Favorite blog posts, February 2022

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A woodwind player’s introduction to: Native American flutes

There are many Native American flute traditions, but the one commonly called the “Native American flute” today is the endblown Lakota-style flute, native to the Dakotas.

  • It is a duct- or fipple-type flute, which means it easily produces sound, like a recorder or pennywhistle, though the construction is different.
  • Many of the commercially-available flutes are labeled as Native-American-“style” flutes, which has to do with US laws about who can and can’t sell products as “Native American.”
  • Many Native American “flutes” are sold as decorative or souvenir items, and not suitable for serious playing. My best recommendation is for the Butch Hall “concert” flutes (which I’ve reviewed previously). They are relatively simple in appearance (though beautifully crafted); some other makers’ flutes are highly-decorated, which does not guarantee high instrument quality.
  • Modern NAFs generally have five or six finger holes. The five-holed flutes usually produce a minor pentatonic scale, and the six-holed ones add an additional note (the major sixth scale degree) plus some additional possibilities for cross-fingerings. Playing chromatically requires skillful half-holing in addition to cross fingerings, and these instruments really are better suited to mostly-pentatonic-type melodies. Most high-quality flutes are capable of playing over one octave but less than two.
  • F-sharp minor and G-minor are common keys for solo playing, though many keys are available. If you need to play with Western-tuned instruments, you may wish to double-check before purchasing that a flute is tuned to your preferred pitch standard, as they are not tunable.
  • There’s no surviving authentic ancient repertoire for these instruments; they are thought to have been mostly used for improvisation. (Prior to the influence of Western musicians, these instruments likely did not adhere to Western-type scales anyway; some were built with hole spacing based on the player’s hand size.) There is some modern (post-1970) repertoire for the instrument, most notably the compositions of R. Carlos Nakai (who is also probably the modern instrument’s best-known performer; also check out Grammy winner Mary Youngblood).
  • There is some consensus for notating NAFs in the key of written F-sharp minor, and treating flutes in other keys as transposing. Nakai uses a kind of tablature notation system that closely resembles this, but is intended to use lines and spaces on a Western staff to express fingerings rather than pitches, so it can be used to notate for flutes with atypical tunings.
  • The Nakai school of playing often incorporates bird- and animal-like sounds, including chirps at the beginnings and ends of notes produced by sudden bursts of air. (The required airflow for “standard” tone is low compared to modern Western woodwinds.) Vibrato, trills and tremolos, double- or flutter-tonguing, pitch inflections and portamenti, and grace notes are also common. Digital delay effects are commonly used to suggest the flute echoing against canyon walls.
  • The only traditional ensemble for a NAF is pairing with a Native American drum, but NAFs are commonly played solo, or in New-Age-type settings.
  • Native American flutes, like most fipple flutes, generally respond well to a low, open voicing, though the tone aesthetic is broad enough to potentially accommodate other approaches.

A woodwind player’s introduction to: pennywhistles

The pennywhistle (or “tinwhistle” or “Irish” whistle) is common in Irish traditional music, and has found a home in some other styles such as southern African kwela music. They appear famously in movie soundtracks such as the Lord of the Rings movies and Titanic.

Here are some important things to know:

