Keyless Flute Tips

Margaret Fleck

The keyless ("simple system") flute or fife is a nice, relatively inexpensive instrument, for which instructional materials seem to be scarce and somewhat fragmentary. They are often presented as side notes in tutorials primarily intended for folks playing instruments with keys. Worse, compared to materials for other similar instruments (e.g. the recorder), materials for the flute/fife tend to concentrate excessively on a limited genre, typically either Irish or fife and drum corps music. This gives the impression, sometimes stated explicitly, that the keyless instrument is useless for any other purpose. We can do better.

To keep things simple, I won't attempt to duplicate materials that are already available. Rather, I'll try to stitch these pieces together, give you a sense of where to look for information, and fill in some gaps where I had a lot of trouble figuring out something important.

The instruments

Simple-system flutes and fifes are available in a broad range of sizes and models. They are typically made in wood, but occasionally in other materials (e.g. PVC, resin, metal, pyrex). The basic instrument, often called an "Irish flute," is pitched in D and about 24" long. Notice that simple-system flute names are one step different from those of the corresponding concert flutes. So the "D" irish flute is extremely similar to a "C" orchestral flute (Boehm flute). So-called "low flutes" are larger and pitched 1-3 notes lower, i.e. in C, Bb, or A. An Eb flute is slightly smaller. The standard fife is pitched about an octave higher than the standard Irish flute. The usual keys are Bb, C, D, with occasional instruments in Eb. Instruments larger than a standard flute but smaller than a standard fife (e.g. pitched in F, G, or A) may be sold as either flutes or fifes.

D Irish flutes and low flutes are typically designed for quiet indoor playing ("concert" type instruments) with a strong rich tone in the bottom two octaves. Band flutes and piccolos are similar in design but higher in pitch (e.g. G, F, high D). Military fifes (typically in Bb and C) are not only smaller but designed to be louder and easier to play in the third octave, often at the cost of strength in the bottom octave. The main design difference seems to involve the diameter of the bore: wide bores make the bottom octave stronger, narrow bores favor the third octave. However, this difference is easy to overplay: many modern instruments are hybrid designs which can be used for a range of purposes.

Rick Wilson has a nice comparison of historical fifes to similarly-sized flutes. Here's a picture showing the range of modern instruments. From top to bottom: pennywhistle, outdoor band fife, fife and drum corps fife, fife intended for session playing, keyless piccolo.

Music for these instruments is written as if you had a D instrument. This is ok if you really have a D instrument, or if the whole band is using instruments in the same alternative key (e.g. Bb fifes for military music). Otherwise, for playing instruments pitched in other keys, see the Transposition section below.

The following picture shows a range of flutes and fifes. The top three are low A, low C, and D flutes by Casey Burns. The smaller flutes are F and G. The three fifes at the bottom are in Bb, C, and high D. The C instrument is a model F military fife. The rest are concert flutes/fifes by Sweetheart. A high D fife is only 12 inches long and weighs almost nothing. A low A flute is 31 inches long and quite a hulking instrument. Instruments of these extreme sizes are harder to play than the standard D instrument.

Despite superficial differences in construction, and despite being pitched an octave higher, pennywhistles are very similar to simple-system flutes in terms of how they are played. This means that it is easy to alternate between the two sorts of instruments, and instructional materials for the whistles are also useful for flutes.

Simple system flutes are also available with one or more keys and/or tuning slides. Some are made with more than the standard 6 holes or with a "foot" that lets you play one or two extra low notes. These modifications make certain notes easier to play, but they also increase the complexity and thus the cost of the instrument. This document concentrates on how to play the simpler standard 6-hole keyless instruments effectively.

Getting started

To get started, you'll need an instrument and a variety of basic information. The following sites have lots of general information and pointers:

At the moment, there seems to be no really good instructional manual. If you are just getting started, you'll want several books of different types.

The Gray Larson book is currently the definitive reference for Irish-style playing, but it has limitations. It's not really aimed at a beginner. It has a strong Irish focus. Its fingering charts are incomplete. And it's not something you can expect to just read through and absorb. Get it and look back at it now and then: some of his discussions will make more sense as you gain experience.

