Friday, December 22, 2006

Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares

OK, no Irish or Scottish content here whatsoever, but I saw a really memorable performance a few weeks back. CityMusic brought the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir to Columbus earlier this month. I first encountered this group's recordings in college, shortly after they were released. The singing is just astonishing: Filled with six part harmonies, noises, talking, pitch bending, dissonance, unusual time signatures, and a laundry list of other things which would be a train wreck if attempted by lesser performers, it's some of the most beautiful vocal music I've ever heard.

You can hear samples of the recording I have on this page.

The opportunity to see this ensemble live was especially nice because although the CD recording I have includes incredible feats of singing, the audio quality is not that great. I recommend the CD for the unusual and brilliant singing, but don't expect great fidelity.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Snowy Path

I'd like to express my deep gratitude to a member of the Columbus slow sessions email list who directed my attention to the Riley School of Irish Music tunes page, where I found a slow recording of the beautiful slip jig The Snowy Path. The slow recording makes the tune almost trivial to pick up by ear; just start on F# and play in D major and if you know the tune at all you'll have it in no time.

This tune was composed by Mark Kelly of Altan; you can hear it on their album Harvest Storm, including a gorgeous flute solo by Frankie Kennedy. Click the Amazon ad on the right to hear a short sample of Altan's recording of this tune.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Whistle This!

I've been quietly following Whistle This! for a while, and now I've gone and uploaded a tune. I really like the idea of the site; sharing tunes is fundamentally more interesting to me than talking about them. So even though I'm quite new to the instrument I'll be uploading more tunes in the future and listening carefully to what others post there.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Green Fields of America at the 2006 Dublin Irish Festival

This past August I caught Mick Moloney's band Green Fields of America at the 2006 Dublin Irish Festival. The announcer noted that when the festival began 19 years ago and was held in a tennis court, there was only one band the first year: Green Fields of America. This year the festival spanned several acres and attracted 80,000+ people, plus many well-known bands, and once again Green Fields of America played.

Green Fields of America is not so much an ongoing band as it is Mick Moloney and his rotating crew of Irish music all-stars. This year the band consisted of

  • Mick (guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo, and vocals)
  • John Doyle (guitar, vocals)
  • Billy McComiskey (box)
  • Robbie O'Connell (guitar, vocals)
  • Athena O'Lochlainn (fiddle)

I have heard some of Mick Moloney's recorded music before; I just bought the CD which accompanies his book Far from the Shamrock Shore a couple of months ago. But while that CD, and most of the other recordings I've heard from him, lean almost entirely towards song, the Green Fields of America performance had a roughly even mix of songs and dance tunes, and featured local, live dancers for two of the sets. Mick's albums of song aren't bad at all, but in the end I decided that I like his dance tunes even more.

Friday's performance started late due to problems with the monitor mix, which seemed not to be resolved for the whole show; John Doyle left his chair several times during the show to have a word with the monitor mixer. The front of house mix was some better, but the guitars were way too high in the mix; they frequently drowned out the other instruments. Even at the Irish festival I sometimes wonder if the mixers realize that the guitars are frequently playing accompaniment. Sunday's show seemed to be much better mixed overall.

Athena O'Lochlainn was a new name to me, but as soon as she started playing it became clear that she had more than enough talent to earn a place with such distinguished company. Her fiddle playing was simply delightful, packed with lift and cheer. It was fun to watch her face as she played; she seemed to react to the sounds coming from her instrument in much the same way as the audience did. According to her personal site she has a CD, produced by John Doyle, in the works.

Three guitarists might seem like rather a lot for an ITM group, but the performance would not have been the same without Robbie O'Connell's excellent singing. You can sample his songwriting at his web site.

I didn't recognize Billy McComiskey by sight and had missed his name during the introductions, so I didn't realize who he was at first. In retrospect, I really respect the way he held back for the better part of the performance, letting other band members take the spotlight. But when it came time for him to let loose and show the audience what he can do, I realized that he was a first-rate talent. When I finally caught his name at the end of the show all of the pieces fell in place. Like John Doyle, his talent comes not just from his ability to play his instrument really, really well, but also his ability to not overwhelm the rest of the band in every number.

At the end of Friday's show, the band was joined by bodhrán builder and player Albert Alfonso, who provided rhythmic accompaniment for the last two sets.

