Paul Mulvaney's Flute Tutorial Essay

Playing Irish Flute

(Easily, with good Tone and Decent Intonational Control)

NEFFA 2k3-Pg Mulvaney

When I first moved from whistle to flute, I was concerned with playing the hell out of my instrument and little else --- I thought that eventually I'd settle down to a set of timbres -- qualities of sounds, or "voices", if you will, ---- after I'd mastered the mechanics of the instrument. Folks like Chris Turner of the Nee Ningy band and Mark Roberts of Touchstone repeatedly told me to develop a good tone, and that this was critical, but again, it all seemed to be some sort of distant, aesthetic consideration.

What I did not know then, but have come to understand with certainty since then, and wish to share with you, is this: Good tone on an Irish flute happens to be efficient tone.

The Irish tend to prefer a tone which is dry, reedy, pure, and less "airy", involving less "white noise" than other styles of flute playing, and refer to this sound as "The Nyah". Because you aren't using air to produce extra noise (hiss) in the signal, your tone production can be very efficient and much less physically strenuous then it otherwise would need to be. This Good Tone comes from good embouchure, precise embouchure (which means repeatable embouchure --- that's all that "precision" means) ---and that in turn leads to ease of playing, length of melodic line, in short, every good thing that comes from wind discipline. Playing the flute doesn't turn out to be about having big lungs, or a strong diaphragm, or running wind sprints. Playing Irish flute happens to be about using the minimum amount of air to get the maximum amount of sound.

Extra air can then be spent from the "air bank", as it were, to buy the flute player little trinkets like ornaments, changes in the quality of sound, percussive effects which interact with ornament to underline the downbeats and the rhythmic structure of the melodic line, and even smooth legato passages that extend the melodic line past the point of rhythmic breathing. On a modern Irish flute, some volumetric dynamics are possible as well, and all this is possible because an efficient embouchure keeps you from having to huff and puff from figure to figure within the melody of the tune; instead, you have lots of extra air to paint with, and you can be more creative with less effort.

This is a folk instrument, and it probably would not have evolved any other way; it needed to be accessibly playable to a wide range of people of different ages and genders and lung capacities, and few of these people (farmers for the most part) were going to dedicate 80 hours a week to intensive scale practice.

In fact, many great Irish flute players smoke, which is not helpful at all, but it's a European cultural phenomenon, and clearly the mastery of the Irish flute does not place great demands on the lungs. If you can speak in normal sentence cadences you have the capacity to drive an Irish flute through a reel at danceable pace for an arbitrary number of turns, and in a tune version or "setting" of arbitrary ornamental complexity. It takes no more air to play the flute correctly than it does, say, to have a mildly excited conversation.

If you are new to this, you will need a conical bore six hole Irish-type flute in the key of D at some point. You are better off starting with one of recent manufacture, and by a recognized maker. You could spend anywheres from a couple of hundred dollars to thousands. I've seen some lovely flutes for under a few hundred dollars. Avoid lined headjoints, they crack. Have a player try a flute out for you, if you can.

Cylindrical instruments are always flat in the second octave, relatively speaking. This is actually part of the characteristic sound of Irish whistle (and low whistle) playing. The inverse conical bore, on the other hand, gives the player two octaves that are actually an octave apart. Cylindrical flutes, Moores, Boehms, Chris Olwell's bamboo flutes, folk flutes and what not are fascinating instruments, some of which blow me away, and which you yourself might want to own and play (I try to) but not all those are really the most by-design-suitable for Irish dance and session music in every case.

You might want to try a simple six hole flute first, before investing in a keyed flute. Keys often leak, and can interfere with certain fingerings. Most Irish players use the keys very little, if at all, anyway, though many great Irish players play flutes with keys.

