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A lot of helpful ideas for playing PENNYWHISTLE

A lot of helpful ideas for playing PENNYWHISTLE

At some point in their lives, many casual musicians and serious players of other instruments pick up a simple “pennywhistle” or “tin whistle” and try to play it for fun or as a special extra sound along with their other music.  Other folks won’t even attempt it, afraid that they’ll sound horrible.  Well, I think you can at least attempt it, especially since there are a lot of pretty good whistles available for less than twenty dollars in most music stores!  And they have only six holes that produce the regular do-re-mi scale!  Hopefully you can come up with a decent sound with a little exploration; I’ve compiled here a list of helpful ideas that I’ve amassed over the past thirty-some years as I’ve been playing whistle and sharing what I know with other players:

1) Where can they be found?

  • Your local music store may well have a cardboard display of Generation “flageolets”: these are the most common whistle and don't cost much, but also they're the ones played by none other than the wonderful Chieftains group from Ireland!  You may find that these stores also stock Clarke whistles, just a little more expensive, with a different kind of sound.  Other good brands in this same range include Oak, Feadog, Walton’s, and Sweetone (made by Clarke, who also make the Meg, the least expensive of all).  Please know that these are all fine whistles, and you can play really good music on them!
  • What I consider the biggest next step up from this price range is Susato, (www.susato.com) made in USA of finely-crafted ABS plastic; also Shaw is excellent, again with a different shape and sound.  And a new favorite of mine is the series of Jerry Freeman tweaked whistles, which he has personally gone over and adjusted in great detail for a reasonable price and wonderful sound; I especially like the Bluebird and Mellow Dog models!  Dixon is also a fine brand.
  • High-end whistles include Chieftain by Phil Hardy (I play these a lot, as well as Shaw and Susato), Overton, O’Reardon, BurkeSweetheart, Thin Weasel, and Copeland --- many of which seem to go in and out of active production…!
  • Here's another link to my video demonstrating the sounds and characteristics of twelve of the models I own and play.
  • Any folk music sales website should have a variety of models to browse among; some sites that I know of (and have bought from!) are www.elderly.com;www.thewhistleshop.com (perhaps the best, but each site has a different selection);www.larkinam.com; and www.stoneyend.com. Also there’s a fun and crazy site called www.chiffandfipple.com that has articles as well as sales.
  • Facebook has some groups you might consider joining; members post videos and discuss various models and techniques. I'm a member of Tin Whistle/Pennywhistle Resource, Tin Whistle, and The Irish Tin Whistle.       

2) Some basic thoughts:

  • It’s a pipe that you make longer and shorter by adding and subtracting covered holes.  (Those holes are not buttons!)
  • Whistle Keys:  Since whistles are a diatonic instrument (do-re-mi scale only), in order to play in a certain key you need an actual instrument made in that key.  D, C, Bb, A, low G, low D are most common.  Each has its own voice.  (All keys are available in the Susato brand, and most in the Generation, Chieftain, and Shaw brands as well.)  The good news is that every key has exactly the same fingering!  You just need to learn the key of D's fingering, and you can reapply that to all keys!
  • Cylindrical whistles sound sweeter and more bird-like.  Conical whistles sound more breathy and rustic.  Both are wonderful.
  • "Low whistles" are usually considered to be from the key of low G on down, with the key of D an octave lower than the standard small D whistle being the most common.  They can require a lot of reach (as in the photo above of a two-year-old!), but they have an amazing haunting sound!  As well as Chieftain, Shaw, Susato, and others, there's a popular one made by Howard.  As with every other size, the different brands, designs, and keys all differ in character of sound but are all played essentially the same way.
  • You fingers need to develop an intuition for sensing the edges of the holes so they can continually make a good air seal.  If you have more than one whistle and switch between or among them (as I love to do for different keys and voices), your fingers also need to learn to hunt for those different hole locations and adapt.  I've been pleasantly surprised to find that my fingers are well able to do that adapting!
  • Don’t start and stop your breath to get each new note; rather use your tongue or the next note’s fingering to end and begin the notes.
  • You need to work on intuitively propping the whistle when few fingers are covering holes, so it doesn’t fall out of your mouth!  Use spare fingers (especially right pinky and both thumbs) on areas away from the holes when needed.  Your mouth joins with these spare fingers to hold the instrument in place when needed.
  • What if you buy a whistle and it doesn't seem to make a strong enough sound (too breathy, perhaps)?  Well, most often when this happens it's one of the hand-made conical whistles with a wooden fipple.  I've found that I can "tweak" the windway to sound better in this case by carefully crimping the metal edge at the far end of the windway from where you blow (about a half inch, perhaps, from the mouth end, where you can look down the noise-producing hole into the inside of the whistle).  I did this yesterday to one of my Clarkes, using the bottle opener on a Swiss Army knife, pressing down slowly and firmly till there was a slight indentation.  It really made the instrument sound clearer and more focused!
  • Whistles made from metal react to temperature changes and go sharp or flat;  body temperature should be best for them to play in tune.  So... if you have a metal whistle and you need to join in with other instruments, and the metal is cold, it will be flat!  (Aluminum ones like Chieftains are especially this way.)  That means you need to anticipate this and pick up the whistle a minute before you play and blow into it (with a finger over the sound hole to keep it from playing notes) to get it to body temperature.  I've even gotten a heating pad from a drug store to keep the metal whistles in during a concert, but one must be careful not to let them get too hot!  Ouch!