Similarly, the tutorial by Edmund Boyle is aimed primarily at playing a military fife, so it is focused on how to play higher notes. This isn't the best place to start for playing an Irish flute, but it's very informative after you've been playing for a bit.

On the face of it, the Robin Williamson book is for the wrong instrument. And you'll need to look at a second book for advice about the embouchure. However, as mentioned above, the pennywhistle is fingered almost exactly like the keyless flute. This book has a great selection of beginner tunes with really good hints about how to play them.

If you aren't a die-hard fan of traditional Irish music, you may wish to check out the wide range of fife and drum tunes. A nice set, many of which should sound familiar to Americans, is in Walter Sweet's book The Bread and Butter of Jamming. More can be found on the web. You may also be interested in other flute traditions such as Kwela.

Good instruments are available from many sources. There is a a long list of Irish flute suppliers at: A Guide to the Irish Flute. Makers of fifes and smaller flutes include:

In the US, a good place to start your search is the Sweetheart Flute Company. They sell a wide range of reliable mid-priced products, spanning both the Irish flute and military fife sides of the market. Whether or not you end up buying from them, they are a good place to get a grip on what's available and what you should expect to pay.

These instruments have a nominal range of two octaves and a sixth (low D through high B). A sufficiently good player can probably make the full range sound on almost any of these instruments. However, your instrument will not be equally playable in all three octaves. As a general tendency, a "flute" will have a strong bottom octave but it may be very difficult to play any of the third octave. A "fife" should have a third octave that's strong and easy to play, but lower notes in the bottom octave may be weak or difficult to play. However, details vary with the specific instrument and hybrid designs (e.g. Hall crystal flutes and many Sweetheart fifes) may be called either "flutes" or "fifes."

Cases and accessories

A few accessories are essential. Fortunately, they can be acquired cheaply. Unless you are blessed with perfect pitch, you'll need a chromatic tuner. I've been most happy with the electronic tuners by Snark; those by Korg also work ok. You'll need a swab and possibly bore oil and/or cork grease: see below. Finally, you should have a case or bag.

Only high-end instruments come with hard-shell cases. It's more common to use to use a soft padded bag or roll. These can be obtained from flute and fife sellers (notably Sweetheart Flutes), from sellers of native American flutes, or made yourself. These approaches stop working well if you have an awkwardly sized instrument (e.g. very long single piece), you need to carry more than a couple instruments, and/or you need sturdy protection e.g. for travel. There are two solutions to this problem:

Breaking in and oiling

Wooden flutes take some time to break in. The most dramatic effects are during the first few weeks. But, even after that, they become easier and easier to play over a period of many months. Practice regularly and be patient. If a wooden flute isn't properly oiled, the tone will go bad after a few minutes of playing as it absorbs water from your breath. Notes won't sound clear and higher notes may not want to play at all. If you suspect this, let the flute dry out overnight and stick a finger into the bore hole. If the surface feels dry, it needs oil.

To oil a flute, let it dry out (e.g. overnight) and then apply your favorite oil. Standard woodwind bore oil (e.g. from a band instrument store) works fine. See the flute maker pages (above) for other suggestions. You don't normally need to oil very often. However, this varies with the flute and some new flutes may need to be oiled repeatedly until they settle down.

Swabs are used to remove excess water after playing and to apply oil. Standard D flutes can be dried and oiled with almost any sort of swab. Alto recorder swabs (look like soft bottle brushes) are good. So is a (standard Boehm) flute cleaning rod (long rod with a slot on the end) carrying a small piece of soft cloth or thin microfiber paper (e.g. Flossy Cloth). Or you can simply drap a piece of thin soft cloth (e.g. silk) loosely over a chopstick. For smaller instruments, try a soprano or sopranino recorder swab. For longer instruments, try a clarinet swab.

