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Thread: Learning a Fife

  1. #1

    Default Learning a Fife

    Anybody have any tips or advice on how to learn to play the fife? Any fife-music teachers in the Indianapolis area that I can get lessons from?

    thanks in advance

    JDD

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    Quote Originally Posted by Swamphog Jim View Post
    Anybody have any tips or advice on how to learn to play the fife? Any fife-music teachers in the Indianapolis area that I can get lessons from?

    thanks in advance

    JDD
    A lot of people begin with the fifing CD and tutorial from Ed Boyle. Visit his website at:

    http://www.beafifer.com/

    You can hear the tunes on the CD and read the sheet music – it teaches you how if you don’t know.

    Ed is a great resource and is always there to help you. His Model F fifes are very popular. I have one and tried several others from different vendors and keep coming back to the Model F. He has all the accessories you’ll need too.

    If you have a gift shop maple fife or plastic fife from a sutler, please throw it away and get a real instrument. They are made as souvenir novelty items, not musical instruments, and are notoriously hard to get a decent sound out of. A real fife only costs about $120 and is well worth it. Ed also offers a beginner plastic fife for under $20, but it is made as musical instrument, not as a souvenir item.

    The hardest part for me has been finding others to play with. That is a very important part of field music. Learning the instrument is only half the battle—learning to play from memory while marching in step in a wool uniform with the drums thumping away is an equal challenge.

    You just missed the National Civil War Music School, which is held once a year, but they are also a good resource for sheet music:

    http://www.nationalcivilwarbrassmusi...tionForms.html

    I am not in your area, so don’t know who’s out there. Try to hook up with a fife and drum corps or a reenactor organization that has field music if at all possible. Musicians are mostly a friendly and helpful bunch.

    Best of luck!

  3. #3
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    Default Be A Fifer

    Welcome to the dark side! After 15 years of reenacting... I finally figured out a fife is a lot lighter on a march and a whole heck of a lot easier to clean when the shooting stops!

    I agree with most of what the previous poster said but I do disagree on one point about the plastic fife (read on).

    I second the suggestion that you start with the Be A Fifer beginner kit. That is how I learned initially. Its a good program that teaches you not only how to play but how to read music. The CD sound quality is not the greatest but does the job for letting you know how the tune or exercise is supposed to sound.

    I suggest instead of initially paying out $100+ on a Model F fife... that you start with a plastic fife that Ed Boyle sells on his website. These are easy to play and make a decent sound. This is a great fife to learn on. Notice I said learn on... not to play at events. Start with a plastic fife. See how you like fifing. Then once you have picked up a tune or two and decide that you can stick with it... you can then get a Model F. Then you will have two fifes. I keep a plastic fife in my car and play it at stoplights. NO KIDDING! That is just the right amount of time to play some exercises and at the longer lights... I have been able to play entire tunes. Plan to practice 15 minutes to 1/2 hour a day.

    The plastic fife will run you around $8.95 plus $24.95 for the tutorial book and CD. That way if you end up not liking the fife... you are only out $33...

    I echoe the previous poster... DO NOT EVER GET A MAPLE FIFE from a sutler or tourist spot. They are crap and don't play worth a darn.

    Next... there is a whole bunch of on-line sources for fife sheet music and fife/drum websites. A good one to start with is http://www.fifedrum.org/

    When you finally get to the point of picking up a period manual to learn some period tunes and duty music... start with Howes. Avoid Bruce and Emmets. Although it says published in 1861, there is little documentation that it was used by troops in the field and other research reveals that it was not printed in mass quantities until 1865. Plus... Howes is easier to learn. You can fine Howes free online here:
    http://www.nationalcivilwarbrassmusi...Instructor.pdf

    Good Luck! Ask away any questions you may hace.

    Brad Ireland

  4. #4
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    Default

    Fifes are great fun to play, a friend in school back in the stone age showed me briefly how to play one. Song books are easy to find both online and from merchants catering to the reenactment community (I don't care for the word sutler). I have seen authentic period fifes for sale on EBay for $120 or less. I purchased a fife in "relic" condition in a store in Gettysburg some years ago. It was dried out and splitting with significant cracks in it. I soaked it in a mixture of 50/50 linseed oil and turpentine for about a month or so and the wood absorbed the solution thus closing up the cracks and restoring the finish.... an old blacksmithing trick.
    David Einhorn, Author of the book titled, "Civil War Blacksmithing" available from Amazon.com http://www.amazon.com/Civil-War-Blac...+blacksmithing

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    Sorry I wasn’t clear about the plastic fife. What I meant was avoid the plastic fifes the sutlers sell, they've even worse than the maple fifes. If you’re going to get a plastic fife, and it's fine if you do, get one of Ed’s, because they’re made to be a musical instrument, not a souvenir item. I got one of Ed’s plastic fifes because I wanted a spare, and it plays fine. Other vendors sell plastic fifes for school programs—there’s nothing wrong with the ones made by instrument companies. I agree with Brad that they’re a great way to explore the instrument inexpensively.