3) Finger expression:

  • As a flutist, I tend to arch my fingers over the holes and seal the holes with the pads at the ends of my fingers --- but I've found that when I play whistle I tend to do more like bagpipers do and straighten my fingers somewhat from the arch (and I think this is a common practice among whistlers).  The back part of the fingertip's pad, just before the first knuckle, seals the hole.  Experiment and see what feels the most natural and useful for you!
  • Finger slides can go sideways either way, or upward (lifting finger at an angle) --- intuitively decided as the tune is played.
  • Bagpipe tremolo (works better on cylindrical than conical): Various fingers move up and down over the holes that are beyond the ones needed for the note, leaving one hole uncovered between the note fingers and tremolo fingers.  (Experiment.)
  • Ornaments: For example, you can choose trills, grace notes of different intervals (second, third, etc. from above or below the main note), or Celtic turns.
  • Slaps: Slam the furthest finger down onto the hole at the start of a note for a special effect.
  • Fingering of the note C-natural : You can choose between half-holing and a variety of fingerings which differ from one instrument to another.  (See the chart that comes with your whistle for the maker’s recommendation, and/or experiment with various combinations.)
  • On low whistles, consider using your pinky for the lowest hole, rather than your ring finger.  Your fingers can learn to adapt!
  • Central-octave D fingering: You can choose to play this note with or without the first hole covered; tone differs from one instrument to another, and is a choice based on the design of each instrument and on the player’s musical taste.
  • Traditional Irish music tends not to use tonguing at all; if there are two or more notes of the same pitch in a row, they’re separated by ornaments rather than tonguing.

4) Mouth expression:

  • Shape and size of mouth cavity: You can find great variance in tone from experimenting with this!  The motion is very similar to making the different effects on a jaw harp.  I find this to be one of the most valuable expressive techniques.
  • Tonguing details can add a great deal to the voicing of phrases.  Where you tongue in a passage and where you don’t (as with ornaments) creates a unique flow of the melody.
  • Double tonguing: tu-ku, tu-ku; triple tonguing: tu-ku-tu, tu-ku-tu

5) Other breath matters:

  • Vibrato or not:  I personally recommend tailoring vibrato to the goals of the performance at any given time.  Stark, rustic voicing may have no vibrato; and lyrical, exuberant voicing may have all sorts of colorful vibrato; but I tend to want to mix them all for dynamic phrasing.
  • Breathe from the diaphragm: Push your stomach out for more capacity while drawing air into your lungs.
  • Low notes have less volume; high notes more.  That’s just the way it is with whistles!  If you’re playing into a microphone, get close for the low notes and far for the high ones. [Another mike hint:  For the best sound by far, turn so the mike is pointing at the sound hole at a 90 degree angle --- the mike is pointing from the side at the sound hole, from a location diagonally in front of your ear.]
  • Breath volume and force are always the main factors in being in tune from note to note.  (In playing transverse flutes you get to use your lip and the angle of the mouthpiece to affect pitch, but not so with whistles.)   Also, as a metal whistle warms up it gets higher in pitch and you need to adjust your breath accordingly to stay in tune.  Tunable heads, if available, add another option.

6) Scales: 

  • Major is scale steps 1 though 1.  Start on D fingering.
  • Dorian is 2 though 2 (minor scale but with sharped 6th).  Start on E fingering.
  • Mixolydian is 5 though 5 (major scale but with flatted 7th).  Start on A fingering.
  • Minor is 6 though 6.  Start on B fingering.
  • Pentatonic is fingerings of DE GAB notes.
  • Choose the whistle with the key that matches these if playing with other musicians.  E.g., if the actual key is A mixolydian, use a D whistle (scale starts on 5th step); if it’s A dorian, use a G whistle (scale starts on 2nd step).

7) Phrasing: LET IT SING!

Stage setup for the audience to see and hear
EXCELSIOR! Ideas concerning the concept of “Up” i...

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