#01 - The Four Main Points

Important Techniques for Playing Wooden / Irish Flute, Fife and Tin Whistle

Welcome to my series of Tips for playing music on flutes, fifes, and whistles. These methods are the ones I have developed and practice to this day. They have worked for me and with practice they will work for you too!

I like to break things down (de-construct) to their basic points which is what this first lesson is about. To play these instruments we must learn and practice these 4 basic things. If they are all in balance your playing will be too, if they are not in balance, you will have a problem.

Read more: #01 The Four Main Points

#02 - Don't Give Up Your Embouchure

Building a Strong Embouchure for Wooden / Irish Flute

In the last tip, we talked about getting a good supply of air. Remember, no air = no tune. In this lesson, let's discuss how to use it. Let's approach this from the standpoint that we're trying to fuse two separate machines into one integral unit. The flute is the machine that creates the tones and the player is the machine that supplies the fuel (air).


As you start to run out of air, many players "push" harder for those last few notes. When you do this, you're actually using the air as fuel to tighten muscles as opposed to sustaining tone.

Read more: #02 Don't Give Up Your Embouchure

#03 - USE Your Fingers...

Finger Techniques for Creating Clean Notes

The first step of this lesson is to get your minds out of the gutter...

People often ask "How do you get notes to pop out of the flute?" The best way to create this effect is to bring your fingers firmly down on the flute when you close tone holes.

Listen to the playing of Matt Malloy. You can hear his fingers slapping down on the flute to close the tone holes. This gives a really cool percussive feel to your style of playing, too.

Read more: #03 USE Your Fingers

#04 - Vibrato or Quiver-Quaver

Good Vibrato Technique on Wooden Flute

Many people ask me about playing vibrato. There are basically three kinds of vibrato used in the various forms of traditional flute and fife music. I would like to talk about my two favorites. One is the traditional finger-style vibrato and the other is the more "classical" abdominally-driven vibrato.

First, the finger vibrato. One of the most common notes to use a finger vibrato on is the low G. This one works the best because if you look at your flute you'll see you're opening and closing the largest tone hole displacing the largest volume of air possible. Play your low G note, and raise and lower your finger over the fifth tone hole, touching the flute very lightly as you do so. You'll notice that the note "quivers" at whatever speed you move your finger up and down.

Read more: #04 Vibrato or Quiver-Quaver

#05 - Don't Let The Bottom Fall Off

A Quick Fix for Cork Wrapped Tenons

Most Irish flute players use flutes that often have cork wrapped tenons. If you find that you're losing power on your low notes, it may because the tenons are too loose. This causes the flute to leak and you lose response as a result.

For a quick fix:

Carry teflon tape in your case. It's also known as plumber's tape or joint tape. It can be found in almost any hardware store and it's not very expensive. It is not an adhesive tape, so you don't have to worry about it damaging the cork. Just a couple of wraps around the tenon should fix your flute.

Read more: #05 Don't Let The Bottom Fall Off

#06 - D# or Eb? It's Enharmonic!

How (and Why) To Use the D# Key on your Wooden Flute

A lot of people wonder about the Eb (or D#) key at the end of their flute and whether they should use it or not. I think everyone should make an attempt to learn how to use this key. To me, it almost always improves the intonation and tone color of the Eb note (or D#) of every flute I've heard played. Irish pipers use this technique of passing through the Eb (or D#) to get to low Ds, and it really freaks them out when you do it along with them on the flute!

Some people think it doesn't make a difference on their particular flutes but this may be because the key is not lifting high enough to properly vent the tone hole. Others may find that it is very difficult to press and hold this key down. It should be a little difficult if you haven't done this before. It's like learning the fingering positions of a new tune. It just takes some time. It could also be that the spring on your flute is a heavy gauge because the maker wanted to ensure that the key properly closes the tone hole.

Read more: #06 D# or Eb? It's Enharmonic!

#07 - Head Positions

How To Position a Wooden Flute Headjoint for Good Tone & Volume

In the past I've spoken about using your fingers, don't give up your embouchure, and breathe when you breathe. The one thing these all have in common is that your head is playing a very active roll in all of these techniques. One important thing to keep in mind is the position of your head in relation to the embouchure hole on your flute.

Many people notice that it is easier for them to play the flute with either the headjoint twisted slightly back towards them or their head bowed forward as if to look at the floor. What is actually happening is that you're raising the "profile" of the far side of the embouchure hole. The top edge of the far side of the embouchure hole acts like a knife, slicing off some of the air column that you're blowing across the hole and forcing it down into the flute. This is how we make our notes.

Read more: #07 Head Positions

#08 - The Importance of Projecting

Projecting Good Tone on Wooden Flute

I'm baaaack.....!

