Irish Pennywhistle

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The pennywhistle, also known as the tin whistle or tin flute, is a traditional end-blown flute, similar to the recorder in appearance and use. Its origins are in Ireland, but it since has come into use in many branches of Celtic folk and traditional music, being among the most common melody instruments both in slow airs and in dance tunes such as jigs and reels. In contemporary Celtic music, it often adds a powerful accompaniment to vocal music, and it's high natural tone can provide a balance of range in multi-instrumental arrangements.

This wikibook provides a tutorial on the basic method of the pennywhistle, as well as an introduction to ornamentation, improvisation, and playing in a seisiún (pronounced "session" in english; a sort of Irish "jam session"). This is especially designed to help someone who already knows a bit about music, such as different keys and scales, but even the musically uninitiated will find much useful information.

Selecting an instrument[edit]

Before you begin playing, it is critical to select an instrument that best fits your needs, abilities, and, of course, price range. It is usually best to try out several whistles, either by purchasing or by borrowing them, before you decide which one to continue using. In particular, don't give up whistling just because you don't like a specific whistle! There are hundreds of reasonably priced whistles on the market. Some are squeaky, shrill, and hard to handle, while others feel as natural as your own voice, so keep trying until you find the right one. Here are some guidelines to set you on the right track.

Styles of whistle[edit]

The construction of a pennywhistle is very simple, as the whistle consists of only two parts. The first is the bore, a tube about 2 cm in diameter. Six holes are located on the bore; these are covered by the fingers to create different pitches. The second part is the mouthpiece, which is usually made of molded plastic and fixed to the bore (exceptions are listed below).

The most popular pennywhistles on the market today are probably also the best choice for beginners: inexpensive, with plastic mouthpieces. I highly recommend the Sweetone, which has a good sound and is available for five to six U.S. dollars from various online stores.

Another inexpensive choice is the Clarke whistle, which is made in England of a single sheet of metal wrapped in a semiconical shape, with a raw block of wood inserted as the mouthpiece. This offers a soft, breathy sound that is appropriate for certain songs, but requires much more breath than a plastic mouthpiece, making long notes or phrases all but impossible.

Most low-cost whistles are not tunable, meaning that the pitch of each note is fixed and cannot be changed to match that of other instruments. Other whistles, including some as inexpensive as $15, can be tuned by moving the mouthpiece. A tunable whistle may be a good investment if you plan on playing with other musicians very often, and especially if you are accompanied by an instrument such as a piano that cannot be easily tuned to match your pitch.

It should be mentioned that it is in fact possible to modify low-cost non-tunable whistles. Whistles such as a Generation or a Walton have the fipple (mouthpiece) glued on. To modify such whistles carefully heat the fipple in hot water to soften the glue and remove the fipple. Clean the glue off both the fipple and the bore. Grease the inside of the fipple and the outside of the bore with vaseline or lip balm or similar and replace the fipple. This provides an airtight fit and allows the fipple to be eased up and down making it the whistle tunable.

The bore of most whistles is made of unfinished tin or brass. Some brands, however, also offer a "blackwhistle", which has an opaque black finish on the bore. This makes no difference except for looks, and should never cost more than an unfinished whistle.

Another alternative to plain metal is the wooden whistle offered by the Sweetheart Flute Company. These instruments offer a sweet, mellow tone and make it easy not to sound squeaky or shrill, though some may not like the deviation from the more piercing traditional sound. They are without exception very expensive, starting around $100. Unlike most whistles, which require that the musician half-cover holes to achieve sharps and flats, wooden whistles can have keys added to sharp certain notes for an extra charge.

The final and most unusual non-metal whistles, such as the Water Weasel brand, are made of PVC pipe.

Keys[edit]

As mentioned above, most whistles play in a specific key. For example, a whistle in the key of D plays the notes of D, E, F#, G, A, B, and C# without requiring the musician to manually sharp any notes. Any notes that are not on this scale must be created by half covering holes (unless your whistle has keys to sharp notes; see "Styles of Whistle" above.) If you wish to play a natural C on a D whistle, for instance, you must half-cover the B hole to achieve a B#, which is also a C. Some people find it easy to manually sharp notes; others prefer to buy whistles in several different keys.

Since the vast majority of Irish music is written in the keys of G and especially D, whistles in D and G are the most common, although it is also easy to find whistles in the key of C. Each key of whistle has a different fingering. For instance, when playing a C whistle, the lowest note-- that with all the holes covered-- is a middle qb; on a D whistle, the lowest note is the D just above middle C. As a result, it can be very difficult to switch between keys. It is really a personal decision whether this or manual sharps is more cumbersome. Some people refuse to do either, and either play only tunes in their key or transpose other tunes into it.

One exception to these basic remarks is the low D whistle offered by many companies. These whistles are fingered in the same pattern as a middle D whistle, but are much longer and wider so that they play an octave lower. They are often made out of unconventional materials, such as PVC pipe, and usually have a wooden block instead of a molded plastic mouthpiece. Low whistles have a deep, haunting sound that adds a nice variety to any whistler's repertoire.

The disadvantages of low whistles are that they are more expensive than small whistles, take immense reserves of breath, and have very large, widely spaced holes. Unless you have exceptionally large hands, you will probably need to cover the holes with the flat, fleshy part of your fingers between the second and third knuckles, rather than with the fingertips, which many people find difficult to get used to. That said, this style of fingering is exactly the same as that of a bagpipe, so if you have played the pipes it will be second nature to you.

