Traditional Irish Flute Playing - The Flow
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An introduction to Irish flute playing styles

an introduction to flute playing styles
east galway
Other styles
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left handed flute playing
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    The flute is one of the central sounds of Irish music and has recently gained in popularity to the extent that probably more people now play Irish music on the flute than ever before. The wooden simple-system flute has a wide range of tone, volume and colour available to it and the consequent flexibility of expression has obviously added to its attraction. It also breaks down into a handy-sized case which box and banjo players can only dream of.

The popularity of the flute today is largely due to the achievements of many players in conjunction with the ever-rising profile of Irish traditional music in general. Matt Molloy, now of The Chieftains but formerly of The Bothy Band and Planxty and also with several collaborations and solo recordings to his credit, is probably the best-known, but the late Frankie Kennedy also came to many people's attention during the 1980s playing with Altan.

The success and influence of these bands has resulted in the music of these two flute players being exposed to a much wider audience than that of their peers and the effect of this can be heard in many sessions throughout the world. Kevin Crawford and Michael McGoldrick are two players from a different generation who could be said to be exerting similar influences today, both in their solo work, their involvement with Lunasa and McGoldrick's spell with Flook!.

The commercial success of these players has tended to highlight their own approaches to traditional flute playing and obscure the fact that there are several recognised traditional styles or ways of playing the flute. Some of these styles have been around for a very long time and continue to be played by large numbers of outstanding musicians.

For the sake of simplicity, I have rounded these up into three groups: Sligo, East Galway and Piping. The first two of these groups are known and recognised, while the third comes from my own observations. Leitrim and Northern Ireland also have distinctive and possibly related styles, but for the moment description of these falls under the broad Sligo umbrella.

Generally speaking, the two main distinguishing features of the different styles which exist are rhythm and the employment of decoration. These features are used on related, but opposing sliding scales. On the one hand there are players such as Matt Molloy who play with minimal rhythm but liberally employ a wide range of piping crans, rolls, triplets and cuts. Many modern innovations in flute playing within Irish music use this model as a starting point.

At the other end of the scale there are fluters like Conal O'Grada who play in the Sligo Style with great rhythmic emphasis and minimal decoration, but whose music can be equally compelling. The East Galway Style can perhaps be seen as a sub category of the Sligo Style, but with several unique characteristics. Categories are never hard and fast and in between there are of course a wide range of players from different areas who utilise these features to different degrees.

Throughout this site I have referred only to those flute players who have been commercially recorded. This is for ease of reference only and is not to say that these are the only ones worth listening to. Many truly excellent musicians remain unrecorded.

If you are unfamiliar with the history, background or terminology of the Irish flute, then the Links page contains a list of useful resources.

Music samples

This site contains some music samples which are intended to illustrate the different styles discussed. With the exception of Mike Rafferty's sample, which is used with his permission, the music clips are of myself with reference to a particular recording in order to sidestep copyright laws.

This is not ideal, but will hopefully serve its purpose. I do not attempt to emulate the recording in question, but more illustrate the general style on show. I strongly recommend listening to the originals and others which appear in the discography section.

The files are in AIFF (Audio Interchange Format Files), mono, 8-bit, 11 khz and were recorded at home on a hand held micro cassette recorder for that authentic lo-tech traditional feel. This particular format crosses most platforms with the minimum of software/ hardware requirements and as such helps to keep things simple. Smaller MP3 versions are also included.

Information on the file sizes and length of the sample can be found by the relevant link and I have tried to keep these as small as possible by focusing on single reels.

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Flutes at Fealty's
Flutes at Fealty's, Bangor, County Down in the early 90s. From left to right: Rebecca Knorr (Edinburgh), Clodagh McCrory (Belfast), Bruce Curtis (Edinburgh).

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