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.

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