Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

These thoughts emerged from reading the strand on "hard" flute tone, but I didn’t want to hijack it so I’m hoping to start a new discussion. Having played whistle for decades I have been thinking of taking up the flute on the grounds that the fingering is similar. However, I am put off by the many comments that suggest that it might take months (maybe years) to get a good embouchure and the requisite tone. This got me wondering about the relative difficulties of learning new instruments and whether it would be more satisfying to learn an instrument that is more responsive in the initial stages. So, for someone who can play the whistle, which of the two is easier (or less difficult) to learn: flute or uilleann pipes?

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

Good question. I went the whistle to flute to pipes route, and now mostly play pipes.

The underlying assumption of my answer is that slight changes in figuring are the easiest to learn. For the flute one has to learn two things more: how to hold it, and the embouchure, and that does take time, but you will playing tunes from the start and having fun even if the tone isn’t where you want it. Tuning can take a while because some notes tend sharp or flat and need to be fixed with the airstream. Short answer, yes there is time before you get good tone, but the complexity of the task isn’t very high if you play the whistle.

I found the pipes to be a significantly bigger challenge, mostly because it takes a long time before all the tasks go on auto-pilot. The bag and bellows are controlled by large muscles, so it took me a while to keep my hands relaxed when my arms were working. It took my aging brain quite a while to learn how to “breathe” with my bag, tune with the bag, how to let the bag do more of the work, and how to have calm, “just enough” bellows work. My finger control had to improve, and playing on the flats of my fingers meant I found it harder to feel the holes. And then there is looking after and replacing reeds….

None of the above should dissuade you. I took up the pipes in my late 50’s, but only made real progress once I retired and had the time to devote to them. Other issue was that there are not a lot of pipers near me to show me the ropes.

Hugh

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

I started learning the flute after playing a whistle and, to be honest, found it magnitudes harder (others may have had a different experience).

Forming an embouchure to create a sound is pretty easy (you can play a slow tune, as a whistler, within 30mins), but refining it to make each note *be in tune* and get expression out of it, for me, takes forever.

I’ve been playing it for well over 1.5 years now and wouldn’t be happy leading a tune in a session yet.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun learning though!

I’ve never played Uillean pipes but I’m afraid they’re famous for being one of the hardest Irish instruments to learn.
If you wanted to try, there’s a silent electronic midi device called a warbl that’s great fun for practicing whistles on and can also be setup as an uilleann pipe chanter to have a go.

I also started the melodeon (button diatonic accordian) at the same time as I picked up the flute, and found that much more fun as, for me, it was better to have a second instrument completely different to my primary one (no need for breathing control, able to have fun with chords etc), and great to get a break from “the wind sound” occasionally, which you can’t when a flute is your second instrument.

Again, purely a personal experience, others may have found things different 🙂

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

Go for it, the sooner you start the more fun you’ll have. Definitely challenges to both but loads of people play them successfully. Agree with comments above. Flute is easier to get away with in a session to start with, and piping can be a solitary pursuit sometimes, but there’s nothing like it. I play both but had some years head start on the flute so it’s difficult to compare progress.

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

Having done whistle 1st then gone on to get up to speed on flute and u. Pipes, the flute was easier.

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

Go for the flute.

Uilleann Pipes require a village. Do you have a village? 🙂

I’ve played both for over 20 years and without a village (the Southern California Uilleann Pipers Club), with it’s mix of experienced players and teachers, builders, reed-makers, and wood-workers, with regular meetings and tionols, I think many of us would never had made much progress on the instrument.

Flute is far less fussy, doesn’t depend as much on the weather and the mood of pieces of cane or spruce, and isn’t constantly trying to blow itself apart. Minor repairs or maintenance if required, like replacing key pads, or re-corking tenons, even fixing cracks, can be done by a local orchestral instrument repair person who is already familiar with wooden instruments like oboes and clarinets.