Sorry being gone for a bit, but I just finished a new recording called Purgatory Chasm that I'm very excited about. It should be available in a few weeks. Now for a lesson.

The Importance of Projecting

We all remember (at least I do) our parents and teachers telling us to speak up when addressing either a single person or a group of people. The same holds true when playing the flute. If you don't support and project your sound you will not be a part of the conversation.

Read more: #08 The Importance of Projecting

#09 -Control = Speed

Getting Up To Speed on Irish Flute

Be honest. Have you ever driven your care 45 MPH in a 25 MPH zone? Like most regulations, formal or informal, there is a reason for this rule. A speed restriction on our cars is meant to enhance public safety. It implies a certain vehicular decorum, if you will. It's the same thing in a session.

There are probably accepted tempos for the tunes at your local session. Just like any other speed limit, there will be some who observe it, some who lag behind, and some who push its boundaries. This is not meant to be "Healy's Rules of Order," since I regularly and enthusiastically obliterate all concepts of speed and decorum. Here are some of my opinions on tempo, with the usual suggested exercise.

Over the years, it has been my experience that people practice their tunes at a fast tempo and think that this helps them play fast in the long run. My feeling is that the reverse is true. Speed is a byproduct of good technique. To play at ridiculously breakneck speeds, if that's what you wish, all of your various techniques (breathing, fingering, etc.) have to be functioning on "autopilot." This requires a commitment to gaining control over all these various techniques. Before you can play a tune well at a rapid tempo, you need to be able to play it very, VERY slowly. Speed allows us to pass over notes or sections of tunes that we don't really know without it being heard. If you cannot play a tune slowly, you have no business attempting to play it fast.

Read more: #09 Control = Speed

#10 -Play What You Hear When You Hear It

Playing Each Note with Confidence

I've talked about how important it is to listen to what is going on around you while you're playing. As we've said, music at its best is like conversation at its best. This entails listening, understanding, and responding to what is being said or played. The trick is to not wait too long before responding. Let's think about notes for a minute. I like to think that a note is comprised of three parts.

Read more: #10 Play What You Hear When You Hear It

#11 -Release Me, Let Me Go

Tone Hole Techniques for Wooden Flute

Have you ever been in a situation where you haven't known when to let go? Creating that clean separation that you need before you can get onto the next big thing. Giving yourself the opportunity to begin anew from the high ground, so to speak. Well, that happens every time you change from note to note when playing a tune. In the last tip, I talked about the three subsections that make up a note: The Attack, The Body, The Release. I'd like to focus on what I consider to be the most ignored of those three points: The Release.

If you don't release cleanly off of a note a couple of things happen. There is no real end to the previous note and you're not in a good position to attack the upcoming note. While you are playing, you want to prepare for the upcoming notes but while thinking of what's coming next we often don't finish the note we should be playing. I know that is wordy (if that's a real word), but I hope you understand what I mean.

Read more: #11 Release Me, Let Me Go

#12 -Gotta Put Da' UUHHH In Da' THAAANG

Putting Passion and Pulse into Wooden Flute Tunes

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was in my shop with some of my fife playing cohorts when the inspiration for this column took place. "It's gonna be 'Gotta put da' UUHHH in da' THAAANG!'" There was a pause of around one or two seconds, after which Paul Joseph (the fifng buddy I initially directed this comment to) queried, "What multi-colored breakfast cereal have you guys been putting in your bong?" I think my reply was, "Toasted Flakes."

I had just been talking with my friends, Mark Bachand and Paul Joseph, about how to put more feeling into playing tunes. I said that I always try to keep in mind that these are most importantly dance tunes. Ever listen to Irish hard shoe dancing? These big, heavy steps, pounding like a huge heartbeat? We, as suppliers of the music, need to bring out the heartbeat that lives in the tunes.

Read more: #12 Gotta Put Da' UUHHH In Da' THAAANG

#13 -Go Home and Practice

Good Practice Techniques for Wooden / Irish Flute

First off, I would like to welcome all of the new members that we have on the Skip's Tips list. At the moment, we have nearly 450 people from ten different countries who apparently have nothing better to do, but read my nonsense. Welcome!

We've gone over a lot of the various aspects contained in playing the flute. But one of my frequent e mailers pointed out to me, we haven't covered what I think is contained in a good practice session. I just finished my first season as the flute instructor for the Boston, MA Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. One of the things we covered was what makes up a good practice session. This is a rather lengthy topic, so we'll cover it in two tips. First, we will warm up the flute and the player. So, here we go.

