Key of A

Key of A

A recent post on another thread, the one about opening tunes, referenced the thought that tune in "A" are somehow not "flute friendly". There have been other like comments over my years here. Am I the only person who just doesn’t get it? Really, "A" tunes just seen brighter. Half -holing is easy, so is alternate fingering. I am certainly not a world class flute player, heck maybe not even the best on my block, and I don’t find it all that hard on my un-keyed flute and not even something to think about on my keyed one. The G# is the only "problem" note and that only comes a couple of times in many tunes, sometimes not at all. Personally I find tunes that lean on the B flat key more difficult, i.e. F, B Flat and E Flat on the traditional D flute. With enough practice even those keys should doable (I hope). Your thoughts?

Re: Key of A

As someone who’s not that good on the flute, the G# is probably the easiest one to half-hole and like you said, many A tunes don’t have a G# in them at all. And you can even just skip the note sometimes, too.

Re: Key of A

I’m not that good on the flute either, but I’m improving. When I had the keyless flute I started with, I could half-hole the G# on tunes that landed on another note, but I avoided tunes where the G# was in the middle of a phrase in a tune played quickly. Like the A-G#-A sequence in the second part of the Welcome Home Grannia jig.

I’m sure there are flute players out there who can play that kind of thing instinctively and easily on a keyless flute, but I wasn’t one of them. I only got comfortable playing that kind of phrase with an "embedded" G# in the middle when I finally got a keyed flute. Skipping the note is an option, but it isn’t always satisfying when the note is an important part of the tune’s character.

Re: Key of A [It’s about how everyone in a session plays together.]

I like this from another direction. I get the ‘flute friendly’ perspective. In a given session what is friendly depends on the players (more so than the instruments). In a local session I play certain tunes in A on my A whistle.
I also play some tunes in D on the A whistle. If a tune has no G#, yet someone says we are playing in A major,
that might throw me for a curve. This happened at a recent session when the session was arguing over playing a tune in G minor or A minor. (Caisleán An Óir).

This particular night I only brought a keyless flute & a D whistle. The session first played the tune in a key
I definitely was not going to play with the ‘flutes’ I brought. No problem, I sat out & listened. Lovely!
Then the group decided to play the same tune again; but this time in A minor. I assumed the key was
going to be difficult on the instruments I brought. But as I listened it dawned on me this was not A minor,
at least not the A minor I play on other instruments. I fumbled around, klutzed my way through the 2nd X & salvaged what was left of my dignity on the final run. Had I come to my senses sooner I may have been smoother. So, my point, flute friendly (session friendly) is not about whether or not you can half-hole your way through a tune. It’s about how everyone in a session plays together.

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Re: Key of A

Generally, in my experience, tunes in A Major (three sharps) go better on my Low E whistle than on an A whistle. All those years when flute was my main instrument I had an E flute (a cane flute made by Patrick Olwell) for those pesky A Major reels that fiddlers love.

But I also played them on my ordinary D flute, which was an antique 8-key flute, which made things easy.

I’m not in love with half-holing G# on a D flute or whistle though I do it well enough when I have to.

The other approach to G# is to restructure the tune a bit so as to get rid of the G# notes. That’s how they would do it in the old days and it’s not hard to do. Take a breath when the fiddlers are playing G# and so forth.

Re: Key of A

Completely agree with the OP. D is the best flute/whistle for A tunes. It’s brighter and livelier than an E whistle. Here in Scotland there are countless a tunes, especially pipe tunes and it’s quite rare, certainly in my experience to see anyone playing then on other than a D whistle, especially A pipe tunes, which are mainly a G natural anyway.

Re: Key of A

I am accomplished on flute, but I find tunes like Mason’s Apron and Boys of Malin awkward to play briskly. I have a G# key, but I don’t use it enough to be as fluid as I’d like. I can certainly do it, but I absolutely concur A is not flute-friendly. Half-holing G# sucks, btw.

Incidentally, one of the reasons why I never cultivated playing Irish on my Boehm is because F# is fingered differently. Not radical, but enough to make a difference. And Boehm was what I played first for ten years. Since almost all Irish tunes have F#, it just flows better to have that note played with the first finger rather than the middle or ring finger. It’s all doable, but I don’t like it. Kind of the same as dealing with G#.

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Re: Key of A

In Scotland, they play zillions of tunes in Amaj, and I found the easiest thing to do was to man up (to be totally un-PC) and get comfortable in that key. It doesn’t feel as smooth on the pipes as keys they likes such as D and G and Em, but it’s fine once you’re used to it.

Re: Key of A

Also in Scotland, and play a lot in A on my B/C button box, and find it no more tricky than D or G, and I do have G#s unlike most 2-row D/G boxes.
Ross mentioned the "brighter key" phenomenon, which, it seems, some people hear or "get" and others don’t. Something to do with harmonics I believe, but the more sharps in a major key sig, the brighter the sound (to those who do hear it), and conversely, the least bright keys are those with the most flats in them.

Re: Key of A

I bought an E flute from Doug Tipple so I could play A tunes with G fingering. I’ve never actually had a chance to use it that way. I do like the flute though. It fits my hand a lot better than his D flutes.

Re: Key of A

I may be speaking outside my range of knowledge here, but it seems to me that the number of A tunes in the Scottish pipe repertoire may not be relevant to the OP’s discussion (from that other thread) about A tunes not being flute friendly.

The Scottish pipe repertoire in A or A mix doesn’t include a G#, does it? That’s the whole point about flutes needing half-holing or a G# key in Irish trad, and that not being very "friendly" for many of us fluters.

I recall a few years ago, sitting in on a local workshop intended to bring players of Scottish smallpipes and border pipes together with Scottish fiddlers. A large group, maybe 15 pipers and roughly the same amount of fiddlers. I was the lone mandolin player at the time (bringing the proverbial knife to a gunfight), attending with my fiddler S.O.