    PS--thanks for the link to Howes!
    Last edited by Quickstep; 06-30-2012 at 04:48 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by David Einhorn View Post
    Fifes are great fun to play, a friend in school back in the stone age showed me briefly how to play one. Song books are easy to find both online and from merchants catering to the reenactment community (I don't care for the word sutler). I have seen authentic period fifes for sale on EBay for $120 or less. I purchased a fife in "relic" condition in a store in Gettysburg some years ago. It was dried out and splitting with significant cracks in it. I soaked it in a mixture of 50/50 linseed oil and turpentine for about a month or so and the wood absorbed the solution thus closing up the cracks and restoring the finish.... an old blacksmithing trick.
    That sounds like quite a restoration job—obviously you know what you’re doing. I found a used Model F in the display case at Regimental Quartermasters in Gettysburg last winter for $33. I figured there had to be something wrong with it. I asked the owner if I could try it, and went outside and played a few tunes. All it needed was a cleaning and a good oiling. Now I have a spare that I keep a cheater (mouthpiece) on to show people at living history events and demonstrate the difference in tone quality that the cheater makes.

    That’s something that I forgot to mention in my post to Swamphog Jim—get some bore oil with your fife and swab it down about once a month. Don’t saturate it, just swab it down. It makes a big difference.

    (What’s wrong with the word “sutler”? They used it back in the day and everyone uses it now, even the sutlers. Sure is a lot easier to say than “victualer.” )

  7. #7
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    One thing to think about. You may know this, but someone reading the post might not. While linseed oil in itself is not poisonous, sometimes the painters grades oil has added metallic driers that can make you sick or cause skins reactions. I've heard some refinishers and woodworkers say that linseed oil is not the right product to use of food utensils, such as turned bowls and carved spoons. Since you put a fife up to your mouth, this might also apply.

    I never used linseed oil for customers pieces in my business, as it never really hardens, and I had no control over what happened to it once in the customer's hands, such as babies chewing on it.

    There are other similar oils that are appropriate for food items, such as walnut oil and other "salad bowl" finishes that turners use.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Slowfoot View Post
    One thing to think about. You may know this, but someone reading the post might not. While linseed oil in itself is not poisonous, sometimes the painters grades oil has added metallic driers that can make you sick or cause skins reactions. I've heard some refinishers and woodworkers say that linseed oil is not the right product to use of food utensils, such as turned bowls and carved spoons. Since you put a fife up to your mouth, this might also apply.

    I never used linseed oil for customers pieces in my business, as it never really hardens, and I had no control over what happened to it once in the customer's hands, such as babies chewing on it.

    There are other similar oils that are appropriate for food items, such as walnut oil and other "salad bowl" finishes that turners use.
    That's an excellent point, and it made me think of something else--the "cheaters" or mouthpieces they sell today are pewter, so they are OK to put in your mouth, but there are antique ones out there that are made of lead. If you get an antique cheater, only use it for show. You don't want to be sucking on a piece of lead all day!

  9. #9
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    Default Fifes: Hey why not use fifes with period correct finger holes?!?!

    Couple things to add:

    1. I avoid any non-woodwind products in my fifes. I like the bore oil and woodwind wax that Ed Boyle sells on his be a fifer website. However... you can find alternative products at music shops made specially for wood wind instruments.

    2. Although the Model F and other high grade fifes are easy to play and make a decent sound... they actually make too good of a sound. The finger holes on these modern fifes are not correct to the period. What we should really be playing is actual fifes from the 19th century where all the holes are the same size and not evenly spaced. But finding a good, playable one that you are willing to take out in the field and subject it to the elements can be hit or miss. There is an alternative: a reporduction of the Firth and Pond fife by Ron Peeler. http://www.peelerfifes.com/fifes/

    I own one of these and it is a sweet fife. It his harder to play than the Model F. The biggest problem I have with it is very few people use fifes with the period correct finger holes and so I stand out like a sore thumb. However, more and more people are carrying multiple fifes in the field and so I usually take this one along with my Model F just in case others around me might be using fifes with correct holes.

    TO ME, USING A FIFE WITH THE CORRECT HOLES IS LIKE DRUMMERS USING CALF SKIN HEADS INSTEAD OF THE PLASTIC HEADS! The sounds are completely different. Ahhh to play in a full scale regimental field music band with all calf skin drum heads and correct finger hole fifes.... that woudl be sweet! 10 Drummers, 10 Fifers, and a Bass! Yummy!

