Ask Brother Steve

If there's something you want to know that isn't covered in the site, . I will reply, and if I think the answer may be useful to others, I'll post it here. (Give me a few days, please!)

Q. Half-covered holes. I am just starting on the whistle and I am following a musical notation written in blacked out holes not on a stave. I have come across a top hole (nearest the mouthpiece) that is only half covered. Is this played like a bagpipe grace note or is there a secret which I have yet to discover. Kindest regards, Mike, Lancashire UK

Hi Mike,

It seems you are using what they call "whistle tablature" which shows a diagram of the whistle for each note, with the holes to be covered blacked out.

If you see a hole half covered, that shows exactly what the "transcriber" wants you to do. But you should know that, in the case of the hole nearest the mouthpiece, this is to obtain a C-natural (an ordinary note, not any kind of grace note or other arcane secret).

Some whistle players always use this half-holing technique to sound a C-natural. I use it only rarely, preferring a "cross-fingering" technique, which means leaving the top hole open and covering two or more holes lower down.

There are examples of these cross-fingerings on my "lazy fingering" page.

Hope this helps! Steve

Q. Short rolls. A question on the SHORT roll. If you want to roll G for example , would you tongue G before cutting it? Brendan

Hi Brendan,

Normally, yes I think I would tongue a short roll, if the note I was rolling falls on the beat.

Ahem. Still haven't written a page on short rolls, have I? :) If I had, I would have told you that a short roll generally starts with the cut: for example, a short roll on G might be written {A}G{F#}G (the notes in curly brackets being the cut and tap respectively). So you'd normally be tonguing that A grace note.

If you don't start with the cut, but play a long roll scrunched into the space of a quarter-note (crotchet), you'd be tonguing the first G. This would not fit most people's definition of a short roll, though.

Sometimes people use the term short roll to refer to what I prefer to call "off-beat rolls," which I would not tongue, as explained on this page. Hope this helps! Steve

Q. C# minor. I'm wondering how to play in C# minor on a D whistle for a song I'm hoping to perform as soon as I can get practised up enough. Can you please help? Solandra

Hi Solandra,

You could play in C# minor on a D whistle, but with a certain amount of difficulty, depending on the tune.

The key of C# minor has three sharps, F#, C# and G#. The first two are easy of course but the G# is trickier. You can obtain a G# by "half-holing" (half covering the "A" hole, which is the first open hole when you play an A), but this is not easy especially at speed. In the top octave you can often get a workable G# by playing this fingering: [| xxo xxo]

However the other problem is that the range of the D whistle may be problematic, since your first C# is almost in the whistle's second octave. If you want an easier solution you will need a whistle in the key of A (on which you would play using "B-minor fingering"), or even better, one in the key of B (for which you would use "E-minor fingering"). Hope this helps! Steve

Q. Cuts are an important part of Irish music but there appears to be much confusion as to what they are and two schools of thought and I haven't yet found an answer on your excellent pages. If you start a phrase with a cut, say on A, do you play cA or AcA. Likewise if you're moving from B to A and want to cut the A, do you play B AcA or B cA? I'm hearing that some people suggest that the main note always starts the cut, and others that the ornament note starts the cut and that then the main note starts then that is called a Casadh or double cut. Confusion. What is your view please? Thanks for your help. Mike.

Hi Mike,

You're right that my pages don't address the difference between what are sometimes called double cuts (where you sound the main note briefly before cutting) and single cuts (where you begin with the cut). An oversight, probably because I never paid attention to these two possibilities when I was learning (teaching myself if you like). It's not so much that there are two schools of thought: rather, these are both perfectly valid ways of doing things. Experiment with them both and see which you like best - then use one predominantly, or use them both, whichever one you feels suits the tune, the note, your mood...

I tend to use single cuts pretty much exclusively. I find I can make them more percussive. The fact that I don't make much use of another valid technique is not something I worry about.

