By Sari Xu
Have you ever heard people referring to the Dizi or the Xiao as Chinese flutes? Have you ever tried to play a Chinese Dizi solo composition with a Western flute? Do you think the fingering techniques of the Western concert flute and the Dizi look very similar?
Yes, you might believe that as woodwind instruments, the flute, Dizi and Xiao have lots of similarities, and this is true. However, they also have different features and advantages that are worth mentioning related to their designs, structure, and playing strategies.
Apparently, they are made of different raw materials and look different. Modern flutes, and most of the woodwind instruments that we usually see in a Western orchestra nowadays, are made of metals such as nickel, brass, silver or gold. On the contrary, the Dizi and the Xiao, and most of the wind instruments in China are made of bamboo (or wood, as a high-end product line nowadays). This is the reason why the flute can generate louder notes than the Dizi, and the notes which the Dizi produces sound more tender and more natural than the flute. Also, due to their differences material-wise, the Dizi and the Xiao are 100% handmade and the quality of the craftsmanship largely decides the quality of the instruments, while the assembling of the flute requires help from machinery.
Other than the quality of the craftsmanship, another factor that influences the timbre of a Dizi or a Xiao is the quality of the bamboo. The older the bamboo is, the better the tone will be, and the usage of a different part of a single piece of bamboo may result in the woodwind tone having a different quality. Bitter bamboo is most suitable for making the Dizi and black bamboo (or, purple bamboo) is the best fit for the Xiao. This variety between the quality of the bamboo decides whether the notes of an instrument will be tender or bright.
Regarding the structure, both Western and Chinese flutes were unable to be separated into different pieces and only had holes on the pipe. This was until Theobald Boehm’s revolution, after which the modern flute began to have keys that cover each finger hole on the main pipe and a more comfortable embouchure hole on the head pipe. The flute can be detached into 3 parts, while most Dizi and Xiao are still undetachable or can only be detached into 2 pieces.
FUN FACTS ABOUT THE DIZI:
A fun fact about the Dizi (yes, only the Dizi, this does not apply to the Xiao!) is that it has an additional hole at the back of the pipe between the embouchure and finger holes, called “Mo Kong” (literally “membrane hole”). A special membrane called “Di Mo” (“Dizi membrane”), an almost tissue-like shaving of reed (made from the inner skin of bamboo cells), is glued over this hole. This membrane is really significant to the Dizi because the vibration it causes brings a distinctive resonating effect to the sound and makes the note louder while adding to it a unique nasal sound.
At the advanced level, playing the Dizi is something which requires incredible skill. An extremely advanced playing technique called “circular breathing” is widely used among professional Dizi players to produce a continuous uninterrupted sound. This sounds impossible for human beings because we have to breathe, right? However, by breathing in through the nose while SIMULTANEOUSLY pushing air out through the mouth, using the air stored in our cheeks, this becomes possible! (I imagine you are trying this skill right now in front of the screen. Give it a try, but don’t push yourself too hard, this is an ADVANCED skill!!!)
To conclude, when comparing the Western flute with the Dizi and the Xiao, it is important to understand both their differences and their similarities. Because their fingering techniques, breathing techniques and embouchure techniques are all very alike, the skills are totally transferable. If you have expertise in playing the flute, it would definitely be much easier and require far less time to learn to play the Dizi and vice versa. That is why knowing about their differences is so crucial! Good luck with whatever you are learning to play!
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