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 Post subject: Playing Strathspeys
PostPosted: Fri May 08, 2020 5:02 am 
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Posted the below yesterday in the "Scotland's Last Flutemaker" thread ........ but thinking it over, perhaps it should be in a new thread. So here it is again below ...
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How to play Scottish trad on a wooden flute is something that I’ve spent a bit of time thinking on over the years, chatting to other flute players and trying to get to grips with. Personally I’m not sure that the flute itself is the biggest factor - as long as it is a responsive and agile over the full 2 octaves. Preferable (but by no means necessary) is a fully keyed - if you want to be able to play the full repertoire of Scottish trad in their original keys, including the fiddle tunes in A, F, Bb, Gm etc, then you have to get used to clattering the silver. To me the bigger factor is the human element - developing technique that will allow you as a flute player to play the music in a style that reflects the tradition. To find ways to emulate (or perhaps that should be echo) fiddle, piping and singing that give Scottish trad its unique sound and feel. For those more used to the more fluid and rolling Irish styles of music and playing, the more jagged, mountainous terrain of pipe marches and Strathspeys can be challenging. I kinda agree with Conical Bore that the attack is one thing you need to address. And that is down to articulation - by which ever method you choose and is required by the tune. For me it’s a mix of tonguing, breath control and fingered ornamentation. And after that by just letting go and getting stuck into the spirit of a tune – particularly the wilder Strathspeys which, if you choose to explore the latent energy contained within them, are to my ears, on the punk edge of trad.

There are not that many wooden flautists seriously playing trad Scottish ……… so was disappointed to hear that Calum Stewart was drawing back from flute to concentrate on the pipes. I spoke with him last year about his playing when he was here for a gig. His view was there was nothing intrinsically different to playing Scottish tunes on the flute – to him it’s all just about good technique. That and really listening to other instruments (particularly the fiddle) and trying to capture the essence of what they are doing by being creative with what the flute is able to do.

Would be really interested in hearing other people’s experiences and thoughts on playing Strathspeys. What do you find are the main challenges? How do you get round the difficulties? Any favourites?
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Was pondering on all things Strathspey again this morning whilst walking the dog, and thinking on the style of playing Strathspeys would have perhaps partly depended originally upon the style of the dancing that was done to them (though it could be one of those chicken and egg things). There are certainly different schools of thought / dancing / playing Strathspeys. The formal, mannered and more graceful approach (typically danced to by the Royal Country Dance Society) where the tunes themselves are graceful and are played slower with every second beat accentuated. And the wilder, free and more driven style where every beat is accentuated - which has survived as the Cape Breton style of dancing and playing. And a whole spectrum in between. There are no absolute right or wrongs - all are valid, have their own merits and help express different aspects of the human condition. And then there are slow Strathspeys which are not played for dancing .......... amongst which are some of the most exquisitely beautiful tunes ........

Getting to grips with the techniques required to play these different styles of Strathspey has taken me many years and no doubt will take many more (getting to the crest of the hill only reveals another bloomin' higher hill ahead of you) ..... but the journey has given me huge amounts of pleasure. Here are a few of my attempts along that road: -

The Rothiemurchas Rant - a slow (ish) Strathspey. Robert Burns was a huge fan of the tune - "Many of our Strathspeys ancient and modern give me exquisite enjoyment...For instance, I am just now making verses to Rothiemurche's Rant, an air which puts me into raptures ..." I kinda agree - there is something about it that is both wrenching and uplifting at the same time. It is a beautiful tune to play ......
https://soundcloud.com/user-396491986/r ... has-rant-1

An attempt at two old Perthshire Strathspeys: Cha cheilinn sugradh Uileam (I wouldn’t hide William’s flirting) - a lovely, simple, 5-bar (yes .......only 5 bars) Strathspey from the 1784 Patrick MacDonald Collection; and Atholl Brose (also known as Niel Gow’s favourite), thought to have been written by Abraham Mackintosh (born 1769), son of Red Rob Mackintosh of Tulliemet. The first one is probably the melody of a song, the Gaelic lyrics long forgotten; the second is a fairly well-known fiddle tune. Both tunes lend themselves to being played on the flute (as long as you have an F natural key) ....... and to straying a wee bit off the path.
https://soundcloud.com/user-396491986/c ... holl-brose

Would be really interested to hear how other players approach playing Strathspeys on the flute. It would seem to be a fertile field that might benefit from a wee bit more cultivation ........


