Hello beautiful soul, welcome to the world of the xiao!
On this site you will find a quick FAQ on the xiao, followed by my personal search for a good instrument with pictures and links where to buy.
None of it is sponsored, I just fo it for the fun of sharing knowledge.
What key should I start with? Why is it called G key but he lowest note is D?
Bamboo xiao or wooden xiao?
Long or short xiao?
One piece or 2 or 3 sections?
Open or closed mouthpiece?
Xiao maintenance? What do I need to know about getting the xiao ready to play?
Where to buy a xiao / Where did you buy your xiao?
How to learn to play the xiao?
The xiao is a fascinating instrument from china! I didn't even know it existed until recently.
I have had my experience with the chinese shakuhachi that is somewhat related to the xiao (thought the xiao came first). It was incredibly diffcult to play even for me, a person that picks up any instrument with ease. Not so the shakuhachi. After a few months of not getting a sound out of it, I sold it and said to myself to never get a rim blown instrument again.
Fast forward a year and I still kept looking for a cool new flute to play. I had so far tried the Native American Flute, Irish whistle, recorder, transverse flute, baroque flute, bansuri and many others.
A friend of mine got curious and asked me if I can identify a flute for her. She sent me a recording of a song. I was sure it was a bamboo flute, but it didn't sound as expressive as a shakuhachi. I started researching asian flutes. I found the xiao and I was sure, the sound matched the recording.
I told my friend to stay away from an instrument that I thought is similar to the shakuhachi, just to not discourage her little spark in music. As a first instrument, I thought I would pick something more accessible for her. Like Native American flute (which she found nice but wasn't particularly into - she found it too limiting and it isn't made to play songs with). So I forgot about the xiao again.
Until I asked in a whistle forum for a whistle that isn't as shrill in the second octave and someone said: "Have you thought about playing the xiao?"
That felt like such a weird advice. In a whistle forum! But it got me intrigued and I started to research the xiao. I found out that it was lots easier to play than the shakuhachi - that sounded good!
I decided to try.
I wanted to get a xiao in my own country, before I order anything from China, so I started with Thomann, a well known music shop in Europe.
I got the Artino Chinese Dongxiao Bamboo Flute, an instrument just under 50€ in the key of G. This is the long thin northern xiao and comes usually with a closed mouthpiece.
I also got the more expensive Thomann Shakuhachi Master Xiao in G at over 250€. This one is the southern type, which is related to the shakuhachi, usually has an open mouthpiece.
Both Thomann versions were closed mouthpieces.
I was able to make a sound within two days. Nice!
However, both instruments weren't satisfying to me.
The Artino Xiao had a very nice sound, but the inside of the flute was not treated and it was very sensitive to temperature changes and condensation. Very frustrating experience eve though the instrument was otherwise very well made for the price.
The Thomann Xiao was very difficult to play and somehow didn't feel good. I found it wasn't worth the money. It was labelled "Terre" as the brand. I had once gotten a shaman drum from them that I hadn't found impressive. It was just okay.
So, heavy hearted I returned both instruments, moving forward on the quest of finding the perfect xiao.
Even though I had read to not buy a xiao on Ebay, I did find a private seller who let go of his collection for a very reasonable price. I had the opportunity to buy 3 instruments - one in bamboo with a closed mouthpiece, one with an open mouthpiece and one in sandalwood, short type.
What I found was that I prefered the wooden xiao over the bamboo xiao! It was easier to play, more resonant and most important, wood does not crack nearly as easily. I had read how sensitive bamboo xiao are. And who wants to worry about their instrument getting cracks? Well, not me.
The wooden xiao was in the key of F, so a bit large for me to play due to my short arms. I ordered the same one in the key of G, the most beginner friendly key from www.Redmusicshop.com The delivery was fast as promised. Here is the link to the flute you see in my pictures: https://www.redmusicshop.com/Xiao/Professional%20short%20Xiao,%20aged%20rosewood,%208%20Holes,%202%20Sections (Professional Xiao Short, Aged Rosewood, 8 holes, 2 sections)
I found the open mouthpiece not much more difficult to play than the closed mouthpiece. Once you know how to produce a sound on the closed one, you can also get the sound on the open one. I would even say I prefer the open mouthpiece as it is easier to clean and more variety in sound can be made with it.
Sadly, I had some bubbles in the varnish and soon, the paint came off on those areas. I mailed the shop and they said it is no problem, just put olive oil over it. Even though it was only a cosmetic problem, I chose to sell this xiao again and look for a better one...
And what happened to those bamboo xiao? I gave them away to friends that I knew would appreciate them and go in this journey with me, so we could all nerd out with each other :)
I knew that plastic instruments are not necessarily bad as I own a plastic Yamaha alto recorder that is pretty decent. So I also wanted an instrument for travel that is not affected by temperature and humidity changes. So I got the ABS plastic xiao. B17 / B18 refers to the model name, so being released 2017 / 2018.
The instrument was about 60 USD plus shipping. I got mine through Wudao Music, so I did not directly order it myself, it was a bit tricky to find a shop that delivers outside of Asia. But this is just not something I am very experienced in, ordered from China!
www.Diziflute.com carries these flutes. As I said I did not order through them, so I cannot say how well the customer service is, but they do seem nice there.
The instrument itself is decent and comes apart in 4 (actually 5) sections. The mouth cap can be taken off which is nice for cleaning purposes. It comes with a little case and a cleaning cloth. I would recommend this instrument for beginners or people who just want to try it out without investing too much.
I would say it is decent for the price, pretty well made, though off course not as amazing as a wooden one made by a fine maker. Off course, it lacks the "personality" of a wooden or bamboo instrument, but it does not crack or get damaged easily. If you are a fan of beautifully crafted instruments, this will not satisfy you, but as a backup or starter instrument, it does the job.
There is a short and a long version. I would choose the long version - I had actually ordered both. Though the difference isn't huge, the long ones has a bit more resonance and depth.
Here is a video link of someone playing this more skilled that I do:
Luckily, there are other options for us westerners than ordering xiao from Asia! Look up Geoffrey Ellis, a world flute maker with great skill and dedication. I have emailed with him lots and he has been so lovely and appreciative of his clients, taking the time to explain things to me and answer questions with such passion I rarely see these days. The price range is higher, so these xiao are starting at 500 USD - though totally worth it.
If you can at all afford it, I highly recommend you getting in touch with Geoffrey to order a xiao from his shop. He is such a lovely, customer oriented and kind hearted professional! And the instruments are just superb and such a pleasure to look, touch and play. Such detail. Such love! I am over the moon about every aspect of it.
My cherry xiao in G is definitely the best instrument from all of the ones I have tried so far. It looks lovely, is nice to touch (beeswax), is an instrument you will swoon over for the rest of your life. I sold all my chinese instruments once I got this one. I would say, with the Ellis xiao, the search is over :)