Monday, May 30, 2005

Practice: Making the Cut

I got some interesting feedback on my "No-Frills Whistling" post. I liked Steve's comment (and several others which echo its general sentiment), which reads, in part:

The passage you quote was written a few years ago and I've refined my thinking somewhat since then. I was really aiming it at people who get obsessed with more complex forms of ornamentation such as rolls and crans of various kinds before they can make sense of a simple tune - and I have come across plenty of such players of whistles and other instruments in real life and on the net. In that respect I stand by that passage.

Now however I would say that more basic devices that are commonly lumped under the heading of "ornamentation", especially cuts and to some extent taps, are indispensable and should be integrated into your learning of Irish music almost from the word go. If you don't learn them early you'll probably develop the habit of tonguing all over the place, a habit that is hard to undo once you've developed it. These devices then are not less important than good rhythm because they are more or less vital to developing good rhythm.

This is interesting to me, because once again I find what Steve writes lining up with my own gut instinct. I've learned a couple of tunes and am working on a third. Playing the same tunes over and over again gets a little tiresome, due both to repetition and the fact that my playing isn't quite as interesting to listen to as some of the CDs I own. I could start learning some new tunes, but that wouldn't necessarily make me a better whistler.

Another way to make practice more interesting, though, is to throw a new challenge into the mix. As I mentioned last time, Sheebeg Sheemore is a tune which really does benefit from cuts in a few places, and I tried that tonight. It's not so hard to play the cuts where I would normally tongue a repeated note, and it helps keep my mine focused on the tune.

I'm grateful to everyone who responded, because all of this is really helping to condense my thoughts about how I need to practice, what I wanted from the tutorials, and what I'd like to do with this weblog. In summary, I want to pass along useful advice from the point of view of a beginner, since most books seem to be written by experts.

More soon!

Friday, May 27, 2005

Practice: Learning from Mistakes

I have a couple of tunes under my belt now, and that makes sessions more fun, since I don't spend all of the time listening — just most of it! There are some obvious differences when you play with others, such as the fact that you have to pay attention to how other people are playing. Since I try to listen to myself and keep pace with my tapping foot, this is not entirely new ground. But when you're playing with other musicians, you can't fudge this — if you miss a note or take a long time to work out the fingering, they'll be into the next measure.

So the hardest thing for me right now when I'm playing with the session is picking up when I miss a note. I usually find myself having to wait at least until the start of the next measure and frequently longer before I can come back in, because I lose track of where I am in the piece.

One thing I've recognized is that this is essentially the same problem as breathing. As Brother Steve notes, a common way to take a breath is to drop a note. I've tried this and it's very hard for me, because it jars my rhythm. But keeping the beat while breathing is essentially the same problem for me as missing a note because I flubbed a fingering.

Ornamentation, too, presents a similar problem for me. As I noted in my last post, I'm working on learning to play tunes well without ornamentation before seriously working on adding trills and frills. But I've got Shebeg Shemore pretty much down and it really does sound better with cuts instead of tonguing in between the repeated notes, so I'd like to learn to do that. But again, the flying fingers are making it hard for me to keep time.

So my thought right now is that these problems are all related. So what to do about them? I'm not sure, but one thing which occurs to me is that I need to be stricter with myself about not letting the time slip when I'm doing my personal practice. I won't learn to do this right if the only time I ever practice it is in the couple of tunes I play at session.

I'm also thinking I should be starting to practice cuts and breathing in isolation. Maybe if the movements become as natural to me as hitting a specific note then it will be easier to avoid messing up my rhythm.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Practice: No-Frills Whistling

I have a couple different tin whistle tutorial books. Both of them seem to go from discussing note fingerings to ornamentations like cuts and rolls with very little in between. Neither give any substantive discussion of how to learn to play a tune simply, without ornamentation. This irritates me since I'm in that stage now and could use some help.

The answer may well be that it simply takes practice and repetition to get this down. To be honest, if the books had simply said this I wouldn't be disappointed. In fact, I'd be happy to know that the hard work I'm doing is necessary because there aren't any shortcuts to this fundamental skill. But it seems odd to me to not touch on the point at all. Brother Steve gets it right, though:

[...] rhythm is far, far more important than ornamentation. Make no mistake about this. By and large, ornamentation should serve to enhance rhythm. But it is no substitute for rhythm. It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!

