Saturday, February 14, 2009

How To Play the Tin Whistle

The tin whistle, also known as the pennywhistle, Irish whistle, or just plain old whistle, is an instrument with a plastic or wooden fipple, or mouthpiece, and a metal body tube. They are fairly easy to play and the fingerings are similar to that of the saxophone, clarinet, and flute. Tin whistles are a great way to introduce someone to playing a musical instrument and lots of fun!

  1. Purchase a tin whistle at a local music store or online. Whistles are available in all the major keys. The most common, a D whistle, can play in the keys of D and G major. The second most common, a C whistle, can play in the keys of C and F major. The lowest note of a penny whistle, with all the fingers covered, is called the tonic - on a D whistle the tonic is D.

    • The tone of the tin whistle is largely determined by its manufacturing. Clarke style rolled metal whistles tend to have an airy "impure" sound, while Generation style cylindrical instruments tend to have clear or "pure" whistle sounds. Inexpensive rolled metal whistles, such as those from Cooperman Fife and Drum (which also produces high-end instruments) may be very airy in sound, and may be difficult to play in the upper register (second octave). Often placing a piece of tape over one edge of the fipple slot (just below the mouthpiece) to narrow the fipple will improve the instrument's tone and playability significantly.
    • Whistles are pitched in different keys and octaves.
      Whistles are pitched in different keys and octaves.
       Low whistles, or concert whistles, are longer and wider and produce tones an octave (or in rare cases two octaves) lower. Whistles in this category are likely to be made of metal or plastic tubing, with a tuning-slide head. The term soprano whistle is sometimes used for the higher-pitched whistles when it is necessary to distinguish them from low whistles.
  2. Hold the whistle correctly. It should face downwards and away from you at a 45 degree angle. Place your dominant hand at the bottom and your other hand at the top of the tube. Pinkies are not used except to support the whistle while playing certain notes, or when playing the largest (and lowest) tin whistles. Thumbs hold up the whistle from below. Cover the six keyholes with your fingertips. Place the tip of the fipple between your lips, but not between your teeth.
  3. Learn how to finger the notes. The standard range of the whistle is two octaves. For a D whistle, this includes notes from the second D above middle C to the fourth D above middle C. (It is possible to make sounds above this range, by blowing with sufficient force, but, in most musical contexts, the result will be loud and out of tune.) As you go up a note on a whistle you generally lift one finger. Read the tablature for a D whistle below. White holes indicate that it is uncovered, black indicate covered, and plus signs below the fingerings indicate the higher octave.

  4. It looks easy and is easy!
    It looks easy and is easy!
    Play the lower octave notes. Hold the whistle with all the finger holes covered. (You don't need to press hard, just make sure each hole is completely covered.) Blow a steady stream of air, with your mouth shaped as if you were saying "toooo". This will produce the tonic (a D on the D whistle). Blowing too softly will make the note airy or nonexistent. Blowing too hard will produce the upper octave or a squeak. Blowing just right will create a steady, low tonic pitch. Progressively remove a finger at a time, starting by uncovering the hole at the end and working your way up to your mouth until you're playing the note with no holes covered (C#). You might need to use the pinky of your dominant hand to help support the whistle when none of the holes are covered.
  5. Play the upper octave notes. Cover all the holes again and blow harder than before to get a higher pitch. If you're having trouble hitting the note, slightly uncover the top hole (the one closest to your mouth) and try again. Doing this might help with all the notes in the higher octave.[1] Like before, uncover the holes, one at a time until you get to the highest note (C#). As the notes get higher, you'll have to blow harder to reach it. If you overblow, however, the whistle will squeak.
  6. Play music! If you don't know already, learn how to read sheet music.

    • A "D" whistle
      A "D" whistle
       If you have music transposed for a concert pitch instrument (violin, flute, piano) you can play this if it is in the right key. A player will usually play a whistle only in its tonic key and possibly in the key beginning on the fourth (e.g. G on a D whistle), but nearly any key is possible, becoming progressively more difficult to keep in tune as the player moves away from the whistle's tonic, according to the circle of fifths. Thus a D whistle is fairly apt for playing both G and A, and a C instrument can be used fairly easily for F and G.

      • To play a C natural on a D whistle or a B flat on a C whistle you can either half cover the top hole of the whistle[2] or cover the two holes below the top hole. (The latter is more practical for faster playing.)
    • Click on the thumbnails below to see a few simple tunes.

      Frère Jacques in D
      London Bridge Is Falling Down in D
  7. Practice! Not only should you be looking for clean, steady notes and smooth transitions between them, but you can also practice ornamentation:

    • Cuts - Just before you play a note, play a higher note for an instant. Snap one of your fingers off a hole momentarily to hit the next higher note. It should be so short that the listener can't determine the pitch.
    • Strikes - This is like a cut, except you go one note lower instead of higher.
    • Sliding up a note - Slide your finger slowly off a hole so that you ease into the next note. It should only take about half a second.
    • Vibrato can be achieved by varying the air speed slightly. Faster air means a higher tone, and slower air means a lower one, so by pulsing the air using your diaphragm, one can achieve vibrato. Don't blow too hard, or the instrument will play the next partial. Vibrato can also be achieved by opening and closing the second open hole counting down from the mouthpiece. For example, on the note A, play a normal A and wiggle your finger over the hole at the first finger of your dominant hand.


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