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Learning to Play Irish Flute

Fingering charts for the simple-system flute are available from these online resources:

>Terry McGee's fingering chart for eight-key flute.

>Terry McGee's fingering chart for keyless flute.

>Martin Doyle's fingering charts for keyless D flutes.

>Richard Wilson's fingering chart (shows how simple-system flutes were originally meant to be played)

Most of us are not lucky enough to have a master Irish flute player in the neighborhood who can teach us how to play. But it's possible to become a good flute player by using instruction books, attending schools and flute workshops, and by listening to good players.

Many flute players today try slavishly to imitate Matt Molloy or other "star" flute players such as Kevin Crawford, Mike McGoldrick, Brian Finnegan, or Seamus Egan. This seems pointless to me -- the stars have indeed set a standard, but their styles are their own. You can develop your own style too. All flute players can learn from listening to great flute players without trying to sound just like them. As the haiku poet Basho wrote, "don't follow in the footsteps of the masters; seek what they sought."

Listen to other flute players to get a sense of the range of possibilities. You can also get ideas from listening to pipers, fiddlers, whistle players, accordion players, singers, and other musicians.

Hammy Hamilton's Irish Flute Player's Handbook has a good discography of Irish flute players, including listings for recordings of the classic older players like Peter Horan, Seamus Tansey, Seamus Cooley, Paddy Taylor, Roger Sherlock, and Josie McDermott. Many of these are unfortunately out of print now and unlikely to be reissued on CD. If there are other flute players in your area, ask them if they have any classic recordings or field tapes that you could borrow.

Check out the Flute Guide's list of recommended players -- there are a lot of them, and you'll learn much about Irish flute playing by listening to any of them.

Brother Steve's tin-whistle pages, written by Steve Jones, is a great online learning resource for flute players as well; much of what he says about ornamentation applies to the flute as well, and his site is full of good advice and perspective on how to approach Irish music in general. Highly recommended!

The great Belfast flute player Michael Clarkson has created a site where he plays dozens of tunes, both slowly and at regular tempo. It's a wonderful resource, and his witty commentary is icing on the cake!

You can also check out Tony Lawless's free social networking service, Trad Connect to find and connect with other flute players and Irish musicians in your area or around the world.


Going to a teacher is especially valuable in the beginning when you can easily pick up bad habits if someone isn't around to observe and correct them. If you live in the U.S., you might be able to find a flute teacher in your area by checking out Betterfly, which has a large, location-searchable listing of flute teachers.

A number of people give online instruction on the flute, including Blayne Chastain.

Kieran O'Hare and Desi Wilkinson Kieran O'Hare (left) and Desi Wilkinson playing on the street in Miltown Malbay. Photo copyright Peter Laban, Miltown Malbay

Some well-known flute players also give master classes or lead flute workshops that are worth attending if you're serious about the instrument. In North America, for example, Chris Norman runs the Boxwood flute festival and workshop each summer, and there is usually at least one flute instructor at the Swannanoa Gathering, the Lark in the Morning summer camp or during Irish week at Augusta. Also check out the Irish Arts Week in East Durham, New York. There are also lots of opportunities to learn flute in Ireland during the Willie Clancy Summer School, the Frankie Kennedy Winter School, and other festivals and music schools. In the UK, the annual Burwell Bash has received rave reviews from many flute players.


Grey Larsen's The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle, published by Mel Bay in late November, 2003, offers a wealth of instructional material that will be useful for anyone learning to play Irish music on either the simple system flute, the Boehm system flute, or the whistle. Described by Matt Molloy as "essential reading for anybody interested in getting it right," this 480-page book with two companion CDs provides guidance on breathing and phrasing, ornamentation, and transcriptions of tunes as played by leading traditional flute players.

