- Steve Neff Music Blog (saxophone): Do Mouthpiece Patches and Beak Height Make a Difference to the Sound of a Saxophone?
- LearnTinWhistle.com: Best Tin Whistle Books
- The Flute Examiner (Jessica Dunnavant): Career Day
- Jenny Maclay (clarinet): Repertoire Research Checklist for Students
- Rachel Taylor Geier (flute): Fixing a Faulty Trill – Dr. G’s Top Five Trill Etude Recommendations
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.
I’m pleased to share videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital. I performed for a very small in-person audience due to COVID-19 precautions.
All the repertoire is unaccompanied. The program begins with multiple-woodwinds repertoire by Samuel Adler, Kyle Tieman-Strauss, and Nicole Chamberlain (a world premiere of a commissioned piece), followed by some odds and ends on recorders, clarinet, and tinwhistles.
Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.
What are your thought on voicings on the various extensions of the big five? I find I get optimal results on flute with low voicing, but on piccolo I use something more similar to high register alto sax.
I tend to be generally consistent within instrument families: low voicing for flute, so also low voicing for piccolo, alto flute, etc. High voicing for clarinet, so also high voicing for bass clarinet. Saxophones are a little different because they require a “middle” voicing, and I do think it’s worthwhile to target each member of the saxophone family precisely. The easiest way to do that is with mouthpiece pitch: a baritone mouthpiece should sound a concert D (a ninth above middle C on the piano), a tenor mouthpiece sounds a G, alto an A, and soprano a C.
I recently purchased a pennywhistle and I’m really enjoying it so far. I was wondering if there’s any specific kind of voicing associated with that kind of instrument. It feels easy to play the lower octave, but going up higher than the fourth or fifth in the second octave is really difficult without absolutely blasting.
For fipple flutes like recorders and pennywhistles (also known as tinwhistles or “Irish” whistles), I recommend a very low voicing, the same as for concert flute or double reeds. Recorders have a thumb hole that serves (sometimes) as a register vent, which tames the upper registers somewhat. Pennywhistles don’t have that—the only way to get to the upper register is to overblow. With some practice and finesse the registers can be balanced somewhat, but with fipple flutes don’t expect nearly the level of dynamic control that you have on a concert flute or modern reed instrument. Bear in mind, too, that fipple flutes generally take much less air than a band/orchestra woodwind.
Some nice handmade pennywhistles are designed to improve the register imbalance issue. (Narrower-bore whistles in particular tend toward a sweeter, softer upper register, but a weaker lower register.) But many professional whistle players prefer the more “authentic” sound of inexpensive whistles, and might try out quite a few to find one that plays well enough.
Thanks for your questions! Voicing is a little-understood, little-taught aspect of woodwind playing.
My doctoral dissertation is now available online through the University of Georgia library:
It was completed in 2009 so some things are already out of date. Also, lately I’m trying to steer away from the term “ethnic” instruments (“world” instruments seems slightly less problematic until I can find a better solution).
Woodwind doubling is the practice of playing instruments from more than one woodwind family. In musical theater and film music, woodwind doublers are valuable for their ability to produce the sounds of a varied woodwind section for a fraction of the cost of hiring a specialist musician to play each instrument.
Since the 1990’s, composers and orchestrators in musical theater and film scoring have shown increased interest in instrumental sounds from outside the traditional symphony orchestra. Many have featured folk, ethnic, or period instruments as solo instruments, bringing authentic sounds to scenes set in faraway locations or historical periods, giving an exotic flair to fictional locales, or simply adding new colors to the usual palette of instrumental sounds.
Composers of film and theater scores have used ethnic woodwinds, in particular, in their scoring. To meet the demand for ethnic woodwind sounds, many prominent woodwind doublers on Broadway and in Hollywood have adopted these instruments, in addition to their usual arrays of modern Western instruments.
Eight folk, ethnic, and period woodwinds recently employed in film and theater scoring have been selected for study in this document: bamboo flutes (especially the Indian bansuri and flutes used by some flutists in Irish traditional music), the Chinese dizi, the Armenian duduk, the Native American flute, the panflutes of Romania and South America, the pennywhistle, the recorder, and the Japanese shakuhachi.
For each instrument, a representative example of use in theater or film music has been selected and transcribed from a commercial audio recording. Each transcription is discussed with emphasis on demands placed upon the ethnic woodwind musician. Additional discussion of each instrument includes suggestions for purchasing instruments, fingering charts, description of playing technique, description of instrument-specific performance practices, discussion of various sizes and/or keys of each instrument, discussion of instrument-specific notation practices, annotated bibliographies of available pedagogical materials, lists of representative recordings (including authentic ethnic music and other music), and information on relevant organizations and associations of professional or amateur musicians.
If you are nerdy/awesome enough to be into (1) the pedagogy of Irish traditional woodwind playing and (2) open-source text-based music notation software, then you may want to check out my set of symbols for Lilypond, based on the excellent ornamentation system by Grey Larsen. You can get the .ily file on GitHub (and submit your pull requests to make improvements to my code).
If you are unfamiliar with Mr. Larsen’s system and you play pennywhistles or wooden flutes, then really I must insist that you buy a copy of his The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle immediately—his ornamentation system is clear and logical and should be regarded as the standard for teaching and learning Irish-traditional ornamentation for wind instruments.
If you are unfamiliar with Lilypond, chances are good that you won’t like it even though it’s free and produces much better notation than the software you already spent several hundred dollars on.
Also, it’s worth noting that Chris Throup already had a similar idea a few years ago. Mine is a bit more complete, but his is really simple.
Classes are canceled today due to a freak snowstorm in my little Southern college town. (Typical yearly snowfall: 0 inches. Yesterday’s snowfall: 5 inches.) So instead of teaching a woodwind methods class and rehearsing on contrabassoon with the university’s Wind Ensemble, I thought I would take a few minutes to do something I’ve been seeing some of my favorite bloggers do lately.
With some simple traffic-tracking tools, I can see what Google searches are leading people to my website. Most times, to my satisfaction, their search brings them to highly relevant content on my site. Other times I know they are not finding quite what they are looking for. So I’d like to address a selection of the searches that have brought people here unsuccessfully lately, and hopefully future searchers will find what they are after.
I’ve got ethnic woodwinds on the brain lately, and no end in sight since they are the topic of my doctoral dissertation research. If you haven’t added any ethnic instruments to your arsenal yet, here’s what I recommend for a relatively easy to play, low-maintenance, inexpensive, and versatile beginning to your collection.