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

I don’t subscribe to the notion that it takes a long time to develop an embouchure for flute. Sounding Irish is not hard at all, but you have to know what to do. I’ve taken workshops with the best players, but they aren’t always good teachers. Wish I’d known then what I know now. Knowledge is the key. Employing it ain’t hard at all. You also need to listen to the players you want to sound like so you can identify the desired sound when you achieve it. Someone said as much in the thread that inspired this one and it’s the truth. I find flute ever so much more satisfying than whistle, both as a player and a listener, but that’s just my preference. The fingering is the least of it. It being a wind instrument is what you’ll feel a kinship with. Since pipes get their air from a bag or bellows, I put them in a different category, but pipers may offer a more educated opinion. Anyway, getcha a flute; ye’ll no regret it.

Posted by .

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

I’ve often described playing the Uilleann pipes as playing a flute player.

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

I’ll go with that!

Posted by .

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

I didn’t see anyone speaking to what I think of as the most important question. What do you want to play? Why? It seems to me that choosing an instrument because it’s easy is a bit suspect. The easiest path is to not learn either, or anything. Shouldn’t there be a more meaningful reason for any decision? "Easy" seems like a poor reason for anything that matters. As my father said often enough, "What did you ever do that was easy was worth the effort?"

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

Another vote for the flute. To play the pipes you really, really, really, have to want to play the pipes. That’s not to say that the flute is easy, but you can get into the game much more affordably, and the maintenance is not much to deal with. It takes work and consistency of course, but a day spent going between flutes and whistles is a good thing. Don’t worry about the time frame, just enjoy the ride. Slow tunes and song airs are a good place to start. Flutes hold their value too, should you decide it’s not for you.

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

This is a great question. I started on tin whistle, then the flute for about 5 years, gave it up as I did not feel I could «get» the embouchure, started learning uilleann pipes and love it! I have been playing the pipes 5 years and I have a healthy progress although a long way to go. But here is the thing; I have decided to get back to flute again as I miss the intimacy and the feel of it! Both the pipes and flute are great in their own way so you either have to decide between them or do both! I learned the low whistle as a substitute for flute, but it is really not the same. So to sum up I now play tin whistle, low whistle, pipes and soon again flute. One more thing, I have had great progress in my whistle playing after I picked up the pipes so they all benefit from each other in my opinion. You cant go wrong with either

Posted by .

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

Of course, if COVID-19 will be messing with us for the foreseeable future, then pipes are (possibly) the healthier choice if you have aspirations to play them in public pub sessions.

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

Ross Faison makes a very valid point when he asks "What do you want to play? Why?". My standpoint is that I want to play a body of music, rather than a particular instrument. So the actual instrument is a means to that end, which is why I am mulling over two possibilities.

I think that too many kids are pressured into learning a particular instrument and end up practising a repertoire that isn’t especially congenial to them. I think it would be better if kids were exposed to different bodies of music, and then when they find one that they like, choose an instrument that appeals to them.

I don’t think either flute or pipes are easy - indeed, both might be too difficult for me - but I am trying to get a realistic appreciation of the potential difficulties involved before spending a lot of money.

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

I’d agree - what do you want to play? Both are among the hardest instruments out there to play, especially for the earlier stages. (All instruments, including song, are equally hard at the top end of the high art…) I play flute and pipes, though not Uilleann, and have also taken up the Melodeon as Belayatron has (and for much the same reasons…) I would note:
1. Pipes are much more maintenance intensive; either you commit to learning this or having easy access to people who can do this. Reeds not setup properly => unplayable pipes…
2. Flute is played half in front of and half behind the lips The half behind the lips will be completely new for you coming from Whistle. The half in front of the lips has similarities to the whistle, but again what works well is not always the same.
3. Flute is closer to singing than most other instruments.
4. Pipes are great fun when they are working. Almost nothing musical can match the feeling of being in the middle of the sound coming from a properly set up and in tune set of pipes.
5. You cannot play along quietly on pipes. A lady from Galway once told me that you had to be a bit of an A**ehole to play the pipes because you have no choice but to stand out and be heard, however good or bad you are. And to start with, you will be bad. (A bit later that same evening she told me that she thought I might have what it takes to become a piper…)
6. Flute is easier to carry around.
7. Flutes, while not cheap, are still cheaper than Uilleann Pipes.
8. A Flute is more generally suited to playing with other people than pipes. Pipes pretty much have to be the dominant voice.
9. I am actually aware of a number of pipers and flute players, i.e. people who play both. It will always remain an option.
10. Both instruments will very quickly give you a huge increase in musical options compared to the whistle. Except for switching key by changing whistle of course!