I think it only makes a real difference on notes that are tongued. If you are using cuts to separate notes without tonguing, esp. notes of the same pitch, it would be hard to pick out the difference I feel. (Not impossible, no doubt.) Hope this helps somewhat. Cheers, Steve.

Q. Rhythmic phrasing in jigs. One thing that I have struggled with is rhythmic phrasing in jigs. You have a tune on your site called Saddle the Pony that will help with my question. You play the first three notes not as straight triplets and not as dotted eighths (i.e., not swung like jazz) but something in between. My question is do you tongue those notes to get that phrasing or are you doing it with breathing? Are you intentionally shortening one of the notes to help get that effect? And do you have any suggestions about how to practice whatever it is that you are doing?

I hope this question makes sense. Thanks for your help. Best, Tim.

Hi Tim! Yes, a lot of people struggle with the rhythmic phrasing in jigs, and I did myself for a while when I was first learning Irish music. That's why there's a topic on my site entitled "Jigs - trickier than you think..." :-)

When playing jigs I have two basic approaches to the groups of three notes:

1. Using what I call the slur-tongue-tongue pattern (STT).

This is what I am doing in the first three notes of that clip of Saddle the Pony. In this pattern I am tonguing the second two notes of the group of three, and then slurring (not tonguing) between the third note and the next note. In other words, tonguing isolates the middle note. In fact the tongue both starts and stops the middle note, which makes it possible to make that note shorter than the others.

So yes I am most certainly doing it intentionally.

This technique is especially useful when the second and third notes are the same, as they frequently are in jigs. But I use it to bring out the jig rhythm in other places too, such as the first three notes of Saddle the Pony.

As for how to practise the technique - it's very tricky to understand and pull off. I haven't had much success getting my own whistle students to do it right. I think you have to really listen to other players using it and soak up the feeling before you can just do it on the whistle.

Fortunately many good players use this technique, including Sean Potts and Paddy Moloney, and Mary Bergin (who refers to it as ha-ta-ta), so you can listen to them rather than to me.

2. The other thing I tend to do is slur all three notes in a group together - obviously only possible where none of the notes are repeated. This provides some welcome variety - using the slur-tongue-tongue pattern exclusively would quickly get monotonous.

There are other strategies for articulating repeated notes, such as the use of taps, which is borrowed from piping technique. I think of my own technique as being borrowed from fiddle bowing - I played fiddle before whistle.

You will find all this discussed in my pages on Jigs. There are some exercises there, in fact, to get you doing STTs or ha-ta-tas and having fun at the same time.

Hope this helps, and good luck. Steve

Q. Not lifting a finger. Thank you so much for the site - it is by far the best resource I have found on the web for beginning whistlers such as myself. I have a quick question on the "Not Lifting a Finger" section. I began teaching myself this style after thinking about the economy and mechanics of motion on the whistle. I think it's a great style, especially for improving speed and accuracy - as well as eliminating what appears to be the awkward use of the little finger as a brace. However, I was recently criticized for this - the person stating that keeping fingers down, while not necessarily affecting pitch, will impact tone. I was hoping to get your thoughts on this. I'm a newbie and want to approach technique properly.

Hello Bill,

I haven't noticed any effect on tone from "lazy fingering" - except on second octave D, where you will get a slightly brighter sound by venting the first hole. But the difference is very slight, and mainly to our own ears, I think, since they are so close to that open hole. The effect on tone for a listener is pretty negligible.

All the same, I suppose I might choose to vent that hole if I were playing a slow air, or for the last note of a tune. But at dance tune speed? Not an issue at all.

On other notes, I don't think there is any issue. Although it might depend on the whistle you are playing I suppose - fancy modern "maker's" whistles may behave somewhat differently from the old cheapies I prefer. If - and I repeat, if - you notice differences with your whistle, then it's your call.