The design of a flute, and the way it is played, turns out to be a lot (maybe hundreds of times) more important than what it is made of. Everything from exotic rosewoods to plastics and even ceramics have been lathe-turned or molded into the proper shape for a good flute, but typically Irish flutes are made of a dark Blackwood or Grenadilla (related to ebonies and rosewoods) with a few white metal rings, and a tuning slide. Boxwood, a blonde hardwood, is not uncommon. Some makers produce really nice flutes in rosewoods. Some experiment with exotic materials. Avoid mass-produced flutes, unless you find a magic one. A good maker is your best bet. Visit Ralph Sweet's booth exhibit at the NEFFA festival; Check out, and Brad Hurley's fine site; I can be reached at

A well made flute, with the "cork" set in the right position by the flutemaker, should blow with the octaves in tune to each other. The face of the cork is usually 1 diameter of the bore from the middle of the embouchure hole, but might be a millimeter or two from there. One normally doesn't mess with this setting much, once it is right. You should be able to tune up or down a bit without having to adjust the tuning slide too radically and maintain those nice octaves. Old flutes may be tuned flat, and may be suitable only for solo playing. Be aware that the bottom D on any Irish flute is stereotypically flat; this is deliberate --- the Irish call it "the hard D".

It is a myth that Irish flute embouchure is an indescribable, unteachable knack. On the contrary, embouchure is as describable and reproducible as any other aspect of playing; I've even helped people by email. The following is what I do. It's the only thing that works (independently of the flute) for me, and I can make it work for others, but that doesn't mean necessarily that it's the only thing that can be done.

"No toot. Nyah."

  1. Getting your lips into shape:
  2. Lick your lips and your upper front teeth so everything slides around smoothly.

    Your lips need to be spaced closely together -- about the thickness of one dime. Project the upper jaw so the middle of the upper lip is directly over the outer edge of the lower lip.

    Make the shape of the lips mirror the shape of the opposite edge of the embouchure hole, by tightening the corners of the upper mouth into a slight frown. (This will minimize the lost air or "white noise" in the tone.) Pull back and down so there is the greatest tension over the canine teeth. You will create a little downward-pointing crescent-shaped hole between your lips this way this way. A bit more tension is better. You can support this structure by lowering the upper teeth a millimeter or two behind it. (It's all right if the inner "edge" of the upper lip is defined by the edges of your upper teeth.) That makes it quite a bit more comfortable.

  3. The Back-of-the-Hand Test:
  4. Put your hand under your chin, palm down Blow through the embouchuratic crescent just hard enough that you can feel it on the back of your hand, no harder. Now direct that airstream up to the back of the middle knuckle. That's the direction, give or take a few degrees, you'll be exhaling.

  5. "Wet it and set it":
  6. I now moisten the flute a little right at the point of contact with the lower lip, just to lubricate the fine adjustment motion that might be necessary momentarily. Hold the flute up so it's perpendicular to your nose and parallel to the floor, and to your face. Some great players play with the flute drooped over, or slouching, or with the flute pointing outwards in front of the player but it doesn't help here. You want to keep your airway open and the lip in the correct position, and it's just easier with better posture. Sit up straight. This greatly reduces tension!

  7. "Put the lip into it":
  8. Now place this embouchure about 2/3 of the way across the embouchure hole. Cover more than half the embouchure hole with the lower lip. (I realize this is controversial but once again, I get a lot of compliments on my tone, independent of the flute.) This drives the overall tone flat; you might compensate for that by setting the tuning slide in just a couple of mm. to get the nominal 440Hz. Rotating the headjoint a few degrees towards you helps, too. Getting much closer than that risks second octave intonational problems. But you want the driest, easiest buzzy tone you can get by getting as close to that point as works for you.

Direct that airstream down (remember the back-of-hand test) against the opposite, *lower* edge of the embouchure-hole chimney. Again, disagreements abound. This is what I do, and see most others doing as well.

Push the flute very snugly against the face; it's easier than creating even more tension in the upper lip. Make sure the flute is in contact with the edge of the lower lip; too much lower and the tone cracks into a whistling sound. This should produce a relatively dry tone. Don't push **too** hard or your jaw gets fatigued and hurts. TMJ syndrome is a real problem among flute players. But you do need to push firmly. Any fatigue you experience is minimal compared to the fatigue you would experience trying to accomplish The Nyah by lip alone.

