You’ll be in good company as a whistle player. Exponents of very similar instruments have included, Samuel Pepys, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry Purcel and George Frederic Handel! So,....... your instrument is an extension of the “fipple-flute” family. Originally with 4 holes on top and 2 underneath, it was known as the flageolet. Developed, if not invented, by Sieur Juvigny, c 1581 and modified by English instrument maker, William Bainbridge, c 1803, it was patented as the “improved English flageolet”. In several guises it’s had a useful life of 400-odd years, and we now know it universally, as the “penny whistle”.
Perhaps,......considering you’ve read this far, you already have an interest in playing music. Great! You already know the benefits; for they are broad, measurable and proven. Learning outcomes (especially for children) are manifest. Playing music enhances learning Mathematics, Co-operation, Communication, Conceptual Development, Focus and Discipline, Expression and Creativity,....the list goes on. The whistle may well be your child’s first “recognised” musical instrument; small, robust, inexpensive, opening a window onto a world of life-long musical fulfilment. What an amazing opportunity. What a gift, for so little time and outlay, whether you’re 8 years old, or 80.
Finding a Good Whistle:
To kick-off, get yourself a “D” whistle; by far the most versatile key, easy to physically get your fingers around and not too big to carry daily. Makes-models-prices-quality, all vary considerably.,......Generally, (very generally) you get what you pay for.
With commonly available metal whistles, I’ve found, perhaps one in every 10, is “good”. Likewise, around one in every 10 is “poor”. No need to get too finicky, just avoid the noticeably poor one.
“Clarke whistles, a better ratio, of 1 in 3 good ‘uns,” (David Barnes, Wellington, NZ).
In Australia, Generation whistles are easy to find, Soodlum, though less common, are worth asking around for, and Clarke often stocked too. Unless you’re generally very careful, avoid the thinner aluminium-alloy variety, such as that produced by Walton (just not robust enough.) At the other “end of the scale” are the hand-crafted wooden and metal instruments; works of art. You pay proportionately, and invariably even get a good instrument.
“For those who play solid metal whistles with a Susato-type head,(as different from tin whistles) there’s a tendency for condensate to very quickly build up and they become rapidly unplayable, even on warm days. To overcome this, the head can be washed in dilute detergent which acts as a surfactant and stops the problem, sufficient to last a full nightly session”. (David Hornett, Tasmania)
Setting the benchmark, however, plastic Susato whistles are more expensive, though the two-piece “D” or “C” whistles are consistently a better product than off-the-shelf metal whistles, or even hand crafted ones costing much more. Why? Quality control, it seems (and the slightly tapered bore). They’re generally “on key” immediately,.........though not quite as sturdy as most metal whistles. (see, “Whistle Repairs and Modifications:”, below) Smaller bore Susato versions better suit some folk’s’ styles and applications, with sweeter, perhaps softer tones. Susato? With few reservations, the best value for money. If you opt for one of these instruments, forget about reading the next 3 paragraphs.
How to tell the difference. Minutely inspect the fipple area, (on top of the mouth-piece). You’re looking for any irregularities in the knife-edge (fipple) which “splits the breath”. And, are there any hairline cracks at the “head joint”? (where the mouth piece meets the barrel).
All OK so far? If you’re game, play the instrument. (see “Starting Off”, below) Hygiene is an issue; I’ve been known to carry a small bottle of mild chlorine solution, in which to insert the mouth-piece, (then dry it) before and after playing. The retailer I used to deal with didn’t object my using this method. But first-off, if it’s a metal whistle, warm it by holding it firmly in your hand for 20 seconds-or-so; ( at the the top of the metal barrel section, near the mouth piece). Body heat is sufficient to bring it “on key” and to render it more playable...........I hope. (And unless you’re given a recognisably good specimen, don’t mess around with wooden whistles, at this stage anyhow.)
“With the exception of Susato, many modern whistles are out of tune with themselves. My Clarke “Meg”s (excellent value!) Are in tune with themselves, but a touch sharp.” (Leon Arundell, Canberra ACT)
What to listen for? Play a scale, and demand clarity and easy changes from note to note. Move from octave to octave, (using the same fingering, though with varying breath pressure) and check for unclear note/octave changes. A good whistle will (when warm) give you clear, sweet notes; no (or little) “fluffing”. Conversely, a poor whistle, not having these characteristics may greatly retard your progress.