If you were to move on to the simple-system wooden flute, some of these lazy fingerings may not be such a good idea. I don't really know, I don't play the flute. But nothing to stop you from using different techniques on flute and whistle. (You have to anyway - embouchure, grip, hand position, breathing use of tonguing and so on.)

On the other hand, you can rest assured that plenty of good trad. whistle players use the fingerings I talk about. If anybody made the comment to me that they made to you, I would smile politely (if I were in a good mood) and mentally tell them to take a hike.

But that's me. As in every field of learning - don't follow advice blindly. Test out what people recommend or advise against, and decide what works for yourself. It's folk music, after all!

Cheers, Steve

Q. Biting the mouthpiece. Is it wrong to bite down lightly on the mouthpiece of the whiste to help steady it? This is something which feels very natural to me. I've been playing for about 6 months and I'm happy with my progress but I recently read in a whistle tutor book that gripping the mouthpiece with the teeth is to be avoided. The book didn't say why.

I see how - bearing in mind the advice you give on "lazy" fingerings for C# - one would never necessarily need to use this method to steady the instrument, but it simply feels natural to me and I can't think of any good reason not to do it. However, I don't want to grow too attached to a bad habit, if indeed it is one. Any thoughts on this? Love the site.

Hi Eoin,

I suppose I would say biting was a bad habit, although you may be in good company. Colin Goldie, who makes Overton whistles, told me about one very prominent professional player who practically chews through the mouthpieces of the whistles that Colin makes - and these are aluminium whistles! Not very good for the teeth, as well as the rest of your system!

I've never done it, and I wouldn't want my whistles looking all chewed up. I also wonder whether the constant little shocks from your fingers hitting the whistle might not loosen your teeth over a period of years. And seriously, if you are biting hard, the TMJ (temporo-mandibular joint - where your jaw is attached, basically) is a very delicate part of your body that's important for balance and general health - I think it would be best to avoid stressing it.

Most people manage fine without doing this and without dropping the whistle! I use the third finger of my bottom hand for balance when needed. (I don't believe that keeping your little finger on the whistle all the time, as recommended by some teachers, is a good idea.)

But it's up to you. There are always people who do things "wrong" and are brilliant players, like the man I mentioned above. Your call!

Best, Steve

Q. Sliding. Completely enjoying your site. When I hear a flute with a "sliding note" sound, is that the Tin Whistle? And how is it done?
Regards, Craig

Hi Craig,

It could well be! Although you can also slide notes on other simple system transverse flutes, such as the wooden "concert" flutes used in Irish and other Celtic music.

I wrote some tjps on how to do it on the whistle on this page.

Regards, Steve

Q. Flat notes. Steve, Thanks so much. I went out and bought a low cost tin whistle for my 12 year old daughter and she is playing it beautifully in 24 hours. God's gift. Love your material, thanks again.

I do have one question. It's about tuning. This little whistle seems to be flat on "some" notes and not on others. Does a more expensive instrument solve that, I know with guitars it's the same problem?
Regards, Craig

Hello again Craig,

Great to hear about your daughter taking to the whistle like a duck to water.

The cheap old whistles do have their tuning idiosyncracies, for sure. For example F# tends to be a few cents flat and the B is often a wee bit sharp. The F# is deliberate, I think, it gives you a sort of untempered major third which actually sounds sweeter than what you get on a piano, and is nice for solo playing. The B I think is the result of a compromise of trying to get other notes in some sort of tune, like the C# and cross-fingered C natural.

But to an extent it's a question of learning to blow the whistle into tune. For instance you need to be pretty assertive with your blowing in the higher range of the second octave, otherwise notes tend to be flat.

But it's sometimes a bit of a crapshoot playing with other instruments! More expensive whistles are often tuned more carefully to equal temperament, but still you need to learn how to blow every whistle I think. I like the cheapies best - I play one in a band with lots of other instruments, no problems - but I have a couple of more expensive ones in case the tuning becomes an issue with other players.

