Picking up the Pennywhistle

I really regretted not playing an instrument. Now I suspect my neighbors regret that I do 😀

There is something about artistic activities that seem – to me at least – to “smooth out” the hard edges of thinking, analyzing, planning, implementing according to plan, etc. I mean life is not all supposed to be planning and doing! There has to be time to kick back and smell the roses, n’est pas? However, I can’t paint, draw, sculpt, or compose fugues, and I’ve been told by at least one person that I probably shouldn’t sing in public (an overly optimistic music teacher tried to teach me to sing alto right around the time my voice started to change – which has resulted in “harmonic confusion”, and my having a devil of a time finding the right key to start a song in. The only exception I’ve found is church hymns and other choral music where I gravitate toward the tenor and baritone parts where I’m not confused). That seems to leave the playing of music.

However, I didn’t play anything apart from being able to plink out some basic tunes on the piano – hold-overs from reluctantly submitted to piano lessons when I was young. Sure I listen to loads of music, but that is neither self-expressive, nor immune from the rigors of analysis (try listening to a classical symphony without keeping tabs on the structure. I suspect that people who don’t either quickly grow bored at the “wall of sound”, or have a facility for getting “into” the music emotionally and subconsciously which mostly escapes me – more on that in some other blog post).

Yet I wasn’t sure I was physically capable of playing an instrument; some years ago I suffered injury to my right middle finger in a fencing accident (that would be fencing as in building a fence with barbed wire and posts, as opposed to dueling with sabres, alas) resulting is reduced mobility of that digit; violin seemed to be out.

So, what I wanted was an instrument that was small, portable, with which I could play a type of music that I enjoy (and hey, I’m fond of traditional Celtic music and it’s variants), wouldn’t be a huge investment (it might just be a paperweight if I couldn’t play the thing because of my hand), and isn’t that complicated to pick up the basics on but still has lots of room to explore and improve upon. How about the pennywhistle, sometimes known as the tin whistle? (for you nay-sayers would would dismiss the pennywhistle as “elementary”, “simple” or a “child’s instrument”, I would direct your attention here – although I probably won’t be able to play like that for 20 years, if ever).

It also appeared, somewhat to my surprise, that there is a thriving “pennywhistle community” online. Not only are there many tutorials and online lessons for the pennywhistle (the introductory video series by Ryan Duns is priceless!), sites like Whistle This allow you to submit your playing to critical review and advice from your peers and more experienced players. There is also a vast treasure trove of sheet music available online for the pennywhistle and similar instruments (mostly traditional Irish tunes which have long ago passed into the public domain). While all this probably isn’t a replacement for a finding a good teacher, I figured it gave me a good place to start using nothing but the internet until I could find out whether I could actually play the thing

I did some research, and it seems that such whistles are seldom made of tin anymore, and they cost considerably more than a penny these days. Still, they are pocket change in price compared to a good guitar, piano, or violin. After much research I finally settled on a Susato Kildare in the traditional key of “high D”, about US$40 (£20 or C$45). It’s ABS plastic construction may be a put-off for those of a more traditional mind, but it is a well regarded whistle, and has a pretty respectable tone for a “mid-to-entry level” whistle (while I did lust after the Sweetheart Professional, I still wasn’t sure I could even play the damn thing, and I didn’t need that pricey a paperweight).

So I put in an order to the good people at the Sweetheart Flute Company for said pennywhistle, along with a copy of Grey Larson’s book Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle, both which arrived a few weeks later.

I am happy to report that my injury does not seem to preclude me from being able to play the pennywhistle, although I do have to take a little extra care to make sure I’ve got a good seal on the second-from-the-bottom hole while playing. It’s going well, although I have a long road ahead of me before I think that I could be classed as “competent” much less “good”, but for now it’s a whole lot of fun 🙂 I’m also finding that the pennywhistle, and its musical repertoire have had many surprises for me in the gap between expectation and reality – but given my new blogging policy, maybe that’s best left for another post 🙂

This article is part of an (informal) series on the Pennywhistle. If you found this article interesting you may be interested in the follow-up articles Playing the Pennywhistle and (the upcoming) Experiencing the Pennywhistle.

Links and Further Reading

Tin Whistle Suppliers

Sweetheart Flute Company
Creators of some truly beautiful traditional wooden flutes. While they concentrate more on wooden “concert flutes” using the Boehm key system, they do produce other “traditional” woodwinds, such as the gorgeous “Professional” Model wooden pennywhistle, and the intriguing “Resonance” Model Low D Pennywhistle.
Producers of many types of traditional and ancient instruments, mostly woodwinds but a handful of other types as well. Creators of the “Kildare” line of pennywhistles of which I am the proud owner of a “high-D” model 🙂
Burke Pennywhistles
The Michael Burke Pennywhistle company produces some decidedly non-traditional whistles, still they are beautiful instruments with a bright clear tone, and seem to have found a following among professional Celtic musicians. While they are not inexpensive, they are intriguing and beautiful instruments. If I ever make the jump to a more “professional” whistle (and my playing will have to improve a great deal for me to think that justified), I probably still would go for the Sweetheart professional whistle … although I would be tempted to pick up a Burke DASBT as the next whistle I got 😉

Recommended Whistling Recording

Joanie Madden’s Song of the Irish Whistle
Joanie Madden is a whistler of amazing virtuosity, and on this album her rendition of The Legacy Jig along with Tar Road To Sligo never fails to make me smile.
The Kells
While not only whistlers – they play a wide variety of traditional Irish music – their 2004 album The Kells has some great examples of whistle playing on it.

Whistling Links

The Session
A site chock full of traditional Celtic music, sheet music, recording recommendations, etc. A treasure-trove for anyone interested in traditional Irish whistling. Note most music is represented in ABC format (see below).

ABC Music
(from the website) “ABC is a language designed to notate tunes in an ascii format. It was designed primarily for folk and traditional tunes of Western European origin (such as English, Irish and Scottish) which can be written on one stave in standard classical notation.” A fair amount of whistle music available online is in ABC format.
ABC Convert-A-Matic @ Concertina.net
A useful online tool for converting ABC music files into a variety of other formats, including PDF sheet music you can print out for your songbook, and a MIDI file so you can hear the tune (albeit a somewhat sterile version).
Whistle This
(from the website) “The world’s largest group whistle lesson. Hear a tune — get the music. Learn the tune — make it your own. Share the tune — upload your recording.” and get constructive feedback as to your playing, and pointers from more experienced players. A genius of an idea, and a resource I plan to use once I am confident enough in my playing to subject it to public scrutiny.
Yes, YouTube. It surprised me, but it seems that there are number of pennywhistlers and musicians playing in the traditional Celtic style that have recorded themselves on YouTube. Like most things, the quality varies greatly, although there are some really amazing players to be found there.
Ryan Duns (YouTube Page and Blog)
Ryan Duns is a Jesuit teaching and studying at Fordham University, who is an amazing whistler, teaches an introductory course in the pennywhistle at Fordham, and has published a fair number of tutorials and performances online, including an excellent video course (available both through YouTube and on Whistle This in the left-hand menu bar as “Whistle University”). Well worth checking out.

Whistling Tutorials

Fordham University’s Introduction to the Tin Whistle
An excellent online introductory video course taught by Ryan Duns (see above)
Whistle Tutor:Tutorials
A good introduction, using flash for illustrations and examples, with several recordings/performances in Real Video and Windows Media Video format.

51 Responses to Picking up the Pennywhistle

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