Carving Irish musical instruments and creative lives

Tools of the Trad

Carving Irish musical instruments and creative lives
Carving Irish musical instruments and creative lives
Episode Trailer

When you’re making an instrument, you’re forming something that can be used to design a melody. Or a musical life. This episode follows a precious flute’s unexpected journey. And flute makers Patrick Olwell and Eamonn Cotter, piper Colleen Shanks, and fiddle players Bob Childs and Pat O’Connor talk about what it’s like to carve an approach as musicians and craftspeople.


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Lynn Stewart, Karin Kettenring, Julia Richards, the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, John Sigler, Randall Semagin, Ron Kral, Isaiah Hall, David Vaughan, Susan Walsh, Matt Jensen, John Ploch, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mike Voss, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Bob Suchor, Finian McCluskey, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, and Chris Murphy.

Episode 78-Tools of the Trad
Carving Irish musical instruments and creative Lives
This Irish Music Stories episode aired May 31, 2024

* * * * * * *
Speakers, in order of appearance

>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 

>> Colleen Shanks: Michigan-born, Ireland-based uilleann piper and flute player and pipe bag maker

>> Eamonn Cotter: Flute player and flute maker from County Clare

>> Patrick Olwell: Flute player and flute maker based in Virginia (and sometimes in Georgia)

>> Bob Childs: Masachusetts-based Violin maker and director of Childsplay

>> Nigel Heaton: Young announcer for Irish Music Stories

>> Pat O’Connor: Clare-based fiddle player and violin repairer

* * * * * * *

>> Shannon: I’m Shannon Heaton. And this is Irish Music Stories. The show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it.

[ Music: “Old John’s, The Cat in the Corner, the Haunted House” from Music in the Glen

Artists: Conor Lamb, Brendan Mulholland & Deirdre Galway ]

>> Shannon: Like how it can feel to make and fix musical instruments.

>> Colleen: There is a great deal of satisfaction when you finally do get the end product and it’s something that’s good. And there’s a nice feeling knowing that it’s going to be used.

>> Shannon: That’s Colleen Shanks, who’s making bags for the uilleann pipes from her adopted home in Clare. She’s just a few miles from Kilmaley, where flute maker Eamonn Cotter lives. Like Colleen, Eamonn gets really centered when he’s building instruments in his workshop.

>> Eamonn: You’re totally focused on what you’re doing. You’re not worrying about world affairs. You know, you just get totally engrossed in it.

>> Shannon: I imagine cutting into dense African blackwood requires utmost care and attention. It’s physical. Tactile. And purposeful.

When you’re making an instrument, you’re forming something that can then be used to design a melody. Or a musical life.

Eamonn himself—and lots of other fine musicians—play Eamonn Cotter flutes. I live in the States, and I play a flute that Patrick Olwell made 27 years ago. This instrument has shaped my life. It’s very precious to me.

As I began work on this episode about instrument builders, I had to admit that my beloved flute had some mounting maintenance issues. It was still playing great. But the corks and the pads were over a decade old, and I play this thing heavily. I decided it was time for some TLC, to keep it healthy for the long haul.

I was nervous to ship it off. But I’m in Boston—and Patrick’s workshop is way down in Virginia. Too far to drive. So I took a deep breath. And I sent my flute back to its birthplace.

[ Music: “Hometown Lullaby,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Patrick: They’re kind of like my children. And you know, you work hard. You take care of them for years. And then you send them out into the world.

>> Shannon: Yeah, and then they come back, because somebody has a loose tooth.

>> Patrick: Somebody needs medical attention. So they come home for help.

[ Music: “Pound the Floor,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: In this episode, I’ll share the tale of the unexpected journey my flute took. And what it’s like for the Olwell family and flute player Eamonn Cotter, and piper Colleen Shanks, and fiddle players Bob Childs and Pat O’Connor to carve an approach as musicians and craftspeople.

Ok. So I’ve sent my flute overnight express mail, insured to the max, delivery confirmation, tracking. The works. I even hid a tile tracker (aka AirTag) deep in the case lining, on the advice of my friend Brendan Mulholland who played that first set of jigs with Conor Lamb and Deirdre Galway.

And now here I am trying to distract myself by producing this episode about building instruments.

[ Music: “Celtic Grooves,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Making flutes and fiddles, and just generally making stuff is cool, right? Empowering. Whether you’re gardening, or writing a novel, or composing a symphony or a bunch of Irish tunes, or you’re making a documentary like the Keymaster. (That’s a film Jem Moore and Blayne Chastain made about Pat Olwell, and about people who play his flutes).

Creating big and little works is a way to bring joy and meaning to the world. And making tools like musical instruments help other people make stuff and express themselves.

Patrick and his son Aaron Olwell in Virginia have built many exquisite flutes. So has Eamonn Cotter in Clare. And Bob Childs in Arlington, Massachusetts has built a lot of fiddles.

>> Bob: Yes 165 instruments.

>> Shannon: Bob’s instruments have gone on to bring a lot of people together.

[ Music: “Starry Lullaby,” from Live in Somerville

Composer: Shannon Heaton

Artists: Childsplay ]

>> Shannon: I mean in general, when people play musical instruments together, communities grow from that. And when you’re all playing instruments made by the same builder, there’s even more connection.

The Childsplay project was a band of two dozen musicians playing fiddles made by Bob Childs.

>> Shannon: I really got to know you, Bob, and your instruments by sitting in the middle of like 20 of them with the Childsplay project.