Carry your “D” whistle and play it a little whenever you’re able. Tucked diagonally into the waist-band mostly suits me, though it’s probably why some whistles break. (see “Whistle Repairs and Modifications”) As above, (with metal whistles) they’re then necessarily warm, on-key, and less likely to “fluff” between octaves. So now you’ve got a good ‘un, hold on to it. Engraving it with your name and phone number, a small price to pay to help retain your little gem.
Music Supplied and Limitations:
For those I’ve been fortunate enough to meet, the printed music sheets supplied for “Amazing Grace”, “Oranges and Lemons”, “Scarborough Fair”, “The Minstrel Boy” and “The Sally Gardens’ are learning suggestions only; chosen mainly for their popularity. They include finger positions for each note, (for those folks like myself who don’t yet “read” music) though may learn to “play by ear”. However, you may choose to play something very different and never even look at a printed page.
However, if you “read” music notation you’ll be able to make some quick progress with the tunes provided, whether you “know” them or not. If you don’t read music (visually) ........though “play by ear”, (more intuitively) you’ll need to remember the melodies of these popular little tunes, in order to play them. At the moment, I play only by ear. If you’re able to do both, you’re blessed.
Instantly remembering a piece of music can be a problem. When I need it, an “ipod” serves me well, as an aid to memory; not reading music (by sight). In a social setting, other musos are of most help. Finger “position notation” works, at a pinch to get going. And (alternately) an old gent once told me, “Play me the first 4 notes son, and I’ll remember the tune”. Maybe one day I’ll gain this skill too.........
The humble whistle is capable of covering a wide range of musical genre. I enjoy playing Jazz (contemporary and trad), Blues, Pop, C & W / Bluegrass, even Classical pieces, Folk music, and for Dance, (my favourite being Morris dance). Playing solo’s fun, though for me, sharing music with others is far more illuminating and stimulating. Have fun; explore the versatility of this relatively inexpensive, portable little instrument. There are no limits.
Stand, or sit quietly and be aware of general posture as indeed a singer would be aware. No slouching, though not too stiff either. Just relax a bit, with head raised, rather than chin on your chest. “Breath your stomach in” and feel your chest expand; classic breathing method for any woodwind player. Try it a few times.
Your whistle has 6 finger holes. Place 3 fingers (index, middle and ring) of the Left hand onto the 3 holes closest to the mouth piece, (with thumb beneath). Cover the other 3 holes with fingers of the Right hand, (index, middle and ring), with thumb under. Relax. In time this precise positioning will become second nature. (Thanks to Ian Mundy, Adelaide SAust , for correcting my 1st draft dyslexic blunder! And to Leon Arundell for suggesting less ambiguous wording on finger placement)
“When I started I knew nothing about whistles and so held them the wrong way around. This does not matter on a whistle, but it stops migration to a keyed instrument: flute, sax and so on. And can stuff up recorder playing too”. (David Hornett, Tasmania)
“I suggest starting with NO holes covered, and then working down the scale, closing the holes one at a time. That way you learn to cover each hole in turn.” (Leon Arundell, Canberra ACT) Try this method too; see what works for you.
Use the pads of your fingers, rather than the tips. Straighten fingers a little; less stress will result in the finger joints (and even up into the shoulders/head). When playing, attempt to raise the fingers only a little way above the holes. Eventually, when you apply only just enough pressure to cover the holes, you may even feel the air movement beneath the pads of your fingers; now you’re really in touch.
Rest the tip of the “head piece” between your lips and, with all holes covered, blow into it gently. Your first note! It’s a “D”. Blow gradually harder, and you’ll achieve another octave.
Play a series of notes by “tonguing” the mouth-piece; interrupt the flow of breath into the mouth-piece by bringing the tongue across the whistle’s end-opening. Breathe, from the diaphragm. Play a sequence of notes, individually tongued and then play them in one breath. Feel/ listen for the difference. Learn to retain your breath. Literally feel your way.