June McCormack's tutorials, Fliúit and Fliúit 2 with companion CDs (76 tracks for Fliúit and another 78 for Fliúit 2), are another useful resource for flute players. Fliúit includes detailed ornamentation exercises from beginner to advanced Stages; ornaments covered include cuts, long rolls, short rolls, elongated cuts, bounces, D crans, short cran on high D, and DED cuts. There are 64 tunes complete with breathing and ornamentation guides. Fliúit 2 is most suitable for intermediate and advanced flute players. More information, including prices and ordering details, can be found at www.draiochtmusic.com.

The Irish Flute Player's Handbook, by S.C. [Hammy] Hamilton is another excellent resource for beginning (or even expert) flute players. The newest edition, published in 2009, tells you everything you need to know to get started, including what to look for when purchasing a flute, how to play the flute in the Irish tradition, repair and maintenance, useful addresses, a bibliography, a discography, and an acompanying CD. For more information, send e-mail to Hammy or contact him at Tel: +353 26 45209.

Conal Ó'Gráda published a flute tutor in 2011, entitled An Fheadóg Mhór: Irish Traditional Flute Technique, which has been getting rave reviews; even experienced players have learned a lot from this book. It may be ordered online from his website.

In 2012, Fintan Vallely is releasing a new edition of his classic 1986 book Timber: The Flute Tutor, a self-teaching book for the simple-system flute, including tunes. It can be ordered online directly from the author. The 2011 edition of another one of Vallely's books, The Companion to Irish Music, includes information on the flute in Irish music, as well as biographies of many well-known flute players.

A useful guide to ornamentation for the flute (rolls, cuts, cranns, etc.) can be found in L.E. McCullough's The Complete Irish Tinwhistle Tutor, available from many mail-order music shops. The basic fingering for ornamentation is essentially the same on whistle and simple-system flute, although that doesn't mean you should play tunes the same way on both instruments. Some good players do so (Brian Finnegan, for example, uses the same distinctive tongued ornamentation on flute and whistle), but most flute players prefer a flowing style while the whistle lends itself to a more bubbly or chirpy manner of playing. Tonguing is routinely used by good whistle players, but is usually avoided in traditional Irish flute playing where glottal stops are used instead for articulation.

If you're interested in the Bb flutes played in marching bands in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and parts of England, you'll want to check out Stuart Boyd's books Fluter's Companion and Irish Tunes for Bb flute, available from his Lulu publishing page.

If you want to learn Irish music on the Boehm-system flute, check out Mel Bay's Complete Irish Flute Book, which is geared toward that instrument. The book's approach is from a classical perspective and should be especially useful for a classically trained player who wants to play Irish music. The book covers ornamentation and includes many good tunes, along with a brief history of the flute in Irish music. The accompanying CD has a selection of tunes, mainly flute with synthesizer backup. To hear other recordings of Irish music on silver flute, listen to Noel Rice or Joanie Madden. For info on the book, see the Mel Bay Publications home page or send them an e-mail message.

There are many good books and some online resources for learning traditional Irish tunes from sheet music. Look for O'Neill's Music of Ireland and the multi-volume Ceol Rice na h'Eireann (Dance Music of Ireland.

In 2003, flute player Skip Healy published a book-and-CD set called Have Ye This One? which includes transcriptions and recordings of a nice selection of marches, jigs, hornpipes, reels, and waltzes. On the accompanying CDs, Skip plays each tune through three times, once slowly with no ornamentation, a second time faster with basic traditional ornamentation, and a third time in a more uptempo and improvisational style. The book contains transcriptions of the bare-bones setting and the one with basic ornamentation.

Tune transcriptions are also readily available online, although the quality varies widely.

Among the online sites for tunes include the following:

Ceolas provides links to a number of tune collections.

TuneDB, an online database of tunes in ABC format, created by Richard Moon, contains an extensive searchable collection of tunes.

If you're looking for sheet music specifically for flute (classical, pop, and some other genres), check out SheetMusicSearch , a commercial site that sells sheet music for a wide variety of instruments, including flute. Not much in the way of Irish traditional music, but there are some books of airs.