It can be much more challenging to get a swab into an instrument section that is very long and/or has a small diameter. One-piece fifes can be particularly difficult. Recorder swabs or even flute cleaning rods may be too short or too wide. Never push something into the bore unless you are sure it will come back out easily. Unwedging a jammed wad of cloth or a stuck recorder swab is no fun at all. Some suggestions for extremely long narrow pieces:

Joints on these instruments often have tenons lined with cork or waxed thread. Use cork grease occasionally to lubricate cork joints. Thread-wrapped joints are usually made with heavy cotton or linen thread, plus a softish wax about the consistency of beeswax. If the filling material looks like soft felt, it may have been wrapped with acrylic yarn. I've seen a variety of waxes recommended, including paraffin canning wax, ski wax, and the wax used to cover cheese (suitably washed). The maker of your instrument may be able to tell you what exactly they used. Similar joints are used on other wooden woodwinds such as recorders and bassoons, so look under these instruments for supplies or pictures (e.g. on the web) of how to do the wrapping. Wide dental floss is good for quick fixes such as adjusting a joint that becomes loose when the weather changes.

My flute won't play well!

So, let's assume you've gotten a flute or fife and you've followed the instructions in one of the beginner manuals. So you can play perhaps an octave and a half worth of notes and some simple tunes. But the pitch isn't as accurate as you'd like. You can't play popular music because it uses lots of flats. And you're not sure how much you want to play traditional folk tunes. This is the point where many folks give up unnecessarily and blame the instrument.

It's important to realize that the keyless flute, like any instrument worth playing, requires care, attention, and practice to play well. You'll need to work on several issues:

In combination, these will allow you to play a wide range of music on the keyless instrument.

Pitch adjustment

If you play these instruments in the obvious way, the notes will not be quite on the standard pitches. This is most obvious if you play with other sorts of instruments, or in keys far from D, or if you sit down with a chromatic tuner. And it will remain true even after the instrument warms up. (Wooden instruments play slightly flat when cold.)

One traditional solution is to accept a quaint out-of-tune scale. Another is to add keys and a tuning slide to the instrument. Both of these methods can be useful in the right circumstances, but they miss a key feature of the keyless instrument: the pitches are very plastic.

Pitches on a good keyless flute can be changed a lot by varying your embouchure and how you position the blow hole relative to your mouth (known as rolling in or out). On a good flute, the most plastic notes, C and C#, can be moved by about a half step. More rigid notes (e.g. G) can be moved somewhat, though not as far. Experiment with a chromatic tuner until you can move the pitches around somewhat. Try the embouchure hints in Gray Larson's book.

To play the keyless instrument in tune, you need to adjust the pitch of each note so that it comes out right. In this respect, playing the keyless flute is like singing or playing the violin, not like playing the recorder or piano. To get the right pitch out of the flute, you must have a clear mental picture of the pitch you want. If you don't have one, listen to the tune, hum it, or play it on another instrument (e.g. a keyboard) until you can hear the pitch in your head.

You must also have confidence. You won't be able to hit that high D or make things sound right in Bb unless you believe that you can. Use the Force. Timidity is especially bad when trying to play the fife: they like to be played loudly, especially on the higher notes.

Fingering hints

Despite claims to the contrary, all 12 notes used in standard Western music can be played on a good keyless flute. Some notes are harder than others to play: A and G are easy, Bb takes a bit of work, D# is quite difficult. As a beginner, you'll want to play in the keys of D, A, G, and C, but you don't need to be permanently stuck in those keys.

Here is my compilation of first and second octave fingerings from a wide range of flute, pennywhistle, and fife fingering charts. Also consult the fingering chart for your specific instrument, if available. If a note isn't sounding well with the most obvious standard fingering, try some of the alternate ones or even improvising variant ones, using a chromatic tuner to assess pitch. The best fingering varies with the instrument and the person playing it. Even when one fingering produces the best clear sustained note, another may simplify fast transitions e.g. in ornamentation.

"Forked" fingerings involve leaving holes open above the bottom finger. The most common of these are D (in the second octave), C, G#, and Bb. Using them can involve moving a large number of fingers at once. Doing this smoothly is a matter of practice. Folks playing recorder do this constantly. If they can do it, you can. Don't give up.

Some notes (notably F) require half-covering a hole. Be aware that there are many ways to half-cover a hole. You can literally cover half of it with the end of your finger. But you can also partly block the stream of air by tilting the finger slightly up to make a vent. You can even hang the finger in the airstream above the hole. There is no "right" method: try several things and see what works for you. You may need to take different approaches to different holes.

