Irish flute 101 with Norah Rendell

Celtic music does something for me which I struggle to articulate. The draw for Norah Rendell was the tradition’s rhythmic, dance quality, its social nature and its aural history. You play by listening, not by reading.

She’s the executive director of The Center for Irish Music in St. Paul, Minnesota and a lovely singer and player of flutes.

We talked last week and she laid out the basics of Irish flute for me, setting me up to learn more and to better understand what I listen to already.

If you’ve never heard a mournful Irish song or a rolicking Celtic tune, I suggest you start now. Try Rendell’s music or The Thistle & Shamrock radio show.

For the fluties out there, here’s what I learned about the Irish variety from Rendell.

What exactly is the Irish flute and the penny whistle?

The penny whistle (aka tin whistle) was Rendell’s gateway to the tradition. She was studying early music in college in Montreal, Canada, and felt drawn to the music coming from nearby Irish pubs.

Penny whistles are small, and high-pitched, and play vertically like a recorder.

The Irish flute is closely related to that whistle and goes by a few names: Irish flute, the wooden flute and the concert flute, Rendell said. The fingering and style are similar, she said.

Irish flute

It’s played horizonally and made of a black, hard wood. And it dates back to the early 1800s when it branched away from the classical flute of the time. Most don’t have keys, but open holes.

People say it’s in the key of D, but that’s because D is the lowest note.

“You don’t read music when you play,” Rendell said. “It’s kind of irrelavant for an oral tradition.”

What’s the origin of the music?

Norah Rendell is a flutist, singer and executive director of The Center for Irish Music in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo used with permission.

The actual tunes and songs date back to the 1800s, Rendell said. A “tune” is instrumental and a “song” has words, she clarified. Those tunes are categorized by the kind of dance they accompany.

The music’s not traditionally written down, but passed between players from instrument to ear to instrument.

“There really is truly a living oral tradition,” she said. “They don’t necessarily know how old the tunes are.”

Some date back as recently as 50 years ago, and those are called “newly composed,” Rendell said. Those composers include: Sean Ryan, Sean Reid, Paddy O’Brien (there are two by that name including one in St. Paul) and Finbarr Dwyer.

How to learn it?

First of all: “Listen to as much music as you can,” Rendell said.

Listen to pieces over and over until you can sing them. Then try to transfer that to your flute or whistle. With her new students she has them play very simple songs by ear, songs they already know well, like Christmas carols.

“Just get used to playing your instrument that way,” Rendell suggested.

“It’s a completely different way of getting into your brain.” has thousands of transcriptions of tunes. But don’t learn them by sight, Rendell said, becuase it’s harder to memorize and then reprogram your fingers.

Record yourself playing and listen to the tune over an over, she suggested. Once you know the melody by ear and heart, then translate to the instrument.

Who to listen to?

I hope you follow some of these links and get lost listening and learning some new tunes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s