A woodwind player’s introduction to: pennywhistles

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The pennywhistle (or “tinwhistle” or “Irish” whistle) is common in Irish traditional music, and has found a home in some other styles such as southern African kwela music. They appear famously in movie soundtracks such as the Lord of the Rings movies and Titanic.

Here are some important things to know:

  • There are high-quality pennywhistles with good intonation, clear, pure tone, and nice even response. (The Burke whistles are among my favorites.) But some high-profile players of traditional Irish music prefer the chirpier, raspier, less-perfect sounds of inexpensive, mass-produced ones (such as Generation whistles). Those players might try many inexpensive whistles to find the most playable ones.
  • There are also some in-between options. The very consistent but relatively inexpensive plastic whistles from Susato have the advantages of high volume, excellent tuning, and availability in lots of keys. (They also have a reedy tone that some people find too recorder-like.) Or, there are “tweaked” whistles like those made by Jerry Freeman, inexpensive whistles with some adjustments made for better playability.
  • Pennywhistles are available in various sizes, but the way they are named doesn’t match with the conventions of orchestral wind instruments. The most common and traditional whistle is the high D whistle. These are usually notated with the instrument’s six-fingers-down note, D, appearing as D on the staff and sounding one octave higher. (By the terminology used for, say, clarinets and saxophones, this would be considered a “C” whistle.) Other whistles are named by their 6-finger note as well.
  • For non-D whistles, there aren’t firmly-established notation practices. Some notation treats them as transposing instruments, with music written so that a notated D at the bottom of the treble staff is always played as the six-finger note. In other cases, music may be written at the intended sounding pitch (or, often, one octave below, like piccolo transposition), and it is left to the whistle player to select an appropriate instrument.
  • Whistles use a simple-system fingering scheme, and are best used in mostly-diatonic contexts. Some chromatic fingerings are possible but cross-fingerings tend to be weak and half-holed fingerings are awkward in technical passages. To play in multiple keys, most whistle players keep whistles in a variety of sizes on hand. For chromatic passages, something like a soprano or sopranino recorder might be more suitable.
  • Like most fipple flutes, pennywhistles have relatively low breath requirements. The upper octaves are achieved almost entirely by overblowing, so they tend to be louder and brighter. (Some more expensive whistles are designed to “improve” on this traditional characteristic.)
  • Pennywhistles respond best to a low, open voicing.
  • Pennywhistle playing in Irish traditional music uses a sophisticated system of ornamentation and inflection inherited from bagpiping traditions. Since pipers don’t stop to breathe, whistle players use a system of placing breaths that is also somewhat unfamiliar to orchestral woodwind players, leaving out selected notes to breathe rather than trying to insert breaths between notes. For slower tunes whistle players may use a flattement-style finger vibrato. By far my favorite resource for learning these techniques is Grey Larsen’s book.

1 thought on “A woodwind player’s introduction to: pennywhistles”

  1. I have whistles from the vendors you list and a dogeared copy of Larsen’s book. I’m not great on whistle (coming in with a flute background) but have a lot of fun with the whistles at bluegrass jams.

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