Cheers, Steve

Q. Cleaning the mouthpiece. I started learning to play tin whistle a few months ago. Just a simple question, how do you clean the whistle? Especially the mouthpiece? I went around to look for a milk-bottle brush but could not find anything suitable. Is this the normal practice? Sometimes, the mouth piece smells. Any tips to keep the tin whistle clean and smelling fresh?

Hi Ben,

That's an unusual question! It's true, "stuff" (I don't want to know what it is) accumulates in the windway sometimes. If the head of your whistle is of plastic or metal (not wood) you could soak the head in soapy water. Then cut up a credit card and push it through the windway to remove the gunk. (This will achieve two goals - keeping your spending under control and keeping your whistle clean!)

As for the smell, how about using a nice pure Castile soap for the soaking process? I like Dr. Bronner's peppermint.... non-toxic. When the solution dries the soap will also act as a surfactant, helping to prevent the accumulation of ... whatever it is.

It the whistle is of wood, try threading a fine piece of cloth through the windway. A drop of sweet almond oil on the cloth will be good for the wood.

Hope this helps, Steve

Reader Mark Kleinschmidt adds: Pipe cleaners are a good way to clean the airway. However be careful not to damage the sharp edge (I've heard this called the reed or fipple) that splits the air column. To minimize the risk of damage to the airway, fold the pipe cleaner in half and use the end with the bend in it.

For a cleaning solution, mild soapy water as recommended or, if you won't be playing the instrument for a bit, rubbing alcohol. If you need to clean it quickly and continue playing, the best solution (pun intended) is, well, vodka. (Look for the highest proof you can find.) Mind you this is for cleaning the air way of the whistle, not the wind pipes of the player...

The best way to solve the problem, is avoiding the problem by not playing after eating, or brush your teeth before playing after eating.

Q. Really high notes. Are there any tricks to playing really high notes -the third octave of D playable on a D whistle and above? Is it all about wind speed? I have a brandless, non-tunable D whisle that I got at Fort Ticonderoga as a souvenir, and thought was pretty uninteresting for a good 8 years until December when I started digging into Irish and Scottish music.

Hi Daniel,

I can't tell you much about playing in the third octave because I never do it - I don't think I have ever used a note higher than d'' (2 octaves above the bottom note). Technically I suppose it is about wind speed but to me it just feels like blowing harder!

If you really want to damage your ears, alternative fingerings can help - if you search the net for "tinwhistle fingering charts" you should find some, such as the ones at this site:

Here are some that work on my Generation and similar whistles:

Second octave
c#: as low c# i.e. [| ooo ooo ]
c-natural: [| voo ooo ] (v = halfhole), or [| oxo ooo ], or [| oxx xxo ]
Third octave
d: [| oxx ooo ] (easiest), or [| oxx xxx ], or [| xxx xxx ]
e: [| xxo ooo ]
f#: [| xoo ooo ]

There are other fingerings for these notes and indeed you can apparently go higher, if your eardrums can take it.


Q. Little finger. I am a beginner that has been playing for a week. I’ve got the Grey Larsen book and L.E. McCullough’s video tutor and am going through them. I should say that I am an experienced (trained) musician on the guitar.

The biggest sticking point so far, and burning question, is support of the instrument through anchors. Both Larsen and McCullough recommend anchoring the right pinky 100% of the time to balance the instrument and allow relaxation. The problem is that for anyone of normal hand anatomy, the pinky will not reach the whistle when in proper playing position using the pads of the fingers. In order to rest the pinky on the whistle you have to scrunch to some extent. This introduces tension into the pinky and ring finger and restricts the motion of all bottom hand fingers. You may get used to this, but any beginner should be able to report the tension that results and the restricted movement. I know many folk players on guitar use various anchors, but they are really not helpful; they only introduce restriction and tension.

You seem to take a different approach using the R ring finger to anchor C# and other “lazy” fingering tricks. This sounds like a more natural approach. Do you have any further thoughts on anchoring the instrument? Are there lots of good players out there that don’t use the pinky anchor?