“Use your stomach muscles to push your guts up into your diaphragm, which will support the air. Ribcage muscles control the air flow too.” (Karlin Love, Launceston, Tasmania)
Experiment. Try to sustain a consistent note (for as long as you can) or play a pleasing group of notes, maybe with differing timing. Learn to breath economically, and without “re-tonguing”, to change note. By increasing/decreasing the pressure of your breath, play a sequence of 3 notes without moving your fingers; gentle breath to start, increasing pressure ‘til you feel how much breath is needed for the next octave. And, if you’re naughty, like me and “over-blow”, you may be able to reach into a “third octave”, (or at least, bits of it!) Fear Not! You may make some interesting musical discoveries.............. The dog’s already howling, in appreciation no doubt!
In readiness for later-on, to enable the (eventual) tuning of the whistle, loosen the “head joint” by immersing in warm water, just enough to rotate it a little, on the barrel. (see “Music Session Etiquette”, below)
Play al fresco, in the bush or in the back yard (take a break from the weeding),.........the birds will come to see what’s going on. I’ve had “musical conversations” with curious birds; make it up as you go, or just imitate local bird-song; It’s rather fun and less daunting than rote scale practice. In fact, bizarre as it sounds, an early variation, the “bird flageolet” was employed in training birds to sing!!
“I was once having a “musical conversation” with a bird which perched directly above me and made it literally clear to me that my music was giving it the shits. My suggestion: wear a hat!”, (Leon Arundell, Canberra ACT). The fabled “bluebird of happiness”?
Bad Habits, (ditch ‘em early):
Plenty to choose from, amongst others,.......Not listening,...... Poor posture,....... induces fatigue. Gripping the whistle with your teeth; treat yourself to a new whistle, instead of paying dental bills. Smoking,......a bit like farting really, (if you get my drift). In a “session-room”, not a good idea. Not to mention that it diminishes your valuable lung capacity. (Not farting, silly). Though years ago I became adept at dangling a “ciggie” out of one side of my mouth, whilst sticking the whistle in the other side, (not recommended; difficult to blow and suck together). Reformed smokers are,..........(almost) the worst.
Onward,.....Sharpening your Musical Ear:
Listen to your own favourite music; melodies and rhythms, or to the radio or Teev jingles, and see if you can play along with the same notes, or harmonize melodically. Try it, it’s good fun.
Blow the “Be-Je....” out of it ! (once in a while) right into the top octave and beyond (known as “overblowing”). Get to know your/your whistle’s capacities. Like each of us, every whistle has its own personality!
“......don’t do it when other people are around”, (David Barnes, Wellington, NZ)
If you already have a whistle selection, try out the different keys, ‘til you find one that fits a given tune better than any other. And,.......later-on listen for what notes you can get in a particular key (that you’re not even supposed to get) to fit in with other musos, so as not to have to change keys, (whistles). The “easy” key change to make, with the D whistle is into the key of G. Likewise, the C whistle seems to easily accommodate a key change into F.
Write something simple yourself (in your head or on paper) and use it as your “signature tune”; with which to warm-up, (yourself and your instrument) Eric Clapton does! Design this self-penned tune, to take the whistle, and yourself through the disciplines of “octave change”, “sustain” and “timing variations”, and what I call, “finger awareness”.
Ideas on Building Whistle Technique:
With “Oranges and Lemons”, play it in the low-range octave, and experiment with a sort of “call and response”, (the timeless communicative approach). * Launch into a higher octave by blowing slightly harder. Play part “A” in the easy octave, then part “B”, higher up, (as the “response”); a bit like talking to yourself, musically. Vary these A and B parts at will; makes for an interesting conversation! By doing this you’ll find it easier later-on to adapt to playing politely with others and sensing how to add “light and shade”.
Lyric to “Sally Gardens” (Sally, diminutive of Salix, and so actually, “Willow Gardens”) is amazingly sad. (What’s new, it’s Celtic) Play it in a “measured” fashion, slowly, yet “determined” , as (literary) author, W B Yeats would have wished, and get that last ounce of musical pathos out of it. Eventually perhaps by lengthening some notes and “clipping” others. Unfortunately this tune’s more fitting for a wake than a wedding. If you start to weep,.....you’re either hopelessly bewildered,......or you’re spot-on! And if others weep, (and don’t walk away) you’re playing’s almost certainly spot-on. All this could well keep you consumed for a “couple of weeks”. Play, play, play! It’ll all help breathing control. If you see me around, let me know how you go.
