How to Play the Tin Whistle Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Play the Tin Whistle

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The tin whistle is a simple, traditional instrument, which is popular in Ireland. It is easy to play and produces a good loud sound, although it can be ear-piercing in the higher notes. It is sometimes known as a penny whistle or a flageolet.

The tin whistle has six finger holes on the front and no holes on the back. If your instrument has any other arrangement of holes, it is not a tin whistle!

The ancestor of the modern tin whistle was an instrument called the flageolet. Made of wood with brass keys, it was popular in France in the 16th Century. It had four holes on the front and two on the back. It came to England in the 18th Century and was modified slightly, putting all six holes along the front. Eventually it got to Ireland. By this stage, it had changed to its modern form; a metal instrument without keys.

There are two main types of tin whistle. The first is made from thin metal with a wooden block set into one end to make the mouthpiece. It tapers so that the end furthest from the mouth is narrower than at the mouthpiece end. Clarke is the main maker of this type.

The other sort is more common and consists of a cylindrical tube with a plastic head. For many years, the 'Generation' was the standard in this type, but recently, a number of other companies such as 'Feadóg' have started making whistles of the same design.

Choosing a Tin Whistle

Tin whistles come in a number of different sizes for playing in different keys. Choose one in the key of D as this is the usual model for traditional music.

For Left-handed Players

You cover the top three holes in the tin whistle with one hand and the lower three with the other hand. Since the whistle is symmetrical, it doesn't matter which hand you use. The normal way is to use your left hand on top and your right hand on the bottom. Since this is the way that right-handed people do it, some left-handers feel they should do it the other way, with right hand on top. There is no good reason for doing this. It doesn't make it any easier to play. In addition, if you learn the normal way, you will be able to switch to playing the traditional flute (which is played this way) without any problems. So from here on, it is highly recommended that the upper hand is the left hand and the lower hand is the right hand.

Blowing and Tonguing

It's now time to make your first noise with the whistle. Hold the whistle any old way and don't worry about the finger holes for the moment. Put the mouthpiece between your lips. You can bite it if you like, it doesn't matter.

Now whisper the word 'too'. You should get into the habit of starting every note by whispering 'too'. This is called 'tonguing'. It provides a clean sharp start to the note. Later you can learn how to 'slur', but for now, tongue all the notes.

Practise a rapid 'too too too' and long notes, 'toooooooooooooooo'. You should be able to produce a steady note lasting about half a minute. If not, you're blowing too hard. The notes should start evenly, not with a loud noise at the start.

Left-hand Notes

The first note you're going to try is called B.

Place your left thumb on the back of the whistle. Cover the top hole (the one closest to the mouthpiece) with the index finger of your left hand. You should use the flat part of your finger, which means that the finger will be fairly straight. You should also rest the instrument on your right thumb.

Now blow gently with the 'too' sound. You should hear the note B. This note is shown on a fingering chart as follows:

B = X o o o o o

Notice the X means a hole is covered while the o means an open (uncovered) hole.

Here are some more notes:

A = X X o o o o
G = X X X o o o
C# = o o o o o o

The # sign is called 'sharp'. The note C# is therefore 'C sharp'. Practice playing these notes and changing from one to another. You may find it hard to play C# at first, where you have no fingers on the whistle. You must hold it firmly in your mouth and balance it on your thumbs.

All these notes use only the fingers of the left hand. (Your little fingers are never used).

Right-hand Notes

When you are happy with the notes using only the left hand, you can learn some notes using the right hand too:

F# = X X X X o o
E = X X X X X o
D = X X X X X X

To play a full scale, you need one more note: high D. You have to blow a bit harder to produce it. The fingering is as follows:

D' = o X X X X X X

The little tick beside the note shows that it is a high D instead of a low D. High D is said to be an octave above low D. It is the same note, just higher up.

The full scale

The full scale is now laid out here for you to play.

D = X X X X X X
E = X X X X X o
F# = X X X X o o
G = X X X o o o
A = X X o o o o
B = X o o o o o
C# = o o o o o o
D' = o X X X X X

Now it is time to try some tunes. Here's just the first few notes to start you off.

'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star': D D A A B B A, G G F# F# E E D

'Oh Susanna': D E F# A A B A F# D E F# F# E D E

'Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms': F# E D E D D F# A G B D' D'

'Baa Baa Black Sheep': D D A A B C# D' B A, G G F# F# E E D

'Fáinne Geal An Lae' (The Dawning of the Day): D E F# F# F# E F# A A B A F# D F# E D D D

Playing High Notes

If you want to play notes higher up, you just blow harder. You will get the same note but an octave higher.

D' = o X X X X X
E' = X X X X X o
F#' = X X X X o o
G' = X X X o o o
A' = X X o o o o
B' = X o o o o o
C#' = o o o o o o
D'' = o X X X X X

The note D'' is an octave higher than high D or 'top D' as some call it. It is possible to get even higher notes by blowing still harder, but since you are now producing an ear-splitting noise, it is probably best to stop there.