Green Fields of America can be an elusive band. They don't tour a lot, and as far as I can tell have only one album in current release. That's a shame, because the two sets I caught at the Irish festival showed the current lineup to be a remarkably cohesive band. The music they played wasn't what I had expected, but I have no complaints at all. The band played great dance music punctuated with occasional songs, and seemed to enjoy listening to each other.

Family obligations caused me to miss many of the other performers at the Irish festival this year, but I think I caught the best show there. This was easily the best show I've seen all year.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Whistle Is Not a Fixed-Pitch Instrument

From time to time, one or two sentences will change the way I approach this instrument and this music. Here's an example, written by Peter Laban:

Complaining your C's are out of tune on the whistle is a bit like a beginning fiddleplayer complaining his notes are off when he puts down his fingers.
This is not a fixed pitch instrument, it's, for a good part at least, your job to play in tune.

Before I read that post this fact had never occurred to me before. But it makes a great deal of sense. Instrument designers must adjust the size and position of the tone holes in order to compromise between:

  • The pitch of "regular" notes like G, A, B, etc.
  • The pitch of "cross-fingered" notes like C natural
  • The two octaves most commonly used, and the fact that we must over-blow to reach the second octave
  • The cylindrical body of most whistles
  • The fact that a whistle "embouchure" cannot change for different notes in the way a flute player's embouchure can
  • The desire to have a consistent tone and volume across the scales

Despite the efforts of many talented instrument builders, and despite over 100 years of research into the subject matter in the flute trade, there is no perfect solution to all of the above.

Don't believe me? Think that this doesn't apply to those who play certain premier brands? Well, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you play any note over the first two octaves with precisely the same breath pressure?
  • Can you play out of tune if you choose to?

Clearly, breath pressure has an effect on pitch!

Hence, while some whistles may be easier for some players to keep in tune, and while some whisles may be impossible for anyone to play in tune, we shouldn't consider a whistle defective because we must adjust our breath and fingerings in order to play in tune. That's the nature of the instrument. People who don't like this fact can take up the concertina.

The best way I've found to practice playing in tune so far is to play along with CDs.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Growing Pains

I'm updating this site to the new Blogger beta version, so you'll see some new features like labels ("tags") appearing on the posts. I'll be going back through my old posts and tagging them to create an index to topics I've discussed. But the new Blogger is really different than the old version, so if you see odd formatting and other problems over the next few weeks, please be patient while I get everything sorted out.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Books: Get Free Music Books from Google

Google is now offering PDF downloads of the full text of public domain books via their book search service. I did a few quick queries and found some old books of Irish and Scottish music, such as The Poems and Poetry of Munster: A Selection of Irish Songs (in English and Irish) and The Complete Works of Robert Burns.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Technique: L.E. McCullough's Presentation

Courtesy of Mike Reagan, here's L.E. McCullough's presentation from the 2006 Northeast Whistle Gathering, called "Six Ways to Break Out of Being a Beginning Whistle Player – OR – How I Became L.E. McCullough (not that you would want this to happen to you or a loved one)." It's in Microsoft Word format, but you can get a free Word viewer from Microsoft if you don't own that program. If you've been playing for a few years you probably know all this stuff, but it's a great collection of important advice for folks just getting started.

McCullough writes:

Looking back on my first couple years of playing Irish music on the whistle, these are the things I now see made a big difference in my development. I sincerely hope they prove of some benefit to you.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Photo: Burke Forest

A forest of Burke whistles at the 2006 Dublin Irish Festival.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Technique: Ear Learning

The other day I got the Jig of Slurs stuck in my head and I wanted to try and work it out by ear. Now I find two general things challenging in the area of ear learning. One is learning the tune well enough that I don't get confused about it when I make mistakes trying to play it. The second is figuring out where to start.

The second problem generally involves a good bit of trial and error for me, but this time I realized the solution was easy. The Jig of Slurs is a pipe tune, so it has to be in A mixolydian, since that's the only key the GHBs can play! This is a pretty useful shortcut if, like me, you haven't yet learned how to reliably distinguish all of the modes by ear.

Learning tunes "by ear" is something of a euphamism for me since I tend to memorize the tune first and then try to play it later, instead of playing along with a recording. One thing which has been helpful for this process is to lilt the songs instead of humming (or playing) them when learning. There are several reasons I think this is helpful:

  • It divorces knowledge of the tune itself from the technical ability to play it, allowing me to focus on really learning the tune.
  • Lilting is less forgiving than humming in terms of making you get the tune right. When I hum I tend to slur notes a bit, and this makes it easy to gloss over notes that I don't have right in my memory. With lilting it's harder to get away with this.