Later on,.....try “half-holing,” to get flats and sharps. Blow evenly on a note and change it by rolling the whistle on its axis away from, and then back under the finger; combined either with a single breath, or with tonguing. Listen to the difference. A good example, “Lilli Bulero”, (used as the 1940s/50s BBC theme tune, though of greater antiquity) has one “re-appearing note”, consistently played sharp. It’s so pleasing when you finally “crack it,” and play the whole piece; opening your musical options to so many tunes with the occasional flat or sharp. * “Bending” a note can similarly be achieved, by using a smooth breath and omitting the tonguing and “rolling” the whistle. I find it easier to rotate, (roll) the whistle side-to-side, (on its axis) to expose “half“ the hole, rather than by rotating the finger itself. Better stability of the whistle also results. Fingers, it seems do not rotate easily nor independently!
“......My (bad) habit is to rotate my finger along the whistle towards the mouth piece. When I listen to my recordings, my half-notes sound awful. I find that for some reason I get better tone control if I half-cover by rotating the whistle instead.” (Leon Arundell, Canberra ACT)
Ornamentation,.....“Trills” (easily over-done) are played by blowing evenly, and fluttering the finger on and off the hole quickly. “Cranning”, (phonetic spelling) often heard in Celtic music is achieved by (almost imperceptibly) hitting a “wrong” note, immediately prior to playing the correct, more sustained one. The limited, appropriate use of these techniques adds to their appeal. And, of course, the opposite also applies. Subtlety, and awareness of the piece being played will guide the judicious use of these ornamentations.
As beginners we may start playing slow airs. I’ve known sage players of many years experience, revisit these (apparently simple airs) and attempt to give their long-gone authors due respect. As in “Sally Gardens”, or maybe “Farewell to Whisky”, the whistle comes into it’s own. Arguably, playing either of these tunes on a “B” # or even “C” whistle, lends a dignity and depth almost impossible to achieve with the standard “D“ whistle.
Don’t forget to breath! Inhale, not necessarily between perhaps part A and part B of a tune, but wherever it works for you. Listen to the differences of alternate breathing patterns. “Clip” or instead, lengthen notes, so as to achieve an easier breathing pattern. Remember to “use those stomach muscles to push your guts up into your diaphragm, to support the air.” (Thanks again Karlin).
For those “of age”,.....alcohol consumption in moderation, happily loosens the (musical) inhibitions, so I’m told. For woodwind players it also dries the palette; very handy if you happen to be a dribbler, like me. Remember to re-hydrate the body (internally) with “aqua pura”. Keep a glass of water handy,......And externally, I’ve found slightly moistened, clean fingers, (not wet ones) move around the whistle more easily. Sticky fingers are a definite No-no! (Sort of like trying to swim with your clothes on.)
Do you yet have a “C” whistle as well as a “D”? If so I recommend next, a “B” # (commonly, the jazz key) and then a G, (if your fingers are small enough to bunch up on the holes). The longer, larger bore of the “B” #, is good for the diaphragm/ breathing control, (and may help illustrate the benefits of cutting down to 20 “ciggies” a day!! ) With these whistles you’ll have command of most keys, C,F,D,G, B flat, (and bits of other key signatures). Above all, practice Listening,......probably not a bad metaphor for life either! I must remember to do that, and when I’m playing, too. Feel which gaps to fill, which ones to leave, and Listen for what works, in any given musical situation. In doing so, you’re departing from the confines of “written music”; handy sometimes, when you’ve built the confidence.
“Low” Whistles,...... require extra skills; spacial finger awareness, (knowing where to put your fingers to cover the holes), and greater breathing control, too. Practice with a “B” #, before moving-on, (to a more expensive and much larger) Low Whistle, with
its sonorous qualities, offering us an even greater musical depth. Listen to the opening segment of “Riverdance”, circa 1998?, played by Davey Spillane, if you haven’t already heard it. Likewise, Newfoundland band, “A Crowd of Bold Sharemen” incorporate the Low whistle into some of their brand of folk music. Most adults have the required physical hand size (and finger coverage), breathing capacity, and strength, to effectively handle these larger instruments. Keying positions to achieve notes are similar, however the finger awareness must largely be re-learnt. Once again, Susato leads the way, in producing “Low, semi-keyed” light weight whistles, making things that bit easier. Google their range.