>> Bob: Yeah, so I was working in Philadelphia. And got a call one day inviting me down to a show. Before they hung up they said by the way the name of the group is ‘Childsplay,’ because everyone’s gonna be playing on instruments you made.

[ Music swells ]


And so over the years it grew and grew. And it became a kind of laboratory and an exploratory place where people could create things and sounds.

>> Shannon: Yeah, I mean the core sound was violins, with a few cellos and a viola, one guitar, one flute, one singing, one harp. Because the fiddle was the heart of it, those of us who played different instruments, we had something to kind of aim for and blend with.

>> Bob: Yeah, and there was an energy in that. The music had a great pulse to it and a strength that was really, really special.

>> Shannon: In late 2019, Childsplay gave the final performance. And around that time Bob also closed up his violin shop.

>> Bob: I stopped making instruments because of my eyes. But, you know, I’m 71. And I did violins for almost 46 years. So it’s a process, a lifetime process.

[ Music: “Little Bird Lullaby,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Bob Childs started building instruments in the 1970s, during the craft revival wave, which soared on the coattails of the folk music revival. Everything hand-hewn was new again. People were making their own stuff, and their own ideas.

>> Bob: It was the beginning of the Craft’s Movement. You know, I think people wanted to kind of work with their hands and make things that they had some say in, some control on, and their own creative process.

[ Music: “Barter’s Hill,” from Jolie

Artists: Nightingale ]


>> Shannon: The first big Craft Revival movement swelled in the late 1880s. By the 1970s, people like Bob were once again disgruntled with industrial, mass production trends. And now in 2024—15 years after Nightingale recorded this track—some of us are again turning to homespun, small batch goods in the face of dizzying digital trends.

Patrick Olwell reminded me that all of this is really recent news. If you’re thinking broadly.

>> Patrick: You know, I read a lot about ancient history prehistory so I’m thinking like until very recently, sitting down and making stuff that either was part of your recreation or survival. You went out and found trees and rocks. And you made your kit.

I think that those activities still are very riveting or pleasing to a lot of us. If one is thinking, and writing, and reading, and you’re on the internet— my wife goes to meetings, and she’s teaching at the university. When she gets to get out in the garden, you know, she can recharge and connect to this other way of being.

[ music swells ]

>> Shannon: Uilleann piper Colleen Shanks was probably ready for another way of being. This other piper Mickey Dunne floated this idea of making pipe bags.

>> Colleen: For the past few years I’ve been mostly working on a computer, which I’m, to be honest, getting quite sick of. And was sort of excited by the idea of doing something tangible, and producing something that is adjacent to what I do and is important to me.

>> Shannon: The very first musical instruments were probably made less intentionally than Colleen’s pipe bags.

Like when kids were throwing sticks, shells, and bones at one another, and noticed the appealing THWACK! it made when it hit a target, or a skull. And so people were like, let’s put some stone slabs together and let the kids wail on those instead. Boom: the first lithophone (5-10,000 years ago).

Or when some hunter noticed the sound of his bow when he let the arrow fly, and was like “I want to pluck and jam on that after I clean the mammoth juice off of it. Maybe I’ll use this deer antler and fit a peg in it, and I’ll sit here along the Mekong River. That’ll really impress Anh Ngoc (about 2000 years ago)

Or way, way back when some early human heard wind whistling over the top of a broken reed and was like “I like that sound, I want to imitate that with my lips… my breath… oh and maybe with the thigh bone of this bear we killed last month. The first flutes are at least 43,000 years old, made from bear thigh, and the bones of griffon vultures and mute swans, which feels ironic.

Then later on, the Greeks started making woodwinds called aulos out of reeds and lotus plants. Probably easier to form than bear thigh flutes. And they were popular! Roman Emperor Nero played the aulos. He was the guy who supposedly ‘fiddled’ while Rome burned. But fiddle wasn’t really a thing in the year 64. It was the lyre, the cithara, and the aulos. That’s what he played. And when he played aulos, they said he did it ‘with his arm’ — In other words, he was squeezing a bag under his arm with the aulos fixed into the bag, so he wouldn’t have to puff his cheeks while playing.

[ Music: “Aisling Gheal (Bright Vision) from Bright Vision

Artists: Ivan Goff, Renee Anne Louprette ]

He might have been less destructive if he’d been playing Aisling Gheal, played here by Ivan Goff and Renee Anne Louprette. And he’d certainly have been more comfortable if Colleen Shanks had fitted the bag for him.

>> Colleen: What I make is the leather bag that is attached directly to the instrument which powers the instrument. You cannot have pipes without a bag.

>> Shannon: And you can’t play the pipes without organizing a lot of components. Just like mailing a flute for repair (which involves packing, insuring, tracking, and worrying), a lot goes into a set of Irish bagpipes.

FIRST you need two elbows (uilleann is the Irish word for ELBOW). To play the Irish pipes, one elbow works the bellows… which fills the bag with air. 

[ Demo ]

The other elbow squeezes air out of the bag… and over the reeds to make melody on the chanter, and to power the octave drones (that hum when you open them), and the regulators (that make additional little barking sounds when you press on them with your wrist or hand).

[ Music: “G Chimes,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

When Colleen first set out to learn the pipes, she was living in Michigan. She’s lived in Ireland since 2016. It’s an easier place,  and an easier time to source all the piping hardware.

>> Colleen: I think people are quite lucky today that they can go on and online and find a good practice set.

>> Shannon: There are a lot of moving parts that you have to organize.

>> Colleen: A lot of hunting around.

>> Shannon: And so a lot of pipe makers, it’s not like a one-stop shop is it?