I tried to find a link about lilting, but I can't find anything. Any suggestions? The best suggestion I have is to listen to a good recording. I'm enjoying Colm O'Donnell's excellent Farewell to Evening Dances, which features lilting, singing, whistle, and flute.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Recordings: Séamus Ennis in the Alan Lomax Collection

Here are two recordings and a photo of Séamus Ennis, courtesy of Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Seisiún: How to Ruin a Session

No, that's not a typo in the title. I'm going to propose a unified theory of session suckage.

Let's consider a list of things people complain about / forbid / write guides to discourage doing at sessions:

  • Use of sheet music
  • "Noodling," and other efforts to play an unfamiliar tune during the session
  • Guitars, recorders, and other "non-traditional" instruments
  • People who start too many tunes
  • People who play over other people when they are trying to start a tune
  • Bodhrán owners (as opposed to bodhrán players)
  • Multiple bodhrán owners
  • etc.

Now none of the above strikes me as intrinsically evil. If you're a good musician, looking at sheet music isn't necessarily going to turn you into a bad one. There are some truly great guitarists, such as Arty McGlynn and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill.1 But what they have in common is that they're devices which seem to facilitate people playing along with tunes which are not the best in their personal repertoire or which maybe they don't know at all. Guitarists with no background in traditional music may show up wanting to "jam." People frustrated at how long it takes to learn to play the music may buy a bodhrán because they think it's "easier." Folks who are good sight readers might try and play along with tunes they've never heard before. Etc.

At both of the sessions I go to, people tend to play along with every tune they know, and sometimes a few that they don't. Granted, one is a learning session, and one started life as a beginning session and is still very beginner-friendly. So that sort of thing isn't completely against the rules. But one of the things I really like about, for example, the CD Music at Matt Molloy's is how frequently there will only be one or two musicians playing. Here you have a group of some the finest musicians in the world spending much of their time with their instruments on the table listening to a couple guys play a tune together.

Since I spend a lot of time listening at sessions, people seem to go out of their way to tell me that I "have as much right to play as anyone else" and ask me if I'd like to start tunes. That's really nice, and I appreciate the fáilte, but I consider time spent actively listening at a session to be productive time.

To be clear, I'm not saying that people who are terrible musicians shouldn't play at all; I'm a beginner myself! I just think that if something like sheet music can allow me to play when I should be listening, it's doing me — and the other folks in the session — no favors.

1 Sadly, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill died this week. I started a Wikipedia article about him as a small contribution to his memory.

Monday, July 10, 2006

WWW: Some Links of Note

Here are some things which caught my attention this past week:

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Technique: Not Lifting a Finger

I was at a session a few weeks ago and noticed another whistle player playing the first part of Morrison's Jig by just lifting fingers two and three of his top hand, while keeping the first two fingers of his bottom hand down nearly all the time (except for the A-F#-E or G). I tried it, and it made the tune really easy to play.

I've been experimenting with Brother Steve's suggestions on "not lifting a finger" lately with good results. In addition to Morrison's, I'm finding his advice really useful in The Atholl Highlanders, the Kesh, The Sally Gardens reel, and others. It also reduces the need for stabilizing the whistle with the bottom hand pinkie in some, but not all cases — I still find the pinkie useful in cases like the second part of "Drowsy Maggie" where you alternate between C# and high E.

This is one of many cases where I read something (in this case, Steve's page on this topic) long ago, tried it, and found it not terribly helpful, and then tried it again much later with completely different results. When I first tried leaving bottom hand fingers down for notes like B and A I wasn't playing very quickly, so leaving the fingers down didn't really gain me much, and I didn't like the change in timbre. But I'm playing the tunes much more quickly now, so the timbre change is much less noticable whereas the fingering is correspondingly harder!

It's probably generally true that some advice from experienced players requires a certain level of ability to be helpful — not necessarily a lot, but stuff which seemed backwards to me as a rank beginner is making a bit more sense to me now.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Technique: Speed Limit

A good quote from a friend of Brad Hurley, related by Brad on the Chiff and Fipple flute forum:

...playing good tunes too fast is "like roller-skating through the Louvre."