Now, ........just for a minute, consider we have a possible volume range of, say 0 to 100 “whisvols”. The harder you blow, the louder you get. Sure that’s the easy bit. Your challenge is to use that volume range effectively, to add “light and shade” (to renditions of your chosen pieces). Why is it a challenge? Because,..... as volume increases, you will change octave! Not always desirable and a perennial problem. Your breathing will partly determine your ability to control this tool (of appropriate volume). The peculiarities of your instrument will do the remainder. So,......as we play a note, and increase our breath to perhaps “50” (on our imaginary range), we may-well change up, into the next octave. What if we don’t want to? At times, I’ve experimented, and “dumped” air, through my nose; and it’s worked. I’ve managed to keep that volume down to “48 whisvols” (on our imaginary range), when appropriate. However, an interesting little problem can result. Exhaling from the nose can affect the smooth egress of air from the fipple, and mess up the note! Experiment. Find out what works for you.
If you think about it, our standard whistle actually has 9 holes to be considered; 6 for the fingers and 3 in other ways. Pipers, especially the Uilleann (meaning “elbow”)-powered variety, occasionally “dab” the end-opening of their pipe-section onto their knee, to vary tonal quality. Similarly, exponents of the 3 hole pipe, (“Tabor-and-Pipe” players) part-cover this end hole, with their little finger, to vary pitch. They even “quarter-hole” and blow hard and very precisely, to achieve certain notes, and they keep time as they beat a tabor with the other hand. Fortunately we have more holes and other options. Regard our whistle as a “9 hole instrument”, and be aware of the “extras”.
When you’re in an acoustic “session” you may have to listen carefully if you want to hear your instrument’s contribution. Record yourself with these folks (if they don’t object) and listen for variations in your playing. Later, record yourself solo and listen for the breathing and clarity of notes you’ve played. Retain these early tapes and you’ll marvel at your achievements in only a few weeks, and be greatly entertained in years to come; revealing background voices and tunes long-gone and “out of fashion”.
Finally, I’ve noticed some interesting effects achieved as you play, by changing the angle at which the whistle sits on the lips. A slight “bending” of (perhaps a tune’s final) note, can sometimes be found by blowing steadily, and lowering your instrument towards the floor, by 20 or 30 degrees, changing the angle of air/breath-entry; especially useful when finishing a soulful air or lament. You’ll hear an almost imperceptible tonal change, none-the-less a wonderful skill to develop as an accomplished instrumentalist. When you can do this consistently, please show me how.
Whistle Repairs and Modifications:
In a span of 10 years, two out of my nine Susato whistles have cracked; both one-piece “D’” Red ones, and none of the other colours or keys. Poor odds. Steer clear of the Red ones; I reckon the plastic is/was weaker. Knowing of Susato research and development focus, I’ll be surprised if their Red plastic whistles remain noticeably weak. Your choice. Personally, I’ll not buy another Red one ‘til improvements are confirmed. Mind-you, I give them quite a work-out, perhaps unfairly.
Recently I “super-glued” a two-piece Susato D together, for strength, not recommended for those folks wishing to attain miniscule tuning variations. The lesser of two evils; it was getting physically wobbly at the joint. Effecting this repair is not “rocket science”, just ensure holes (barrel) and fipple (head-piece) are in alignment, clean, and glue sparingly. Could have measured it for pitch with an electronic tuner, before I glued. Anyhow, I’ve encountered no problems sessioning with others, so far.
Those two Red Susato “D” (one-piece) whistles, both cracked through the “G” hole, (3rd hole down). No problems. Finally, today I “sleeved” them, using readily available (orange) 10700 Vinidex uPVC 20mm HD electrical conduit. I found my little 70mm angle grinder worked best, to smoothly remove about a third of the conduit, along a 200mm length (forming a “c” shape in profile) and then simply bevelled-off each end, for comfort. The two broken parts of the whistle were then pushed into the conduit, ‘til they aligned, spanning (underneath) all the still-accessible holes on top, (the potential weak spots).