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

Probably you will eventually want to play both! I had the same decision to make when I decided to pick up another instrument after becoming comfortable playing tunes on the whistle. To me, it came down to the fact that I was 40 years old and I thought I probably had a better chance of quicker proficiency on the flute. There are just less physical skills to master with the flute since you don’t have the bellows and bag. The embouchure, hold, and breathing with the flute certainly take work and are not easy to master either. But the pipes just have an added layer of complexity and that seems like it would take extra time…and I’m not getting any younger.

The were other downsides to the pipes for me as well. No one really plays them where I live…if I lived in NYC, Boston or Southern California that might be different. Not having many pipers around means having to learn how to do all the maintenance (and likely reed-making) by myself. Also, the pipes lack the dynamic range of the flute because it can’t be played very quietly. There are few sounds as beautiful as a set of pipes playing an air, but it isn’t very dynamic when it comes to volume. The flute (and the violin) have a lot of expressive possibilities for playing airs. The flute is also extremely direct, especially when it comes to "singing" with your instrument. Because it is breath-driven, it mimics some aspects of the human voice that other instruments don’t. You can play long flowing legato lines with the pipes or a fiddle that would be impossible to sing. The flute requires compromise and choosing your breathing spaces and is therefore very "vocal".

Finally, I had about $1500 to spend on an instrument. This meant I could get an unkeyed flute made by one of the best flute makers in the world (Patrick Olwell) that would last me a lifetime, or I could get a practice set of Uilleann Pipes that I’d probably have to make a compromise or two on and would definitely want to upgrade at some point.

In the end, I chose to go with the flute. I made the right choice for me and love the instrument and its sound, especially in the hands of a master. But I am still also slightly justifying it to myself as well. If I was younger, had more money, had local teachers/builders, I would’ve probably gone with the pipes as there’s just nothing else that stirs my soul QUITE like the sound of the pipes.

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

My route was odd I suppose:
Highland pipes > Uilleann pipes > Irish flute > whistle.
(This all took place in around a four-year period, in the 1970s, when I was a teenager.)

So I know a lot about learning these things, but nothing about transitioning

whistle > flute
whistle > uilleann pipes.

because I went the opposite direction!

To me the obvious answer is that flute is easier.

The fingering the same, or nearly the same, as the whistle. Also, perhaps because I played flute before I played whistle, I have always found it much easier to play in tune with others on the flute than on whistles.

The statements above implying that flutes are inherently out-of-tune and have to be corrected by the player baffle me. Yes in the hundreds of flutes I’ve played over the years I have encountered many out-of-tune ones! But I wouldn’t dream of buying a flute like that. Who would? The flutes I bought and played were needle-straight-up instruments, just like all my whistles are, just like my Concert D uilleann chanter is.

I think learning embouchure isn’t as difficult as some people make it out to be. I know on these boards there is often negativity about studying technique under a teacher, but I (and many generations of flutists) have found that progress on embouchure development is far faster if done under the guidance of a good flutist who knows how to teach tone. If you take weekly lessons for a month- only 4 lessons- you will progress more than a year of blindly experimenting on your own. Yes there are very talented and lucky people who quickly develop great tone on their own! For the other 90% of humanity, lessons speed the process.

Another thing about flutes is that there are no reeds. Once they asked a middle-aged piper why he never married. "Marry?" he stormed, "Reeds are worry enough!"

Uilleann pipe bellows suck in the ambient air, thus the reeds are victim to not only to the temperature but also the humidity level. Both factors effect tuning and the way the reeds play. I do recommend spruce or cedar chanter reeds, which are much less impacted by these variables.

