Tin Whistles For The Flutist Print E-mail
Written by J'aime Wells   

Tin Whistles for the Flutist; or, "How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Tin Whistle"

After more than ten years of playing my flute, I found myself feeling frustrated and stuck. The wide variety of music I listened to - many kinds of classical music, as well as rock, jazz standards, blues in several flavors, acoustic singer-songwriters, Irish traditional, American folk, and world music - contrasted with the narrow range that I was 'allowed' to play - only classical composers. Other musical traditions, I knew, relied less on sheet music, but more on learning tunes by ear and improvising. In high school band, private lessons, and college chamber ensembles, I had learned to read music, but playing by ear had always seemed, on the one hand, irrelevant to the immediate business of preparing for the next recital, and on the other hand, intimidating, inexplicable, and mysterious. How could I swing, rock, or lilt like the flutists on my recordings? They seemed to be doing something entirely unrelated to anything I had learned about music.

Though I tried to learn tunes by ear on the flute, it was scary and frustrating to flounder around on my own, without the familiar structure of sheet music, method books, and teachers' instructions. At least if I stuck to my routine, I knew how to practice! Finally I bought a tin whistle on a whim, thinking of it as a cheap little 'toy' instrument to play around with, just for fun. A few months later, I am learning simple tunes by ear and experimenting with Irish ornamentation, with a whole new confidence. The tin whistle has helped me begin to free myself from my dependence on sheet music and take some baby steps into another musical tradition.

Tin whistles can be an accessible option for flutists who feel that non-classical traditions are 'off-limits' to them.

A classical flute student can easily take lessons for years without ever learning a tune by ear. Reading music is an important skill, but the ability to learn by ear is also useful and fun. Freeing yourself from sheet music dependence opens the door not just to Irish traditional music, but also to other folk traditions, as well as jazz, rock, and blues. If you have become dependent on sheet music, like me, it can be intimidating to try to play by ear. The tin whistle can help make the process less scary.

With a D whistle you will automatically start out in the right key for most Irish tunes, so as you try to find the notes by trial and error you will have fewer wrong choices! Most Irish tunes are in D, and a tin whistle in D plays a D major scale when you lift your fingers up one by one. Playing traditional Irish tunes on a whistle that is in the right key makes playing by ear a lot more accessible. On a chromatic instrument like the orchestral flute, you can wander far astray as you hunt for the next note of your tune, but on a D tin whistle, your hunt will most likely just go up and down a D scale. There are fewer wrong notes to choose from, so it won't be long before you find the right one!

In addition, Irish music, though it is an aural tradition rather than a sheet-music tradition, has a set of specific techniques that students must master, giving structure to one’s practice. Those of us who find it scary to 'flounder' while learning by ear can find resources to take us step by step through the learning process. By contrast, if there is a method book for how to rock like Ian Anderson, I have yet to find it!

The most common tin whistle, the high D, is easy to start learning if you already play the flute. The fingerings are similar, and tin whistle embouchure is simple. A flutist will be able to start playing simple tunes on the tin whistle almost immediately. If you just want to practice playing tunes by ear, this may be enough for you, but if you choose to explore the tradition of Irish music, the tin whistle has a lot more to offer. In the hands of a skilled player, this 'toy' can turn into a beautiful, expressive instrument!

Explore Irish music on a traditional Irish instrument.

Of course, you can always play Irish tunes on your orchestral flute. But the majority of Irish flutists play a 'simple system' instrument with few or no keys. Getting a traditional 'Irish' sound is easier on an Irish flute or a tin whistle than on an orchestral flute. A tin whistle can be much more affordable than an Irish flute, and the skills learned on the tin whistle are transferable to the Irish flute, if you choose. However, the tin whistle need not be thought of as a 'starter' instrument. The whistle is an important part of the tradition, and playing it well is just as challenging as playing any instrument well!

Maybe you, like me, have had the experience of starting to lose the joy of playing the flute. If you have worked hard on a challenging piece, or on lots of scales and studies, and you aren't planning to become a professional, you may sometimes wonder why you are doing all this work. You can hear your teacher's critical voice - or your own critical voice - in your head when you play, and it's just not fun any more. Why not take a break from your routine, and explore a new tradition?

Start with a high D whistle.

To learn Irish tunes, you should start with a high D whistle, the most common kind. For tin whistles, the key of the whistle is the note you get when you cover all six holes with your fingers. If you cover all six holes on a D whistle, you get a D. If you then pick your fingers up one by one, you get a D major scale. (Note that this is different from the way classical musicians describe an instrument as being "in C," or in another key if it is a transposing instrument. This describes the way music is notated for that instrument.)

There are whistles in many keys, up to G (above the high D) and down to low D (an octave below the high D), with some whistles pitched even lower. The low whistles have a temptingly beautiful sound, but offer some additional challenges to the beginner, especially because of the spread required in your fingers. A high D whistle will be easier and more fun to start with. After gaining some experience on the high D, you will be in a better position to try a lower pitched whistle if you choose.

You can buy your whistle at your local music store or online, and a decent whistle need not cost much. There are gorgeous, handcrafted wooden whistles out there, but the inexpensive, mass-produced whistles with metal bodies and plastic mouthpieces can be perfectly good instruments. For advice, Chiff and Fipple is a great website to visit (http://www.chiffandfipple.com/). The site offers a guide to whistle brands, with reviews, as well as a wealth of other tips and information. Be sure to visit the forum, where a lively community shares advice, opinions, and inspiration on whistle-related topics.

Of course, the best way to learn any instrument is with a teacher present, but the next best thing is a good teacher on video. A video lesson is excellent if you are new to playing by ear. You can listen to the first phrase of the tune as many times as needed until you get it! The video never gets impatient, and you don't have to be embarrassed about learning at your own pace. There are several tin whistle teachers on YouTube. My favorite is Ryan Duns whose lessons are on YouTube (ttp://www.youtube.com/user/RyanDunsSJ) and also in his blog archive for November 2007 (http://tinwhistler.blogspot.com/).

Along with video lessons, consider one of Gray Larsen's books, if you are interested in a deeper understanding of Irish ornamentation and how it differs from classical ornamentation. If you plan to play Irish music on a flute (whether orchestral or Irish) as well as your tin whistle, try The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle. A shorter book that focuses just on the whistle is The Essential Tin Whistle Toolbox. Both books come with CDs so you can listen to the exercises as well as reading them. Larsen's discussions of ornamentation are as detailed as a PhD dissertation, and may be overwhelming at first. After I had progressed through Ryan Duns's ornamentation lessons covering the basics of the cut, hit, roll, and slide, Larsen’s exercises began to make more sense to me.


Whether you learn a few tunes by ear just for fun, or you start a lifelong journey into the Irish musical tradition, enjoy your tin whistle!

J'aime WellsJ’aime Wells is an amateur flutist and enthusiastic beginner at the tin whistle. She lives in the center of Washington State, and doesn’t really recommend sitting in the snow to play.