newly-made one. For vintage instruments, you should talk to Mickie Zekley at Lark in the Morning. He plays himself, and is very knowledgeable about all aspects of wooden flutes. He is very generous and helpful. Mickie has told me that prices in Europe for these antiques have gone sky-high but some of them are truly remarkable. He can show you the the differences between the two Irish favorites, the Rudall & Rose and the Pratten. In the past I have owned vintage instruments but am reluctant to recommend them because they are expensive to be careless with.

Contemporary Irish flutes are being made by many makers. Ralph Sweet makes distinctive, inexpensive, keyless flutes with decent tone and good playability. A little more expensive are the Casey Burns flutes which are modeled after some of the finest older flutes that are still around. Casey's flutes range in price depending on the materials used but some are very inexpensive and I recommend them. I have also some Irish-made flutes that are very nice but it took many tries to get them "in one piece" through the mail, and if they did arrive, the San Diego weather frequently caused them to split. I now have one that is in very good shape.

I personally think that a flute should have a tuning slide and neither Ralph nor Casey offer that on the low-end flutes. They are, however, good sounding instruments and ideal to start on.

Lark in the Morning is always doing research on the newer flutes and can also make recommendations. Mickie, as a dealer, has seen and played more flutes than anyone could possibly imagine.

My best advice is to get a humbler flute to start with and acquaint yourself with as many players and instruments as you can. Borrow them, play them, experiment. It usually takes several weeks to get accustomed to a different flute and initial ease of playing is by no means a sign of good quality.


Most of the Irish players avoid the "German" style flutes which seem to lack the woody, harsh, strong sound of the "English" models. Only a very few Irish players use the metal Boehm (modern) style flute.


Caring for the flute properly will not only protect your investment (keep it from breaking) but it will actually make the flute sound better. Wood, as a natural organic material, needs help withstanding the repeated wetting and drying that occurs with playing. Commercial bore oils are OK, some are petroleum based and some are almond-oil based. In either case, a rather small bottle is unduly expensive. For less than the cost of a small bottle of bore oil, you can find a quart of real almond oil at a fancy nut or candy store and it works very well. Before playing, run a little oil (with a dropper or a toothpick) around each hole of the flute. The oil will mix with the condensing moisture from your breath and coat the bore. If you do this once a day, the oil will keep the wood healthy and conditioned. If you play less than that, or own several flutes, you may wish to pour several drops in the flute and turn it to coat the inside. As a wonderful side benefit, the oiled holes will make better seals with your fingers and you will sound crisper in your playing.

After playing, you should swab out your flute with an absorbant cloth or shammy to remove excess moisture. Commercially available plastic swab sticks are available for flutes. They are inexpensive (under a dollar), and they will not scratch the inside of the flute like a metal ones could.

Every so often, you should remove the headjoint from the barrel (carefully!!!), clean the metal surfaces (carefully), coat them with a generous amount of cork grease, and put the joints back together. This will keep the tuning slide in good shape and may keep it air tight if it is tending to be loose.

Cork grease is also good for corks and hemp, and makes it easier to assemble and take apart the flute without straining the thin wood.


If you have a problem with a premium instrument, it may always be best to send it to a knowledgeable craftsman or maker for repair. There are, however, some common problems and some generally acceptable fixes.

Leaky keys: could be caused by weak or broken springs, misalignment, or deteriorating pads. If it is the pad at fault, any woodwind repairman should be able to fix it. Otherwise, reinforce the key with rubber bands (unsightly but effective and adjustable) until someone can fix it. If you are certain you won't use the key, remove it (carefully! and save the little pivot pin), and tape over the hole with black electrician's tape. Some say that the mark of a quality in a vintage flute is black tape and rubber bands!

Hairline cracks: will show up eventually in most flutes and can cause great damage to the tone and playability of the instrument. They are caused by dropping the flute, weaknesses in the wood itself or changes in the weather. A fix for a hairline crack is, of course, beaswax or superglue. The wood should be dry and clean (dabbing the crack with acetone will suck out any moisture from the crack but it will dry out and could crack nearby wood). Then run the superglue along the crack, leaving the "bead" showing: it may be visible but will hold better if it shows. If you are uncomfortable with this repair, there is always the venerable black tape.

Enormous open cracks: happen especially in older instruments in the head and barrel joints (they're inevitable) for the same reasons as hairline cracks. An expert must repair the instrument, and you should call Mickie for help. In the meantime, use v.b. tape.

