Sue Miller – Cuban Flute Improviser, Writer & Academic

Review of Cuban Flute Style by Bill McBirnieJune 20th, 2014

My new book

Book Review by Bill McBirnie, March 2014 in the Journal of the British Flute Society

Sue Miller: Cuban Flute Style. United Kingdom, Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2014. ISBN 978-0-8108-8441-0

Let me begin by saying that Sue Miller’s Cuban Flute Style is an extraordinarily comprehensive oeuvre, with respect to both the history and the technique of charanga flute playing. In addition, her book is realized with a broad as well as a thoughtful understanding of the entire tradition on which this style of music is based.

The importance of charanga to any aspiring flute improvisor (whether in Cuban or in other more sophisticated musical formats such as jazz) cannot be overemphasized because of its fundamental, albeit often overlooked, characteristics which are central to music in general but are nonetheless often disregarded in what is tantamount to a preoccupation with needless improvisational complexity.

It is fair to say that simplicity will inevitably serve a meaningful purpose in even the most complex of musical situations, and it is for this very reason that the idiomatic focus of Miller’s book is so relevant – indeed timeless – because the essential elements of rhythmic vitality, melodic simplicity, call-and-response/sequential/motif development, enchanting ornamental devices, characteristic phrasing – proceeding right through to what are peculiar stylistic mannerisms (such as the simple humour and joy of a “bugle call”) – are explored by Miller through a careful analysis of the works of what are undoubtedly the finest exponents of this idiom; notably, Richard Egües of Orquesta Aragón and José Fajardo of Fajardo y sus Estrellas (and a host of others who all receive their due). What these masters disclosed in their craft – and what Miller has so thoughtfully and thoroughly documented – is genuinely relevant to all improvising flutists, regardless of idiom.

Miller begins by placing charanga in its proper historical context. She then proceeds to the rudiments of the craft, including the requisite altissimo fingerings on the Boehm flute and a summary of all of the fingerings for the traditional five-key wooden flute (on which so much of the classic repertoire was performed). And she presents not just one but rather three sets of fingerings for the vintage instrument (which, in and of itself, constitutes a tremendous resource because, as I mentioned earlier, Miller’s book is astonishing in terms of its comprehension, and this constitutes just one of the reasons why Cuban Flute Style will have an immediate, as well as an ongoing, relevance to the entire flute community).

Miller continues her analysis with extensive transcriptions and detailed dissections of some of the classic charanga compositions in conjunction with the corresponding flute solos by many of the greats. Moreover, in some cases, she contrasts performances of the same piece so that the possibilities, as well as the evolution, of the style are revealed to the reader.

I read the entire book with rapt attention and avid interest. In fact, at times I was motivated to move perhaps a little more quickly through the text than I ought to have because I would find myself falling under “the allure of the next chapter”. But such enthusiasm was hardly premature because there is so much to re-visit in this book, which is precisely why it will serve as a vital source of reference to flutists, all over the world, for years to come – and not just for those interested in charanga!

Bill McBirnie is a Canadian jazz and Latin flute specialist. He is a multiple award winner in all the National Flute Association jazz flute competitions. He has produced several internationally acclaimed albums (including Nature Boy, Paco Paco, Mercy and more recently, Find Your Place). Finally, he has been personally solicited by Sir James Galway to serve as the resident Jazz Flute Specialist at Sir James’ official website. You can find out more about Bill at his own website,