Tom Stermitz

tunebook 379 tunes.

Northern Colorado.

I first learned penny whistle in the 1980s, inspired by Pentangle, The Chieftans, and the Bothy Band but I can’t say that I really became an intuitive musician. I stopped just before River Dance exploded ITM into a worldwide phenomenon. In 1995 Colorado had one, maybe two sessions; I woke up 25 years later to notice a dozen or more sessions within an hour drive of my house.

I picked the whistle back up, and after a couple of practice years, I fell in love with the flute. I never looked back, and rarely play the whistle any more as I’m captivated by the resonance and "breath" of the flute. I’m happy to play for 2 hours in the morning, and come back for another 3 in the afternoon.

I like to say that my skill level is "intermediate going on beginner", meaning I’ve arrived at the point where I know how little I know, and that becoming an "Expert" is a lifetime away. I can play quite a few tunes at session speed in the common keys, if I know them well, anyway.

My first flute was a Solen Lesouef, which was a great flute with a generous and easy embouchure. I began looking for a keyed flute, and lucked into an 8-key antique Firth, Pond and Sons. It has no cracks anywhere and the pewter C-foot plays effortlessly and strongly. The embouchure is not so easy, and requires (i.e. it forced me to learn) good focus. My favorite flute at the moment is a John Gallagher, large-holed Rudall style flute. The sound is like dark chocolate, and the more I improve my lips, the better it plays.

Thoughts on Playing in Flat Keys on a Keyed Flute: C-Major, F-Major, Bb and Eb.

At some point I came across a few tunes I really loved in the key signatures other than D or G, and thereby set off in the "flat direction". I can’t say this is a short and easy path, but it is a very rewarding one.

Partly, I wanted to have greater mastery over my instrument. Also, I wanted to play a few pieces from genres other than ITM. But, the main reason is that I love tunes in these key signatures; they "feel" soooo different. D-Dorion is so "growly", F-Major so pretty, and C-Minor is sooo MINOR!

A great tune to learn flat keys is Annika’s Butterfly a Finnish tune in D-minor played by Sharon Shannon. Played slowly it has the beauty to keep you improving. Here are two of my favorite sets:
Paddy Fahey Reel #1 in D Minor to Lad O’Beirnes in F Major.
Brown Coffin in G Minor into Goodnatured Man in F Major(like Martin Hayes)


I always use the long-F. I think most ITM players use the short-F, but I couldn’t figure out how to go from E to short-F smoothly. And, my left hand little finger was just sitting there, not doing anything aside from the occasional G#. I did finally find a tune where I needed short F - something in C-minor (Key of Eb) where I needed to go from Ab to F.

In any case, adding the F-natural note is not too difficult, and tunes like Julia Delaney, Porthole of the Kelp come up frequently in sessions.


In the words of The Bard: "Aye, there’s the rub". Look up "flute three point grip". If you’re like I was, you have a death grip using the left hand thumb. I had to relearn my grip basically from scratch in order to develop a relaxed, 3-point grip that was balanced and secure, and would allow the left thumb to float. Yes, it took a while, but it is necessary and possible. As a bonus, the 3-point grip ends up being more relaxed and ergonomic for both hands. In fact I would have advised the newby-me to START with that grip. I do recall that the knuckle of my left index finger would get sore; now, that doesn’t happen unless I’ve been playing a good long while. Also, I needed to re-orient my right thumb to press more "away" rather than up.

Low C-Key

Very few ITM musicians have a C/C# foot, but it turns out that a lot of D-Dorian tunes (as well as F-tunes) use a low C. It makes sense if you consider all the Dorian tunes that have phrases that go back and forth between ii-minor and I-major arpeggios. On a 6-key flute, you have no choice but to fold the C note, and it turns out that doesn’t distract from the tune. If you really like/want the tonal quality of the low C, then a keyless C flute is almost cheaper than adding the C-foot option to a 6-key flute.

Here is a short list of my favorites:

F-Key: C-Maj/D-Dor/A-Min

D-Dor Paddy Fahey’s Reel #1
D-Dor Porthole of the Kelp
D-Dor Julia Delaney’s
A-Min Raven’s Wing

F & Bb-Keys: F-Maj/G-Dor/D-Min

F-Maj Goodnatured Man
F-Maj Neckbelly
F-Maj Lad O’Beirnes
G-Dor Lad O’Beirnes
G-Dor Eileen Curran
D-Min Molly Eammon Mor
D-Min Annika’s Butterfly

F, Bb & Eb-Keys: Bb/C-Dor/G-Min
G-Min Brown Coffin (When the Tide Comes In)

F, Bb, Eb & Ab-Keys: Eb/F-Dor/C-Min
C-Min Lagrimas y Sonrissas (Vals)