  • There are high-quality pennywhistles with good intonation, clear, pure tone, and nice even response. (The Burke whistles are among my favorites.) But some high-profile players of traditional Irish music prefer the chirpier, raspier, less-perfect sounds of inexpensive, mass-produced ones (such as Generation whistles). Those players might try many inexpensive whistles to find the most playable ones.
  • There are also some in-between options. The very consistent but relatively inexpensive plastic whistles from Susato have the advantages of high volume, excellent tuning, and availability in lots of keys. (They also have a reedy tone that some people find too recorder-like.) Or, there are “tweaked” whistles like those made by Jerry Freeman, inexpensive whistles with some adjustments made for better playability.
  • Pennywhistles are available in various sizes, but the way they are named doesn’t match with the conventions of orchestral wind instruments. The most common and traditional whistle is the high D whistle. These are usually notated with the instrument’s six-fingers-down note, D, appearing as D on the staff and sounding one octave higher. (By the terminology used for, say, clarinets and saxophones, this would be considered a “C” whistle.) Other whistles are named by their 6-finger note as well.
  • For non-D whistles, there aren’t firmly-established notation practices. Some notation treats them as transposing instruments, with music written so that a notated D at the bottom of the treble staff is always played as the six-finger note. In other cases, music may be written at the intended sounding pitch (or, often, one octave below, like piccolo transposition), and it is left to the whistle player to select an appropriate instrument.
  • Whistles use a simple-system fingering scheme, and are best used in mostly-diatonic contexts. Some chromatic fingerings are possible but cross-fingerings tend to be weak and half-holed fingerings are awkward in technical passages. To play in multiple keys, most whistle players keep whistles in a variety of sizes on hand. For chromatic passages, something like a soprano or sopranino recorder might be more suitable.
  • Like most fipple flutes, pennywhistles have relatively low breath requirements. The upper octaves are achieved almost entirely by overblowing, so they tend to be louder and brighter. (Some more expensive whistles are designed to “improve” on this traditional characteristic.)
  • Pennywhistles respond best to a low, open voicing.
  • Pennywhistle playing in Irish traditional music uses a sophisticated system of ornamentation and inflection inherited from bagpiping traditions. Since pipers don’t stop to breathe, whistle players use a system of placing breaths that is also somewhat unfamiliar to orchestral woodwind players, leaving out selected notes to breathe rather than trying to insert breaths between notes. For slower tunes whistle players may use a flattement-style finger vibrato. By far my favorite resource for learning these techniques is Grey Larsen’s book.

A woodwind player’s introduction to: recorders

For a “modern” woodwind player, recorders might show up in “period” classical music performance or in commercial situations like musical theater or studio gigs. They might be used in commercial settings to evoke Renaissance or Baroque periods, to function generically as “world” or folk flutes with robust chromatic capabilities, or (maybe due to their association with elementary school classroom music) to suggest themes of childhood or naivete.

The use of recorders in classroom settings is an odd one, as something like a pennywhistle has a similar just-blow “fipple” (duct) mouthpiece and a much simpler fingering scheme. The effort required to play recorders fluently and convincingly shouldn’t be underestimated.

Here are some important things to know:

  • While the finest recorders are usually made of wood, there are high-quality and relatively inexpensive ones made of plastic that are quite playable. The top-of-the-line plastic ones made by Yamaha and Aulos are well worth considering, at least as a starting point.
  • The alto (“treble”) recorder is the primary instrument of Baroque repertoire, with a solo range similar to the Baroque flute. The soprano (“descant”) is the one used in elementary classrooms.
  • Recorders are available in “modern” pitch (A=440 or similar) and in various historical pitches, which may be required for playing with period ensembles.
  • Recorders are often misunderstood as being in the “keys” of C or F. This isn’t quite the same thing as, say, clarinets in B-flat and E-flat, since properly-written recorder parts are always written in concert pitch (sometimes with octave displacements). Rather than learning one set of fingerings and reading from transposed parts, recorder players learn two different sets of fingerings, and may read in multiple clefs. (I’ve written more about this in a previous post.) However, some composers and orchestrators get this wrong, and transpose parts for “F” recorders as they would for F horns.
  • Recorders require much less breath than “modern” woodwinds. Like most fipple flutes, they don’t have much dynamic range, since blowing harder tends to cause sharpness or unwanted leaps into the upper registers.
  • The recorder’s left-hand thumbhole functions as an octave vent (this feature distinguishes the recorders from pennywhistles and other fipple flutes). The thumb octave vent helps balance the volume of the upper and lower registers, and gives the player some agility for moving between them.
  • Recorders respond best to a low, open voicing.
  • Vibrato may be produced on recorders using the breath-pulse technique used on modern flutes and double reeds. It can also be done with flattement, a microtonal trill technique common in the Baroque period.
  • There are many historical and modern method books available for recorders; I like Walter Van Hauwe’s The Modern Recorder Player (in three volumes) as a good introduction that assumes a strong musical background.

Recital videos, August 2020

I’m pleased to share videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital. I performed for a very small in-person audience due to COVID-19 precautions.

All the repertoire is unaccompanied. The program begins with multiple-woodwinds repertoire by Samuel Adler, Kyle Tieman-Strauss, and Nicole Chamberlain (a world premiere of a commissioned piece), followed by some odds and ends on recorders, clarinet, and tinwhistles.

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