The 3 Hole Flute – playing and making (1)

davMy interest in the 3 holed flute has been a long one, but until recently I have not done anything about it. In February 2020 I got an ache in my shoulder which increased to become extremely painful. I self diagnosed an “impinged shoulder” (self diagnosed as the doctors were in lock-down). When the pain decreased I was left with a arm that could not be moved above the elbow. This curtailed my piping (and all music making) as I could not use the bellows, and I also realised I need both arms to play nearly all of my instruments, I had never thought of this before, but all the instruments I owned need both hands to play. Guitars, mandolin, whistles, bodhran…

The only exception was the keyboard, or my midi controller plugged into my laptop. Then I could play with one hand, improvise and run up and down the keyboard with my good left hand. At the time, I thought my playing career was over, as my right arm was not functioning normally and the pain/ache was not going away. The thought of giving up the instruments I had spent all my life learning was heartbreaking, but what was worse was the thought of giving up music all together.

So I decided to learn another instrument, one that needed 1 hand to play. So entered my renewed interest in the 3 holed flute. The pipe and tabor needs 2 hands of course, but I would only learn the pipe…the whistle…flute.

Lock-down made it difficult to order online, the shops that sold the 3 holed whistle were closed, the only place I could find was the Pipe and tabor Society they sold a 3 hole tin whistle type of instrument. I thought to learn on this before I splashed out on a more expensive instrument.

I ordered the whistle of Rob and Gillian, who were very kind and helpful, I got the whistle in the post sooner rather than later, via a neighbour who was going to the post office that weekend (lock-down put a stop to quick postal deliveries).  I waited, nothing came, I thought it was lost in the post (we had had some lost items already due to the problems lock-down was causing to the postal system). Nothing came, I gave up.

Eventually the whistle came, also included in the package was a finger chart, basic history, and an A4 sheet of melodies to begin playing. Also Gillian offered online tuition to get started, really nice people. The technique is similar to the tin whistle, blowing etc. but the difficulty was getting the top note in the octave, as well as notes above the octave. I was blowing hard and I was not getting any note….just a squeal, or it dropped down into the 2nd register.

I tried different ways of blowing and nothing was happening. Eventually I decided the instrument was a fault !! not the player!! and I felt if I had a better instrument I would achieve better results. So I began making a 3 hole flute. The 3 holed tin whistle is great for outdoors, but to practice indoors takes some getting used to.

The 3 holed tin whistle does have a sharp and piercing sound. What you would normally play on a tin whistle (the bottom octave/1st register) is not played on the 3 holed flute. It is too low and quiet. The fundamental starts on the 2nd register, and you are beginning to blow hard and the metallic sound is quite loud in a confined space.

Here is an explanation of the notes and registers:

Bass/1st register – D, E, F#, G (too weak to be played)

2nd Register/fundamental (by blowing harder) – d, e, f#, g

3rd register (blowing even harder) – a, b, c#, d’ (the top d’ is very difficult to achieve)

4th register (by blowing harder, and this is the register I could not achieve) d’, e’, f#’, g’

When played correctly you can play in D major and E minor.

I was getting frustrated with the top notes, and the piercing squeal of the top notes were not doing my relationship any good!! Leila, never complains about my playing, but she did by putting her hands over her ears….she never said a word. That was the final straw…or note. I thought at least by making a wooden flute I can reduce the metallic shrill sound, and leave the tin whistle to when I am outside.

I have never made a whistle before, so I took apart an old plastic recorder that I had bought in Madrid for 6 euros. I had been drying wood for years, from my garden, and I thought this was a good time to use it, I am not sure of the type of wood, but I am guessing beech? It has a lovely grain. I long bored 2 sections and turned them down, connecting one end to the recorder mouth piece, and the other end I joined to the other section (it was going to be in 2 sections).

Where to put the holes?  I tried the old fashioned method of placing ones fingers on the pipe and marking them off, then increasing the size of hole. My intention was to make a major scale, but it came out as a minor. Not to worry, as I had made a Spanish 3 holed flute! The key was not important to me, nor was it being exactly in tune (440c), as all I wanted was a flute to practice on, this was an experiment…not the finished article. At least I know now where to drill and if I make another pipe it will be a lot better and in tune.

In fact the pipe came out as a B on my chromatic tuner, making it a B minor pipe. After some consultation with Alberto Jambrina (a master of Spanish folk music in the north of Spain), I learned new things about tuning and pitch, and of the different types of tuning that the 3 hole flutes use in northern Spain.

With my research into the Ney and Kaval I realised that the duct flute was too short in length, it needed to be longer. I had tried to copy the tin whistle, but this was a mistake, I had to go back to the beginning.

This was an experiment and it achieved its aim of playing at a quieter volume. The tone was sweet, light and smooth… I love the sound. The top B was a problem, but I think the flute is too short to get it. But as the mind is always seeking new solutions, my interest was not satisfied and I had already begun to plan my next experiment for this 3 holed flute…


Author: ethnopiper

A Ethnomusicologist and musician of traditional music, Small pipe maker, teacher and workshop presenter ...

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