Isn't that the truth? I love Altan, but sometimes they play stuff incredibly fast. For example, I much prefer Matt Molloy's version of Drowsy Maggie to Altan's, mostly because of the more relaxed pace in Malloy's recording. (They play somewhat different versions of the tune, but it's really the pacing which makes the biggest difference to me.)

Some tunes sound really good played quickly, though. I really like Altan's "Tommy Peoples" set on Local Ground. "Harvest Home" and "John Ryan's Polka" also sound good when played really fast, I think.

Monday, June 12, 2006

WWW: Low Whistle and Sofa

File this under "non-traditional." (Link goes to embedded video.)

Friday, June 09, 2006

WWW: What is Irish Traditional Music?

This seems like a decent answer.

It is impossible to give a simple definition of the term. Different people use it to mean different things; the music shares characteristics with other popular and with classical music; and, as traditional culture changes, traditional music changes also, showing varying features at varying times.

Irish traditional music does however have some generally agreed characteristics which help define it...

Friday, May 26, 2006

Practice: Listening Speed

People tend to discuss the speed at which they play dance music quite a bit, but lately I've been thinking about the speed at which I can listen.

Before I started learning to play the whistle a lot of dance music sounded like a blur to me. It was too fast for my mind to follow. Learning about different rhythm types helped a lot since I could follow the structure of the tune. So did counting reels in cut time.

But more than anything it seems to be a matter of practice. I'm learning to "listen quickly." The more active listening I do, the better I can follow fast tunes, and the more satisfying the listening becomes for me.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Practice: Stuck in Your Head

When I started learning to play the whistle I chose tunes based on what other people I knew were playing and which tunes I liked at the moment. But lately I've been using a different strategy, with great results.

Ever hear of an earworm? It's just a word for songs which get "stuck in your head." Not surprisingly, this started happening with tunes as I started listening to more and more Irish and Scottish music. One day, unable to get "Harvest Home" out of my head, I decided to put my affliction to good use and learned the tune. I found I was able to memorize it in about half an hour or so, instead of the large number of days it had taken me to memorize tunes the past.

Since then, I've seen "earworms" as opportunities. Whether or not a tune is on the list of tunes I think I want to learn soon, when it gets stuck in my head I work on learning the tune. I find that having the tune cycling in my head means that I'm less likely to have my own mistakes confuse me as to how the tune actually goes. This is part 1 of the basic two-step process for learning a tune.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Shows: 2006 Dublin Irish Festival Entertainment Announced

The Dublin Irish festival is, I think, the best ITM entertainment value in the midwest U.S. It's simply amazing how many great bands you get to see for eight bucks a day, when you'd have to pay several times that amount to see any of these groups individually. I also got to interview Colin Melville of the Tannahill Weavers. Here's my roundup of posts on last year's festival, for those who couldn't make it.

The festival just announced this year's entertainment lineup. See you there!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Whistles: Larry's Low Whistle

I mentioned earlier that Bardic Circle is a beginner-friendly session. Here's a shining example: Larry Shicks, one of the guys from that session, showed up one day and told me he'd made me a whistle. So I bought him a pint, which seemed like a good way to say thank you. That's it on the right, and there's a close-up of the fipple at the end of this post. Click on the pictures to enlarge them.

The whistle is a low D made of PVC, with a wooden fipple. Note the offset finger holes and decorative paint. It's pretty quiet, requires a good bit of air, and has very little back pressure. The sound is reminiscent of a pipe organ or pan pipe.

I'm having a somewhat tough time getting a great tone out of it consistently. This is my first low whistle, so it could be just my own inexperience. The air requirements and back pressure are very different from my soprano whistles. Reaching the holes is no problem; standard grip works better for me than piper's grip, though. The only thing I have a hard time doing is keeping my bottom hand pinkie on the whistle.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Practice: Methods of Memorization

One of the things I like about learning to play the tin whistle and Irish and Scottish music is that my constant need to memorize new tunes (and songs, as I like to sing) is giving me a real mental workout. My day job also requires me to remember large amounts of information, but memorizing tunes seems to work a different part of the brain. Research indicates that "mental exercise" can reverse the decline in brain function in old age, so the more the better!

I notice, though, that the method I use to learn a tune has changed since I took up the instrument last year. Previously I would play the tune through until I no longer required notation (I wasn't doing much ear learning at the time). Now, however, I find it much more effective to learn a measure or a phrase and then build on that, one piece at a time. This seems more effective both when learning from score or by ear for me.

