The fife is a wind instrument similar to a flute or piccolo, but without keys and with a sharper and more strident sound. Originating from medieval Europe and traditionally used in the military, the fife is still played in drum ensembles and for individual satisfaction. Learn to play this challenging yet fun instrument yourself!
Method 1 of 3: Hold and Blow on the Fife
Step 1. Keep the instrument to the right
Position the fife horizontally and extending to the right of your face. The six finger holes should be to the right, while the single hole goes near the mouth for you to blow on.
Step 2. Place your hands correctly
Cover the three holes closest to your mouth with the first three fingers of your left hand. Place the palm of that hand towards you. Cover the other three holes with the first three fingers of the right hand. Place the palm of that hand away from you.
- Although the index, middle and ring fingers of each hand will be the only ones that will cover the holes, support the fife with the thumb and little fingers of both hands, resting them on the body of the instrument so that they are comfortable.
- If your instrument is not the conventional 6-hole fife, it may have more holes to cover with the other fingers, but you can still use this basic hand placement.
Step 3. Position your mouth to blow
Place your lower lip against the fife right next to the blowing hole. Press your lips together and try to blow through the hole instead of down.
- To get the right angle for your breathing, imagine that part of the air in your mouth hits the inside wall of the fife, and part passes the hole where you blow out of the instrument.
- Try to blow air as if you were whispering the word "too", with your lips pursed and the air forcefully expelled through your tongue.
Step 4. Practice blowing until you get a sound
Turn the instrument slowly back and forth while blowing to find the correct angle to create a sound. Also try changing the angle of your breath and the tension of your lips to find what makes the best sound.
- Practice blowing and holding the fife correctly in front of a mirror.
- Don't worry if it takes a long time for the fife to make a sound! Keep experimenting with the angle of the fife and your lips until you can achieve a consistent sound.
Method 2 of 3: Tuning and Learning Notes
Step 1. Tune the instrument first
Play the same note (you can start with all the fingerholes open) from another fife player or an electronic / online tuner to get the correct pitch. Turn the instrument towards your mouth if the note is too high. Spread it out if it's too flat.
Experiment with rolling slowly in and out of the same note to hear the pitch change. Tone doesn't matter that much if you're playing solo, but you'll need to tune every time you start playing another fife or instrument
Step 2. Try a low C #
Make a sharp note in C by simply holding all the finger holes open and applying a steady breath on the instrument. Turn the fife in or out slightly to see if it sounds sharp or flat compared to another player or tuner.
- Try a medium C # using the same fingers but blowing harder. Press your lips together to push a stronger stream of air out of your mouth. This is usually how to get a note an octave higher.
- Remember these notes are for a standard fife, which has 6 holes and is on a Bb key. Find notes and tuning for the specific instrument if it is in a different key or style.
Step 3. Try a low D
Play a D note by covering each finger hole and blowing a steady, even breath into the blow hole. Use this note to tune into another player or tuner by turning the fife further in or out of the mouth to change the pitch.
- Try to hold your fingers firmly over each hole, closing it all the way to prevent air from passing through. Keep this in mind for every note you learn to play.
- Remember these notes are for a standard fife, which has 6 holes and is in a Bb tone. Look up notes and tuning for your specific instrument if it is in a different key or style.
Step 4. Follow a fingering chart for the fife
Learn the proper fingering for almost any note on the fife with a simple fingering chart. You may want to learn the basics of understanding musical notes, but you don't have to.
- The typical full fingering chart for a standard fife ranges from a low F (all but the last hole covered) to a high B (the first, third and fifth holes covered).
- Experiment by hitting as many notes as you can. Focus on hitting notes in a low or middle octave first because they are easier to achieve when you learn to blow and make a consistent sound.
- Some of the more difficult notes require closing a hole in the middle. You can tilt your finger slightly so it doesn't completely cover the hole, or you can "float" your finger over the hole so it doesn't cover it so closely.
Method 3 of 3: Play Songs
Step 1. Find sheet music
Find sheet music for the fife online or at music stores. Use a fingering chart next to the score to help you remember where to place your fingers for each note.
You may be able to adapt the music for another wind instrument, such as a flute, piccolo, or pan flute, to play for the fife. Ask the staff at the music store or someone familiar with wind instruments for help
Step 2. Play music by ear
If you can't or don't want to read sheet music, you can also learn new songs simply by listening to them and testing the fife's notes through trial and error, one note at a time.
It will be easier to choose notes once you have a better understanding of the instrument and practice listening to songs by ear. If you get stuck discovering a note or section of notes, try skipping to a different part of the song
Step 3. Breathe and take it easy
Take a deep breath and move slowly from note to note when you discover a song. It helps to stand up instead of sitting down to play. Keep your head and shoulders up and your chest open to breathe deeply.
At first it can be very difficult and uncomfortable to move your fingers from one note to another. Be patient. Break the music into small parts (just a few notes at a time), then repeat the same part over and over again until you can easily move your fingers to each note before moving on to the next part
Step 4. Join a fife and drum group
Find a fife and drum ensemble in your area. Join one of these groups to team up with other musicians and drummers to learn new songs, gain valuable input and experience, and perform at parades or historical events.
Step 5. Consult with war reenactment groups
If you want to find another group to play with, and especially if you are interested in the rich military history of fife music, talk to war reenactors about playing the fife at their performances or other events.
Step 6. Keep playing on your own
Keep playing just for yourself and get better by learning more than one teacher, an instruction book, or by watching videos and searching for music online.
- Don't be discouraged if it takes a long time to even make a sound with the instrument. The fife is one of the most difficult wind instruments to learn to play!
- Like any other instrument, the only way to improve is to practice! Follow a practice schedule for the same amount of time every day, if you can, to see significant improvement.
- Joining a fife and drum group, or another group, is a great way to get motivated to practice, get valuable input and advice from more experienced musicians, and have fun with it!
- Get a soft or hard case to protect the fife during storage or transport.
- Fifes made of different materials will sound different. A plastic learning instrument is fine and less expensive, but you may want to move on to playing a wood and metal fife to see how the sound quality changes.