>> Colleen: Yeah, there are people who sort of specialize in one thing, or they prefer to do one thing, for example making bags, making bellows, sometimes reeds as well. A pipe maker, it would almost be taking time away from what they really do. And so they sort of outsource those things.

[ Music: “High Level Hornpipe,” from Live for Comhaltas

Artist: Mickey Dunne ]

It was about a year and a half ago Mickey Dunne sort of said to me “would you be interested in making bags? Would you ever consider doing that?” And I’ve kind of never thought about it at all. And there was a bit of a gap in the market for them at the same time. time. And it just sort of, like, the moment he said it, something in my, I wouldn’t say my head, but my heart was kind of like, “Yeah, you’re gonna do that.” Because I like making things with my hands.

And so that’s sort of… like… He gave me some supplies. I ordered some stuff. There was a really great series of videos on the Na Píobairí Uilleann website. And so I went through those, and was able to get help from other local pipe makers. And ended up with a few bags that I gave them immediately to Mickey to check over. And it kind of went from there.

>> Shannon: It went to a higher level pretty quickly for Colleen. This is the High Level Hornpipe in fact, played by the very piper and pipe maker from Limerick who encouraged Colleen.

Mickey Dunne may have started things for her, but her appreciation and awareness of this part of the pipes has really grown.

>> Colleen: The pipes will sit different on every person, because you wear it. It’s attached to you. Like if you’re a smaller person and you’re playing a set that was made for and set up by somebody who is like much taller and bigger than you, you could run into problems. Maybe your neck will hurt all the time. And I started thinking about those things, because I’d heard other people talk about them, about how you can tie the stalks into your set and shorten the neck. Or lengthen the neck to really suit the way that you sit.

>> Shannon: So then do you play your own bag?

>> Colleen: I do. Yeah. It has had quite an impact on my enjoyment in playing. Because now that I’ve a bag that I made that is perfectly suited to me, it’s a pleasure to sit and play for a couple hours, because nothing hurts afterward.

I wasn’t expecting the feeling I got from playing on it, which was like a very contented feeling of having made something that that is part of something that’s so important to me. So, that kind of spurred me on, really.

Everything is right in the perfect spot. Which then just, I think, you make better music when you feel good.

Now I think about it all the time. Now, honestly, when I sit in a session and I see pipes, I’m kind of looking and seeing like, oh gosh the neck of their bag is really long. They’d probably be comfortable if it was shorter. All these little aspects of it.

>> Shannon: Every instrument can be set up to adapt the player, to some extent. Pipe bags, fiddle bridges, guitar frets—and the spacing of the holes on a wood flute—can vary greatly.

There are lots of different Irish flute designs: versions and adaptations of the old 1800s simple system wood flutes. Smaller, or closer, or offset finger holes. There are many different opinions about which old style flutes are best for traditional players. I let Patrick Olwell decide what worked best, and then tailored my approach to fit the instrument. At this point, my flute fits me like a glove.

>> Patrick: What is the best flute for Irish music? Nobody agrees on that.

>> Shannon: The one that I play. Hahaha!

[ Music: “Maid of Selma, Rose in the Heather,” from Whirring Wings

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

>> Shannon: This flute is perfect for me. And it was the ONLY flute for me. For 27 years. Until I finally got a second instrument made by Patrick’s son Aaron (who has also become a master flute builder). It’s got its own personality, of course. And it’s not been played in for almost three decades. But it’s another really fine instrument I can play, which was why I was able to send my why my treasured Patrick flute for repair.

Still, I was worried. I checked the tracking info—still says my flute “made it to the main Boston post office.” That’s what the official site says. But my AirTag says it’s at Logan airport. It’s gonna be fine. I’ll just keep working on this podcast episode, stay busy.

>> Colleen: I’ve been quite busy with the bag making, so it’s sort of taken over. There is a great deal of satisfaction knowing that it’s going to be used by a learner or even a seasoned player. O It’s kind of my, I suppose, my contribution.

>> Shannon: That’s really nice!

>> Shannon: Helping other people can feel really nice. So can seeing a project through. I imagine it’s a bit like playing music. Or producing a podcast. That it can be really rewarding to persevere, and  work through painstakingly slow progress. And distraction. And static on the recorded interview….

>> Colleen [with a bit of static on the recording]: There are days where the pipes just do not work well for you. You have to either push through or do something to fix it. Same with making. Yeah, I think we’re just trying to wrestle a living thing, really, is what it feels like sometimes. And it gets moody. And sometimes you do have to just, if you’re in a position to, just put them down and say okay later.

>> Shannon: Knowing when to push through, and when to take a break. Knowing when to check the tracking status of your flute, and when to look away from the computer. This is next level wisdom. And I could use more of it.

Eamonn Cotter seems to have this dialed in, as a flute player and maker. Especially when he’s cutting an embouchure. That’s the place you blow into the flute. The most important part of the instrument.

>> Eamonn: Your sense of well-being is going to determine how good your embouchures are. You know there’s certain days I won’t go at it. There’s certain days, you know Monday morning after a heavy weekend of playing music and socializing, like that’s not the time for cutting embouchures, you know. You need an utmost concentration, you know, because one one wrong adjustment and…

[ Music: “Tomeen O’Dea’s, Ballykett Courthouse” from The Knotted Chord

Artists: Eamonn & Geraldine Cotter ]

>> Shannon: And have you ever hurt yourself?

>> Eamonn: No, thankfully, yeah. No, not ever. I’m quite good with machinery. Like, I was reared with machines, you know? So, I don’t fear machines, you know? You know, sometimes I think well what if this happened or that happened. But you know, I think if you just keep your senses about you, you know?

