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Flute and age
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Author:  PB+J [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 6:19 am ]
Post subject:  Flute and age

I have a slightly embarrassing question which I hope you will be patient with

I'm a reasonably accomplished semi-pro musician on bass and guitar. I've been playing the whistle very seriously for about 9 months and can manage a dozen or so jigs and reels at 100 bpm. I picked the whistle because I'm 59 years old and can see time growing short, and the whistle is about as easy an instrument to start on as possible. It's hard to play really well, but it's easy to begin.

Out of curiosity I got a Walt Sweet "Shannon" Flute. Very nice tone, when I can manage a tone. Flute was always a frustrating mystery to me, but puffing away at it on and off I've gotten to the point where I can get a very nice tone and two octaves.

My question is about wind. I can barely manage two measures without running out of breath. That's probably normal, and no doubt economy of air comes with experience and improves with practice. But I can play whole tunes on the low D whistle with much less difficulty. The flute is rough!

Before I think about taking the flute more seriously, I wonder about how much I can reasonably expect to improve. I mean, age takes its toll. A lot of things that were easy ten years ago aren't easy anymore. I row on a machine 20 minutes a day and walk a lot, but otherwise it's sitting in front of the computer most of the time. Sure, people older than me play very well, but they probably started much earlier.

So can I get a general sense, from more experienced players, of reasonable expectations? Is the Shannon flute unusually "windy?" Is it normal to be so "breathless?" Does age compromise playing ability in that way?

Author:  fatmac [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 6:54 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute and age

Only a beginner myself, & I haven't regained a good embouchure since I last tried in the 80s on Boehm, but I would expect it will depend a fair bit on how good your embouchure actually is.

I didn't really start attempting to play instruments until I retired, (I'm 68). It took me about 18 months on each instrument that I've tried so far, to achieve a recognisable tune, & I expect to get better the more I practice, which isn't a lot, & well below what most people seem to do. :D

I bought 2 keyless flutes, a Tony Dixon ABS single piece Low D, & a Damian Thompson Delrin Low D beginner flute with off set holes. After a little bit of practice I can just about play the Dixon, whilst I'm keeping my delrin until I've got the basics - actually, I plan on putting more time in on flute next year, & am only half heartedly practicing it just now, whilst I'm learning the whistle - but both being six holers, the transition should be fairly easy - I hope. :wink:

Author:  mendipman [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 7:40 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute and age

At 59 the numbers are not an obstacle at all. You could have a whole musical lifetime (30 + years) ahead of you.

I'm a firm adherent of the way that music is not just an expending process i.e. time and energy; it is also a wonderfully investing and creative process emotionally, neurologically and physically. We adapt and our capacities develop mentally and physically. If we are talking about optimal, then aging does lower that optimum. But the reality is that when we start a new activity we are so far beneath our potential we have huge scope for improvement regardless of a lowered optimum or maximum performance.

And even when more experience and confronted with the realities of aging then, assuming good general health and no chronic issues, the options exist to adept technique and behaviours to accommodate those changes.

Long story short...go for it. Have fun!

Author:  Mr.Gumby [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 8:21 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute and age

And even when more experience and confronted with the realities of aging then, assuming good general health and no chronic issues, the options exist to adept technique and behaviours to accommodate those changes.

I think that's a good summary. Fluteplayers in their sixties are, by definition, diminishing and the comment from them most heard is along the lines of 'we'll see how long I can keep it going'. The flute is the most physical of all traditional instruments and playing, let alone learning, it at a later age brings the need of accepting and working within limitations.

The main question is what you are aiming for, if you're happy with the outlook of reaching your goal, go for it. The running out of air will improve as your embouchure develops and efficiency increases. But you will need to put in the work.

Author:  Seanie [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 9:00 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute and age


Breathing, when playing music, is an art. You have to be able to drop notes entirely out of the tune in order to take a breath. This way you, eventually, are able to play a whole tune without running out of air.

For instance, in a long G roll, you would play a short G, then breath, then another short G.

This way you are topping up your resevoir of air.

It is a fascinating project that you are undertaking and I wish you well.