I don't understand why teachers insist that you have to glue your little finger to the whistle. Do whatever suits your anatomy and your inclination. You can banish any fears - if any you had - that you cannot get to be a good player without doing so.

I haven't noticed many, or in fact any, top whistle players using the pinky constantly - but then I haven't really looked all that carefully. I do know one respected whistle teacher who thinks it makes no sense to leave it there all the time, citing the lack of flexibility in the other fingers of the bottom hand that you mention.

Q. F natural. I was looking at your site trying to figure out how to play an f natural on a D flute or whistle. Could you possibly offer some pointers?

Hi Alexander,

On a whistle, and on a flute without keys, you obtain f-natural by "half-holing", which means partially covering a hole.

Using a standard fingering diagram, this is represented as follows: [| xxx xvo

In other words only the bottom hole on your instrument (which is actually the E hole - your D hole is the open end of the whistle ) is open - shown as an o. The next hole up, the F# hole, is half covered (the v symbol). All the other holes are covered (x).

If you play with your fingertips, just cover approx. half the hole with your fingertip. If you play with the flats of the fingers, like most people, you'll probably straighten the middle finger of your bottom hand somewhat to uncover the hole partially. In either case your ear will tell you how much uncovering is enough. It'll seem very difficult at first but once you practice a bit it's surprisingly easy to play f-naturals this way and will quickly become second nature.

You use the same technique to get most other accidentals, e.g. Eb, Bb, G#, and even C-natural (which a lot of people only ever play by half-holing the top hole). C-nat and Bb, however, and sometimes G#, can often be got by cross-fingering, depending on your instrument.
Hope this helps, Steve

Q. Grace notes are not real notes. When you play, let's say a roll, do you basically try to leave the main note finger DOWN and pick up a finger above that, thereby producing a sound that really isn't a note (because fingers below it are still down)? I find myself wanting to finger ornaments like I would have played grace notes on a cello or a flute, but I get the idea that Irish ornaments aren't really going for the real pitch but for the rhythmic effect. Am I right about that?

Dear Laurel,

You're right about the fact that the sounds aren't grace notes and not really notes at all - just blips. I DO say all this on the website.... (read it again hehe).

They aren't notes mainly because of the speed, although the fact that lower fingers may be down would sometimes produce a note out of the scale you're playing in - if you let it last long enough to be able to discern the pitch, which you don't want to do.

I say MAY be down because you can of course cut with the "main note finger". In fact, for cutting a B, for example, you have no choice. For other notes you do have a choice, and as I do say in the cuts section of the site, for simplicity's sake I recommend using only the "G finger" and the "B finger". Though of course you are free to experiment with other possibilities.

You can't rely on training in other sorts of music to help you with this stuff. You've just got to learn the language, which, as with any language, you do by listening to "native speakers" (or foreigners who have an acceptable accent, like me ;) )

Q. Whistles in different keys. I am a relatively non-musical adult who fell in with a pack of old-time music players with whom we camp twice a year. One year ago I decided to try to learn to play an instrument, and chose the pennywhistle because (unlike banjos, fiddles and suchlike) the packing would be easier, and because (ahem!) I had the notion it was pretty easy I started with a D whistle my husband made. As a Christmas present I received a pack of other whistles: F, E-flat, C, B-flat. Generation (F and B-f) the rest Susato.

And I need HELP. My main concern is that it appears from the physics of the instrument that each one needs to be fingered differently to play the same music (ie on the D whistle the low D is played with all holes stopped, on the F whistle the lowest accessible D is played with only the top hole covered, on the C whistle with only the bottom hole open.

Dear Tamara,

The thing about the different keyed whistles is this - you really do play them all as if they were D whistles. If you attempt to use them as they are, and worry about which note is which on every whistle, you'll go mad.

