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Notch Flutes

Notches vary in shape, but all make the flute easier to play than the plain rim flute because the notch forms a small area into which one can focus the air-stream. While examples are known in many areas, the predominant uses are in the Orient and South America.

There is an area between the rim-blown and the notch flute which consists of slightly lowering a part of the rim, usually between two-thirds and a third of the circumference, so that it is not really a notch but a shallow crescent, and it is still a help to the player.

The best known flute of this crescent type is the Japanese shakuhachi, a bamboo instrument dating back to early mediaeval times; it derives from a Chinese instrument of the sixth century of which there are several examples in the Shosoin Repository in Nara. The name comes from its length, one Japanese foot (shaku) and point-8 of a foot (hachi), though other sizes are made today, and it is made from the root of a special species of bamboo with nine nodes, most of them clustered at the bottom of the body. The bore is comparatively wide (mine measures 18.5mm) and it is normally lacquered internally. The lip has an insert of hardwood at which the player aims the air-stream There are four fingerholes and a thumb hole so that the basic scale is pentatonic, but the shakuhachi is fully chromatic in the hands of a skilled player because by partly shading fingerholes (‘half-holing’ in our terms) and even more by slightly varying the angle of incidence of the air stream and by partly shading the upper end with the lip an almost infinite variation of pitch and of tone colour is obtainable. The shakuhachi has a major repertoire of music, as could be expected from its long history, and is also often used as a mode for meditation. Today many instruments are also made of wood and often of plastic.

The simplest notches, especially in materials such as bamboo and other giant grasses, are a knife-cut V, but this is not very efficient because the air-stream is somewhat scattered at each side of the V. Better is a U-shape and this is common in China and other parts of South-East Asia. Many of these flutes have a hole for a membrane, like that on the Chinese transverse flute di, though the hole for it usually at the side of the instrument, rather than in line with the fingerholes, and is also smaller in diameter than that of the di. The xiao (old spelling hsiao) is the long Chinese bamboo notch-flute and while sometimes the top is open with a small U-shaped notch in the rim, more often it is closed by a node of the bamboo, save for the notch itself. Exceptionally the node may be cut in an ornamental pattern of small holes, and the membrane, the inner skin of the bamboo itself, is placed over these holes to add the buzzing sound which is an integral part of this music.

One of the best-known flutes with a rectangular notch is the qena of Peru and the neighbouring areas of South America. This can often be heard with the panpipe-playing groups that appear as buskers in our streets and it is also a model that has been widely copied by makers in other countries for those who wish to play exotic instruments.

It is this shape of notch that also forms the mouth of the duct flute, and it is in Brazil that one finds both forms, often in instruments made of the leg-bones of jaguar and other animals. Here a thin area of wax covering the top of the tube can convert a notch flute into a duct flute.

Notch flutes are also found in many other parts of the world, and so also are flutes with a dropped area part of the rim, coming between the rim flute and the crescent-notch flute such as the shakuhachi.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

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