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FIFES, FLUTES AND WOODWIND

The presence of the YRF21 in my recorder lists is giving rise to queries so here is an essay on the subject in the hope that it will answer the most FAQs and provide background information.

Strictly speaking the Yamaha instrument is not a true fife, but "fife" is probably the best word to use for this economy modern manifestation of a half size flute, otherwise known as a piccolo or ottavino. True fifes have only six finger holes. Historically the fife was used by the military and commonly exists in several sizes of which the most common is bigger than the piccolo. These instuments are still popular in Northern Ireland where there is a strong tradition of flute bands. The instruments used are of the pattern common at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with six finger holes and eight or so extra keys which are not much used.

Flutes have a long history, they are probably the most ancient of all the woodwind instruments, and examples made from bone in pre-historic times have been found. There are essentially two different types of flute, those where there is no air duct (which for the purpose of this text I will call "flutes") and those with an air duct, of which the recorder and penny whistle are the best known examples. Where there is no air duct one is formed by the lips of the player. Examples of this flute are the modern orchestral instrument, the South American kena and the Japanese shakuhachi.

When the air duct is formed by the player's lips there is great control over the sound, its pitch, loudness and harmonic make up. These flutes do not play themselves. No sound at all is produced without an element of skill from the player.

Woodwind instruments all suffer from the problem of the lack of sufficient human fingers to assign one to each note of the chromatic scale. The diatonic scale is easy. Six holes give the possibility of seven notes and the eigth note of the scale is an octave above the first and is readily produced as a harmonic, as are higher notes. Bingo! Bore six holes in your flute or whatever, use three fingers from each hand, and away you go. The penny whistle and its like are common the world over.

Producing the notes out of the major scale is a problem which is solved by "fork fingering". For any note, if you leave the first hole below the lowest one closed for the note open and then close some more the pitch of the note is dragged down. By careful juggling with the size and spacing of the holes and selecting the right combination of fingers a chromatic scale is possible. For this approach to work the holes have to be rather small and there is a noticeable difference in the tone quality of "open" notes and "forked" notes. Forked notes are rather veiled and weaker.

Woodwind instruments usually notate the six finger note as "D" and the natural scale is D major. (The treble recorder and the bassoon are exceptions, they notate the six finger note as G". In the lower register the clarinet does too, but that is another story.)

Over the ages it was thought necessary to increase the ease playing and loudness of most musical instruments. With the woodwind the result was the addition of keys (mechanical aids) and changes to the bore. The orchestral flute was completely changed and with it some of its character was lost. The ideas applied to the flute (by Theobold Boehm) were borrowed for the clarinet, which suffered less change of tone with the improvements. They were not a success with the oboe but they have been taken to the limit with the saxophone. The basic principle is to provide a hole for each note of the chromatic scale, and mechanism to enable nine, (or for the bassoon and some clarinets ten) digits to control them. With a hole for each note the holes could be large, giving a big sound, and while forked fingerings still existed, the mechanism translated them to virtually unbroken lines of closed holes. This produces an even "open note" sound for every note.

Now, after this background, we come to the Yamaha fife and its relation to the flute.

A true fife has the old system of only six holes, often with one key to produce D#. The fingering is essentially the same as that of the penny whistle, the old baroque flute and later models which sprouted additional keys. In its modern basic form, of which the "Sweethart" is a good example, it is very suitable for diatonic folk music where it can have a more personal tone and control of intonation than is possible with a whistle.

The Yamaha instrument has more holes, eight in all. The extra ones are for the thumb and the right hand little finger. The bottom note is C and the easiest scale is C major. This is very different and the reason for it is that this is not so much an instrument in its own right, but a precursor, economy, half size, modern flute. As such it is wonderfully good. The bore and fingering enables it (in the hands of a skilled player) to produce a really refined and interesting "artist" style of sound. There are other, similar instruments (Aulos make two) but the Yamaha is the only one that I have played that is any good.

So, how should it be approached, and what are its limitations?

It is not a "sideways recorder"! It is a small flute. There is a great deal more to playing a flute than just getting the fingerings right. (The same should be said of the recorder too, but most recorder instruction, unfortunately, goes very little further than fingering and rudiments of music.) It should really be taught by an experienced flute player who can guide the player towards real flute tone as opposed to a windy huff across a bottle noise. It is cheap, small, robust and capable of good musical results. Nearly everything one learns in order to play it can be applied to the modern orchestral flute.

There is one snag. Penny whistles have great difficulty in producing F natural. For very similar reasons, the Yamaha fife has a poor F#. It is possible to skate round this patch of thin ice. This is an introductory instrument and F# can be left out of the repertoire. The Liz Goodwin "Fife Book" does this. No one will know! If, by the time you reach the end of the book, and you realise that you need F#, you should be well enough acquainted with the instrument and the skills needed to play a flute, even one this small, to make a good enough job of it by adjusting the way you blow. A useful lesson can thus be learned. As I said at the beginning, flutes do not play themselves. I have had a perfectly good fife returned because, "It won't play.". In the company of recorders the Yamaha fife will be at home and add variety to a class. It can play all the two octave range of notes possible (with a bit of skill, but the same is true for the recorder) and if the player decides to play a flute (at more than fifty times the cost at least) the basic knowledge and skills are already in place.

I believe that there is danger in giving a full sized flute to a young (small) beginner. A flute is costly, long, fairly heavy and easily damaged. They suffer very badly at the hands of youngsters. If the player is too small for the instrument they are very likely to acquire bad posture habits which are almost impossible to break when they have grown more mature. The Yamaha fife can fill a void where interest might otherwise be lost. The next stage, if the player is still small, would be a flute with a U bend head. This solves most of the posture issue as the hands are both held more or less in front of the body. Such flutes are generally provided with a conventional straight head as well. (I would have found a U bend head very useful in cramped theatre pits, but they are a recent innovation.) The proper piccolo is not a very good way to go. They too are costly (about the same as a flute of equivalent quality) and they are quite hard to play. The sound is far less attractive than the Yamaha fife or descant recorder. All proper flute players have a piccolo, very few enjoy playing it, many hate it. In a professional orchestra it is the preserve of a specialist who enjoys principal status and pay.

In summary, the YRF21 is a good introduction to the flute. There are few limitations and many advantages. It should be properly taught by an experienced flautist.

Some people find the Yamaha fingering charts, with the right hand at the top, difficult to understand and unhelpful. I'm not surprised. I think the standard presentation with the right hand at the bottom is preferable. The mental image is more important than the printed image and you should play by feel rather than sight. It was an easy matter to modify the chart and while I was doing it I discovered a mistake. The fingering for high A# / Bflat should not include the right hand little finger (pinky). You can find the my new version of the fingering chart, in pdf format, here.

I have recorded a couple of pieces from the end of "The Fife Book" by Liz Goodwin. I think that they give a good idea of the potential of the instrument. The second piece is not playable on a standard piccolo! Click here for the link to the sound files.

Since I wrote this piece in July 2005 I have been persuaded to put my advice into practice and take on a pupil. My very young lady pupil, who has some recorder experience, romped through 'The Fife Book' in a few weeks and developed the skills needed to become a 'proper' flute player. Rather than push on into the unsatisfactory field of fife exclusive fingerings we moved, with some trepidation, from the fife to the piccolo. Teaching an exceptionally talented youngster has its joys and responsibilities. This is uncharted territory for me. Selecting suitable music is not easy and there are no piccolo from scratch method books, but things are going well. You can here what she has achieved by clicking here.



Revised 10 July 2010

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