Many great Irish flute players can play in a relatively slumped, relaxed posture; I think that creates as many problems as it solves. You should be relaxed, but keeping your head up straight and the flute more perpendicular to your face just makes it easier to play. For one thing, you won't be using your diaphragm and abdominal muscles to lift your arms (and possibly push your flute out of alignment). I think you can play longer and more comfortably sitting up straight. Irish kids have been known to practice lying down. I like to have my right elbow out behind my right ear; the elbow will tend to drift downward but can be brought back up if the angle of leverage (or even weight of the arm? ) is needed for some particular fingering or rhythm.

You may now reintroduce air into your tone by 1) pushing your diaphragm harder -- ok for downbeats 2) loosening the upper lip just a smidgen 3) backing off the flute (rolling it away, or pushing it against the face less hard). Each of these moves in turn also effects timbre and intonation so be careful. Small, incredibly small motions make big changes. Control the precise pitch at speed by 1) flexing the upper lip slightly to effect the draft velocity or 2) more grossly, by rolling the flute along it's long axis (rolling it "in" to go flatter, or "out" to go sharper). Either of these things should be subtle enough that you will hardly notice you are doing them, if you are in tune. (Theoretically you could control intonation, and not just octave, diaphragmatically but I've never heard of anyone trying to do that.)

From now on, the only time you will notice your breathing becoming slightly labored, or your lungs becoming slightly tight, is when you simultaneously notice that you are using an inefficient technique, and you will quickly adjust that position "on the fly" to resume an efficient, dry tone, produced comfortably.

(Regarding embouchure, I did not learn this precise technique from Seamus Eagan nor Fintan Vallely nor anyone else, but rather developed this analysis of what I am already doing based on conversations with and observations of many flute players, to satisfy, among other things, my own need to be able to show this to my own students. Seamus Egan's workshop made clear to me how important embouchure was, and to "put the lip into it", and to do so in a repeatable manner. Fintan Vallely's book, "The Timbre Flute", which I recommend, includes a page on embouchure recommending the thin, deep position I use and teach. The specifics beyond that are my own, so aim any critique this way, thank you.)

This is what I do. It's the only thing that works (independently of the flute) for me, and I can make it work for others, but that doesn't mean necessarily that it's the only thing that can be done. Others are welcome to disagree, but I play this way. Most Irish players I've seen are doing something very close to this. It is however quite different from "classical", i.e. "silver" Boehm, or Baroque-bore techniques. If your flute cannot be made to "sound" in this way it may be you need a better flute. There are some fine makers who would love to chat with you...

A flute you love is a flute you should love. I have personally found the flutemaking of Ralph Sweet, Casey Burns, Hammy Hamilton, Michael Copeland, Terry McGee, Sam Murray and Skip Healy particularly inspiring. There are others, and a few makers just get some brilliantly right. I play a blackwood Sam Murray large-bore Ruddal&Rose copy rebuilt by Gary Hudson and myself with Delrin parts. It's a rocket. Though heavier, polymer flutes withstand New England winters that kill wooden flutes; Mike Cronnolly and Desi Seery have pioneered fine inexpensive flutes in those materials. At the other end of things, an Olwell or a Grinter flute is well worth the considerable investment of time and money. Buy two and give me one. (Note: I've also acquired a larger bore Pratten-style from Skip Healey which is even more powerful. It has a different "feel" but I am playing it using the same techniques listed here. My very generous girlfriend is now playing my old rebuilt Murray, using the same technique. Different bores, different great flutes, each played optimally-easily using this method.)