I carefully placed the two broken whistle parts into the fridge for half-an-hour and then pre-heated the conduit with a hair dryer for a minute-or-so. Then fairly easily pushed the two whistle pieces into the conduit, to re-form the whistle. No glue required, the conduit cooled and contracted, forming a tight fit. I’ve been warned the conduit is not UV-stabilized; prone to cracking eventually. Time will tell. Sleeves were so easy to make, I’ve a couple of extras, ready for ‘r on, or for others in distress. Conduit is maybe 4mm wall thickness,......out with the angle grinder again; I’ll groove underneath (in two spots) to locate my thumbs, for better stability and instant finger location. Luxury!!
Recorder players who take up whistle, consistently seek the absent “thumb hole” beneath the two holes closest to the mouth piece. (The poor Darlings, it’s just not there!) Thumb movement has previously allowed them (with a Recorder), a different method of finding “C natural”, (I think). A simple whistle modification, drilling a hole underneath? Not quite. Hole position and diameter are critical. I’ve seen it effected successfully on a Generation “C” whistle only. May be worth a try for recalcitrant Recorder types.
In isolated cases, moulding “blue-tack”, bees’ wax (or similar) carefully into the sides of the fipple has improved air-flow characteristics affecting tone. A lot of messing around? Yes,.....though can be cheaper and more rewarding than tossing-out that whistle you’ve never really liked, nor bothered experimenting with. Especially in one case, where the whistle in question was a hand-crafted Low “D”. (If you want the philosophy behind this approach, read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”)
Later,.... Amplified Whistle:
Amplified whistle playing? Basically two methods, “Free”, (when using a standing microphone)......and “Fixed”, (when the mic is attached to the whistle). For the latter, I use a small powered lapel mic, 12mm long. 8mm in diameter. Fixed on top of the head-piece, over the fipple, (facing away from you,) is the best position; “Velcro” tabs give the necessary minute adjustment necessary for best results. The mic lead can then be secured, further down, with tape onto the side of the barrel. Not beneath. Very uncomfortable; your thumbs will revolt!
“Free” mic use is recommended for typical (static) stage performance and has the advantage of you being able to move on and off the mic, and so achieving a handy method of “fade”; (gently easing off volume). If you have them, listen to the “fold-back” speakers. In most band situations, a fold-back” system is employed, as part of the PA. Fold-back speakers (facing towards the musos) are the tools used (especially in mixed-noise company) mainly to hear your own instrument’s contribution to the band as a whole. Feed-back however, is very different. To avoid this circular screeching noise transfer, ensure the mic (any connected mic) has no opportunity to point at the front of the speaker box. Easy. Place the speaker in front, and play from behind.
With the “Fixed” method, you almost always have to contend with the mic lead (wire connecting to the amp) becoming a dangling nuisance. And, for novices and experienced alike,......”every breath you take” (as the song goes,...) and note you play, will become immediately apparent to your audience. There’s no moving back from the mic, as it’s fixed to the whistle. These fixed applications, (often al fresco for me) do however offer some advantages. Using a “stand-alone” (battery-powered) amplifier, maybe in a back-pack, you can play (amped-up) anywhere and even wander to suit the performance.
I use a Roland “Mini-Cube”. Very nice, with in-built EFX, like echo, flanger, chorus and reverb variations too! Designed to run on 240v or 6 x dry cell AA batteries; with the dry cells it only gives full frequency response for 3 or 4 hours, then you lose the top-end notes/register. Very frustrating, notes just suddenly vanish, completely. For this and other reasons, I choose to incorporate a gutsy 12v motorcycle battery, simply transformed to 9v. Weighs more, though brings huge savings on dry cell batteries. (Rechargeable AAs are not recommended, for some reason.) I’ve “trickle-charged” the m/cycle battery overnight, only thrice in three years!
Expensive radio transmitters, worn on the body, and “sending” to a speaker in close proximity allow for even greater manoeuvrability,...... and more fiddling around it seems.
Through association with “The Britannia Morris Men”, Melbourne City Council recently (mid ‘09) issued me with a busking permit. Upper limit for amped-up instruments on the streets of Melbourne, 75db. OK!!! Finally justice,.....standing up to all those melodeons, (or is that “malodeons”!!?). And, wonder-of-wonders, I can get good “whisvols’ without changing up into another octave! In other words, greater depth and control of the instrument. (High(er) tech can be fun and not too expensive.)