Put time into mastering all the ornaments, by all means. But make sure your rhythm is good. And that means, one: make sure your rhythm is steady (you keep a constant beat, without speeding up or slowing down), and two: make sure your rhythm is acceptable for the type of tune you are trying to play.

You can play great Irish music with next to no ornamentation. There are many fine players who do. But you cannot play good, or even mediocre, Irish music without good rhythm. If your rhythm is good, everyone will enjoy listening and tapping their foot, even if they know nothing about Irish music. If your rhythm is not good, nobody, but nobody, will enjoy listening to you.

The books I have are both written by people who are very skilled whistlers. But I wonder how much time they spend teaching folks who are just learning to play the whistle. The more I learn, however, the more I appreciate Brother Steve's site. I don't know where he stands in the ranks of the world's whistlers, but he certainly writes like a very experienced teacher.

Are there any other tutorials or sites which are helpful for people still learning to play in time and who aren't ready to move on to ornamentation yet? Are there tips that helped you? If you have ideas, please leave a comment.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Whistle Care: The Rusty Gulley

I popped the fipple off of my Clarke Sweetone the other night and discovered that it was rusting at the top of the seam! This was a bit surprising, since it's only a month old or so, but I guess I just need to become religious about wiping down condensation inside the tube after I play. Maybe the painted whistles (I have the "natural" finish) are a bit more rust-resilient.

The title link goes to a tune I found appropriate for this post.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Seisiún: Bardic Circle at Amore Pizza

Bardic Circle session will be playing at Amore Pizza in Westerville, OH, on Thursday 26 May from around 7:00 p.m. through 11:00 or so. Amore is on County Line Road at the intersection of Sunbury road. The full address is:

Amore Restaurant
1186 County Line Rd
Westerville, Ohio
[Click here for a map.]

If you don't care to play, come enjoy the food and music!

Friday, May 20, 2005

Shopping: Beautiful Whistle Transport

"anniemcu" from the Chiff and Fipple Forums has gone into business producing hand-made instrument bags for whistles and flutes. Check it out!

Sassafrass Whistle Rolls logo

Monday, May 16, 2005

Another New Whistler

This is my three-year-old daughter playing a Clarke Sweetone. Her favorite tunes thus far are Cockles and Mussels and the Bob the Builder theme song. Transcriptions for the latter available upon request.

Update: Here are some more pictures of young folks "whistling."

Thursday, May 12, 2005

WWW: RSS Feeds for Whistlers

I just discovered that The Session has several RSS feeds available. Go here and search the page for "feeds" for a list. This is a nice service for folks who want to keep on top of the latest tune transcriptions and links.

For those unaware of RSS, it's a way to make reading web sites much more efficient and convenient. Instead of going to various sites to look for interesting new articles you subscribe to feeds and new articles are delivered to you via a program called an RSS aggregator. My personal favorite is Bloglines which is free and web-based, so you can read your subscriptions from any computer, without needing special software.

Other whistling-related RSS feeds include the latest messages on the Chiff and Fipple message boards and the Atom feed for this site. Atom is an alternative to RSS which most RSS aggregators understand.

Know of any whistling-related sites with feeds which I haven't listed here? Leave a comment, please.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Whistle Care: A Burr in the Fipple

I have a couple of inexpensive whistles. A few days ago I noticed that one of them, a Feadóg was unusually sensitive to overblowing and tended to break into the third (!) octave. For a while I thought it was because my other whistle, a tweaked Clarke Sweetone had higher air requirements, and I needed to learn how to blow differently on each whistle. That's true to some extent, but I was finding it difficult to even play a long high G without getting a "warbling" sound due to the third octive breaking in a little.

Then I remembered reading a description of a similar problem on the Chiff and Fipple forums, which, according to the writer, was resolved by removing debris from the fipple. So I removed the Feadóg's fipple and, sure enough, there was a thin strip of plastic projecting from the bottom. I don't know if it was a manufacturing defect or if I created it by scraping the side of the fipple with the edge of the body while tuning the whistle, but I suspect the latter since the problem just appeared. I removed the burr with a thin kitchen knife and the whistle now sounds quite a bit better.