Dried out, flakey cork, threads falling off the ends, wobbly sections, pieces falling off, and unexplained leakiness: The joints are sometimes held together by cork. If the cork is deteriorating, you could get any wind repairman to replace it. Alternatively, you can remove the cork altogether and "wrap" the tenon with bagpipe hemp (Scottish pipers always have some). Run the hemp through some beeswax to make it sticky and, starting at one end, wrap it evenly from one end to the other, then back the other way, and back again, checking frequently to see if it "fits" snuggly yet into the female section. Most authorities recommend that the first "inside" layer should be wrapped looser than the covering sections so the hemp will have a little "give". The hemp can swell when it gets moist, so don't make it too tight. For the same reason, be sure to cover the wrapping with cork grease so that you'll be able to separate the sections after playing. Waxed dental floss could be used in place of hemp.

Intonation problems (part 1): ha, ha what's new? Just be glad you don't play bagpipes! Seriously, though, a great deal of flute evolution was inspired by intonation (how in-tune it is) difficulties. The old flutes generally have inconsistencies for which you must compensate in your playing.

It is not reasonable to take a vintage instrument and start filing away at the holes! Some older flutes show signs of that having been done. It's really a job for an expert (in old-style flutes, not contemporary woodwinds) and questionable then, too. It is far better to compensate in your playing or simply appreciate it as it is.

You can take a wooden flute and, without changing the tuning slide, play it a quarter tone sharp or flat by simply turning the flute away from you or toward you. As you play more and more, you will get more control over the intonation (be sure to read Quantz and others about Baroque flute playing for a discussion of this topic). When you are playing for volume, you may find yourself playing sharp and in other situations, flat. Try to match your companions.

If you find that the "top" notes ( A, B, C#) are flat to the "bottom" notes (D, E, F#), move the head cork in; if they are sharp, move the cork out.

Intonation problems (part 2): everything mentioned so far can affect intonation. If every note just sounds "out" you must consider two broad categories of reasons (other than an unplayable instrument):

(1) You don't have the technique to make it play in tune; or (2) You have a leak.

If the first case is possible, find someone to help you. Otherwise, start looking for leaks. The head cork could be loose (get a new one from a repairman). If you're sure the cork is tight, look for leaky keys, cracks, even little ones, loose tenons, and/or a leaky tuning slide. You can check quickly by covering all the holes, stopping the end, and blowing directly onto the embouchure hole (lips on the wood). You shouldn't be able to force air through. If you can force air through, you should be able to spot the offending leak (someone can "feel" for you as you blow).

Intonation problems (part 3): are your fingers really covering the holes?

Intonation problems (part 4) Your C# is flat, your C is sharp, your A is a little sharp, your low D is flat, and your F# is hopelessly flat. Congratulations! You have a traditional flute!



The key to learning to play is listening, listening to records, tapes, and people. Sony has beautiful little stereo recorders that are inconspicuous and record well. For really hearing the detail, almost nothing can beat a Marantz (SuperScope) tape recorder with the half-speed and variable-speed features. This allows you to slow the music down one whole octave so that it will still be in tune with your instrument.

If you wish to tape a session, be considerate. It can be a tremendous imposition to the other musicians' spontaneity to be aware of tape recorders and to hear the telltale clicks as the tape runs out.

My own feeling, and too few agree with me, is that if you hear a tune that is so good you must know it, find out its name, corner someone who plays it well, and ask that person to play it slowly for your tape recorder. This develops your memory, your ear, your taste, imposes on fewer people, encourages better music, and can be a little ego-boost to the person you hit up. If you wish to go for quantity, buy a few records.


A key to playing with others is listening. If you have a batch of new hot tunes ready to go, it is very hard to refrain from playing them at a session. But it is important. If you end up playing something solo (because no one else knows your tune), play it once and then go into a more common tune. If someone is playing nothing at all, find a tune for him/her to play. If you only know a few simple tunes and you're among monster players, play every so often but take advantage of the opportunity to hear some good playing. Listen.

Collections of Irish Music

Breathnach, Brendan, Ceol Rince na h'Eireann (Cuid 1,2, & 3), Oifig An tSolanthair (Ireland 1976). ***

Breathnach, Brendan, Folk Music and Dance of Ireland, The Mercier Press (Dublin 1971).****

Bulmer & Sharpley, Music from Ireland (vol 1,2,3,& 4), Bulmer & Sharpley (England 1976). *** (OUT OF PRINT)

Bunting, Edward, The Ancient Music of Ireland, Waltons (Dublin 1969).(OUT OF PRINT)

Deloughery, Sliabh Luachra on Parade, Bellarmine College Press (1988).