Read more: #13 Go Home and Practice

#14 -Go Home and Practice - Part Duh

Warming Up To Play Wooden / Irish Flute

Now that we have spent the last week lurking about in our hallways and bathrooms blowing on our headjoints till they are nice and warm, it's time to get to the good stuff.

People often ask how they can tell when the headjoint is warmed up. It's easy. The headjoint will feel warm to the touch. At this point, let's assemble your flute.

When I practice, I start by playing some nice long tones on the first octave G. Blowing first at medium volume for a few seconds and increasing gradually for another few seconds. I do this a few times on the notes from G down to low D. Then I do it in the second octave. Tome, the most important component of a person's playing is tone quality. I would rather listen to someone who knows ten tunes but has great tone, as opposed to someone who knows scores of tunes, but sounds like #$%@.

Read more: #14 Go Home and Practice - Part Duh

#15 -Angles and The Position

Good Posture for Playing Wooden Flute

This tip will be my idea of what optimum posture is and why it is essential to think of your body position in relation to the flute.

Sit up straight in a straight-backed chair. Keep your head pointed straight ahead and shoulders squared and parallel to your hips. Your neck is straight and your head is in its most natural position.

In this position, your neck is loose. Your lungs have room to expand and your diaphragm can flex in and out. Basically, your body is in its best position for processing air.

Hang your arms down by your sides. While keeping the right elbow loose and at your side, raise your right arm to a natural playing position. Don't pull your arm all the way back. Just make believe you’re holding your flute. The trick is to keep your right wrist parallel to your shoulders.

Read more: #15 Angles and The Position

#16 -Learning Irish Flute Tunes By Ear

Hi Everybody!

Here are some of my thoughts on how to learn tunes by ear.

To me, there are a few different aspects involved in learning a tune by ear. First, tone recognition. Then follows rhythm recognition and the tune itself.

Tone Recognition:
This is the ability to tell that the note you hear is a G note or a D note or an F# note, and being able to hear an A note played on a fiddle or concertina and still recognize it as an A note you play on the flute.

This is the most basic and essential requirement for learning tunes by ear. Spend time training yourself on your own flute to hear the difference between the notes. You can also play notes into a tape recorder and play them back to help recognize notes as they're being played. Listening to slower tunes (airs and waltzes) is a good place to start.

Read more: #16 Learning Irish Flute Tunes By Ear

#17 -Do What You Think You're Doing

Putting Passion Into Your Wooden Flute Playing

Before we get into this week's tip, I want to ask everyone to put on their thinking caps, open a new email, and send me ideas for what you want to hear me rant about in this column. There's no limit. Send me all you've got and everything you're thinking about. This will help me determine what kind of information you really need, compared to what I might think you want to read about.

This week I'm going to give you a quickie...

Read more: #17 Do What You Think You're Doing

#18 - So You Wanna Hear About Ornaments?

A Short Guide To Ornamentation on Wooden / Irish Flute

First off, I'd like to thank all the folk who responded to my request for future subject matter in this column. All of the suggestions were thought provoking, though some may prove anatomically impossible to achieve. More on that later...

One of the most popular requests for information was in the area of ornamentation. Here is a brief overview of my philosophy on this subject. By the way, I am not limiting this topic solely to the techniques involved in traditional Irish flute or whistle playing.

To me, the term ornamentation refers to the act of highlighting a certain note, or group of notes, in the passage of a tune. I believe that there are seven general categories of ornamentation. They are breath pulse, single grace note, triplet, mordents (crans, rolls, etc.), glissando, vibrato, and multiple tonguing. Coincidentally, there are also seven venial sins...funny how that worked out.

Read more: #18 So You Wanna Hear About Ornaments?

#19 -The Scoop on Glissando & Vibrato

More Ornamentation on Wooden Flute

I'd like to continue on with the subject of ornamentation that was begun in the past missive. The next two components of the seven venial sins of ornamentation that I'd like to talk about are vibrato and glissando. There are two main styles or techniques of vibrato. One is a finger manipulation while the other is done through breath and muscle control.

Now I'd like to talk about a fingering technique that is called glissando. This is the act of bending a note up or down by sliding your finger on or off a tone hole. By this point, we know that nothing is ever as simple as it sounds. This is, again, the case. To play effective glissando (or glissandi in plural?) embouchure and breath control both play a major role.

Read more: #19 The Scoop on Glissando & Vibrato

#20 -Anybody for a Roll?

How To Play a Roll on the Wooden Flute

The next stop on our whimsical mystery tour through the wonders of ornamentation takes us to the magical land of rolls. There are different kinds of rolls for different situations...a jelly roll with coffee in the morning, for example or a lovey kaiser roll for your hamburger in the afternoon. And of course, the furious rolling of your fingers as we play Irish tunes.