The Note C

Everything you have been playing up to now is in the key of D. The 'do' note is always D. Another common key to play in is the key of G. Try playing the notes G A B C# D'. You will hear that the note C# sounds wrong. It is too high. You need to use the note C. This is done by half covering the top hole of the whistle with your left index finger. You will have to experiment with the exact position of your finger until you get the note to sound right:

C = / o o o o o

The slash / indicates that the hole is half covered. This note is sometimes called C natural to distinguish it from C sharp.

Once you can play C natural, you can play tunes in the key of G:

'Happy Birthday': D D E D G F#, D D E D A G, D D D' B G F# E, C C B G A G

'The Scottish Soldier': D G A B B, G B C D' D', E' B E' D' C A D F# E' D C B

Other Semitones

Notes like C natural are called semitones, because they fall in the cracks between other notes. (Technically, this is not strictly true, but for the purposes of this entry, you will be spared the details). There are four other semitones. They are rarely used in Irish music, but you may come across them, so here they are:

D# = X X X X X /
F = X X X X / o
G# = X X / o o o
A# = X / o o o o

Ornaments

Cuts

Irish music uses a number of 'ornaments' to add interest to the music. The simplest of these is called the 'cut'. Just before you play a note, you play a higher note for an instant. The higher note is not there long enough for you to hear what pitch it is, you just hear a sort of a 'blip' at the start of the note. The way to do a cut on low notes such as D, E, F# and G is to use the third finger of your left hand. Just snap this finger off the hole and back on as you start the note, to get a blip at the start of the note. A cut can also be used to separate notes if you are playing the same note twice in a row, instead of tonguing the notes.

To do a cut on A or B, you can use the first finger of your left hand, in the same way. It is not possible to do a cut at the start of C# since you have no fingers on the whistle.

Strikes

A strike is another ornament that is similar to a cut. It involves playing the note below the one you are ornamenting. Like the cut, it should be so fast that you hardly hear the pitch of the strike. To do a strike on E, play a D very rapidly followed by E.

Slurring

Up to now, it has been recommended that you tongue all the notes. This gives a clear start to each note. Playing without tonguing is called 'slurring'. If you get two or more notes the same in a row, you will have to make a break between then by doing a cut or strike.

Rolls

A roll is a more elaborate ornament consisting of a cut above the note followed by a strike below. A roll on E will sound the following: E (A) E (D) E. The notes in brackets are very short. The A is a cut and is not exactly an A, because only the third finger of the left hand is raised.

Sliding up to the Note

Another ornament is called a slide. To slide up to a note, play the note below it, then slide your finger slowly off the hole, so that the note creeps up to the right note. This should take at most about half a second. Don't make it any longer than that. Overdoing the slides is a sure sign of a bad whistle player!

Vibrato

The final ornament that this entry will deal with is called 'vibrato'. It is used on long notes. Vibrato means wobbling the pitch up and down slightly. To do vibrato on the note A, play a normal A, then open and close the hole at the first finger of your right hand. Do this rapidly by wiggling your finger about four or five times a second. You will hear the note wobble.

The hole that you open and close for vibrato is the second open hole counting down from the mouthpiece. So for vibrato on F#, you open and close the lowest hole. For vibrato on G, you use the second hole from the bottom and so on.

Vibrato on the note E uses a different technique. You can't open and close the second open hole, since there is only one open hole. You must wave your right ring finger over the bottom hole without actually touching the hole. This is trickier than vibrato on other notes.

Most people think that you can't do vibrato on D, because all the holes are closed. In fact there are two ways. One is by controlling your breathing. Say 'wa wa wa wa wa' as you blow, and the note should go up and down a bit. Another way (preferred by this entry's Researcher, no less) is to wave your little finger over the hole at the end of the tin whistle, where the sound comes out. This is quite a stretch - you need big hands and flexible fingers.

Support Fingering

A technique sometimes advocated is 'support fingering'. You leave down fingers at the bottom of the whistle to provide extra support so that you don't drop the whistle. In particular, when playing C#, you can leave down your right ring finger. This does not affect the pitch of the note and means that you always have at least one of the holes covered.

There is no good reason to do this, as there is no real problem holding the whistle while playing C# in the normal way. Some whistlers overdo this technique and play badly out of tune because they leave down far too many fingers.

The Unnatural C Natural Fingering

Many tin whistle tutors disapprove of the half-hole method for playing C natural, because it is somewhat difficult for beginners. Players need experience to produce an accurate C natural every time. Instead, the tutors recommend playing C natural by leaving the top hole open and covering the next two holes.

This fingering should be avoided at all costs. It produces a note which is woefully out of tune. Any tutor that recommends this fingering should be treated with extreme suspicion.

Playing the Whistle with one Hand

For completeness, here is a method for playing the tin whistle with only one hand. Using sellotape, tape over the top three holes so that they are permanently closed. Play the notes D', E', F#' and G' as normal, blowing reasonably hard to get the high notes. Now, blowing slightly harder, play the same notes again. You will find the notes jump upwards, but not by an octave. Instead, they become A', B', C#' and D''. So you can play a full scale with only one hand. This technique is the principal on which the tabor pipe, a one-handed whistle, is based. With a little experimenting, you will be able to play even higher notes to play many tunes.


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