Author:  Steampacket [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 9:07 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute and age

Do not despair PB+J. I agree with Mendipman and Mr. Gumby. Practice as much as possible, better a little every day than a long session at the weekend. Listen also as much as possible to solo, duo, recordings of Irish traditional music, not only flute players. There's also a lot of teaching available on-line, and maybe even personal tutoring depending on whereabouts you live. Conal O'Grada's tutor is said to be very good. Good luck

I started playing the flute 2000-2001 when I was 52. My flute playing is still improving, and I have no problems with breathing at 70 years of age. I don't run out of breath, and it's no problem playing in 3-4 hour long sessions. I also have the pipes with me in sessions. I retired two years ago so can play the pipes and flute during the day. Sometimes an hour or so, sometimes not at all for a couple of days, it depends. I learn new tunes, and try to go over old tunes I haven't played for some time. I still think it is as much fun as when I started out playing.

If you don't have health problems, alcohol, or tobacco related issues, or issues with your hands, fingers, shoulders or back there's no reason you shouldn't be able to practice and improve your flute playing during the years to come. Good luck

Author:  PB+J [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 9:42 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute and age

Good advice, thank you very much. It sounds like age does take a toll on flute players, but doesn't necessarily stop music making. I'm think mostly interested in ITM as a "spiritual" (for a nonbeliever) exercise or a meditative practice, so no fantasies of winning any competitions for me, or even playing in a session. But you all know how it is: one wants to play well. I might just elect to stick with the whistle, but flute does have more expressive range.

Listening to good players is much discouraging as encouraging! They should make a collection: "Middlin'! The greatest collection of modestly decent playing ever assembled! A hill you can imagine climbing!"

Author:  rogervj [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 10:46 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute and age

You are walking the same path as me. I am 60 and a lifetime guitarist. I started playing whistle 10 years ago. I bought a Shannon 3 years ago. I struggled for 2 of those years. Now I can make music with it. I went through the breathless phase. It is all about developing embouchure. Keep at it! I just bought a fancy Casey Burns and now have to adjust to that. I can make the Shannon sound better than the Burns at this point. That will change. Each flute is different and requires time...which I hope you have many years ahead.

Author:  Conical bore [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 11:11 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute and age

Another Old here, started on flute in my early 60's. I'm 65 now, at what I'd call an advancing beginner stage, getting closer to the intermediate or "journeyman" level where I'd like to end up. The prospects for advancement after that aren't good, and I don't really need to get there. I just need to hold my own in a session.

I had a head-start by playing music all my life (piano, drums, then 30 years of guitar and 10 years of mandolin). The mandolin is what got me into Irish and Scottish trad, so I have a bunch of tunes floating around in my head that makes transferring to flute a little easier. Finger dexterity from fretted instrument playing probably helps a little. I don't have arthritis or other debilitating issues (yet), in generally good health except for being overweight.

It's true that flute is a very physically demanding instrument. In the first half-year or so, I would get dizzy sometimes during practice. That doesn't happen now. Breath control in general took much longer to get anywhere. It was a couple of years before I got to the point where I could smoothly play through 3 reps of a tune at tempo, without breaking the rhythm by breathing. That's still my weak point -- figuring out where to take a breath, but it continues to improve.

As mentioned above, a huge part of this is not just figuring out the breath points, but embouchure development. Forming a nice tight air stream, not overblowing. It's a continuing process. I guess I'll always be working on it until they put me away. But I'm having fun in the meantime!

Author:  PB+J [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 11:19 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute and age

This is all great! Keep it coming!

I find myself getting dizzy, yes. At this point my finger dexterity is miles ahead of my capacity to finish the phrase. Oh no it's going into the second octave! Set the autodial dial to 911!

Author:  Steve Bliven [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 11:28 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute and age

One other point to keep in mind—breathing can also function as an articulation or point of emphasis in playing. Use taking a breath as a means of defining a phrase. Work them in as part of the music, not as a means to avoid falling unconscious.

Check out this example of how Sean Gavin uses breathing.

Best wishes.


