Xiao and Jian Pu
Welcome to your first xiao lesson!
Now, you have been introduced to your xiao and you are ready to get started! Everything below is your need-to-know basics for setting up, reading, practicing, and playing your first song!
Follow these steps to begin playing the Way!
-Taking Care of Your Xiao
-Holding Your Xiao
-Reading Jian Pu
-Your First Song!
Getting Started: Identifying Your Xiao
Of course this is fairly redundant, but with the variety of bamboo flutes out there, it does grant a basic introduction to understand your xiao and its distinct qualities. As previously noted, there are different versions of xiao but the most popular and most likely version that you will begin with is the dongxiao (洞箫. lit "holed" flute). A dongxiao may come in different variations of length, sections, and bamboo coloration. You could have a single piece or a 2 or 3 sectioned flute. Each type has its pros a cons. A single piece is more aesthetically valuable and often higher quality flutes will be crafted from the base of the bamboo, keeping the roots intact along with a higher price point. Sectional flutes are easy to adjust if the tuning fluctuates and are very easy to travel with.
Mouthpieces can also vary from flute to flute. Most beginner flutes will have a covered end with a small cut (in varying shapes depending on the maker and style) will others may remove the bamboo node for an open end. This will require the player to maintain a better seal to ensure a good embouchure (the way in which a player applies the mouth to the mouthpiece of a brass or wind instrument). A dongxiao will have a fairly wide opening compared to a qinxiao (琴箫, zither flute, see the starred flute to the right). Qinxiao are designed to have a lower volume so that they can be played with a guqin (Chinese "zither") and not drown out the soft harmonics when performed together. The finger holes are also much finer on a qin xiao. This makes a qinxiao a delicate xiao to practice and much more difficult to begin with before one develops any real sensitivity.
Finally there is the difference in key. This is the main scale that the flute is built around. This is usually listed in the center of the flute next to the "4th" hole (counted from the bottom). This will determine the spacing of the finger holes. The lower the pitch of the flute, the farther apart the holes become. All beginner flutes will be in either the key of G or F and these will cover the vast majority of music commonly played by the xiao.
There are other minor differences from xiao to xiao. Some xiao are bound with black wire. This keeps the bamboo from cracking as it expands and contracts in temperature and humidity changes. This will be important for those who play in dry climates or change locations often. Bamboo flexes and expands with temperature and humidity and can be prone to cracking if this changes too quickly or it if left out to dry for extended periods. In fact most of the aesthetic details are actually designed to protect the flute. Some xiao will have a plastic, stone, or bone piece attached to the bell (the bottom end of the xiao). This is to protect the flute from cracks starting at the base from regular wear and tear as well as accidental dropping.
Taking Care of Your Xiao
With all of the above in mind, xiao are actually very resilient instruments. There is a reason why bamboo has been a construction material all over Asia for so long. A good flute has been aged naturally and the bamboo gets more dense over time. You will find that a cheap beginner flute has a different feel than a high quality one just in weight alone sometimes. That is because this bamboo may be relatively quite young before it is harvested, dried, and crafted into a flute. These flutes are dried quickly and may be more prone to cracking. A naturally dried flute will have a distinct, typically darker, coloration that happens slowly over time. If taken care of properly a good xiao can last generations.
So how do we properly take care of a xiao? A xiao can take a lot of damage. They can usually be easily repaired and as long as you don't use it to hold doors open, paddle a boat, compete in a pool tournament, or stir a cooking pot, your xiao will last a long time. The main concern for a xiao player is humidity. All bamboo flutes prefer a slightly humid environment. You do not want your flute to get too dry and crack. This means storing your flute out of direct sunlight, away from air conditioners and any constant breeze, and away from an extreme temperatures.
The best rule of thumb is to keep playing your xiao. A used door never rusts just as a practiced xiao is a protected xiao. The xiao comes with everything it needs, it is a stick with holes. This is one of the best qualities of a good xiao, it's minimal upkeep. Of course, should the need for travel arrive, a case is great to keep your flute safe and if you do live in a dry climate it is good to store your xiao between practices and warm it up slowly when beginning your practice. Use care and common sense when maintaining your xiao and you will be fine.
Holding Your Xiao
Now, like any first music class, that we have explained the instrument, you are finally allowed to hold it. The Xiao should be held at a 45 degree angle down from the mouth. If you have a flute with a cutout slot for blowing into you should place the bottom edge of the cutout on the bottom part of your bottom lip. To be exact this edge should meet with the place where the lip changes into skin. This area is sensitive and you should be able to find the proper position with practice. From here, the left hand grasps the top, covering the back hole with the thumb and the next three holes with the index, middle, and ring fingers respectively. The pinky finger should be placed lightly on the top of the flute. The right hand fingers close over the bottom four holes with the pinky finger covering the last one that is normally placed at a slight angle to ensure a good fit. Most flutes are right handed and the lowest finger hole will be made off center so that the right hand pinky finger can reach it and make a proper seal. Left handed flutes can be made for those who can't make the switch but they are not too common. Instead of using the tips of the fingers, you should use the pads of the fingers. There are two different grips that are traditionally used, the half and the full piper.
Finger position with placement of first finger pads over holes. A beginner finger positioning.
Finger position with placement of second finger pads over holes. A more advanced and traditional positioning.
As for posture while playing, the most important details are to maintain the correct placement and angle of the flute, keep a straight back and neck, relax the shoulders, slightly drop your elbows, empty the chest, and breathe from the belly by slightly engaging the core and dropping the diaphragm. Many people find that standing is easier in the beginning, while other prefer to sit on a chair or even in a meditative type posture on the ground. Any version is fine as long as the details above are followed. A downside to standing is that people may read notation that is too low and "drop" the angle of the flute which will result is a flat tone. Sitting may be comfortable but it may also bring a tendency to slouch or impact the deep breathing ability for some. Try different things but maintain a standard throughout your practice. It is also important to arrange your training space so that it suits, and does not distract from, your learning.
Once the positioning is clear and a good seal is made with the embouchure and the finger positioning, a steady blow out (much like you would if you were whistling or blowing through a narrow straw) will result in a clear tone emanating from each finger positioning.
In the beginning, you should practice an open note with no holes covered just to get the right xiao position, correct your posture, and understand the embouchure and your breathing. Once you can get a clear and steady sound, you can slowly move into playing different notes and progressions. Below is a basic note chart to understand where each pitch is played. Fingering positions may vary and there are a few standards that we will get to in the following sections. First, you will need to understand the notation system used.
-"Slow/Normal/Strong" are notes on the character of the blowing strength
-The holes are counted from the bottom up. The farthest away hole is #1 and the hole on the back, covered by the thumb, is #8
-The bottom left is a list referencing the original key of the xiao.
-A solid circle is played covered, a white circle is played open, and a half circle is a half note, played with the finger slightly opening on the hole.
-A sharp note is referenced with a "#" sign, and a flat note is characterized by a "b".
-For further notes please read below.