>> Shannon: Bob Childs had a different answer…

>> Shannon: Did you ever hurt yourself?

>> Bob: Oh my gosh. My fingers? I cut myself all the time. You do learn to use bandaids when necessary.

>> Shannon: Fortunately, nothing too serious or permanent.

>> Bob: I just learned how to get my hand and my mind to work together.

>> Shannon: I’m still trying to coordinate my hand, my mind, and my podcast deadlines. Sometimes it’s all so much. Especially when I’m not sure what’s happening with my flute.

The app has not updated or 14 hours. And I’m trying not to catastrophize, and worry that the flute is in bits with the stupid air tracker in a garbage somewhere. Instead, I’m gonna put my heart on feeling truly grateful for the support and encouragement with the Irish Music Stories project. Thank you so much to the underwriters of this episode, acknowledged by my son Nigel.

>> Nigel: Thank you to Lynn Stewart, Julia Richards the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, John Sigler, Randall Semagin, Ron Kral, Isaiah Hall, David Vaughan, Susan Walsh, Matt Jensen, John Ploch, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mike Voss, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Bob Suchor, Finian McCluskey, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, Chris Murphy, Mike Taylor, and Karin Kettenring.

>> Shannon: Thank you. Because of your generosity, I’m able to weave together conversations and stories from inspired guests like Bob Childs and Patrick Olwell on this side of the pond, and like Colleen Shanks, Pat O’Connor, and Eamonn Cotter in Clare, who recorded those reels on his album Knotted Chord.

For 20 years before he began making flutes, Eamonn had been playing and writing music. This was the first jig he composed. It’s named for the little townland in Kilmaley where he lives and builds flutes.

[ Music: “The Balleen Jig, Patsy Geary’s,” from The Knotted Chord

Composer: Eamonn Cotter

Artists: Eamonn Cotter & Garry O’Briain” ]

>> Shannon: When did you start building?

>> Eamonn: Early nineties, you know. But it’s only when I started making flutes that I realized how little I knew about flutes, and how little most musicians know about the instruments that they play, you know?

>> Shannon: Like me. I just mailed my flute to Patrick, because it’s been years and years since I’ve had work on it. It still plays great, but I’m not able to recondition the pads and corks, and adjust my wiggly F key, and I don’t even know what else needs to happen. But Eamonn didn’t always know this stuff either.

>> Eamonn: Essentially I was at engineering business, fabricating for the domestic markets. Every house at the time would have an oil tank. I was working with my father at the time, and these were all steel. So we built lots, hundreds and hundreds of these steel tanks.

Plastic came in, and it was a situation where everything was getting bigger. It would have required a bigger workshop more machinery, you know? Eeither go big or get out of it. So I was kind of in a situation where I had to decide was I going to just get another job, you know? I think I just started maybe repairing flutes. I said, geeze, this could work, you know?

>> Shannon: Eamonn and his dad changed the tune. They repurposed their lathes, and Eamonn started building flutes.

We approached it as an engineering project. Like the lathes would be engineering lathes, you know? You know, old Colchester. The first lathe I ever got actually was an American lathe. It was a South Bend lathe from South Bend Indiana, you know?

>> Shannon: Wow. Was it used to make guns?

>> Eamonn: I imagine so, you know. Because it’s from the 30s, 40s. It’s an old lathe.

>> Shannon: During the Second World War, that Colchester lathe from South Bend, Indiana probably made instruments of war. Today, it’s in Kilmaley making instruments of Irish music.

[ Music: “Little Bird Lullaby” reprise ]

>> Eamonn: So my workshop is still like a welding shop here, you know? There’s a lot of that kind of aesthetic about it you know? But making things was a natural thing for me. Like, my father was a  very clever man. He loved a challenge. If you want something, you know, you can make it

When I got this kind of a Eureka moment, and I decided I’m going to go making flutes. “Yeah, we’ll make flutes, no problem.” It was just another job, as far as he was concerned. That blind optimism that you need, because it’s not anything that simple, you know?

>> Shannon: It doesn’t seem very simple. Once you use the machines to help with the big cuts, then it’s the really fine detailed carving—chiseling the ‘embouchure’ to allow the player to aim the air and shape the sound.

>> Eamonn: When you make an embouchure, you’re working in the dark. And a lot of it is, you just pick it up and blow it, and see if it’s… You’ve very little visual, like. You can get a rough idea by looking at it. But even though it might look perfect and look perfectly concentric, for some reason it doesn’t work. initially I had a lot of failures on my embouchures. But over the years I’ve very few now.

[ Music: “Viva Cariad,” from Llinyn Arian

Composer: Angharad Jenkins & Delyth Jenkins

Artist: Delyth & Angharad ]

>> Eamonn: Well, it hasn’t happened for a while now, where the flute passes you out, You have one small little adjustment to make and the next thing you know, you know.

But you have to be philosophical about these things. And you just walk out of the workshop, and you let off a few harsh words, and back in again. And just, you know, let it off. Because you if you think about it, you know, there’s a week’s work on there..

>> Shannon: There’s a week’s work. But also all the time it took to get that wood ready to put the week in. It’s a long time.

>> Eamonn: It is. Well, the obvious question people keep asking me is how long does it take to make a flute. And to this day I can’t answer it. Because, I got a delivery of wood there that came there last week and that left to be drilled out, partially reamed or whatever. And that will be left up for a couple of years, you know? So I’m working on wood that I’ve had for 20 years, you know?