Feldman, Allen & Eamonn O'Doherty, The Northern Fiddler, Blackstaff Press (Belfast 1979). (OUT OF PRINT)

Hamilton, S.C., The Irish Flute Player's Handbook, Breac Publications (1990). ****

Krassen, Miles, O'Neill's Music of Ireland (New & Revised), Oak PublicatioQns (N.Y. 1976). **

Levey, R.M., The Dance Music of Ireland, (First collection & second collection) Fodhla Printing Co. (Dublin 1965).

Lyth, David, Bowing styles in Irish fiddle playing Vol.1. Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (Ireland 1981). (OUT OF PRINT)

McCullough, L.E., The Complete Irish Tinwhistle Tutor , Silver Spear Publications (Pittsburgh,PA 1976). *

McDermott, Hugh, Allan's "Irish Fiddler", Mozart Allan (Glasgow).

Miller, Randy & Jack Perron, ed, Irish Traditional Fiddle Music, Fiddlecase edition, Fiddlecase Books (New Hampshire 1977).

Mitchell, Pat, The Dance Music of Willie Clancy, The Mercier Press (Dublin 1976).

Mitchell, Pat & Jackie Small, The Pipering of Patsy Touhey, Na Piobairi Uilleann (cassette available).

OCanainn, Tomas, Traditional Music in Ireland, Routledge & Kegan Paul (Boston 1978). ****

O'Malley, Luke, Luke O'Malley's Collection of Irish Music, Unity Publications (N.J. 1976).

O'Neill, Capt. Francis, The Dance Music of Ireland (1001 Gems), Fodhla Printing Co. (Dublin no date given). ***

O'Neill, Capt. Francis, Irish Folk Music, A Fascinating Hobby, Norwood Editions (PA 1973). ****

O'Neill, Capt. Francis, Irish Minstrels and Musicians, Norwood Editions (PA 1973). ****

O'Neill, Capt. Francis, O'Neill's Music of Ireland, no publishing credits given but available from Dan Collins, 1375 Crosby Ave., New York, N.Y. 10461. **, ***

O,Neill, Capt. Francis, Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melody, Mercier Press (Dublin 1980).

Reavy, Joseph M., The Collected Compositions of Ed Reavy.

Roche, Frank, The Roche Collection of Traditional Irish Music, Oak Publications (N.Y. 1982).

*A very nice, comprehensive tutor to the tin whistle (appropriate for flute, too). It seems to be much better than the others I have seen so far. It includes a discussion of ornaments,practice hints, "dressing up" a tune, and a collection of tunes. A cassette is available.

**The "big O'Neill's", which contains 1850 tunes including airs, O'Carolan tunes, and dance music was recently revised and "corrected" by Miles Krassen with the inclusion of settings from some of the legendary 20th century recordings. In Krassen's version, many of the airs are missing (which he justifies in his informative introduction). However, the original "big O'Neill's" remains "the book" for many older players. It is first-hand material and I would recommend it over the Krassen version if you can only get one.

***I find these collections most useful.

**** Not collections, but interesting.


Mary Bergin Feadoga Stain: Traditional Irish music on the tin whistle (Shanachie). Super tin whistle playing.

THE BOTHY BAND - several records available - with "the" flute player Matt Molloy. Malloy has redefined the limits of flute playing, adapting piping technique to the flute.

THE BOYS OF THE LOUGH - more than a dozen records available - with flute and whistle player Cathal McConnell who is also a beautiful singer.

The Breeze from Erin: Irish Folk Music on Wind Instruments (Topic Records), a collection of several musicians including Willie Clancy on whistle and pipes, Seamus Tansey on flute and whistle, Festy Conlan on whistle, and Eddie Corcoran on whistle .

The Tailor's Choice (Green Linnet): Joe Burke playing flute. Joe is a well-known accordian player. He plays several airs on this record.

Ah! Surely (Shanachie) Eddie Cahill on flute: old style Sligo playing, breathy with short phrases. The breathing, rather than injuring the rythm, actually defines it.

Traditional Music of Ireland (Master Collector's Series, Daniel Collins) Paddy Carty plays the Radcliff model flute (fully keyed but not a modern Boehm flute) in the Galway style: melodic, chromatic, medium-paced, and somewhat melancholy. This record is my personal favorite.