Music Session Etiquette:
When you rub musical shoulders with others, politely consider their needs too; in a musical sense. By Listening! Even if you know a given melody perfectly well, and you can “belt it out”. Where’s the enjoyment in swamping everyone else? You may come into a musical situation, where others are already “conversing”; wait your turn. Think along the lines of co-operation and contribution. Establish eye contact. Watch and Listen,.....improvise,.......find the silence as well as the notes. Work on it. Be open to musical communication. This “music stuff “is a language, and a universal one, at that.
Tuning can be an issue. If your whistle is already warm, and still sounds a little “off”, tuning can be effected by gently sliding the mouth-piece and barrel sections in or out. The necessity to be “in tune” will become more apparent in the musical company of others. To remedy, slide the two components apart, you’re actually making the column of air longer, and the resulting note flatter. Conversely, by pushing the two pieces together, you’re sharpening the note, with a shorter column of air. Warm water immersion (for anything other than wooden whistles) can loosen this “head joint”. Careful! Only a little, or it can get sloppy and become a nuisance or even crack at the joint.
Watch and Listen to others. Attend a regular music session, if there’s one happening. If not, get one happening; part of the inclusive folk tradition, where we all may learn. A mentor can also be very helpful; someone to watch your progress and give fair criticism. Someone to sit next, in a session; an informal musical guide.
In a situation where neither your mentor nor other whistle players are present to help you, and you’re not sure of the key (in which a piece is being played), try playing your whistle across the fipple, “fife-style”, while quietly turning aside. You won’t disturb others close-by, and you‘ll fairly soon pick if the whistle you’re “cross-playing” is in the appropriate key. Then you can start issuing the correct notes, playing as per normal. So much more refined, than yanking out your car keys and quizzically jangling them imploringly in the nearest fiddle player’s face!
“......you cannot play a whistle quietly. The volume can be reined back a tad but even a melodeon can be played quieter than a whistle. I suppose..........a whistle that plays more softly in the first place.” (Kathy Gausden, Melbourne, Victoria).
I reckon Susato is right onto that one already, with their small-bore whistle.
Also, perhaps a “Low” whistle for some session tunes. And for other tunes, we could choose to simply,......listen. Especially when passages of some quieter beauty are more ably carried by the instruments of others.
As time goes by, you may even discover mutually pleasing accompanists, and experiment jointly together. Fiddle goes nicely with whistle, as does guitar, bodhran, didge, tuba, crumhorn, washboard.......Only fear will stop you; find out for yourself. Perhaps at the moment, a whistle duo, in “G”, played on a “D” whistle combined with a little G whistle. Listen for the possibilities.
“It took me many years to learn that, for musicians who learn by ear, sessions are a crucial opportunity to pick up new tunes. So it’s good courtesy to help ensure that the basic tune is clearly audible, so that it’s easier for them to pick it up.” (Leon Arundell, Canberra ACT)
Later-on as a more experienced player, you may well be expected to lead-off with a tune, appropriate to the mixed company. Not too hard and not too fast, for you also were once a beginner!
Cleaning/Caring for your Instrument:
Rigid plastic “packing tape”, (often blue or white, c 12mm wide) available universally, is ideal to gently “scour” the barrel of most whistles. Cut some 30 to 40 cm lengths. Once-in-a-while, insert tape the full length of the barrel, and gradually turn the whistle while moving the tape in and out. Then tap the open end of the whistle against a table-top, (solid surface). You may be surprised just what comes out! Split off a small section of tape and carefully clean inside the “head joint”. Gently probing the end (tongue) hole, to clear any minute obstruction or build-up, be careful not to run this rigid tape right through, and into the fipple’s knife-edge.
Worth repeating,.....”Be careful not to disturb the “fipple” (or air egress hole) on top of your instrument. The visible knife-edge at this point, (which splits the air flow) is all-too-easy to damage”. Afterwards, immerse your whistle in warm water and then shake dry. Works well for metal and plastic whistles, though don’t immerse wooden ones.
Finally, make a small cloth bag, with which to hold your whistle/s and cleaning tools safely. Separate compartments; one for each instrument.
A Folk-musical Narrative/ The Wit of Your Craft:
At a Goolwa Folk Festival, early 1980s, 2am, sitting quietly ‘round the glowing embers of a spent fire; a timeless tableau was played-out. A dozen-or-so “happy campers” sat ‘round and drank-in the mellow atmosphere. Instruments and empties scattered about,....faithful mutt, luxuriant beneath his master’s fold-up chair; all the afterglow of a night’s revelry and a job well-done!