>> Shannon: Finding, and preparing, and seasoning the wood… and building the flutes. These longterm, chronic projects don’t sit easily with fixed deadlines.

>> Eamonn: You know, promising people. And It’s very difficult to say, “Well, I’ll have a flute for you in two weeks’ time.” And then, if you’re not 100 % happy with the instrument, you’ll have to… it’s not so bad in Ireland. But sometimes what happens like people from America or Europe will say, “Well, I’ll be over the third week in June or something.” And you’ll say, “Oh, I’ll definitely have it by then.”

And then as the time approaches, you’re never kind of 100% comfortable in making flutes, in the sense that when you finish a flute, there’s no guarantee it’s going to work.

I have a reasonably good store of wood now that I’ve gathered over the years. So I’m quite good now at going through the wood. A nd I won’t invest time in wood that I’m not 100% on. But that was a learning process.

>> Shannon: Learning to play the flute is also an involved process. No Eamonn had been playing the flute for a number of years before he got into making But learning to play his own flutes out in the world turned out to be yet another interesting challenge.

[ Music: “D Mutey Big Build,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Eamonn: The challenge to make the instrument is one thing. But then the challenge to have the confidence to play it on stage, to record with it over the years, you know, that was another psychological hurdle I had to overcome, you know?

>> Shannon: Not as cut and dry as making a flute?

>> Eamonn: No, no, no. Because, you know yourself, when you play, your contact with your instrument is so profoundly… You have such a link with that instrument.

>> Shannon: I have such a link with my flute, made by Patrick Olwell.

Like Eamonn Cotter, Patrick has made a lot of flutes. And he has a lot of them sitting around. Unlike Eamonn and Patrick, I only had the one flute. We really bonded. And then I got my second Aaron Olwell flute. Now I have two. And I cannot wait to have them both together again.

Status update: the post office still reports arrival at Boston. Period. But the tracker says it’s in a postal warehouse in Atlanta, Georgia. So… progress, I guess.

>> Eamonn: You make these instruments and you send them out into the world. And you worry about them, like your children. Like children you send out into the world, you worry about the instruments.

>> Shannon: So what’s your favorite part about making flutes?

>> Eamonn: I suppose that moment, in this corner here where we are.

[ Music: “Lament for Lost Friends,” from Live at Simpson Street

Artists: Alex Cummings and Nicola Beasley ]

I kinda leave the flute out and I say work away. Then I’ll be back in 10-15 minutes. Generally I can hear them playing in the distance, and straightway you know they’re happy. I do like the idea that people get really, really attached to the instrument. I never take it for granted. The process of handing over an instrument to somebody. I always value that transfer, you know? That moment in time. I understand the importance of it, you know?

>> Shannon: Like when the accordion hands the melody to the fiddle (like this tune with Alex Cummings and Nicola Beasley)

[ music swells ]


Or like when the master flute builder hands over an instrument to a player… Maybe that’s another part of the connection with an instrument. But I suppose it helps a lot if it’s a superb instrument. And they’re not all stellar. I did have a flute before the Patrick one. It was an old Nach Meyer style instrument—mass-produced in Bavaria between 1870-1940. These really varied in quality. I’ll bet mine wasn’t super duper to start out, and time was not kind to it.

>> Patrick: When I started out, like I wanted to play a wooden flute, and I got the—you and I both got, like, the messed up German flute that didn’t really play. It was the Sears Roebuck flute for 19.95.

>> Shannon: Yeah, it was a big crack in the side that you had to fill up with wax in order to get a tone out of it.

>> Patrick: Yeah, and it was frustrating.

>> Shannon: It was so frustrating. Hard to get a steady sound. Hard to play in tune. I have developed skills along the way, and I can work with instruments, But this is the best that I can do on this instrument today:


Ugh. A lot of work to try to get that low D to speak. And to try to play it with some sort of equal temperament.

NOT as fun and effortless as honking on an Olwell flute.


There ARE 19th century instruments still around that are in good shape. Ones that were built well to begin with, and have survived well or been restored. But the rest of us play modern replicas of older instruments—the types of flutes that were made before Theobald Boehm (and all the other flute invento rs) increased the finger holes and added little mechanisms to adjust the pitch, to make it louder, to make it more convenient to play in 12 keys.

To be able to build great modern instruments in the old style (but also even better), Patrick has logged a lot of time with old flutes, including some in the Dayton Miller Flute Collection, in the Madison Building of the Library of Congress

>> Patrick: The first time I went to the Dayton Miller Collection, I probably owned 10 antique flutes in 1981. And now I probably own 100 or more. Entering this whole world of 19th century flutes, learning about them, reading about them, and getting to know the instruments really well, that’s been a wonderful, exciting party.

>> Shannon: The Dayton Miller Collection is in the Madison building of the Library of Congress. That’s where the James Madison’s four-keyed crystal flute lives, which is the instrument Lizzo played in 2022.

[ Lizzo playing flute onstage ]

Lizzo is a pop start who shakes her butt around onstage. And she’s also got real flute chops. Rob Turner also played this flute back in 2001. And according to Rob, it was a rewarding but finicky instrument to play.

>> Patrick: Antique flutes is sort of this weird connection to the past. Not in some abstract way. Like when I hold one of these beautiful, like we have a beautiful Peloubet flute on the table,and I hold it and play it, it’s like I’m there. Like some part of me travels back. Or that time is simultaneously here. It’s like time travel, you know?

