Learning to use the keys



A lot of players start off these days on the whistle or keyless flute, and acquire a keyed flute much later. Consequently, learning to use the keys has to be a conscious effort.  I asked around a number of experienced players to see how they thought this can be most easily achieved.  As you'll see, there's a wide range of approaches that will suit a wide range of personalities.  I've collated all the responses under headings for easier reading.  Hopefully there'll be something here that appeals to you!

Caveat: Because I'm not familiar with all the tunes mentioned, I'll probably have put some of them in wrong categories.  There are also repetitions, but hopefully despite its faults, you'll find something to your advantage!

True Grit

Some people are very disciplined and respond well to a disciplined, far-sighted approach.  Some comments from those who respond to this approach:

  • In my opinion, picking out a tune here or there that has a Bb or G# is fine but not as helpful as committing the time and effort to learn the chromatic range of your instrument at least through the first 2 octaves. The benefit is that you work on several things while learning chromatic runs that you don't while learning a tune with a G# in it. You will develop a stronger embouchure, better breath control, and far better strength and coordination in your hands by playing chromatic runs. You will also greatly improve your intonation playing the chromatic runs as you are playing and hearing the tones in their true relationship to and with one another. Work on it slowly (going both up and down) playing long tones as this will help with all the things mentioned above. After you have confidence in your playing of the chromatic run you can start working on various scales as the fingerings of the notes will be somewhat automatic at this time. You will find that in time you will become far more confident in your ability to play ALL the notes on your flute. Your tone (and confidence) will improve which will make playing your instrument more fun and you will be more fun for others to play with. Tunes that you thought were mysterious and unapproachable will be within your grasp and not as tough as you thought they were...
  • Teacher, Paul McGrattan has suggested playing, 'scales, scales, scales' in not so familiar keys
  • You could do no worse than play the normal repertoire with the "correct" fingerings, that is venting short or long F for F#, venting C for C#, and using the Eb Key.  Michael Hynes advises this.

Learning "accidentally"

Others are not so disciplined, and so the approach of finding tunes with only the occasional use of a key, as an accidental, is an attractive first approach, progressing later to tunes using lots of keys in their own mode. Slow tunes would be good at the start, with fast tunes later.

Tunes suggested include:

  • Cook in the kitchen (jig) -  an easy F natural accidental
  • Come with me over the mountain (slow tune) (Willy Clancy), - both F nat and G# (unusual!)
  • Pinch of snuff, Jenny's Chickens and High Reel
  • Maids of Mitchelstown C - Short F
  • Carolan's Welcome - Long and Short F 
  • The Flogging Reel - Long F 
  • St Annes Reel - G# 
  • Michael's Mazurka, Coleraine Jig - Bb 
  • Scots air "Flo'ers of the forest" in C
  • Bear Island (composed by one of the Dwyers, I believe) is another great tune for getting your fingers used to the keys...a few G sharps and an Eb.  Most of Paddy Fahey's tunes would be good for this as well.
  • Come give me your hand / Tabhair dom do Lamh (harp air) - Fnat
  • Pretty maid milking her cow, for the G# and Cnat. 
  • Garrett Barry's jig, long F and C, then Rakish Paddy, using the C key...fun. 
  • Paddy Fahey's jig for the Bb and short F, 
  • Julia Delaney, Ebb Tide long and short Fs, 
  • The Bunch of Keys for Cnat, long and short Fs. 
  • House of Hamel for G#. 
  • On an 8 key go for Mama's pet and Carolan's Fairy Queen.
  • Queen of the Rushes (48 bar jig) - long Fnat in 2nd (and 3rd) part(s)
  • Knocknagow (64 bar jig) - Fnat in 2nd part, bottom Cnat in 3rd part, G# and vent long C for C# in 4th part
  • Tom Bhetty's Waltz - bottom Cnat in 2nd part

Play the keyed repertoire

Some feel you should just incorporate keyed pieces in your repertoire, needless to say starting with easy tunes at slow pace before lashing out at difficult tunes at high speed.  Some thoughts along those lines:

  • The Maids of Mitchellstown is a reel usually played at a moderate tempo and is pretty easy on the keyed flute. This is good to learn the C-natural and F keys--although it can certainly be played well on a keyless flute by a good player, having especially an F key can make it much easier.
  • Fahy's is a good reel for the F keys and the B-flat key. This is a pretty good reel rather you've got just the short F or a long F too. Also it introduces both B-flat and B-natural, which is good for sorting out the left thumb. I consider this "intermediate" difficulty.
  • More advanced pieces for flat keys include Eileen Curran and Julia Delaney (both reels), Crabs in the Skillet (a jig), and The Mountain Top (hornpipe). Of these, The Mountain
  • For the sharps side, you can't do better than the Mason's Apron for the G-sharp key.  This is pretty easy. For more of a challenge in A major (and for some third octave chops), try the Contradiction (hornpipe). Also Jenny's Chickens is a rocking good reel in three sharps
  • There is an E-major (four sharps) double jig called "Andy DeJarlis."  It'll give you a pretty good workout on the sharps side.
  • Pipe on the Hob (48 bar jig) - keyed and crossed Cnat and rolls on Cnat for the adventurous.
  • An Phis Phliuch (40 bar [5 part] slip jig) - vented C#s and keyed and crossed Cnats, Low D crans
  • Humours of Ballyloughlin (64 bar jig) - crossed and keyed Cnats and rolls on Cnat, Low D crans

( Of course there are loads of these tunes with ambiguity/alternacy between C# and Cnat in the Irish tradition, especially among the great pipes repertory jigs.)