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 Post subject: Re: Playing Strathspeys
PostPosted: Thu May 14, 2020 8:04 am 
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Playing Strathspeys on the flute present particular challenges, especially for those semi-quaver / dotted quaver combinations (some of which are occasionally called a "Scots snap" - though I almost never hear the term used here in Scotland). How do you play those short-long, "de-dah" (and the long-short "dah-de") combinations of notes? When the two notes are some distance apart on the scale (even an octave part) it is hard to make them as crisp and clean as when well played on the fiddle. When it is the same note that you are repeating, it's impossible without some form of articulation. Closely watching a good fiddler, they use a change in bow pressure and direction to give the necessary kick and drive. But it's not easy. According to Alistair Hardie in his Caledonian Companion, A Collection of Scottish Fiddle Music and Guide to its Performance, this "undoubtedly provides our music's greatest challenge to bowing technique" .

"The bow wrist should be loose enough to allow wrist and fingers to move easily for best effect. Although the first note is very short, the amount of bow used to play it is fairly long and fast and it has a strong accent! Use equal bow lengths but different speeds and play in the middle to upper part of the bow." Traditional Scottish Fiddling - A players Guide. Christine Martin

James Hunter in his Fiddle Music of Scotland details the variety of bowing techniques required for Strathspeys ... Hack-Bowing, Snap-Bowing, Cross-Bowing, Back-bowing, The Scots Snap and the Up-driven Bow ....... all of which are used in slightly different circumstances and to create different effects.

But what type of articulation can / should you use on a wooden flute to get these same effects? Finger? Breath? Tongue? Or a combination of several? Which technique works best in what circumstances?

Some people out there will no doubt have given this some thought, and will have practiced and played and explored the possibilities. It would be really good to hear your thoughts and views.

Munro


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 Post subject: Re: Playing Strathspeys
PostPosted: Thu May 14, 2020 10:42 am 
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By the way, it is "World play a Strathspey day" today ......... who knew? But what better excuse to dust off and play one ....

https://projects.handsupfortrad.scot/ha ... -day-2020/


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 Post subject: Re: Playing Strathspeys
PostPosted: Wed Jun 03, 2020 12:09 pm 
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Hi Munro, I enjoyed your class at the Edinburgh flute fling (last spring?), though it left me with more questions that answers... That was probably your intention though. Most of the Strathspeys with which I was familiar are slow and used for SCD with a largely elderly set of dancers, so your presentation of the wild playing told me I needed to refocus my listening a bit. I think my attempts to do good snaps usually involve more attack on the short leading tone with a breath pulse and/or glottal or tongue, sometimes on the first note, sometimes on both ("uhhuh" or "duguh). But then I might actually be doing something completely different. And I am not really happy with the sound of it either. I will keep trying.

Chris.

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19th October, 2012:
Flute: Rookery
Flute: Musical Priest
Flute: Swinging on the Gate
Flute: Sally Gardens
4th June 2012:
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Smallpipes: The Meeting of the Waters. Corn Riggs
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 Post subject: Re: Playing Strathspeys
PostPosted: Fri Jun 05, 2020 9:04 pm 
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Munroe, thanks for bringing up this topic. I didn't post at first, hoping to see more input, but at this point I'll toss in my very limited experience with playing strathspeys on flute. Everyone take it with a grain of salt because I don't know what I'm doing, just testing the waters. :)

Background: My fiddler Significant Other plays both Irish and Scottish trad, and has attended for years a local workshop out here in the Pacific Northwest led by visiting Cape Breton fiddlers like Andrea Beaton, Troy MacGillivray, Wendy MacIsaac and others. Also Katy MacNally, a great player of Scottish fiddle from New England. We hosted her band overnight at our house when they were playing a local concert. I've played mandolin along with those folks at off-hours sessions after my S.O.'s workshops, and one of our semi-regular local sessions is a mixed Irish/Scottish/Cape Breton session. So I think I have the sound of a strathspey in my ears. At least, as well as can be done out here in the diaspora as someone who didn't grow up hearing this music.

Then about 6 years ago I started on flute in addition to my mandolin as a different window into Irish trad. Only recently, I've been attempting a few strathspeys I play on mandolin like Captain Campbell, Bog An Lochan, King George IV. It's a challenge to get the attack on the note anywhere near like what a fiddle does with a sharp bow attack. Maybe I should listen more to pipers, but most of my exposure to strathspeys is through fiddlers due to my S.O.'s influence.

The closest I've come to a sound that I don't completely dislike on a flute attack on strathspeys and other Scottish tunes in general like marches, is a tongued "Duh" to put some edge on the note attack, along with a bit of breath "push" behind it. I've tried glottal stops instead, and it's not enough to my ears. Or maybe I'm just not good at it. A hard "T" tongue behind the teeth is too much. A "yelping" cut doesn't sound right either.