>> Shannon: By the time Patrick had started tucking into the old flutes, he’d already started making his own 6-hole transverse flutes out of bamboo. No keys, and just light bamboo—not the sophisticated hard wood flutes that he’d go on to make out of grenadilla (or African Blackwood)

>> Patrick: Once the instruments started getting more serious, and my own playing got more serious, and the research got more detailed, then it was this serendipity, or the wonderful coincidence, that at that moment people began to take simple system flutes more seriously. So these very talented musicians showed up at my door or on the phone, saying, you know, “Hey, wanna make me a flute?” And then I would make a flute, and then I would get to hear them play it. And it’s been a wonderful exchange!

So I went from hustling $20 bamboo flutes at craft fairs to strangers who don’t play the flute, to making these serious instruments for people that are really involved with their music. The music’s not just a tiny part of their life, it is their life.

>> Shannon: My Patrick Olwell flute is a big part of my life. And I’m somewhat hopeful—three days after shipping it—to see that it’s made it to Patrick’s local post office. Who knows in what condition. And who knows why the official tracking number still just says ‘made it to Boston.’

“I’m watchin’ and I’m waiting’” Patrick said to me. Because he’s kind. And he’s my friend. And he cares about his instruments and their players. He knows what it feels like to bond with an instrument.

So does Bob Childs. He also started out as a player. His buddy had gone to a funeral in Ireland

>> Bob: My friend’s grandfather died, I think in Dublin. And he came back with his fiddle. And he goes, “Here, I already have a fiddle, why don’t you take this?” And he gave it to me to play. And of course I’d heard the music so much, I just uh, I knew what I was gonna do    the rest of my life! I was gonna go learn to play that music.

[ Music: “Dear Companion,” from Live at Lexington

Artists: Childsplay ]

>> Shannon: How’d you get into the luthier game?

>> Bob: OK. So I worked my way through college as a carpenter. And I took my violin to get fixed to an old man up in Maine. And he invited me to come work with him.

>> Shannon: Bob worked with that guy—Ivy Mann. Then he trained with Anton Smith, who taught at the violin making school in Salt Lake City. Then back East, to Michael Weller’s big shop that did all the work for the Philadelphia Orchestra. And after nine years of apprenticing, he opened his own shop in 1985.

>> Bob: If I had known how hard it was going to be, I don’t think I would have done it. Because it’s so challenging. And I think the things that really helped me number one, being a player,\. And number two, having really amazing teachers.

[ Music: “Rockabye by Firelight,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

When I was working up with Anton, I just finished an instrument. And I was super excited about it. I lived in a trailer next to his shop. And he knocked on the door and opened it up. And he had two glasses of wine, and there was a bonfire outside.

And I said, “Oh, Anton, how are you doing?” And he goes… And then he came in and he said, “Well, listen, there’s a tradition in violin making that it’s hard to know when you’re ready to sell your instruments. And this might sound a little bit harsh to you, but you’re not quite there yet. So I’m gonna ask you to burn your violin.”

>> Shannon: aaaah!

>> Bob: So we had a glass of wine, and then I went out to the bonfire and adios!

>> Shannon: Oh my gosh! That’s some tough love!

>> Bob: It was tough but you know he was right. And what he said is, “You know, you don’t want to have your own shop and have somebody walk into it ten years later and open it up and say who made this piece of crap? You want to open up the violin the violin case and look at the violin and say who made this beautiful instrument? And he goes, that’s the line that you want to be able to get to.” And he goes “You know I’m gonna help you get there, but you’re not there yet.”


>> Shannon: Also not there yet? My flute. No movement now for a day and a half. What’s the hold up? Like, is it smashed to bits and waiting to be sent back to me in a bag? The phone number of the post office where I think it is doesn’t work. I might need some of Bob’s courage. Or his fiddle burning wine. Or both…

>> Shannon: Was the wine good?

>> Bob: It was very good. It must have been good ’cause he got me to do it. Haha!


I sold all my early violins to fiddle players, because I love the music. And made so many great friends through the music.

[ Music: “The Golden Ticket,” from The Western Star

Composer/Artist: Eric Merrill ]

People found their way to me, and I’ve been able to work with people to kind of help them try to understand the sound that they hear in their head, how to translate that into an instrument. So that, I feel I got really good training in. So I was able to do it that way.

>> Shannon: Working with fiddle players and helping them convey musical ideas through an instrument: this has been Bob’s Golden Ticket. That’s what this tune is called, written and played by Eric Merrill.

For Pat O’Connor in Clare, playing Irish music is his major creative and social outlet. And over the years he’s also gotten into fixing broken and ailing violins. And he’s made some new ones.

>> Pat: Yeah yeah, I’ve made a couple of fiddles, yeah. I was never happy with the instruments I made. There was always something not quite to my liking in them. So that kind of, that was one of the things that stopped me doing it more and more of it. I know it should encourage you to do more and more of it to actually try and get to that point. But with me, I just said, ah, there’s so many nice old fiddles there, why would I be bothered making more of them, yeah?

[ Music: “The Southwest Wind,” from Glaise

Artist: Pat O’Connor ]

>> Shannon: So coming from playing fiddle, how did you first get into making a fiddle?

>> Pat: Haha! I just wanted to know about it really. I just wanted to be able to, you know, understand the fiddle. And I wanted to be able to fix it. Number one, If my fiddle broke or anything happened to it that I could know what to do. And it’s just a natural interest really, I suppose.

>> Shannon: Yeah. So at this point I wished I’d gotten more into flute maintenance and building, instead of sending my beloved instrument off for repair. But here we are. Maybe this experience will nudge me to learn some more. That’s how it began for Pat O’Connor: an interest in fiddle maintenance.

