The Irish flutes most commonly used are a so-called simple system flute. They are made from hardwood such as African Blackwood and has six open finger holes. The flute without keys is suitable for playing the keys of D and G. Half notes can be played with clever finger work.
Instruments and implements at Eugene Lambe's Irish instrument makers' workshop, from top to bottom: Parts of a set of Irish pipes to be completed, a Eugene Lambe flute with keys, an experimental Eugene Lambe Irish flute from a mixture of woods that also doubles as a walking stick, a piece of African blackwood which is used for both pipes and flute making, and a chanter for pipes in progress.
The now very valuable antique flutes played on the Irish music scene today probably came to Ireland sometime after the invention and growth in popularity of the metal Boehm flute in the 1830ies. Wooden flutes may have been the cast-offs of modern society purchased cheaply by struggling musicians and imported to Ireland.
Because of the design of their six hole system, and their lovely soft, mellow sound, they were uniquely suited to playing Irish traditional music. Antique flutes usually had a full set of keys because these ‘early classical’ flutes were used to play fully chromatic music. In Irish music players mainly use the six holes alone. Keys are for accidentals.
There are oral reports of earlier ‘simple system’ flutes being made in Ireland, tales passed on by older flute players. The reports include flutes being made from “such diverse materials as boor-tree, the spokes from cartwheels and even, in deference to a more up-dated technology, bicycle pumps.” (from Ciaran Carson: Irish Traditional Music)
Playing the flute is not too difficult of course, once you know how to play the whistle. The finger work is the same. As with the whistle, the player works with the breath to ‘punctuate’ the tune. The flute is a much larger instrument than the whistle though and requires serious control over one’s breath. The use of the breath is required in addition to using slides and rolls and other ornamentation to create rhythm.
"Making flutes really started through making the pipes. Because people knew I made pipes, they would bring me old broken sets of flutes they had found lying around in the attic or somewhere and asked me if I could repair them. I did, but eventually I decided that it was just as easy to make new flutes. The time was coming now when there were hardly any old flutes left to buy. The ones left were selling very expensively. A lot of people were starting to take an interest and to play Irish music. So it made sense to start making new flutes which I did by coping some good old makes, such as Ruddall and Rose. Today, Irish made traditional flutes are of very good quality and are much better value to buy than an antique flute."
Generally the recommendations for taking care of a wooden flute are to treat it with almond oil every now and then taking care to wipe off any excess, and to swab it with a silken cloth after playing it. Because even the densest wood will work, it is best to keep flutes away from extreme temperature changes and from moist conditions.
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