Uilleann fingering is analogous to flute/whistle fingering, though almost entirely different in detail.
The main issue for me is that on flute or whistle you can easily hop back and forth between any high and low notes, while on the uilleann chanter you often have to map out how you’re going to get to the high notes, if that makes any sense. On my chanter at least I can’t just finger "B" and have High B appear out of nowhere, like I can on flute. I have to crack open the lower-hand index finger as a vent, then super-quickly slide up from A to B. Yes the illusion is of a High B suddenly popping out, but in reality it’s a process.

The other advantage to flutes is that IMHO it’s much easier to play chromatically on a keyed Irish flute than it is on a keyed uilleann chanter. And many flutes have keys for Low C and Low C# which come in handy.

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

How badly do you want to play uilleann pipes? If you hesitate in answering you might want to get a flute so you can get started and put piping on the backburner.

However, if your answer veers (even in the slightest) toward piping you might as well get started now, because why not nip it in the bud?

Posted by .

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

I play whistle and pipes, but not flute (can’t even get a beer bottle to whistle, so there’s that).

"My standpoint is that I want to play a body of music, rather than a particular instrument. So the actual instrument is a means to that end, which is why I am mulling over two possibilities."

For the pipes, you need more passion for the instrument itself than these sentences imply, because like Richard and others have said, the maintenance and the faff are an absolute ball-ache. You either have to like fiddley maintenance and faff, or you have to lov the sound of the instrument and playing it enough to grudgingly tolerate the maintenance and faff. I’m really terrible at it and I hate it, but I live near a lovely, generous pipemaker who sorts my pipes out when I look sad, throw some pipes at him, and ask him to please make it work.

And sometimes, I look at clusterf* cks like the drones on my Bb set, despair, and say to myself, "That’s a problem for future DrSilverSpear."

If you see the instrument as a merely a means to an end — playing Irish music — then there are many that don’t make you question your life choices quite as much as the pipes.

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

I was at a crossroads when I decided to pick up an additional instrument besides mandolin to play this music. I wanted a sustaining instrument, and I was trying to decide between flute or button box, with pipes a distant third due to what I’d heard about the learning curve.

What it came down to was what Michael Eskin described above, about how "it takes a village" and I didn’t have one.

I’m in a fairly remote part of northwestern Washington state. You can’t swing a cat without hitting an Irish or Scottish fiddler, but button box and Uilleann pipers and repair techs are thin on the ground. We have a plethora of Scottish pipers in my area on GHB, border pipes and smallpipes, but I didn’t want to fall down that rabbit hole.

My fiddler S.O. has very good intonation and always lets me know when I’m not in tune, so I was scared of getting a button box that might not be perfectly in tune. Of course that’s a consideration with the pipes as well. I didn’t know if I could handle the maintenance issues of either a box or pipes. The flute seemed like something I could maintain myself and get into good intonation (with a modern version at least), so that’s what I settled on.

I’m on my second flute, a nice keyed one bought secondhand so it needed a little TLC, but I’ve learned to do that myself. I’ve learned how to wrap tenon threads, and I’ve learned how to replace a leaky key pad on my keyed flute. It’s not that complicated to self-maintain. Even easier with a flute without keys, just a stick with some holes in it. As for intonation, it’s so close to spot-on that when I play tunes at home with my fiddler S.O. we sound like a single instrument when we’re both having a good day. It’s fantastic.

What’s complicated is that flute is such a *physical* instrument, so much more demanding on my aging body than anything I’ve ever played as a musical instrument since playing kit drums in Rock bands as a teenager. But that’s okay. The trade-off is that it’s a simple instrument and I just have to pull the music out of my body as well as this stick of wood. I think I made a good choice, although I still love hearing a good box player or Uilleann piper. The path not taken, and all that. It’s all good.

Re: Learning flute versus learning uilleann pipes

Praise to all the posters who have provided some very good and comprehensive advice. I am impressed by the quality of answers. I will still not dig out the David Daye practice chanter that I bought a while ago for all of the reasons mentioned above, so I have a nice warm glow of self-confirmation from reading all these posts. Thank you everyone. And it really is all about the music.