>> Pat: It started from something as simple as that. And then the insights of it. And then reading about makers and that. And of course I saw the film, the film about the Red Violin where your man used his dead wife’s blood for the varnish.

>> Shannon: The screenplay for the Red Violin was inspired by a real instrument called Red Mendelssohn. The movie starts in the late 1600s, We meet this bereaved luthier, and then we follow his star creation as it’s played by people in different countries and in different eras.

>> Shannon: So what surprised you most when you started getting in there making some violins?

>> Pat: What surprised me most was that you could spend six or seven hours completely lost in it, you know. Yeah. No bother, like, at a sitting.

>> Shannon: And do you find that you can do that with playing tunes as well?

>> Pat: I can, yeah, if it’s going well. You know that ease of playing that comes when you’re just hitting it right and everything is happening. It’s a bit like meditation or something. You know, you get into a kind of a headspace where you just completely aware of what you’re doing, but you’re not thinking it too much, you know? You can see where you’re going, you can see where you are, you can. It’s like everything is just happening.

>> Shannon: Yeah. Total presence.

>> Pat: Yeah.

>> Pat: The instruments I made, some people said, “Oh, they’re lovely.” But you know, I still have them! Haha. And I wanted them dismantled and dismembered.

>> Shannon: Yeah?

>> Pat: Yeah. And it’s been like that for about 15 years.

>> Shannon: So they’re just there?

>> Pat: They’re just there. They’re not going anywhere, like.

> Shannon: It was interesting hearing Eamonn talk about making flutes. You know, in the beginning there were some real stinkers, you know. And like you said, that would impel some to keep going.

>> Pat: I still think I’m going to go back to making a couple of fiddles again. I have the wood to make ‘em. It’s just a matter of getting started. But then there’s so many things to do.

>> Shannon: There’s so many things to do. There’s so many options. So many paths that one could take.

[ Music: Caoineadh Ui Neill, from Glaise

Artist: Pat O’Connor ]

>> Shannon: At this point, it seemed like there were a few paths my flute had taken. Either it’a lost in a sea of packages like the bike in Arthur Christmas. Or it’s in bits, and someone at the mail processing plant is waiting for the paperwork person to come along to file a claim. Even if that’s the situation, maybe it could be fixed. Well, it was headed to Patrick, who builds and restores old flutes. So there’s still hope. As long as it gets to him, he’ll do his best to fix it. Like Pat O’Connor does with old fiddles.

>> Pat: I still do the repair part of it. I like setting up ‘em up, you know? I like setting up fiddles. And hearing the little differences that that come when you adjust something.

>> Shannon: It seems like a thing of balance over playing music. To then also do something in the practice of utility, and just helping other people.

>> Pat: Yeah, I mean yeah, I agree with you. Yeah, and I see it like that. And I wouldn’t be dealing with brilliant fiddles, like I wouldn’t be dealing with top-range fiddles. Just fiddles that ordinary people have.

I kind of like that idea, you know. Of just doing it. And to try and get them good for people like that is kind of satisfying.

[ music moment]

>> Pat: I feel like everything I’m doing is giving me more and more insight into these instruments. In a way, I’m preparing myself.

>> Shannon: You’re studying.

>> Pat: I’m studying, yeah. I’m studying. Well that’s what you’re doing all the time with anything, really. You’re learning new things. Even the music is the same. You’re practicing, your art or craft, or whatever.

>> Shannon: If you’re setting up or building fiddles in a shop in County Clare, or if you’re making Irish flutes or uilleann pipe bags, you’re making tools for a really specific community. A lot of folks know one another already. So this exchange from the maker’s hand to the player can be particularly special.

So can the exchange from the postal carrier’s hand back to the maker! Day 5. Lunchtime at the Heaton home. I’m barely picking at my food when the blip on my personal tracker app stars moving. It gets closer to Patrick, and then it just stops. Just stops right outside an apartment building. And it’s there for like an hour.

Well then it moves again, and then it stops.

Matt Heaton figures it out first: my flute was in the general mail truck, making every stop along the way. Sure enough, a few hours into this exercise, Patrick calls to say

“safe and sound! And woo hoo! Free shipping!”

[ Music: “My Love is in America,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Well, so much for overnight, express, special handling… all that money and paperwork, just to have it travel along with the birthday cards. I did receive a partial reimbursement (they don’t refund insurance). But it was a pretty crappy way to make a buck. I decided instead of chancing that again, I’d drive down to Virginia to retrieve my beloved flute.

[ Music: “Triumph Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: I have this instrument that you made for me 27 years ago. And I’ve really, I’ve always been grateful for it. And I’ve really enjoyed playing it. So… I had this experience recently of shipping my flute to you. And it took a long time for it to arrive, which was very nerve-wracking and very upsetting to me.

>> Patrick: Well, you tell them that you shipped it overnight, yeah, yeah.

>> Shannon: It was horrible. And then for you, you must make them all the time and so..

>> Patrick: I think the fact that I’m frequently playing, in a given week I play as many as ten antique flutes. I’m trying them out, I’m checking them out, I’m enjoying their sound. It’s part research and part recreation. And I own two of my own flutes at the moment. So I don’t have the thing where all my eggs are in one basket. It’s a little different.

Once you have something that’s really, really precious—as we were talking about yesterday, that you’re attached to—then you’re vulnerable.

>> Shannon: Yes, I know…

>> Shannon: Last night we had like a table full of a bunch of flutes. And all of them were really fun to play. But boy, they all have different personalities.