>From the circle, rising, (almost simultaneously) an “older well-preserved bloke” and noticeably younger female companion walked (almost together) away. Chivalrous indeed of him, to escort this tired damsel in the dark, back to her tent.......... A considerate 30 seconds elapsed, before a well known and popular “travelling folk bard” also rose to his feet; a swarthy, stocky man, habitually of some,.......... “olfactory distinction”, (it must be said). Proceeding to the vacated chair, (that of the departed ‘bloke”) he deftly bent, retrieved a bottle, perfunctorily proffered it to all, (no takers) and skulled the one remaining “finger” of Scotch, replaced the empty, turned and walked back to his fireside chair.
Scattered conversation continued anew, until the “bloke”, (bearing deflated ego) shortly returned to the throng. He eased himself slowly back to earth. Sitting once again, his practiced hand fell to the bottle in question, he raised it to his lips. Silence also fell....... Empty though it was, at least he had something tangible (with curvature) to hold on to! As he slowly returned the unfaithful bottle to its chair-side place, a lone whistle kicked-in; quietly at first, tentatively easing out the strains of Neil Gow’s, haunting “Farewell to Whisky”. A few wry smiles, no other attempted to join-in the music. Another whistle player lounged back listening to my novice rendition, the dog yawned, the “ bloke”, sage and resigned,.......sat smiling and examined the remaining embers.
Woodwind Players from whom I’ve Learned:
Too many generous souls to mention, even if I knew all their names. Some who I’ll always remember,.....Bob Ballantine, resident in Victoria, Australia. Originally from Northumbria. Specialist in playing Northumbrian tunes, (many written and played by his father). All-in-all, an unassuming, quietly inspirational session player, (CD “Northumbria Down Under”, 1999-2000). Tony Doyle, South Australian, ex-Ireland, with the most infectious, joyful, eclectic style, and though he doesn’t know it yet, my particular inspiration. (“The Old”) Tim Whelan, (deceased) a Tipperary man, with repertoire to match. A generous, humble, patient teacher, around Adelaide, SAust in the 1970s and 80s,.....along with the equally patient John Stewart who with Tim, co-hosted the weekly Celtic (mainly) whistle class. More recently, in Tasmania, Jo Kelly, main woodwind player in my adopted bush-band, “The Bottom Pub Ceiildh Band”, also Craig Greer and then Patrick Owens, both fine woodwind instrumentalists, and both intuitive in the Celtic tradition. Leon Arundel, Canberra-based and a fine exponent of the whistle-related 3 hole pipe, often found in Morris-dance circles. Ian Mundy, (SAust) a generous, accomplished Recorder player, always willing to share tunes and tips...........Thanks to all respondents below too.
“With a little help from my friends”,.....Good Luck,
Steve Dancer 2009
PS. More Feedback from peers, so far:
Ian Mundy,......”I would not encourage beginners to put their Right hand at the top,.........” (A 1st Draft blunder, probably caused through my galloping senile-dyslexic dementia!!)
David Barnes,...”overblowing, yeah, but don’t do it when other people are around!!! a sudden loud blast can really annoy, (I’ve known people to do it!!)”
Karlin Love,........”Breathing from the diaphragm is a concept that most of my students can’t get, but they do understand pushing your guts up into the diaphragm to support the air and they can get the idea of how the rib cage muscles control airflow too."
and,......................”Probably a pic or 2 would help -- like with finger position. I’m going to try the roll-for-half-holes idea on the blowhorn – I often miss them”.
David Hornett,......”By far the best whistle I have is a C whistle made from native pine,.................also made me a “D” from exactly the same wood, it was an awful whistle and I gave it away."
Leon Arundell,........”Because the whistle doesn’t have all the sharps and flats it may be difficult to get through a tune if you start on the wrong note. If a tune doesn’t work try different starting notes until you find the right one. For a “D” the music key signature should have two sharps (#). Once you have learnt to flatten the “C” # (the hole nearest the mouth piece) you can play music with only one sharp. Other key signatures get progressively more difficult and it’s often easier to change whistles.”
Kathy Gausden,........”The only thing I thought you possibly missed in the section on sessions is that you cannot play a whistle quietly.”