I have heard these finger movements called many different things, i.e. cuts, crans (or cranns), rolls, finger strike, etc. We'll focus on a movement commonly known as a mordent in classical terms, a turn in American fife music, or rolls and crans in Irish music. I don't want to get too hung up on what we call this finger movement. Playing it well is the important thing to me.

Read more: #20 Anybody for a Roll?

#21 - Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

The Zen Behind the Zoom in Irish Flute

Welcome you all, old and new members, to another chapter of Dante's...oops, I mean Skip's Tips. Many of you know that I sometimes do very technique-oriented tips, and sometimes very Zen tips. This is a Zen tip. Or, as I like to call it, the Zen behind the Zoom.

This will be perhaps the shortest but most important tip that I could pass along. Work on developing the ability to listen to your playing as if you were in the audience. Many problems with speeding up, losing rhythm, or being otherwise dysfunctional while playing tunes has its roots in the player's failure to listen to what they are playing from an audience's perspective.

Read more: #21 Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

#22 - Advanced Fingering Techniques

Third Octave Fingerings for Wooden Flute

Skip here once again with a few thought provoking and hopefully helpful words to say about flutes and related themes. First off, we always encourage people to contact us with comments or suggestions for topics for me to bloviate upon. In the past several months, we've received more and more comments and we thank you for them.

Today's topic is "Advanced Fingering Techniques." Getting nervous yet...?

Over the past few years, there has been a trend amongst some traditional Irish flute players to venture into the once-forbidden third octave. Here is my suggested series of chromatic third-octave fingerings. You may find slight variances depending on your personal flute, but they will be very close. These fingerings are the suggested fingerings for people playing Healy Flute Company instruments.

Read more: #22 Advanced Fingering Techniques

#23 -Weather or Not

A Quick Repair Kit for Irish Flute Players

I live in the State of Rhode Island, which is in the Northeastern section of the United States. Since early June this year, we have suffered through blast furnace levels of heat. We have subscribers now in many parts of the world but we all have various weather conditions that can affect your instrument. This is especially true with the tenons of many flutes. The cork and wood tend to swell or contract depending on the temperature. What to do about this? Hmmm? You could buy a flute which features sterling silver tenons that don't expand or contract based on the weather. Gee, I wonder who makes those kinds of instruments...?

Read more: #23 Weather or Not

#24 -Feel the Bore

How Bore Design Impacts Your Playing Wooden / Irish Flute

Skip Healy here for another inner voyage into the Zen behind the Zoom. In past columns, I've tried to offer advice on both the physicality and philosophy that I feel is involved in playing flutes or fifes well. Today, I'd like to talk about the "feel" generated by various bore designs existing in flutes, fifes, and piccolos.

To begin, we have to keep one requirement in mind. That is, for a woodwind instrument to play in tune over three octaves there must be at least one taper somewhere along the length of the bore. Pretty clear, huh?

Read more: #24 Feel the Bore

#25 -Volume Control

Maintaining Consistent Tone and Volume When Playing Wooden Flute

Skip Healy here once again after a short post Wind On The Bay hiatus. Here in the States, our Thanksgiving holiday has just passed. Hanukkah is upon us and Christmas and New Years loom imminent before us.


But for those who do, here is something to think about.

This topic has come up with a couple of my students: The second octave notes from G to B are very loud and sharp, while the first octave notes from G to low D are very faint. The reason for this is because the player is blowing too hard on the high notes (forcing the notes out of the flute), and then backing off too much for fear of over-blowing the lowest notes. This causes a wide and unintended variance in dynamic range. The resulting sound is more like a wave with peaks and deep valleys, but not much in between. Ideally, you want your basic volume to divide the loud and soft sounds equally so that both are available for dynamic expression.

Read more: #25 Volume Control

#26 -Straight from The Lip

A Lesson About Embouchure on the Wooden Flute

Skip Healy here again shooting straight from the lip this time. This tip is inspired by a question sent to me by Bill Goelz.

Bill came to me a while ago with a question about my embouchure. He observed in different photographs that I play with the flute set on the fleshy part of your lower lip, as opposed to just under the fine line where the lower lip and the chin meet (which is another common position with many flute players). Bill wanted to know how, why, and whether or not he should do this as well.

So let’s have at it.

Read more: #26 Straight from The Lip

#27 -Pick Your Partner

Choosing the Right Wooden Flute for You

For the second time, here is a question submitted by Bill Goelz. To paraphrase, is it better to stick with one flute or play a mix of several flutes? For the sake of full disclosure, I will say that one of the flutes that Bill plays is a Skip Healy flute, not that that would influence my opinion or anything...heh, heh, heh.

Read more: #27 Pick Your Partner