Author:  an seanduine [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 11:43 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute and age

Good clip Steve. Sean studied both pipes and flute with John Henry of Chicago, a hale and hearty flute player into his eighties. The phrasing and breathing are part of his musical idiom.
On another note, he punned, to quote Groucho, I no longer bother with buying green bananas. :D


Author:  bradhurley [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 12:11 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute and age

Matt Molloy just recorded a solo album at age 70.

One of my early mentors always claimed that it shouldn't take any more air to play the flute than it takes to play the whistle. I wouldn't go quite that far (I've been playing both whistle and flute for more than 30 years now and I still can take longer phrases on the whistle than on the flute), but it doesn't take THAT much more air. Learning to properly support your breath is part of the equation, but a big part is efficiency and focus. I suppose lung capacity does decline with age but the decline in mouth muscle tone probably has a much bigger impact on how long you can go between breaths: if your tone loses focus you end up using more air to get the same volume of sound.

Author:  jim stone [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 12:38 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute and age

I started playing flute at 60, I'm about to be 77. I must have averaged an hour or more a day. I'm continuing to improve. Aside from maladies, which thankfully I've been spared, I'm probably about as good as if I was a lot younger. There's not very much to flute playing that degrades simply with age. I'm not sprinting in the Olympics, etc. Just stay fit, work on your embouchure, devote yourself to the instrument, and you will probably be pretty much what you always would have been. Another point. I'm not going to play in the NBA no mo, but I was never going to play in the NBA. I'm musical but I'm never going to be a virtuoso, but I was never going to be a virtuoso. The limitations that I'm tempted to blame on age are probably the limits I was born with. This 'age' stuff is often malarkey. Also, flute is a really difficult instrument, IMO. Playing it well takes vast reserves of patience and practice and a lot of years, unless you are exceedingly gifted. Doubtless I could have picked up tunes faster as a child, but I pick them up anyhow, even if it takes longer, and I suspect I play them better than I would have when I was young and had less of a feel for phrasing, etc. Finally it is often noted that the best artists often have a harder time at the beginning than do those to whom it comes easy. The former, through their struggles with what comes thoughtlessly to the more gifted, get deeper into the music. When it comes to music, this age stuff is sh*t, unless you use it to talk yourself into a problem. When I started playing guitar as a young fellow, I became convinced my hands were the wrong shape to fret the strings. Always something. And so it goes. At day's end, play from your heart.

Author:  busterbill [ Tue Dec 18, 2018 8:05 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute and age

I started reading everyone's responses, but figured I should stop and just speak to my experience. I'm a little bit of a nutter. I started playing concertina at 64 and am having a gay old time of it at 67. I'm pleased with my progress and able to go out to sessions with enough tunes to start or play along with. I'm not ready to win any titles, but I don't stink up the room too bad. I mention this because starting new things at a later age can be really fun. And starting really hard things at a later age can be a gas. That being said... I've played simple system flute and whistle in the Irish style since I was 42. But I honestly think the low whistle far more of a challenge air wise than the flute. My embouchure is so tiny compared to the mouthpiece of a whistle. With the flute the air is a compressed stream flowing over a hole. It is the turbulence hitting the chimney that makes the flute sound. I seem to use more air when I play whistle than I do flute. But for each I am not afraid of losing air any time soon. If I am fit enough to run a couple of flights of stairs I will be more than fine to play the flute for hours. And I think playing the flute has kept me aerobically fit.

Unless you have a great deal of musical experience you will likely not get as good as a you might have been had you started earlier. That is just a fact. It takes ten years to sound like you've been playing a decade as they used to say. But if you run out of air you breath. It's that simple. If you listen closely to most flute players they often don't play all the notes. We play 97% or so, but often skip one or clip one to breath. Unlike bellows where you can switch direction, fiddle and other string instruments which can play without pause, we need to refuel. Quick short breaths taken often will make those tunes possible. And your phrasing will fall into place as you absorb the tune. Watch great players young and old on YouTube and you'll realize how often they are breathing. If you can fill a low d whistle you'll be fine once you master your embouchure.

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