>> Patrick: That’s part of the fun for me, I think. That variety. It’s like having a garden with a hundred different varieties of flowers. I mean, I can’t imagine going outside and having one kind of flower. You know, it’d be pretty. But it’d be sort of, like, one-dimensional, right?

>> Shannon: And me, I want the one beautiful flower. And I can put it in different places in the room, and enjoy it from lots of different angles.

>> Patrick: Like an orchid or something.

>> Shannon: Is it weird to encounter somebody like me who just, like… I just love my one way?

>> Patrick: No, I think that’s natural. And it’s useful for your musical technique and your art not to wake up every morning and be frustrated, or irritated, or not fully engaged with your own instrument. I think if you wake up every morning and you’re in love, it’s like a long term marriage!

>> Shannon: Yeah, yeah, it is. Oh man, I hope we get another 27 years, me and that flute.

>> Patrick: And your husband.

>> Shannon: Oh yeah, him. As long as he plays with me.


[ Music: “Buried My Wife and Danced on Her Grave,” from Whirring Wings

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Obviously making instruments involves technique, skill, patience, experience. And maybe a little bit of magic. Like, why does Patrick’s flute sit so well with me? In 150 years, will it sit so well for someone else?

>> Bob: In today’s world, which is so technological and mechanical, I think having the ability to kind of have tools and be able to shape wood gives you a sense of creating a vehicle for yourself, to touch into something that’s much deeper than just the very instrument that you’re making. But it taps into a whole history.

>> Shannon: Did you see the red violin?

>> Bob: I did, of course. Yes. It’s weird.

>> Shannon: Did he make it from his dead wife’s blood or something?

>> Bob: Well, they mythologized it. Actually, that’s one of the things… I think people get attracted to violin making because there’s a great mystery to how you get the sound of a violin. You can’t explain it completely with like a mechanical perspective. And you can’t explain it in terms of the artistry of it. But t here’s something about it that’s very mysterious. And I think in today’s world, you need mystery in your life, like whatever it is. And so for me, getting drawn to the violin was where I found my place.

[ Music: “Cofio,” from Llinyn Arian

Composer: Angharad Jenkins & Delyth Jenkins

Artist: Delyth & Angharad ]

>> Shannon: Maybe one way to dwell in a bit of mystery is to be surrounded by dozens of your own instruments.

>> Colleen: last year in Spring Cillian O ‘Brien came up for our session. He was sort of sitting amongst many sets that he had made over the years playing around him. And we were all just sort of looking at each other going like, that must be a wonderful feeling to be surrounded by like these things that you put your life into really.

>> Shannon: Yes. And even people who set up fiddles, and you know heal them, and make them more playable and easier for the player. T o allow somebody an easier form of expression.

>> Colleen: Yeah, absolutely I think the better your instrument, I think the happier you are. That’s a very obvious statement. But like I think people sometimes neglect that, I suppose. Just struggle through on something But like once you take the barriers away, the music can just kind of flow out, and really express yourself that way.

>> Eamonn: It’s a good life, you know? I don’t mind getting down and dirty. I prefer that than to be working in an office, you know. I have to produce something tangible at the end of the week. I have to see something tangible.

To me now, the idea of it being an accountant, 40 years. What do you say after your 40 years, like? And you look back and you say what was that all about, you know?

>> Shannon: It’s something tangible, and it’s something too that will endure.

>> Eamonn: This is it. Like, I bought my first flute in 1975 and it was made in I think around the 1840s. So that was 130-140 years old at that stage, you know? And the flute was perfect you know?

>> Colleen: I really do enjoy getting this sort of new look into the making side of things. Um, I don’t know if I’d actually go forward with it. But when I had that sort of sense of satisfaction of playing the bag that I made, I was like, oh, I see now why people want to make the entire set. Like how wonderful that would be to play something that you made. So I kind of was like, “Oh gosh, did I just get bitten by the pipe-making bug?” But I don’t know, I think I’m….

>> Shannon: We’ll see.

>> Colleen: We’ll see.

>> Shannon: Watch this space.

>> Shannon: The future is unknowable. Though practice TODAY will likely make performance tomorrow go better. And being mindful and grateful of the instruments I use definitely enhances the here and now. No matter what Colleen ends up building, and no matter where my flute ends up after I get to play it, I am definitely glad to have it back home with me again.

[ Music: “Silver Spear,” from the Irish Music Stories studio

Artist: Shannon Heaton ]

This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. My deep thanks to Patrick Olwell, Eamonn Cotter, Colleen Shanks, Pat O’Connor, and Bob Childs for sharing their worldview…. And for building and setting up instruments with such care.

Thank you to everybody who donated to keep me going, and to all of you for listening. Kick in to support the show by visiting And subscribe in your favorite podcast app, so you won’t miss my next episode, in which you’ll meet more tradition bearers from Munster, in the West of Ireland, and also up in the northwest of Ulster.

[ Music: “John’s Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Patrick: If you feed a lot of people really high quality ice cream, there’s a kind of universal response. But if you hand people pieces of like six different kinds of rosewood, well, they’re kind of like, oh, that’s pretty, you know. But for me, it’s like, “Whoa.”

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Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Shannon Heaton


World-reared, Boston-based flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music 

Colleen Shanks


Michigan-born, Ireland-based uilleann piper and flute player and pipe bag maker

Eamonn Cotter


Flute player and flute maker from County Clare

Patrick Olwell


Flute player and flute maker based in Virginia (and sometimes in Georgia)

Bob Childs


Masachusetts-based Violin maker and director of Childsplay

Pat O'Connor


Clare-based fiddle player and violin repairer

The Heaton List