So it's still very much a work in progress for me on flute. At least there is one thing that a flute excels at with strathspeys, and that's the brief 16th note runs in many of them. I have a very hard time doing that cleanly and at speed on mandolin with a flatpick across the strings in combination with a fretting hand to hit the notes. On flute, I just flap my fingers for a run of 16th notes. It's so much easier, especially with a double run of 16th notes like the ones in the King George IV strathspey. I do have to be careful to make sure the fingering is clean enough that the notes are separated, and don't just blur together.


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 Post subject: Re: Playing Strathspeys
PostPosted: Sun Jun 07, 2020 3:25 am 
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Hi
Glad you enjoyed last year's FluteFling in Edinburgh Chris - it was great as always to come together to meet and play, and I hope that Gordon, Kenny and Sharon will be able to hold another one soon as they are a really important way of sharing ideas and moving the music forward. I always learn a lot and take away little gems of technique / thinking that lodge their way into my head and playing. I hope that I was able to pose as many questions as answers - and am not sure that there are many absolute "right" answers anyway. Having said that, I hold to the view that you need a solid basic grounding in the tradition as a foundation for your playing - and after that, you can head off the path in whatever direction the music takes you. My experience of those that do it the other way round is that the music quickly becomes diluted, lacks inherent integrity and floats off divorced from tradition rather than adding to it. Bottom line is, that we all interpret music slightly differently and benefit from a range of tools that allow us to express what we feel in the music.

When it comes to playing Strathspeys on the flute, personally I reckon that the fiddle is a better instrument to try to emulate than the pipes - the pipes just don't have the dynamic expreszion that both the flute and fiddle are capable of - and the bowing / breath opportunities give a whole vista of potential for expression that the pipes (or whistles) just don't have.

Re your comment Conical Bore:
"The closest I've come to a sound that I don't completely dislike on a flute attack on strathspeys and other Scottish tunes in general like marches, is a tongued "Duh" to put some edge on the note attack, along with a bit of breath "push" behind it. I've tried glottal stops instead, and it's not enough to my ears. Or maybe I'm just not good at it. A hard "T" tongue behind the teeth is too much. A "yelping" cut doesn't sound right either."

Completely agree. A glottal breath of air on its own is not (to my ears) clean enough to get that sharp edge of the attack note - especially if there are jumps between octaves involved.

A couple of examples of how others try to resolve the Strathspey attack issue:

Here is Louise Mulcahy .....
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRTjHDjOUzI

She appears to be using a breath pulse as the main means of accentuating the Strathspey rhythm. She is a great flute player, but perhaps coming from the Irish tradition Strathspeys are not her comfort zone and am not sure it is entirely successful - it comes across as a bit forced and jilting rhythmically with her attack notes sometimes lagging a little behind the pipes. Her bobbing her head to keep in time indicates she is having to work hard to keep to the rhythm.

Here is Calum Stewart playing Stoidhle Neill Ghobha before John Cheap the Chapman and The Hurricane.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWpCAYAwj9A

These tunes show the sheer amount of technical mastery of the instrument that he has - there are, gawd knows, any number of different techniques he's using - but they never get in the way of the tune. Listening to Stoidhle Neill Ghobha there is a lot of tongue and finger articulation, triplets and glottal air pushing out to give it that drive. Wow. It would take a of time to dissect everything that he is doing, but what comes across is the sheer energy and musicality. . Flutes can really make Strathspeys zing along - and be also very subtle in the phrasing in a way that is akin to a fiddle - much more so than is possible on the pipes or a whistle. It is possible, but dang, it is technically not easy!

Was trying to find another clip of Calum Stewart playing Belladrum House that I really like (its got that Cape Breton drive where every beat is accentuated), but have been unable to find it. I'll look for some more examples - e.g. from Hamish Napier and Nuala Kennedy. Anyone else spring to mind?
Munro


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 Post subject: Re: Playing Strathspeys
PostPosted: Tue Jun 16, 2020 10:47 am 
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Munro wrote:



Was trying to find another clip of Calum Stewart playing Belladrum House that I really like (its got that Cape Breton drive where every beat is accentuated), but have been unable to find it. I'll look for some more examples - e.g. from Hamish Napier and Nuala Kennedy. Anyone else spring to mind?
Munro


I live in Cape Breton; trying to figure out, as I can, how to play Cape Breton music on flute, including of course strathspeys. I don't have anything figured out, but to me,the closest I have heard from a fluteplayer to the Cape Breton style is Fintan Vallely... not Scottish of course, but his drive, and the way he digs in, I think he nails it. He was here a couple of years ago for Celtic Colours, but I wasn't able to get there.

Not many fluteplayers here, only 2-3 I can think of; more whistlers, who are also often pipers and they bring that approach.

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