I spoke to a fiddler who uses a third method. He learns the first note of each measure or phrase — the "outline" of the tune — and then fills in the rest.

I don't know if any one of these methods is "best," but it's interesting that there are different ways to do the same thing.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Seisiún: Slow Session

I went to a new (for me) session yesterday. It's a slow session, and very different from Bardic Circle, the other session I attend.

Bardic Circle started life as a beginner's session and is still very beginner-friendly, but many if not most of the regulars have now been playing together for several years, have a pretty wide repertoire, and the tunes are not generally played slowly. I spend most of my time at Bardic Circle sessions listening instead of playing, which doesn't bother me at all.

At this session, however, everyone is studying the same 20 or so tunes, and I happened to know six or seven of them. The group played, in general, much slower than Bardic Circle. We also did some ear learning exercises, so I ended up playing more than I listened. I'm going to work on learning some of the other tunes that group plays.

Overall it was a nice experience.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Technique: Bottom Hand Pinkie

I've been experimenting with putting my right (bottom) hand pinkie finger on the bottom of the whistle, below the bottom hole. My teacher had recommended that I do this ages ago, but it never felt natural, and putting my third finger down on the bottom hole when I play a C♯ (or sometimes B, etc.) always seemed to work well enough.

Until The Atholl Highlanders. Playing A-c♯-e repeatedly is just a lot easier when I don't have to have my bottom-hand third finger moving. And similarly for some other parts of that tune.

Update: I received a suggestion in private email to try a different technique with The Atholl Highlanders, which helps even more. But I still find the pinkie helpful in this and other tunes.

It still doesn't feel quite natural, but it's a lot easier to play some phrases, and I think I can keep the whistle steadier this way.

This is (temporarily, I hope) somewhat confusing at the moment. I'm having to relearn certain passages to make optimial use of the new grip and I'm tending to grab too hard with my right (bottom) thumb and pinkie right now. But when I do it right I'm finding that some passages just come out a lot cleaner, like the second to last measure of both parts of Harvest Home.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

R.I.P. Francie Mooney

Some sad news from IRTRAD-L:

Francie Mooney (Proinsias Ó Maonaigh), died last night (Tuesday 28th March) at 8pm in his home in Cois Cladaigh, Gaoth Dobhair, Donegal. Husband to Kitty, father to Mairéad, Gearóid and Anna, a teacher, writer, footballer, actor and musician. A warm and wise man, generous with his knowledge and music. He was a teacher and inspiration to very many musicians and singers. It was Francie who gave Altan their name and their reason to play music. Francie will be buried in his home parish after 11am Mass on Thursday 30th March. "Slán, slán go fóill, a Dhún na nGall, a chondae shéimh gan smálIs dod fheara brea in am an ghá, nár umhlaigh riamh roimh Ghall. Tá áit i mo chroí do gach fear 's gach mhnaoi, is gach páiste beag agus mór, Atá beo go buan, gan bhuairt, gan ghruaim. Fá Ghleanntáin Ghlas Ghaoth Dobhair". Tom Sherlock

Friday, March 17, 2006

WWW: ITM Streaming Radio

Here are some links to free, streaming radio programs featuring Irish music:

People who don't want their computer brought to a standstill by Real's invasive software might want to consider Real Alternative for listening to the Real format streams.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Tunes: Rhythm History

Alan Ng has been plotting the frequency of tune rhythms recorded each decade:

Click the image to access his full report which includes the top ten tunes per decade and more.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Practice: Patience and Perseverance

I found this Chiffboard post and the discussion that followed worthwhile. It began with the following quote from Willie Clancy:

Get a grasp of the Gaelic tongue and develop a love for it. Go to the Gaeltacht and the old people who have it and learn it. I feel that a knowledge of our language is essential if you are to express the true spirit of our music and, as the saying goes, "Don't settle for the skim milk when the cream is at hand". Apart from that have patience; learn to walk before you run. You might have a flair for the music, you might think you're good at it, and you might be tempted to plunge ahead without perfecting your technique; well it might be in your head but your fingers will let you down. So, start playing early and develop your technique with patience, practice and perseverance.

I can remember being frustrated years ago when I realized that I was a much better driver than I was a musician simply because I drove the car more often than I practiced playing, despite telling myself that music was more important. No matter how much you say you value something, doing is how we learn.