Everything went fine, until the fiddlers got a little antsy at the pipe-centric repertoire, and someone yelled out "How about some tunes with a G#!" The fiddlers grinned, and the pipers grumbled. The pipers followed along as best they could and leaving out the note. We played that set (I forget what it was), and then it was back to the piper’s repertoire in A with no G sharps.

Re: Key of A

"The Scottish pipe repertoire in A or A mix doesn’t include a G#, does it? That’s the whole point about flutes needing half-holing or a G# key in Irish trad, and that not being very "friendly" for many of us fluters."

That’s only a portion of the tunes, the pipe tunes don’t have g# but there are countless other A tunes with a g#.

"a local workshop intended to bring players of Scottish smallpipes and border pipes together with Scottish fiddlers" …and the fiddlers got upset pipe the pipe repertoire. Finding fiddlers that ignorant in Scotland is thankfully rare.

Re: Key of A

I would reserve "(keyless D) flute unfriendly" for keys like F# or Bb 🙂

Key of A is so-so (pardon the pun!!) with the G# being accessible via half-holing.

Admittedly it’s not quite as easy to play G# in fast passages as the C-nat for key of G. I think a lot of the challenge is down to practice and exposure. ITM repertoire is split 40/50/10% between D/G/A tunes and quite a few tunes in A don’t require many or any of G# notes. I’m going to throw a guess that for most of us less and 1 in 20 of our tunes ever require us to work the G# habit.

The only sharp/flat that I cross finger is the C-nat as OXX-OOO. For all the others I do a half-holing by shading from the left or right side (as opposed to the top edge). Don’t know if that is right/wrong - it’s just how I have developed my technique. I find F-nat good and G# acceptable this way. But Bb is weak and Eb is watery/wimpy. A further complication for Bb is that the preceding or following note is often C-nat and that doesn’t transition easily.

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As Bogman alludes to, the traditional Highland pipe repertoire is in two sharps, not three- D Major and the various related keys and modes.

There are many Highland pipe tunes that have an A Major feel. There are dozens, hundreds, of GHB tunes in an A gap scale which lacks the 7th, the note G, and the listener imagines that if the G were to appear it would be sharp. There are many other GHB tunes in A that have a Major feel in which G does occur, but it’s fleeting, say passing tones etc. Once again there’s an illusion that the tune is in A Major.

The A Major-like gap scale:

A B C# D E F# A

So yes to play GHB tunes on whistle you only need a D whistle.

Personally I don’t like using a D whistle because C# in GHB tunes is often highly ornamented and on D whistle it’s the all-fingers-off note, clumsy to ornament. Once again an E whistle is better because then the C# is the whistleplayer’s B, a note which in ITM is similarly the focus of much ornamentation.

Re: Key of A

"As Bogman alludes to, the traditional Highland pipe repertoire is in two sharps, not three- D Major and the various related keys and modes.

There are many Highland pipe tunes that have an A Major feel. There are dozens, hundreds, of GHB tunes in an A gap scale which lacks the 7th, the note G, and the listener imagines that if the G were to appear it would be sharp. There are many other GHB tunes in A that have a Major feel in which G does occur, but it’s fleeting, say passing tones etc. Once again there’s an illusion that the tune is in A Major. "

Because I play Scottish bellows pipes and fiddle, I am always choosing when and if to play a G nat. vs. G#. And, interestingly, sometimes it sounds best to split the difference between the two, something often done in ITM when deciding on C nat. vs. C#. And often, when playing in Scottish non-pipe sessions, the G#, which sounds great to everyone else in the room, sounds jarring to my 35-years-of-piping ear.

Re: Key of A

"Finding fiddlers that ignorant in Scotland is thankfully rare."

Oh, these fiddlers weren’t ignorant. They were just having a bit of fun at the piper’s expense.

Re: Key of A

Hopefully button box players too! I am very aware of tunes that have the 3 sharps throughout, others that only have two, and play both types of tune.
But what I do find disconcerting, and I know it has been debated before ad libitum ad nauseam is how you write the key sig to such tunes. To me, 2 sharps indicates either D maj or B min (theory learned at around age 9). I now know that’s excluding modes (although maybe I didn’t know anything about modes at age 9!).
What makes best sense to me, if it is to be a modal scale, is to write F# C# G nat at the start of the music, then I really and fully understand and know what is expected of me to play. (Don’t know how pipers cope without any key sigs at all in their notation, but they only have so many notes they can play!)

Re: Key of A

Pipers have no need of a key signature because, as you say, they only have so many notes, but also because they don’t necessarily need to know the "key". Whatever the root, the accompaniment is always going to be the same, unless the drones are stopped.

Re: Key of A

I know Donald, and I’ve maybe largely answered my own question by looking at the score I have in front of me of Drunken Piper. To me, it always sounds "minor-ish" but although in some sort of root key of A, there are no Cs in the whole tune, which might otherwise swing it towards major or minor, depending on whether they were sharpened or natural respectively. Listening to it, deciding chordal accompaniment by ear in its simplest format, it fits with Am and G Maj throughout, just from how it sounds, even if I knew nothing about modes.

Re: Key of A

Sligo Maid is an interesting case. There are very few Cs in the tune at all - two I think - they are incidental, but all sharp; Fs are sharp and Gs natural. This makes the tune by definition A mixolydian. However, many people play the tune with A minor and G major chords and so they think of it as being A Dorian. This was a bitter argument on this very site a year or two ago.

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Re: Key of A

yes, I always play Sligo Maid on the 2 row box with A min and G maj chords, similarly Drunken Piper as mentioned by Trish.