A flute is an embouchuratic instrument; the pitch of the instrument is as much a function of lip position and resultant airstream speed as it is a function of where the tuning slide or headjoint is. The angle of the embouchure hole to the line of the flute affects the overall intonation as well. It is therefore very easy to tune up to a 440 "A" and proceed to play completely out of tune. Don't assume that if you've tuned to a 440 electronic tuner that the rest of the ensemble tuning is at a 440. I prefer to tune the second octave G, then checking both octave A's; it is much more important, to be in tune in the second octave. Be willing to retune when necessary.

Flutes go out of tune from draughts, temperature changes, even joints tightening or loosing. Your embouchure may fatigue or otherwise change. The ensemble's tuning might vary! Retune whenever necessary, and otherwise don't.

Remember: It is not enough to be in tune with somebody else's "A" ; that's only one note, and in one octave. You will be playing through two octaves, and you need to be in tune for that entire space of frequencies. Assuming your flute is well made, this can be accomplished on an inverse conical bore Irish flute, but not so easily at all on a cylindrical flute, or for that matter, a cylindrical whistle.

Try to tune to a fixed-pitch instrument. Keyboards or concertinas are best. An already-in-tune fretted instrument'll do in a pinch. If someone asks you to tune up, cooperate without taking offence, but it's your responsibility to learn to trust your own ears, with experience. Flutes and fiddles are tricky to tune to as they can bend pitch up and down. Some accordions are "wet-tuned"; they have two (or more) reeds per note deliberately set slightly out of tune to create a "fatter" one-person ensemble sound, and are harder to tune to as such. Don't try to tune to the flat, "hard" low D, of course!

Try to tune up using small motions of the slide (all that's needed if the cork position is right) while holding the embouchure "in the middle" : the middle range, not the tighest or loosest lip tension, that you'll be playing -- not the closest or furthest away lip position from the opposite edge, the fastest or slowest airstream you'll be using, the greatest or least pressure of the flute against the face, but pretty much where you play most of the time. Since all these things affect pitch, you don't want need to risk intonation by going to extremes while tuning.

Any leakage, from an ever-so-wobbly joint to a dry pad on a keyed flute, will drive the gross tuning below that fingering, in both octaves, flat. Seal your flute. A cold flute is a flat flute. Always. Drinking a cold drink and playing will drive your flute flat and unbuzzy; drinking a warm drink and playing will drive the flute sharper and buzzier, for a while. It's that delicate.

[Ultimately, one must find an embouchuratic position that creates a satisfactorily dark tone, but is still not so flat as to effect second octave intonation. Backing off the 2/3 across-the-embouchure-hole position a tiny bit (millimeters!) has the effect of 1) reducing jaw fatigue slightly, 2) putting the two octaves closer to the correctly in-tune exact frequency doubling 3) raising the gross pitch a smidgeon which can be compensated for by pulling out the slide a couple of millimeters, and finally 4) putting a lot more air and a lot less buzz into your tone, making it sound a souless, "round" and homogenized "oooo", instead of that fine Gaelic "whah". Balancing these factors takes no small consideration. I now retune many times a session, especially during initial playing. Eventually, I "warm up" (I find my most comfortable center embouchure), the flute "warms up" (somewhat, but mostly the joints get damp and seal better) and everything settles down. Meanwhile, I've been making music with friends, and sometimes friends with music.]

Be aware that many older players play in an idiosyncratically Irish scale which includes a "hard D", and a slightly flat F# and a flat B as well! Respect their years and respect their ears. They are the elves.

Intonation is very important in ensemble, needless to say. Anytime a slight fatigue causes you to slack off this precise position you should move it around back to the original position. That's why your lips, teeth, and flute are moistened, remember? Pay as much attention to timbre or sound and intonation compared to ensemble as you do to rhythm and melody, but ultimately all these considerations become matters of habit and as such somewhat more automatic. The short term goal should be to play well in as relaxed a fashion as one can. ("Then you get the truckly-how")

Play often. Accept that the Irish Flute is a strenuous, very physical instrument and can tire you. Take care of your body, and use the techniques here to minimize strain.

The magic is not in the mechanics.
This document is printed on paper, not written in stone.

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