So will learning Irish make your reels better? Maybe.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Recordings: Sony Settlement

Did you buy "Live from Dublin" by the Chieftains? If so then their label owes you a new CD and possibly some cash.

Claim your share of the Sony BMG settlement

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Tunes: The Atholl Highlanders

Every time I play this tune I ask what I've gotten myself into. With four parts, and some tricky fingerings, it's the hardest tune I play right now. That it lends itself well to speed doesn't help matters much. My teacher says it's a good tune for me to practice as it will help me clean up note transitions which involve moving most or all of my fingers at once, since there are a lot of those in this tune.

It's also a lot of fun to listen to. The Tannahill Weavers have an unusual but excellent arrangement where they play the tune through once, then sing Johnny Cope, then play the Atholl Highlanders again. You can hear this on their albums "Tannahill Weavers IV" and "Best of 1979-1989."

I couldn't find a transcription I liked (read: one which sounded like what The Tannahill Weavers and my local session play), so I ended up making my own. It's a combination of ideas and phrases used in the following versions, plus what I hear on the cited recording:

Here's the ABC:
T:Atholl Highlanders, The
K:A mix
|:e3 ecA|ecA Bcd|e3 ecA|Bcd cBA|
e3 ecA|ecA Bcd|eae fed|cdB A3:|
|:Ace Ace|Bdf Bdf|Ace Ace|Bcd cBA|
Ace Ace|Bdf Bdf|eae fed|cdB A3:|
|:a2e edc|a2e edc|a2e edc|Bcd cBA|
a2e edc|a2e edc|eae fed|cdB A3:|
|:cAc cAc|dBd dBd|cAc cAc|BGB BGB|
cAc cAc|dBd dBd|eae fed|cdB A3:|
Those who like dots can cut and paste this into's ABC Convert-A-Matic.

Since this is a pipe tune I'm using cuts instead of tonguing to separate the (many) repeated notes. My teacher thinks this is excellent cut practice but too much from a listening point of view. I think it makes it sound more "bagpipey." There's probably a happy medium somewhere, but I don't have any recordings of the tune played on tin whistle for reference.

One of the fiddlers in my session plays an interesting variation in the last part. In the fourth measure of that part, he plays B2 B2 B2 instead of BGB BGB. This has the effect of disrupting the march beat and sounds pretty nice when only one person plays it and the rest of the session plays the tune as usual. However, it's too much, in my opinion, when the entire session plays that variation, in part because it's too disrupting to the beat and in part because it gets rid of the G natural, which gives the mixolydian mode its distinctive sound.

Despite being in 6/8 this is a march and not a jig, so it should have a march beat instead of a jig rhythm. I suppose you could play it as a jig if you wanted to, though.

Music theory geek digression: You occasionally see this tune scored in A major with accidental naturals on the Gs. I think that's incorrect, although I've seen an argument for the practice. Since we use the two-sharps key signature for tunes in E dorian, why use three for A mixolydian, which uses precisely the same notes?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Technique: Wandering Fingers

I've been working on cleaning up the transitions between notes, especially when lots of fingers are involved, e.g., low B to high D. One thing I've noticed which really hurts this transition is allowing the fingers on my left and right hands to "float" at different distances from the whistle when I play the B. In other words, if my left hand middle and ring fingers are a half inch from the tone holes and my right hand fingers are all two inches from the tone holes when I'm playing a low B, the transition to high D will not be clean.

In general, I find that if I allow my fingers to stray too far from the tone hole when they're not actually in contact with the whistle (e.g., the fingers on my right hand when I'm playing a G) then it really hurts my performance.

I normally don't look at my fingers when I'm playing, but if my performance gets sloppy I find it somewhat valuable to take a look and make sure that my fingers are within an inch or so of the whistle when they're not in contact with the tone holes.

Friday, January 27, 2006

History: Etymology of Pennywhistle and Tin Whistle

I've been doing some research on the origin and use of the words "pennywhistle" and "tin whistle." It seems that usage was uncommon until the 20th century. Robert Clarke began selling his instruments around 1843, but his company was advertising them as "Clarke London Flageolets" or "Clarke Flageolets" in 1900. I checked some early 20th century reference books, and neither the dictionary nor the thesaurus nor the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica mention either term, although the latter's whistle entry does mention metal flageolets.

