The Xiao (pronounced “show” as in “shower”) is an ancient Chinese vertical end blown flute, traditionally made from bamboo, and it is one of the most versatile open-hole flutes I’ve found. It allows for a dizzying variety of different scales and modes, putting it in the running for 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 ebonite (natural hard rubber), which has wonderful machining qualites and makes a secure mouthpiece. Un-capped (open end versions) are available upon request. The bei xiao favors a narrow bore to impart a distinct timbre that is valued for classical Chinese music.
I make xiao that are either one piece (not jointed) or a jointed (two or 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 ebonite, and they are most commonly in the keys of C and D (middle C 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 means 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 parentheses. Example: Key of C/F, or D/G. I make bei xiao in a range of tunings from B/E (the lowest) up to E/A.
The length of the bei xiao ranges from around 28” for the smallest xiao up to 33” and it has more than a two octave range. Skillfully handled it will play five notes of the third (altissimo) 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
Thanks to Connor Keene for providing sound samples for my entire range of xiao!
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