Most of the notes will come fairly quickly with practice. The exception is D# (played like D but with the lowest hole half-closed). You'll have to live without D# for a long time. It takes a lot of skill to make it sound, and longer still to make it sound strongly and on cue. But there is a big difference between difficult and impossible.

When trying to make difficult notes sound, try walking or sliding up to them from nearby notes. Also remember the advice above about having a clear mental model of the desired pitch. Try different instruments and/or octaves. For example, I've found that D# is easier to sound in the second octave and on smaller instruments, most notably the pennywhistle.

Playing higher notes

As you go from one octave to the next, you need to change how you direct air into the embouchure hole. Higher notes require directing a narrow stream of air with more force, more vertically into the hole. This is fairly easy to figure out for the lower two octaves of the larger flutes, but it is more difficult for the third octave and/or the smaller instruments. Worse, there seem to be few tutorial materials addressing this topic. The following tips are based on Ed Boyle's tutorial, Grey Larsen's book, and my own experience.

Make yourself comfortable. Find a time and place where you can play loudy without worrying about annoying anyone. High notes won't sound unless you play them loudly, especially at first. Try to relax. Don't clutch the instrument with your fingers or tighten your lips.

This gets frustrating quickly. Bad high notes sound horrid. Facial muscles get tired. Practice for just a short while. When you get annoyed, or the flute stops sounding, or you notice that you have a death grip on the instrument, stop. Try again the next day. Be patient.

Start with an instrument on which the high notes are easy to sound, i.e. low pitch but narrow bore, which will probably be sold as a "fife" not a "flute." Larger fifes are easier to play, e.g. G is easier than Bb which is easier than a high D instrument. The metal fifes from Angus Fifes are the easiest I've found to play. Once you can get notes to sound on these easier instruments, you'll be able to translate that ability onto less friendly instruments, e.g. the (big) D flutes or (tiny) D fifes.

If you can't sound all the notes in the second octave (ignoring D#), work on that first. Try walking up to them from lower notes. It's best to play a familiar standard scale (e.g. D or G), so that you have a clear mental picture of what the next note sound sound like. Pick at this note by note until you can sound all of the second octave, including the flute fingering for the third octave D (i.e. OXX|OOO fingering pattern). With higher notes on smaller instruments, it often helps to think about giving the note a good "kick" at the start and then backing off the air flow slightly. Also practice jumping between the first and second octave versions of a note, esp. the transition from low C# to high C# (i.e. no holes covered).

To understand how the third octave words, have a look at a description of musical instrument acoustics, e.g. the one from the University of New South Wales. For each note, the first octave uses the first harmonic, the second octave uses the second harmonic, but playing the third octave version of a note requires sounding the fourth (not the third) harmonic. The third harmonic produces a note intermediate between the two octaves, specifically a fifth above the second octave note. Third harmonics aren't used in standard playing but are extremely useful to practice as a stepping stone to the fourth harmonics.

Finger a D with all holes covered and try to produce the first four harmonics. That is, low D, second octave D, second octave A, 3rd octave D. Ignore the fact that these aren't the normal fingerings for some of these notes. You're trying to get a grip on the embouchure changes involved.

As you practice these harmonics, listen to the sound of the higher notes. They have a sharper, thinner, purer sound than the lower notes. Listening to recordings of fifes (e.g. on the web) is also good. You'll have an easier time playing third octave notes if you know what they should sound like.

Now, you're ready to play the other third octave notes. The fingerings for these notes seem to be less well standardized, and manufacturer fingering charts less reliably indicate the best fingering. You will definitely need to experiment. Here is a summary of likely fingerings compiled from a wide range of fingering charts.

To get started with these notes, trying walking up from high D to high E. Use the fife fingering for high D, i.e. all holes closed except the top one. Once you get the high E to sound, start walking up to the notes above it. (I've only gotten up to high G myself, so I'm still working on this part.) As you get each one stabilized, practice jumping between the second and third octave vesions of the note.