    Anyway.. for a better explanation on the finger holes.... direct from Peeler's website:

    Modern Finger Holes:
    This is what you probably have on any fife purchased in the last 125 years or so. On standard Peeler fifes the finger hole sizes starting from the fingering end are 0.25", 0.28", 0.25",0.28",0.28", 0.25". As you can see holes # 1,3 & 6 are one diameter and holes 2,4,& 5 are another. With some minor variation this is what you will find the majority of the one piece fifes being produced today. If you are going to be playing with other "Modern" fifes, this is what you should choose..

    Historical Finger Holes:
    This is the typical design found on so many civil war era fifes and earlier. When I began to produce the F & P, I took measurements from several original models that can be traced back to the mid 1800's. As on the original fifes, the finger holes on this instrument are an exact reproduction of those found on the original fifes that were produced by Firth and Pond. When comparing these finger holes to the "Modern", fife you will see that finger holes are smaller and all the same 0.22 inch diameter. There is also a larger spacing between the 3 & 4th hole. This F & P with the traditional finger holes has the same look as the original with only a few minor variations. This type of fife is for the hard core civil war re-enactor and those with a penchant for historical accuracy. Because it is a direct copy, it plays with all the flaws (flats and sharps) of the original. IT WILL NOT HARMONIZE WELL WITH FIFES USING THE MORE MODERN STYLE FINGER HOLES

  10. #10
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    Default

    As far as teachers are concerned, you might try these options if possible: fife teacher, flute teacher, Ed Boyle's CD from beafifer.com.

    For fifes, Peeler's Firth and Pond model is the ONLY authentic reproduction available. George Cloos (Crosby model) fifes and Model Fs are easier to play, but are post-war designs. The maple (and persimmon) gift shop fifes by Cooperman are not musical instruments-- they are toys. The black plastic fifes are anachronisms just like Model Fs and Clooses, but they are good for beginners on a budget.

    Buying 2 plastic fifes and finding a flute teacher willing to learn the fingering of a fife (easier than a flute) would probably be a better investment than a Model F and no teacher. A flute teacher, if a fife teacher is not available locally, can help with getting a good embouchure, reading music, and learning double-tonguing technique.

    A common mistake is playing in the first and second octaves when the music should be played an octave higher than written-- mostly in the 2nd and 3rd octaves.

    As far as sheet music is concerned, it is true that Bruce and Emmett's Drummers' and Fifers' Guide isn't typical of the music played by most fifers during the war, but there is no single source, be it Howe's U.S. Regulation Drum and Fife Instructor (also published in 1862) or any other manual that was THE standard text used during the war. And no one can say with any certainty that any single source is truly representative of what the average drum corps played. Compare and contrast as many period sources as possible and try to determine what is appropriate for your impression. During the war, everyone was trying to cash in by selling "fife music" but oftentimes it was music for the violin or other instruments repackaged and marketed to army musicians.

    Using CDs is fine to determine how certain tunes sound and getting an idea of how the fife should be played, but remember that many "Civil War" groups have made recordings with post-war tunes and beats or tunes that wouldn't have been well-known. For example, Paddy on a Handcar was first published in 1872 and the drumbeat was composed in the 1930s, and H-ll on the Wabash is only found in one period source: Bruce and Emmett's, which, as mentioned in one of the posts above, wasn't widely distributed during the war. Also beware of "Rev War period" tunes popularized by groups like Colonial Williamsburg and embraced by Civil War reenactor fifers. Many of these tunes died out in popularity by the 1860s or were obscure and not well-known to begin with. Tunes like the Harriott and Pleasures of Spa come to mind.

    Here are some more sources. I have uploaded PDFs on this site, on the authentic campaigner, and fifedrum.org in the past. A google search should turn up some links.

    1851 Howe, Elias Jr. Howe's School for the Fife

    1853 Klinehanse, George D. The Manual of Instruction for Drummers

    1858? Fife Manuscript by Drum Major Charles Henke, Instructor of the Fife, Fort Columbus, Governor's Island.

    1861 Howe, Elias. The Army and Navy Fife Instructor

    1861 Keach, Burditt, and Cassidy. The Army Drum and Fife Book

    1861 Nevins, William. Army Regulations for Drum, Fife, and Bugle

    1862 Bruce, George B. and Dan D. Emmett. The Drummer's and Fifer's Guide.

    1862 Hart, Col. H.C. Col. H.C. Hart's New and Improved Instructor for the Drum.

    1862 Howe, Elias. Howe's United States Regulation Drum and Fife Instructor

    1862 Simpson, Henry and Ira Canterbury. The Union Drum and Fife Book

    1862 Weller, Samuel. New and Improved Instructor for the Fife without a Master

    1863 Winner, Sep. Winner’s Tunes of the World. Philadelphia: Lee & Walker

    1869 Strube, Gardiner A. Strube's Drum and Fife Instructor
    Last edited by 33rdaladrummer; 07-05-2012 at 09:25 AM.

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