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Playing the Tin Whistle
Let's Play the Tin Whistle!
Hey, all you have to do is blow on one end and cover the holes with your fingertips, right? Hold on! There is much more to playing the Tin Whistle than that! The Tin Whistle, also known as a Penny Whistle and Irish Whistle, is one of the World's most basic and inexpensive musical instruments, yet also one of the most versatile, expressive and beautiful.
Join me in this look at the Tin Whistle including the history, how it is played and music featuring the Tin Whistle. It's not just for St. Patrick's Day!
History of the Tin Whistle
Tubular fipple wind instruments date back at least 50,000 years, likely many more. These were made of bone, often the wing bone of storks or cranes. Think about that for a moment. These birds are large but mostly in height so their bones are long but not overly thick. Animal bone Fipple Flutes have been found all over Europe from the Neanderthal Age into the Iron Age. Later examples have been found made of clay and wood.
The Recorder was the culmination of the Fipple Flute and could play chromatic scales (sharps and flats) unlike the Tin Whistle which is diatonic (scale notes mainly). Many people have been introduced to music in elementary school by learning the Recorder or the Tin Whistle.
The modern Tin Whistle comes from England, manufactured by Mr. Robert Clarke, 1840 - 1882, and were very inexpensively made. A piece of thin metal wrapped into a tube around a wooden plug to form the mouthpiece. The whistles sold for a penny so they also became known as Penny Whistles. Other manufacturers joined in and this increased the spread of the Tin Whistle into all strata of English society.
Since these instruments were so affordable, many people transferred the traditional music they already knew. As well, since the Tin Whistle is so portable, people could keep one with them to play whenever they liked. Thus, the Tin Whistle became an integral part of folk music of England, Scotland and Ireland during the 19th century.
Currently, Whistles are made of many materials including wood, metal, PVC and plastic in all price ranges. One development that helps modern Whistles sound more consistent and in tune with other instruments is injection molding. With a well designed original mold, the fipple mouthpiece can be made very accurately in the thousands and attached to various sized tubes to maintain a signature sound over a range of whistles in different musical keys.
How the Tin Whistle Works
Sound ridiculous, telling you how a Whistle works? Well, accuracy is important to me and I think once you have more information you'll say "Wow, I didn't know that!"
Tin Whistles are members of the aerophone instrument family. This means it makes sound by vibrating air. There are many types of aerophone instruments, the simplest would be a siren but others include Harmonica, Trumpet and Woodwinds.
The Tin Whistle is a tube of thin metal, wood, or plastic with a mouthpiece on the top end and six holes along the tube facing up when played. The holes are covered in different combinations with the fingertips to sound the notes of a standard musical scale (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do). The length of the Whistle and the spacing of the holes set each Whistle in a musical key. The most common Whistle key is D major (B minor) but they are made in every key. Each Whistle can play in a major key and the relative minor key. Experienced players can add sharps or flats for other keys as well.
The mouthpiece of the Tin Whistle is NOT just a hole you blown across (like a Flute). The Whistle mouthpiece is shaped to force the air along a restricted path (to speed it up) and direct the air to the edge of a thin wedge within the mouthpiece at a ninety degree angle. This edge is called the Blade. There is an opening at this edge from which the sound comes out. Changing which holes are covered changes the "length" of the Whistle thereby changing the note. This type of mouthpiece is called a Fipple. Other wind instruments that use a Fipple type mouthpiece include the Recorder, Ocarina and the Pipe Organ (really!).
The Tin Whistle can play notes in a range of two octaves but to play in the second octave the player must increase the speed of the air going over the blade. This is called overblowing and is progressively applied as the notes go higher. If the music calls for the player to jump from a high note to a low note the air pressure must be adjusted lower quickly as well. Like any other musical instrument, this takes practice! When I finally figured this out it made a world of difference in my Whistle playing.
Celtic Thunder is a modern musical group and theatrical troupe that mixes thrilling Irish music with stage presentations of Celtic mythology.
Created by the Musical Director of Riverdance, Celtic Woman is five ladies who perform traditional Irish tunes as well as modern songs.
Ornamentation (Fancy Playing)
As Whistle players advance they often add ornamentation to the basic notes of a melody. There are many types of Whistle ornamentation but here are the common ones. This but one way folk music and traditional music gets it's "flavor!"
- Grace Notes - are very short notes played just before the main note. Grace notes can be higher or lower than the main note.
- Cuts - the player briefly uncovers a hole above the fingers of the main note. The cut makes the note go up slightly.
- Taps - same as the cut but the hole below the main note is uncovered causing the note to go down slightly.
- Rolls - a cut then a tap played as one sequence. These can be long or short in duration.
- Slides - the player slowly and smoothly changes from one note to the next.
Watch the Fingers!
Here you can clearly see the dexterity involved when an experienced player takes on a fast paced tune. Watch and listen to how he adds the extra ornamentation notes.
With just three instruments these musicians create a complete sound with ease!
What about Today?
The Tin Whistle faded from popularity (except in Ireland!) during the twentieth century, overshadowed by the Piano, Guitar and Mandolin. However, it never disappeared, showing up in the 1950s in South Africa among street musicians playing a happy kind of music called Kwela. Unfortunately, there are very few recordings of original Kwela music of that period.
What really gave the Tin Whistle a boost was it's use for the theme song of the 1997 movie "Titanic". Played by Tony Hinnigan, this beautiful melody became known world wide and renewed public interest in the Tin Whistle. Another movie featuring Whistle music was "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy from 2001 - 2003. Since then, musical groups like The Corrs, The Cranberries, Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly, The Dave Mathews Band and Railroad Earth have featured the Tin Whistle in various songs.
Also, the Whistle is commonly used as a first instrument for children. Kids love music and providing them with early opportunities to learn a musical instrument can have a positive impact on other areas of learning. Whistles also work well in group educational environments. Why not start you child's love of playing music with a Tin Whistle or catch up on one yourself?
The Corrs are a modern Irish family group (by birth and marriage) that are popular around the World.
And for those of you who prefer music slightly more aggressive check out Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly!
You KNOW you WANT to!
Originally from Quincy, Massachusetts, Dropkick Murphys are an American Celtic Punk Rock band who dreamed of being the AC/DC of Celtic Punk!
Flogging Molly! - This seven piece Celtic Punk band is from Los Angeles, California of all places!
Where to get Help
One thing I have learned in many years of computer/Internet use is that user forums are often the best place to really find out what is going on in a particular area. Musical instruments are played by real people of all skill levels and when they get together on the Net they share what they have learned.
For the Tin Whistle, THE place to go is the Chiff & Fipple (chiffandfipple.com). You have read about the fipple being the mouthpiece of the whistle. What is the "Chiff?" Well, chiff is the breathy part of the whistle sound. Hard to hear unles you know what you are listening for!