Playing the whistle[edit]

For this we assume that you are playing a whistle with the standard D tuning, which is the default whistle tuning.

There is a great tin whistle tutorial especially suitable for beginners at [whistleaway.com[1]].

Position of Whistle and Fingers

Hold the whistle so that it comes from your mouth at about forty-five degree angle. If you are right-handed, your right hand should be on the bottom- for left-handers it is reverse. Your thumbs hold the whistle up from below. Place the top pad the first three of your fingers (not the tip) over each corresponding hole, tight enough for no air to leak. This should require very little pressure if the fingers are correctly placed -if you find holding the position for long periods uncomfortable, you may be pressing too hard. The pinkies should be placed where ever is comfortable and out of the way. They are not used. When all the holes are covered, that is D position. If you lift up the lowest finger, you have E position. Lift the next lowest finger, and it is F. Lift the next one and it is G-- so on through A, B, until C has no holes covered. Because the whistle is held in place by 'pinching' the fingers and thumbs slightly, most whistlers will keep their bottom finger (right ring finger for right handed players) down whilst playing a C -this has no real effect on the tone.

When putting the whistle to your mouth, the mouthpiece should be held between the lips, but usually not protrude into the mouth far enough to bang into the teeth, which could damage both the mouthpiece and your teeth!

Blowing

Hold the whistle in D position. With a slow steady stream of air, exhale lightly. If you blow too softly the note will not be clear. If you blow too hard, it will either be D in a higher octave or it will just squeak. Practice until the note is a clear, low D. Practice with the other notes, as well, until they all are clear, low notes. Each note takes slightly more air pressure than the one below it.

For a higher octave, you only have to blow a little harder. However, it takes a lot of practice to keep these notes from squeaking. Has anybody heard about how practice helps?! You may not believe it but it's true!

Tonguing

Tonguing is performed by tapping the roof of your mouth with your tongue, as if sounding a 'T' or 'D', at the beginning of your breath -if you were using your vocal chords rather than playing the whistle, it would give you a 'tooo' sound. It has the effect of beginning the note with a sharp attack rather than a breathy opening. Whether you tongue some, all, or none of the notes you play is entirely a stylistic choice. Tonguing can also be used mid breath to punctuate playing, as it momentarily stops the breath. This can specifically be used to break up a run of identical notes.


Irish Ornamentation

Before you try ornamentation, make sure you can play fairly well and quickly. And remember- they are not rules about ornamentation that you should follow. What ever is easiest and sounds best is they method you should use. Everyone has their own style.

The placing of Ornamentations

Some Irish music provides ornaments, but the majority leaves the ornaments up to you. Using the following devices the song can be made prettier. When ever you think one of them would enhance the sound, use it. However, it is best not to go overboard.

The Grace Note

The grace note is a very short note played before another, main note. For the notes D, E, and F, lift the finger that covers the A hole, and quickly set it down. Let's use an example to explain this a little clearer. You have a song, in which the sequence of notes goes like this:

A G grace note E F grace note D

First play the A, then the G, then put you fingers in the position of E, but with the A hole uncovered, play, and quickly replace the A finger. (tongue only the grace note, not the main note). Next play the F, then form the D, with the A hole uncovered, play, and quickly replace the A finger.

For the notes G, A, and C, they same thing is done, only it is not the A hole that is uncovered for the grace note, but the B hole. You can use other holes as well for grace notes. Remember, there are not rules. What sounds best is best.

The length of a grace should be only long enough to be distinct. Keep it as short as possible without the tones blending.

Strikes

A strike is easy- just tap your finger on the hole below the note you are playing. Like the tonguing you can separate notes with a strike, which can be used well if there are two or more equal notes in row. For example A A A or G G.

Cuts

The cut is another way to separate notes. Instead of tapping the belower note as we do it in a strike, we are lifting one finger at a higher note to interrupt the airflow. Essential for this are the forefinger and the ringfinder of your left hand. To cut the notes D E and F you are lifting your left ringfinger and to for cutting the notes G A and B you take your left forefinger. You might ask what is meant with "lifting the finger?" and that is a quite important question. It is not a lifting at all but rather a really short flipping of your finger. As if a beetle is sitting on your finger and you want to chase it of.

Slides

A slide is a gradual transition from one note to another, as opposed to the ordinary form of quickly moving to the next note. Generally done by gently rolling the finger onto or off of the hole, as opposed to the tapping required in quicker melodies.

Rolls and Vibratos


Coming soon!

Resources[edit]

As well as the basic how-to of playing the whistle, there are inevitably other resources you will want, which have been exhaustively covered elsewhere, and may provide alternative opinions/explanations than here.


http://www.whistleaway.com/ - Great animated tutorials and exercises available to help you learn the whistle, along with videos, sheet music and MP3's..

http://www.thesession.org/ -A huge community-based database of folk songs. You will find almost any tune you've ever heard here -and if not, tell them about it!

http://www.tinwhistler.com/ -an all-round site including a large songbook (with midi files and real recordings) and an extensive set of reviews of both high-end and inexpensive whistles.

A 9 week video Introduction to Tin Whistle course offered by Ryan Duns SJ at Fordham University can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/user/RyanDunsSJ . Participantants can join the group http://www.youtube.com/group/tinwhistle