My regular D whistle lets me play 85% of the Irish trad. repertoire - I can play in the following keys with it:

D major
E minor
E dorian (minor with sharpened 6th, i.e. c#)
G major
A dorian (and A minor if you can half-hole to get F-natural)
A myxolidian (A major with a flattened seventh, i.e. G-natural)
A major (if you can half-hole to get G#s)
B minor

That is really quite a range of keys. I use lower-pitched (or higher-pitched) whistles just to enjoy a different timbre playing at home. Using the _same_ fingering as on my D whistle. So if I play a D tune on a B-flat whistle, it comes out in B-flat, and who cares, I'm not playing with others.

I use other whistles occasionally to get different keys needed for Irish music. For example, on a D whistle you can't play in D minor or G minor (actually nearly always D and G dorian in Irish music).

But if I play in "E minor" (i.e. using E minor fingering) on a C whistle, it comes out in D minor. Same for G minor - play in A minor on a C whistle. Now I can play along with the fiddlers.

You could make a chart showing what keys the list I gave above would give on different whistles, which would be a useful reference maybe. I should put one on the website...

I hope this makes sense and will help you.


Q. Horrible sound. Hi Brother Steve,
Went to the Highland Games yesterday and picked up Feadog's Orginal Irish Whistle Kit. I get a little un-nerved when this whistle makes the most horrible sound I have ever heard! What causes that? At times the sound is really neat, then again - it is worse than horrible! Does the 'cheapness' of the whistle cause this noise, or is it me?

Hi Marsha
Horrible sound - well it could be the whistle. Not because it's cheap - I generally play cheap whistles most of the time - but because it might be a bad one.

On the other hand it could very well be you! Most beginners blow far too hard when they start the whistle. To get the lower octave you need soft breath, esp. for the lowest note. Imagine blowing a candle enough to just make the flame flicker a bit.

You need more breath to get into the higher octave. Try using less breath and if it really still sounds horrible, try a different whistle.

Another problem though is getting your fingers to seal the holes properly. If the holes aren't completely covered you will get squawks and squeaks. I recommend playing not with the fingertips but with the flats of your fingers - keep your fingers fairly straight and relaxed and let the pads cover the holes.

My site isn't aimed at total beginners and doesn't deal with the rudiments of whistle playing. To get the most out of it you need to pick up the basics first.

Here's are a few sites that might be useful :

Chiff & Fipple is a huge sprawling site with lots and lots of information. It also has a message forum where you can ask all kinds of questions and get very helpful advice. Some of it conflicting! The only caution I would give you is that many of the people who post there are into collecting expensive whistles and look down on the cheap ones. A lot of the people who think like this don't play very well, and many of the world's top players are quite happy to play in concert and on CD with $10 whistles, so don't get sucked into thinking you have to spend money to get a nice sound.

There is a tutorial at - it might have some useful hints. But there are no sound clips.

I'd suggest you get a good tutor book such as the Clarke tinwhistle book and CD by Bill Ochs.

All the best, Steve

Q. Minor scales and modes in Irish music. Recently I decided to learn - try to - the low whistle. But I couldn't figure at all what was wrong with the "minor" scales in the tutorial books or wwweb sites. Finally, I found your site, read most of it and here at the end I see you write "minor" with quotes. Now the problem is you said too much or too little... So... What IS Dorian mode, now that we know what it isn't ?

Salut Paul,
The vast majority of "minor" tunes in the Irish tradition are in the Dorian mode. This is similar to the standard minor scale except that the sixth degree is sharpened and the seventh unsharpened. The table below sets out the notes used in the Dorian modes commonly used in Irish music on the whistle and the corresponding minor scale. The scales run from bottom to top (seemed more intuitive that way). The notes in bold type are those that differ.


E minor


A minor


B minor



D or D#




G or G#




A or A#


Note that E minor and B minor (with an unsharpened seventh) are the only minor scales you can get on the whistle without half-holing. You will come across B minor a fair bit - B Dorian is rare.

Hope this helps, Steve

Updated 12 November 2015