Once you've started to get 3rd octave notes to sound, get some earplugs if you are playing a smaller/louder instrument. The upper notes on the smaller fifes were designed to communicate with army troups miles away, so they'll deafen your right ear given half a chance. If you don't believe me, look at internet advice on practicing piccolo. You need something with high decibel reduction in your right ear but can probably leave the left ear open. The best choices seem to be cheap foam earplugs listed as having a reduction of 33 decibels.

Transposing

No matter how good you get at fingering, some tunes are simply awkward as written. They may involve D# (aka Eb). They may have a range that doesn't fit well into two octaves starting at D. They may be in flat keys that are hard to make sound right. They may have awkward accidentals, especially modern music or music from traditions such as Klezmer. Or they may involve fast ornaments that happen to be easy on a violin but not on a D flute.

So we come to your last weapon: transposition. Most awkward tunes can be moved into a key and/or range that is more friendly. Don't be shy: folks also do this for other instruments and voice. For all you know, that rock tune wasn't even originally written in the key shown in your (say) piano score.

The simplest sort of transposition is moving notes by an octave. Tunes that extend beyond the range of the flute can often be handled by moving the offending sections up or down an octave. Try to identify a coherent section to shift.

Transposition by other intervals (e.g. a third) can be used in three ways:

The first two of these methods are great for playing by yourself, or with friends who are willing to adapt to the new key. The third method, the most interesting, allows you to play with other folks who want to keep the tune in its original key. This method is used by folks who play transposing orchestral instruments and by those playing pennywhistles, which are cheap and come in a vast range of keys.

In particular, if your normal instrument is a D flute, it is extremely helpful to own flutes/fifes in the keys of C, F, and G. To transpose for these instruments, you move a full step up for C, a third down for the F flute and a fifth up for the G instrument. Playing on these instruments (transposing so as to keep the original pitches) is a great way to work around keys with flats or tunes with awkward range.

Settle down with a music book, internet resource, or musically-trained friend and learn how transposition works. Transposing reasonable tunes by friendly intervals (e.g. second, third, fifth) is not hard. With enough practice, you can read the transposed notes directly off the score (though you'll probably want to write them out at first). Transposing highly chromatic music from one key to a distant key is tricky. If you feel confused, write out a chart of all 12 notes and the corresponding new note for each, then use the chart to help as you rewrite the score. Practice with familiar tunes and/or check the pitches with a chromatic tuner as you play through your new score. Or cheat: standard music typesetting packages come with transposition features.

Selective rewriting

Sometimes the main skeleton of the tune is reasonably playable but certain fast ornaments are difficult. In this case, your best approach may be to rewrite the ornamentation or even less essential parts of the tune. This is entirely normal and in keeping with tradition: if you compare a number of recordings or transcriptions of a tune, particularly a traditional one, you'll often find that it varies a lot. Specific arrangements are often adapted to be easy on some specific instrument, frequently the violin. It may help if you can find (e.g. on the internet) a version for the pennywhistle, fife, or Irish flute. If you can't find such a version ready-made, it's entirely appropriate to construct one.

One key to building new variations is to be familiar with the musical genre, so that you have a sense of what sounds right. It is also critical to have a clear sense of what is the main skeleton of the tune and, thus, which notes are merely ornaments. Finding two variations of the tune and comparing them often helps here.

A particularly common version of this problem is that the piece has very few pauses because it's arranged for an instrument (e.g. the violin) that does not require them. To play such pieces on a flute, you must rewrite to create space to breathe. To do this, first try to understand how the tune breaks down into phrases: you'll want to breathe at the ends of phrases. At these pause points, steal a bit of time by shortening a long note at the end of the phrase, dropping notes that seem less important and/or simplifying ornamental runs, especially pickups. Typically, you'll want to keep notes that are on the beat and delete only off-beat notes.

Summary

None of these tricks (fingerings, pitch adjustment, and transposition, selective rewriting) works on all situations and they all require practice. But they are very powerful in combination. There are some lovely but highly chromatic tunes (e.g. Hagrid's theme) that are just difficult on the instrument. But there are many more popular tunes that can be made to work nicely.