THE CHIEFTANS - many recordings available - the early records feature Michael Tubridy and Sean Potts on flute and tin whistle. The first four or five recordings are the most "traditional" with a minimum of the distinctive arrangements that have become the Chieftans' trademark. On later recordings, Tubridy has been replaced by the ubiquitous Matt Molloy whose power and style would (and has) benefit any band. Beware of the green James Galway and the Chieftans; for while James Galway is an acknowledged master of the classical flute, he is not considered a "traditional" player by any but classical musicians who view his flirtation with his roots as "quaint".

Willie Clancy, the Minstrel from Clare and The Pipering of Willie Clancy (Topic and Claddagh Records). Willie Clancy's playing on whistle defines the County Clare sound.

Traditional Music of Ireland (Shanachie) Seamus Egan (prodigy from Philadelphia) can play anything and plays some nice flute on this record.

Irish Pipe and Tin Whistle Songs, Uilleann Pipes, and Forty Years of Irish Piping (Olympic, Topic, and Green Linnet). Seamus Ennis knows far more about this Irish folk music than the old folks, Lordy, Lordy, themselves. There is some good whistle playing among the piping and songs. Ennis learned from his parents and spent his entire life collecting songs and tunes from all over Ireland.

Up and Away (Gael-linn) Frankie Gavin, the well-known fiddler in DeDannan, also plays a wonderful, bouncy flute style. I like it better than his fiddling.

DOLORES KEANE (Green Linnet) - on several records. Dolores Keane plays a breathy, almost sensual flute style on some of the tracks.

MAIREAD NI MHAONAIGH and FRANKIE KENNEDY (Gael-linn), and also some new band recordings. Frankie Kennedy is a super, powerhouse fluteplayer, loud and strong from Northern Ireland.

Ceol as Sliabh Luachra (Gael-linn) Billy Clifford plays flute with his mother Julia Clifford. Julia and her brother Dennis Murphy learned the Kerry style fiddle from the legendary Padraig O'Keefe.

Light Through the Leave (Rounder Records) several artists including Larry McCullough who wrote the tin whistle tutor and Noel Rice who plays Irish music on the regular metal flute (it can be done).

On Lough Erne's Shore and Cathal McConnell & Robin Morton: An Irish Jubilee (Flying Fish & Topic) Cathal McConnell from the Boys of the Lough plays flute and whistle on these records. Originally from County Fermanagh, Cathal has travelled extensively and his playing reflects a lot of different sources.

Mooncoin (Kicking Mule Records) Mickie Zekley honks away with verve and vigor on the flute on some cuts. Mickie is from County Mendocino.

Matt Molloy, Heathery Breeze, and Stony Steps (Mulligan, Polygram, & Green Linnet). Matt Molloy. Awesome. The first record is the least "produced" and I like it the best. Molloy uses every trick in the book and he wrote the book.

Matt Molloy, Paul Brady, Tommy Peoples and Contentment is Wealth (Mulligan, Green Linnet) Matt Molloy with just one or two other musicians; tight, articulate, and amazing stuff.

Tin Whistles (Shanachie) Paddy Moloney and Sean Potts from the Chieftans playing whistles.

Planxty: After the Break (Tara) Matt Molloy appears here, too.

Micho Russell (TRL) Micho Russell is a legendary Clare whistle and flute player. The whistle playing is great and the flute playing is crawling with character.

Memories of Sligo and Sean McGuire and Roger Sherlock: At their best (Inchecronin & Outlet) Roger Sherlock is a great modern Sligo flute player, smooth and accurate.

Best of Seamus Tansey (traditional Irish Flute) (Outlet) Seamus Tansey also plays in the Sligo tradition. Close listening shows that Tansey rarely plays the same phrase in the same manner - lots of variety.

The Boy in the Gap (Claddagh Records) Most records featuring flute players have accompaniment and it's rare to find a solo player playing by himself. Micho Russell does this on his record and so does Paddy Taylor on this record. I think his flute is a modern one or possibly a Radcliff like Paddy Carty's. In any case the style is distinctive: smooth and flowing. There are several nice airs on the record.

Traditional Irish Flute Music (Shanachie) Fintan Valley is from County Armagh and plays a rythmic, bouncy, choppy style of flute.

Lark In The Morning
830 Gilman St, Berkeley, CA 94710 USA
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