Grey Larsen - The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle
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The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle
by Grey Larsen
Mel Bay Publications (
480 pages, 2 CDs

Larsen states the book "is for flute and whistle players at all levels", but with his logical approach to explaining the music, it also becomes essential reading for those wishing to know more about Irish music in general. In its aim to be a guide to everyone, a certain patience is required from all, from the more adept to the novice alike. Early in the introduction, he encourages newcomers to linger longer on the elementary sections; there is no substitute for a good grounding. Intermediate and advance players will have to find their level. But skipping over or speeding through sections is not advisable, as Larsen introduces his preferred vocabulary (using the word 'mode' instead of 'key,' for example) and develops his own approach to teaching.

Larsen charts the history of the flute through its major developments while explaining its connection with and importance in Irish music. Similarly, he looks at the tin whistle and how it has evolved from a children's or a starter instrument into the much more highly respected instrument it is today. Larsen refers constantly to flute and whistle players of note, making it easier to seek out examples of its playing.

And in many ways, this is the key to the book: immersion - going out and listening to what is being played; in effect, the traditional method of learning by listening. However, as he points out, not everyone is within reach of the older, established players. By following his lessons and explanations and by complementing them with recordings by others, a traditional style of playing can be mastered.

Posture, holding and anchoring the instrument, breathing... Larsen talks in depth about all these physical aspects of playing. But this is prefaced by the relationship one has with one's instrument, an element which is crucial to traditional playing.

Divided into eight sections, he goes on to deal with ornamentation, phrasing, articulation and use of the breath, before covering aspects such as the difficulties of playing slow airs effectively and expressively. He draws parallels between the learning and playing of traditional music and acquiring a foreign language. And needless to say, he emphasizes over and over the importance of practice.

This then leads into sections for the practice of ornamentation, notation for tunes excerpted earlier in the book, and transcriptions of classic performances recorded between 1925 and 2001 (including detailed analyses of the musicians and their styles).

Also included are appendices, detailing the two accompanying CDs which cover the entire course, and explaining adaptations for those who play the Boehm system (classical) flute, as well as fingering charts. There is an excellent bibliography and discography, encouraging further reading and listening.

Larsen's highly readable style allows him to hone in on specific points, which he then places in context with the overall style. There is some inevitable duplication as he explains approaches to whistle and simple-system and modern flutes, but this generally serves to emphasize important points.

Along with the text, he has included easy to understand sketches and diagrams, as well as pertinent photos to demonstrate elements of playing. There are also excellent photos of musicians throughout, making this an enjoyable read as well as a learning guide.

At almost 500 pages, it is a massive tome. But Larsen has chosen to cover a massive subject - it is a comprehensive guide to flute and whistle playing in Irish music, aimed at players of all levels. Almost inevitably, it is not a player-friendly book. I wonder how long it will last before its spine breaks as I place cups and other weights on it in order to keep my place. I can foresee more frustration when I reach the notation later on.

But that is not too much to pay for this reasonably priced book. Over the last few days, I've made pleasing headway on whistle, an instrument I have never seriously attempted to play before. Grey Larsen has taken on a mammoth task and succeeded in presenting even more than he set out to show. The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle is not just a comprehensive how-to book, it is also a fascinating reference work and a really grand read! - Jamie O'Brien

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