Xiao and Jian Pu

Ba Gua
Ba Gua

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!

-Xiao Identification
-Taking Care of Your Xiao
-Holding Your Xiao
-Reading Jian Pu
-Basic Drills
-Your First Song!
Xiao Carefree Valley

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. 
Xiao Varieties
Xiao Keys
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. 
Half Piper

Half Piper

Finger position with placement of first finger pads over holes. A beginner finger positioning.

Full Piper

Finger position with placement of second finger pads over holes. A more advanced and traditional positioning.
Full Piper
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.

Fingering Chart

Reference Notes:

-"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.

To begin playing your flute, we will use the reference of Sol (low D or 5 with a dot underneath) as the lowest note. This is the lowest note that you can play when all of the holes are covered. From here you will ascend up the flute and in pitch by lifting each subsequent finger. With the exception of what will be referred to here as the "base positions." These are the sound holes that are usually kept closed in a standard tuning. They are the second hole and the sixth hole or the right hand ring finger and the left hand middle finger, respectively. These notes are usually skipped in the Do-Re-Mi scale but are available to make playing easier if necessary. Remember that some xiao may only have 6 holes. This type of flute will require playing half-covered holes at some points. This is what makes the 8 holed xiao more standard and easier to play. Especially across different tunings.

Understanding and Reading Jian Pu

Jian Pu (简谱, pinyin = jiǎnpǔ) is the simplified Chinese number notation used in most all instruments and sheet music in China. The system is straightforward and easy to understand across many instruments. However, there are some special details for each to be aware of.
The numbering system of jianpu is representative of the standard minor scale Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Xi. Xi is used in place of Ti because it suits the phonics of native Chinese speakers. To understand how to transfer that into jianpu is as easy as 1-2-3. We simply replace Do with 1, Re with 2, and so on. The only strange thing is that, with standard tuning on a xiao, the lowest note is Sol or a 5. From here, we count up and the first note with the left hand (holes 1, 3, and 4 open) is Do or 1.  

The register of the note is represented by a dot either below, above, or removed from the representative number. A dot below means low register, a dot above means high register, and no dot present means middle scale. This is because the fingering pattern for low and middle registers will be the same. The different pitch is achieved through manipulation of the embouchure.
Xiao Notation
Numbered notation easily represents everything that you need to know about the pitch, rhythm, register, tempo, and the general structure of a piece. After the basic frame of the song is established there is also special notation for ornamentation of the xiao. This refers to special techniques like crescendos, trills, strikes, glissandos, slurs, flutter tonguing and more. These should be added to music where appropriate and used sparingly in the early stages of learning the flute. It is necessary to be able to play the basics well before moving on to for advanced techniques. For more information on this, please refer to the online tutorials on the Wudao Music Youtube channel.
Wu Dao Music
Notation Key

Basic Drills Practice

Once you understand the basics of the notation system, we can get started with basics drills and practice routines. It is important to isolate each note and be able to play a variety of progressions before attempting to play your first song. Becoming more dexterous and accustomed  to your xiao will allow you to advance at a steady rate throughout the learning process. 
Here are some great apps to add to your phone and use alongside your practice. Each one is a tool that will benefit and enrich your practice. You can click the icons to download them or search online through an appstore to find them.
The most important thing when learning any instrument is to revisit the basic drills regularly. Being able to play on rhythm, maintain clear pitch, and structure your practice will be one of your greatest assets as you continue improving.
Your first practice routines can be anything that is well structured. Start with long pitch sustains by just playing a single note. You can do this for a specific beat count or just play all the way to failure. Also make sure to pay close attention to how you breathe. Stay relaxed and maintain a good flute placement during the break between phrases. As you get to playing progressions it is important to play everything on purpose. As much as we all want to roll, slide, and otherwise add flare to our playing as soon as we can, give yourself the time to create good habits first. A good suggestion is to prepare a special notebook, where you keep notes, write out notation, and journal your practice in some way. 

Here are some basic practice drills that will give you an idea of where to begin. Though, you can and should create your own routines. Specifically, build them to work on any weaknesses or difficulties that you may have. Try not to have favoritism towards playing a certain way. The more music you want to play, the more versatile that you will need to become. 

Drill #1 - 4 Count

Drill #4 - Alternating Pattern

Drill #2 - Pattern Practice

Drill #5 - Timing and Rhythm

Drill #3 - Full Scale Practice

Finally! Your First Song!

The time has arrived. You have put in the work and you are ready to begin! You are ready to play the musical styles of...you guessed it...nursery rhymes. This is the music that every musician begins with because of the simplistic and introductory structure of these songs. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star will live in the audience of nurseries and music classes for time immemorial. However, you, and your neighbors, are in luck. I have been compiling music notation in jianpu format specifically for xiao and the entire directory is available to you. I even put together a complete Xiao Basic Tutorial series on Youtube for many of these songs. The recordings are available in both G or F key flutes (both played standard with the lowest note being 5/Sol to make it easy for reading the notation), and the playlists follow a general path that I suggest to practice with. The songs increase in difficulty throughout the series. So if you follow from the beginning, you have a rough lesson plan laid out before you. I hope that you enjoy that series. You can check them out by clicking the links below.
Wu Dao Music Youtube
I hope that those resources are useful to you! I am happy to be able to share the practices that I myself have done in the hope that the music of the Xiao will reach more people.

The first song that I recommend to begin with is a very common introductory song. And it isn't Twinkle Twinkle! It is Four Seasons as listed below. This song is great
Four Season
Four Seasons is a great song because it gives you so much variety. It starts off in an easy place with 3/Mi which is one of the easiest first notes to play. Then it slowly drops down into our low register. The lowest note (5/Sol) is absent which is ok because this note can be difficult in the beginning. Instead, Four Seasons stays closer to the middle range. Also it can be played at different tempos and it still sounds great. So you can practice at a slow speed before you try playing it fast. In fact, the title "Four Seasons" implies this. We can play slow and quiet like winter snow. We can add a little pop to it for spring. Play it quick and bright for summer. And even fill out the low notes and sustains for the dropping sensation of autumn. Overall, this is a fun song to play. Hopefully, it doesn't get old too quickly and you can turn it into your warm-up as you improve. This way you always have some fundamentals practice as well.

From here, the possibilities are limitless! I hope that this has been helpful for you to unlock your xiao and has inspired you to practice more! If you are looking for more instruction or have any questions, send me an email here. Enough for now, get to it!