The Xiao (pronounced “show” as in “shower”) is an ancient Chinese vertical end blown flute, traditionally made from bamboo, and it is possibly the most versatile open-hole flute in existence. It allows for a dizzying variety of different scales and modes, making it the ultimate “desert island flute”.
It is the grandfather of what later became the shakuhachi flute after it migrated to Japan in the 14th century.
There are many varieties of xiao, with different design
characteristics. I currently make an eight hole instrument with a capped
mouthpiece (the Chinese nomenclature around the xiao is not always clear, but I have heard these referred to as a “bei xiao”). This version is sealed at the mouthpiece end and has a small
aperture cut into it through which the player blows. The cap is made from a polymer called Delrin, which has wonderful machining quality and makes a secure and tough mouthpiece.
I make xiao that are either one piece (not jointed) or a jointed (three-piece) version that breaks down for easy transport and storage, and which has an integrated tuning slide. I make both types from a
wide variety of woods and they are most commonly in the keys of C and D
and the D above it). Just
to make things confusing, there is a difference in how we describe the
key of a
flute here in the West, versus how the Chinese indicate it. If you buy a
xiao from China, it will be marked with either an F or G. What that
is that when all of the holes are closed, the lowest note it plays will
actually be C or D, because F and G are the tonic notes of those
respective keys. So when I designate the key, you will see the
Western key followed by the Chinese designation (the tonic) in
Example: Key of C(F), or D(G). I make bei xiao in a range of tunings from
B(E) up to E(A).
The length of the bei xiao ranges from around 28” for the smallest xiao up to 33” and it has at least a two octave range. Skillfully handled it will play up into the third octave.
The Xiao (like the rim blown flutes) is an end blown embouchure flute. If a player has experience on any of these flutes they will find the Xiao to be accessible. Just like switching between any two embouchure flutes that are of a different make, adjustments will have to be made, but the skills required for any one of these flutes will translate to any of the others given some patience.
For the ultimate online xiao resource in the English language, I strongly encourage a visit to Scott August’s site HERE.
Scott August plays Geoffrey Ellis xiao in D:
Scott August demonstrates a Geoffrey Ellis xiao in D:
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