Although usage seems to be uncommon, however, both terms do predate Robert Clarke. With the aid of my friendly local librarians I found citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. Note that, unlike most dictionaries, OED inclusion and citations are chronological rather than by popularity so an OED citation does not mean that a word was in common use.

At any rate, the OED's citation for "tin whistle" comes from John Neal's 1825 novel Brother Jonathan:

As if he were sounding a charge with... a tin-whistle.

The OED has multiple citations for "penny whistle:"

1730 Gabriel Odingsells Bay's Opera III. 64 "Musicians with Halters about their Necks—Their Instruments strung behind, penny Whistles, Trumpets, and so forth, in their Hands"
1817 Scott Rob Roy I. x. 233 "Pipes!—They look more like penny-whistles."
1931 N. Douglas London Street Games (ed. 2) 29 "I went down the lane to buy a penny whistle, A copper came by and pinch my penny whistle."

It would seem that the speculation that the words "tin whistle" and "pennywhistle" date back to the first mass production, namely, Clarke's instruments, is probably incorrect:

  • The words were in use earlier.
  • Clarke and Clarke's company called their products "flageolets" for at least part of their history.
  • The words didn't become popular enough to be reflected in dictionaries or encyclopedias until the last half of the 20th century.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Technique: Grey Larsen on Breathing

I found a Grey Larsen article online, Advice for Flute and Whistle Players on Finding Good Places to Breathe in Irish Dance Tunes [PDF], which covers some of the same material I discussed in my comments on breathing as ornamentation in more detail:

Players of instruments other than flute and whistle may want to bear in mind that although they can, and often do, play in a non-stop manner, their music may benefit from the introduction of occasional spaces. Creating such spaces can clarify your phrasing, much as a sentence becomes more clear with the appropriate use of punctuation marks such as commas, semicolons and the like. So, it is important and useful for fiddlers, accordion players, pipers, banjo players, etc., not just flute and whistle players, to develop a sense of when and where to eloquently leave out notes.

The whole article is worthwhile.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Tweaks: Methods of Muffling a Whistle

The Contenders

The Hoover Whitecaps

The Hoover Whitecap is a line of replacement fipples handmade by Mack Hoover, which sell for about $25 each. They're available in "quiet" and "regular" varieties. Pictured at right are both variations. The "regular" model, mounted on the whistle in the photo, has a somewhat larger window than the "quiet" model.

The Blu-Tac™ Tweak

For this tweak, make a small ball of "Blue-Tac"/poster putty and put it in the window of the whistle. The further you put it towards your mouth, the more it quiets the whistle, and the airier the sound.

The Tape Tweak

For this tweak cover part of the window with tape as illustrated. I usually use clear tape, but it didn't show in the photos very well so I've used blue painting tape in the photo at right for illustrative purposes. The more you cover the window, the more it quiets the whistle, and the airier the sound.

The "Joanie Madden" technique

Joanie described a technique on the Chiff and Fipple message board where you place the mouthpiece against your chin, below your mouth, and blow down into the fipple window (almost as if it were a flute). This is very quiet indeed, but I'm not including it in this comparison as it's a different animal altogether; try it and you'll see why.

The Results

(All measurements in dbSPL, A weighted.)

WhistleLow DLow GHigh DHigh GHigh BComments
Un-tweaked Feadóg Mark III7481939394
Un-tweaked Clarke Sweetone7078909093
"Standard" Hoover Whitecap7078809090Best-sounding fipple.
Feadóg with Tape Muffler6876868687Very airy sound. Fiddly.
"Quiet" Hoover Whitecap6169828488Sounds better than un-tweaked whistle. Very low air requirements; harder to play low D and E.
Feadóg with "poster putty" tweak6668798184Airy, mellower than un-tweaked whistle.


Although the Blu-Tac tweak produces the quietest results, it comes with a considerable cost in terms of tone quality. The "quiet" Hoover Whitecap produces the best tone quality of anything other than a non-quiet Hoover, but has different playing characteristics (much lower air requirements, especially on the low notes) than the other tweaks. Finally, none of the tweaks cuts the volume by a huge amount; 84 dBSPL, while quieter than the un-tweaked whistle, is considerably louder than normal conversation.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

WWW: Raffle for the Porcupine Clinic

Whistlesmith Daniel Bingamon is hosting a raffle for the Porcupine Health Clinic, the only independent Indian community-controlled health clinic in the US, on his site. Your donations to a good cause can win you a good whistle!