  • Mother's Delight & The Broken Pledge (reels) - "Dmin", so C and F nats and Bbs
  • Galway Bay (hornpipe) - "Gmin", 2 flats
  • Crabs in the Skillet (48 bar jig), 2 flats
  • Delaney's Drummers (32 bar jig), 1 flat
  • Tim the Thatcher (32 bar jig - play slowly) - 1flat
  • Twopenny Jig (32 bar jig)  - 1 flat
  • Paddy Fahy's Reel (one of them! - as played by Matt Molloy at the end of Planxty's 5th album) - "Fmaj", so long and short Fnats, keyed and crossed Cnats and Bbs
  • The Contradiction Reel (4 parter) - "Amaj", 3 sharps, so G#s and, if you play the O'Neill's version, excursions into the 3rd octave and an optional low C#!
  • Jenny's Chickens (reel) - 3 sharps
  • Andy de Jarlis (32 bar jig) - "Emaj", 4 sharps. (As played by Altan)

Contemporary Tutors

I notice Nicholson in his "School for the Flute", 1836, starts in C, then works through to 6 sharps before going down the flat line.  You can obtain a facsimile copy of his tutor (2 Vols) from Peter H Bloom, 29 Newbury St, Somerville, Massachusetts 02144, Ph (617) 776-6512.

Classical pieces and collections

I observed that you would make use of all the keys (on a six-key) if you play something in the key of Eb (but I hadn't worked out an appropriate piece).  Struck me though that people wishing to play classical music on the flute could benefit if we could identify a nice slow but memorable baroque piece in that key. That prompted these contributions:

  • I would recommend Telemann's "Die kleine Kammermusik", 6 partitas for violin or whatever and basso continuo. I have an edition by Hortus Musicus/Barenreiter.  These are wonderful little works with many short movements in just about every key you might like (and some that you won't). In all seriousness, there are some in G or e, but also some in two and three flats. One could also transpose the ones in E flat (3 flats) to E (4 sharps) and those in B flat (two flats) to B (5 sharps!) to get a good workout.
  • There are also two volumes of tunes arranged by Nicholson, called, appropriately enough, "Nicholson's Beauties."  These contain a mix of slow tunes and faster ones, all for solo flute, in a wide variety of keys.  They are highly ornamented (what else would you expect), and a real stretch technically, at least for me.  Though I have heard it said that he regularly rewrote pieces to avoid flat keys, many of these are in F, Bb and Eb.  Nasty stuff, but helps to keep us from getting swelled heads, yes?!
  • How about the Siciliano from the spurious Bach sonata in E flat major? It's technically in G minor but with plenty of E flat major passages, enough to scare any keyed-fluter off to the one-keyed baroque flute. Bear in mind, however, that even classical 8-keyed flutists take the "gentleman's approach" to keys, in that we might have them but don't always use them...

    As soon as you get into flat keys you have to use the B flat thumb key, in my experience the largest hurdle for keyless players to tackle. That would explain Nicholson's initially delving into sharps, your frequent A-sharp doesn't show up till E major (occasionally) and B major (constantly).

  • I agree with whoever was saying/implying, why do scale practice/exercises when playing real pieces/tunes can give you the same discipline more enjoyably?:-
  • Telemann: Twelve fantasias for transverse flute without bass (i.e. solo) :- includes pieces  in Amaj, Amin, Bmin, Bbmaj, Cmaj, Dmin, Dmaj, Emin, Emaj, F#min, Gmaj, Gmin. (All designed for 1-key baroque flute, of course!)
  • J.S. Bach: Amin solo Partita
  • C.P.E Bach: Amin solo Partita (or Sonata)

(Note: what is it about Amin on the flute? When the relative major, C is something of a pig, A minor is a dream! Some of the greatest music ever written for flute is in this key, and the non "straight" fingered notes seem to tend to fall happily under the fingers. It also throws up the need to use all of the closed keys at some point. Very good practice!)

  • J.S. Bach (?): Gmin Siciliana from Sonata in Eb
  • J.S. Bach: Suite in Bmin (That favourite mobile phone ringtone, the Badinerie, is actually easier on 8-key than on Boehm, but flings in some nice key-use on an 8-key!)
  • Vivaldi (after/pace Jimmy Galway!!): Eb slow movement from "Winter" (4 Seasons)

Incidentally, my classical sheet music tends to be arcanely graffittied with the signs; "L", "S", "X" and "K", indicating respectively; Long F, Short F, cross-fingered Cnat and Keyed Cnat above relevant notes.

Other traditions

  • Carolan Book - (tunes by the Irish Harper Turloch O'Carolan)
  • I like the tune "Hills of Manchuria".  It is not Irish but it is a slow tune and uses every one of my six keys. I found the following link to it: http://www.accordionlinks.com/mongolia.cfm
  • As a possible alternative to baroque music (but from the same era), I suggest the English Dance repertory, especially those in the numerous editions of the Playford collection. One good resource (including many non-Playford) is the Barnes Book of English Country Dance Tunes. Peter B. being a flute player, is seems good to support his publication effort. Of the 474 tunes there, one-third are in flat key signatures. 
  • The Horses Brawl - Bbs in 3rd part
  • Dainty Davy (WTM Playford-esque dance tune) - 1flat
  • Childgrove (Playford - country dance) - 1flat
  • Corsican Waltz (?!?!? - approx. as played by Desi Wilkinson) - Amin/Cmaj.
  • Many Scottish fiddle tunes in one or two flats.

Sourcing the tunes

So where do you get hold of all the tunes mentioned above?  You can find many of them at TuneDB, or failing that, just try a web search on the name of the tune.  


Thanks to all (too many to mention!) who contributed ideas to the above!

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Created: Dec 04