By the way, the Feadóg and the Sweetone have very different sounds, and both are quite pleasant. I would guess that this is mainly due to the conical vs. cylindrical bodies. They're very inexpensive, so if you've tried only one style of whistle body it might be worthwhile to have at least one of each.

Tunes: The Blackthorn Stick

I wanted to pick a couple of tunes to learn well enough to play them with others at a session, and decided to start with a jig called the Blackthorn Stick. It has a catchy melody plus certain patterns that repeat throughout the song, which made it very easy to learn. I have it memorized and hope to be able to play it decently at half speed before next week's session.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Seisiún: How to Find a Session in Your Area

This post presumes you know what a session is. If not, read this brief history of the Irish Session and this description of sessions today.

There are already many articles on and directories for finding a session in your area, so this post would seem at first to be redundant. But they all omit what I think is a fairly critical detail, so maybe this will help someone. Many of these directories have been online for years, and the sessions have stopped, moved, or changed times or skill levels. It's important to confirm the information before attending. Here's the process I followed:

  1. I used the links above and some other sites to come up with a list of possible sessions.
  2. Then I sent email to the organizers listed, asking whether or not the listing was current and how appropriate it would be for someone just getting started playing the tin whistle.
  3. I picked the most appropriate session still happening, and received updated information as to its time and skill level. The players in this session had improved since the information was posted several years ago!

Of course, I read up on session etiquette before attending. This is somewhat difficult to avoid, at least for anyone who reads about this stuff online. Indeed, it is difficult to find a description of what happens at a session which doesn't consist mostly of long descriptions of what not to do.

So I'll close this post by focusing on the positive: It is nice to find a group of more or less random people coming together to make music and have fun. A drum circle might qualify, too, but I like the Irish tunes better!

Tunes: How to Learn a Tune

I went to the Bardic Circle session here in Columbus last night. It was the first session I have attended. Bardic Circle is an intermediate session, so I spent most of the evening listening, although they did indulge me by putting up with my poor whistling on a slow air and perhaps misguidedly attempted to embarass me by asking me to sing (misguided in the sense that I have few reservations about showcasing my vocal "talent" in public!).

I also had the chance to talk to a guy named Jeff Richards, who plays a number of instruments, tin whistle among them. He gave me some advice on learning tunes which strikes me as very sensible, so I'll pass it along here.

My goals are to memorize at least a few tunes, and learn to pick up others by ear. Sheet music is discouraged at some sessions and outright forbidden in others. What's more, if I learn to pick up tunes by ear then I'll be able to play along with tunes I haven't memorized and don't have transcriptions for.

The gist of the advice is to learn how to play intervals rather than memorizing fingerings for tunes. So if I'm playing a D and I know the next note is a full step higher then I should know how to go to an E without having to think about the names of the notes. So there's two things I need to learn:

  1. I need to know the tune well enough to anticipate the next note.
  2. I need to be able to find that note based on the note I'm currently plaing.

Jeff's advice was to address the first need by humming along to recordings of the tunes. This helps to memorize the song without thinking of fingerings, and it's good practice to pick up a new song quickly. Ideally I'd be able to listen to the tune and the turn once and play them on the repeats. For the second need, he recommended playing any bunch of tunes I can think of and know already (Happy Birthday, etc.) until I'm confident that when playing one note I can always go to the next if I know how big of a step it is.

UPDATE: Here are a couple of other articles on this subject:

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Technique: Blowing Low D

When I started to play the whistle I could play notes in the first octave easily but had difficulty consistently hitting notes in the second octave. Then I learned how to control my overblowing well enough that I could hit at least the first half of the second octave consistently, but soon found I had the opposite problem: It was difficult for me to return to the bottom half of the first octave, especially D and E, after playing long passages at the top of the staff.

Then I read a tip on the web somewhere -- and I can't find the link, or I would give credit -- which helped tremendously. It's just a small conceptual shift, but it made a world of difference to me. When playing low D and E, exhale rather than blow.

I don't think I've missed either note once since I read that.