Lesson 3: The Roll

Lesson 2 was my introduction to the roll on Irish flute.

Thank goodness I recorded this lesson. In the moment, it was all Jack talking about "diddle-lee" (I don't know diddly about diddle-lee) and demonstrating something in a context I couldn't catch. Listening to the replay, the light dawned - he's talking about triplets. Triplets with a finger trick, and whose guise may change with meter and note length, but triplets nonetheless.

The finger trick (262k). Trying to make three notes sound like a single drum beat. Jack calls them "taps". The flute in Irish playing is percussive, something I've approached in jazz, but not this particular technique. This is not my grandmother's flute playing. Or maybe it is.

The entire triplet goes:

  1. Lift a finger to get a higher note. Not the next higher note, kind of a non-note that approaches two notes up. This is the first note of the triplet.
  2. Replace the finger to go back to the original note. This is the second note of the triplet.
  3. Then the tap to one note below and back. This is the third note of the triplet.

The notes of the triplet are played evenly. For example the first measure of The Mouse in the Mug. Written without reference to the roll, the measure looks like:

With the roll written out in time it looks like:


  1. The 16th note labelled 1, the first note of the triplet, is where you lift the middle finger of the left hand to get a pseudo B.
  2. The 16th note labelled 2, the second note of the triplet, is where you put the middle finger of the left hand back down to get G again.
  3. The 16th note labelled 3, the third note of the triplet, is where you do the tap with the index finger of the right hand down to F# and back. Though it's like a drum beat at the beginning of this note, it should sound as though you have never left G. To fill it out in meter, this G continues for another 16th note.

Phew, it's easy once you understand the timing of it! But then you need to practise it to the point where you can play it really fast, so fast you can't think about the timing. And your fingers also must handle all the various fingerings, some of which are not intuitive and are physically difficult. Your brain gets it first, but it's your fingers that need to learn how and when to do it automatically so your brain is out of the loop. It needs to be compiled into the flesh.

This is the essence of Irish flute, until you get this you can't play Irish.

I'm getting there, at least on one note, approbation from Jack (66k).

Warning: the following paragraph lays out an analogy between Irish flute playing and whitewater kayaking that may be incomprehensible to anyone except perhaps fiddlers Dave and Eric. I've yet to meet an Irish flute player who does whitewater, they must get their adrenaline rush from trying to play all these damn ornaments.
You won't have fun in Irish music till you get your roll. And you definitely won't have fun in a whitewater kayak till you get your roll! In both cases - the roll is fundamental and non-obvious. Even as an experienced flute player, I could not pick out what the heck they were doing by ear. As a kayaker, well, the only ones I know who picked it up by luck are the Eskimos, that was natural selection. In both cases, I had to break it down, way way down. Then forget it. The only way you can do an Irish or kayak roll is through muscle memory. Jack Gilder talks on and on about it. So does Jim Crenshaw at Current Adventures. If you have to think about it, you don't have it.
End of whacky whitewater analogy.

Valentine's Day Evening at the Plough

It was another flute session!

Though I'm usually not one to care much for appearances... and though this little folk flute does damn well... still, I found myself wishing I had a flute that looked like the other boys'.

Ah, but the music. This session I knew three tunes (a statistically significant jump from the single tune I knew in each of the previous sessions): Cliffs of Moher, Road to Rio, and Star of Munster.

A curious thing about these tunes. Even if I "know" one, I may not recognize it quickly, or at all. At one point, when Vinnie started a tune, Jack looked over at me and winked. I had that vague feeling I'd "been there before" but couldn't place it. Asked Vinnie when it was over - The Star of Munster. Ha! Jack and I had hit that tune mere hours earlier - at my request, having heard and liked it at a session in Sacramento. I can't yet hear through the differences in interpretation.

On my return from a whizz break, Jack pointed out an admirer at the bar who had bought me the next round. Yes, we had talked before the session. A sweet person who, once he discovered that Vinnie and I aren't married, fabricated a fantasy at breathtaking speed, with the finale of him proposing to me at the end of the evening. Lonely hearts in a bar on Saint Valentine's Day....