Quick tips

Getting a good jig rhythm

This tip from Mary Kay Aufrance of Nevada is to help the "jig-rhythm challenged".

First, think of the tune as starting with beat #3 instead of beat #1. Think 312-312 instead of 123-123. Then, think of beat 3 sliding into beat 1. It goes "taYUMP!" So the 3 beats all together are 312 = "taYUMPa" as below...


Many players don't do a trad. style danceable jig rhythm as above, but Joe Burke is a good example of a player with a really prominent taYUMPa!

How to mute your whistle

I got this tip from Winnipeg-based whistle teacher Sue Hammer, who got it from the fine flute and whistle player John Skelton.

For times when you want to play quietly, get some of that stuff called "blue tack" or "sticky tack" (a kind of putty used to stick posters on walls inside the house). Take a small ball of the stuff and place it on the "exit ramp" of the whistle's windway - at the end of the window farthest from your mouth. Experiment with different positions - you'll find you can adjust the volume of your whistle from full to zero by rolling the ball back and forward, obscuring more or less of the window.

If you don't have any of that blue goo handy, here's a tip from a reader:    "Another great way to play quietly to yourself is to turn the whistle out to the side like a flute and blow in the top. You'll still hear faint pitch, keep your whistle warm and in tune, or begin thinking of purchasing a keyless flute." Steve Cooper

A variation on the above:    "Holding the whistle as you normally would, rest the mouthpiece just under your lower lip, blowing into the "exit ramp". This keeps the whistle in the correct position but gives you the same light, airy sound. (A novice whistler, I learned this trick by accident when a family member was trying to nap in the same room I was playing in... it works great!)" Susy Yarbrough

How to get useful "foldback"

This tip comes from an excellent Montreal fiddler, Dave Clark. He might have got it from observing Paddy Keenan!

In loud sessions, with a quiet whistle, sometimes you can't hear yourself very well, even though you're projecting fine to people on the other side of the room. Try wearing a wide-brimmed hat. It's like having monitor speakers mounted on your temples.

Smooth octave jumps without tonguing

Not sure where I picked up this idea.

In the early stages, it is probably wise to tongue a note that jumps up a complete octave - especially an A or a B, because the differential air requirements are more significant as you go up the scale.

As you progress, however, you'll find you can do smooth octave transitions without tonguing - if you like the effect. To jump up an octave without tonguing, you can use a "tap" to smooth the transition (see the topic on taps). For example, play a low A, and then as you step up the breath pressure to jump the octave, tap your G finger to sound a high G for a nanosecond and then remove the G finger to get your high A. If you time it right you can get a nice smooth effect this way. Especially useful if your whistle requires a big jump in breath pressure to move into the second octave.

How to play tunes in keys with flats

Every whistler figures this out sooner or later. But just in case you haven't yet done so...

Many popular fiddle tunes in the Irish repertoire are (or appear to be) in D minor and G minor - keys that involve F-natural, and B-flat and E-flat. How can you play along in a session?

Grab a whistle in the key of C and play the tune as though it were pitched a tone higher. For example, the tune Julia Delaney is said to be in "D minor" (actually it's not in a true minor key, but in the "dorian mode", and has the sixth degree missing to boot). Take your C whistle and learn the tune as though you were playing it in E "minor" (i.e. as if you were playing in E minor on a D whistle). You can now play along in the session. Tunes such as Eileen Curran and Dowd's favourite that are in "G minor" (actually G-dorian) can easily be played on a C whistle - just imagine you are playing them in in A on a D whistle.

So for session playing, a C whistle is a very handy thing to have up your sleeve. In fact, with a D and a C, you've got nearly everything covered.

I may add a topic about the whole question of modes in Irish music some day. In the meantime remember that nearly all the "minor" tunes in the repertoire are actually in the dorian mode.

How to play G tunes in A without relearning them

Fiddle players have an infuriating habit of jacking well known tunes in the key of G up a tone into the key of A. (Well it's only infuriating if you're a whistle player. Fiddle players don't do it just to annoy us, but because the tunes sound brighter, more exciting, in A on the fiddle.)

Here's a trick for dealing with some of these hijacked tunes that I got from my friend Brad Hurley (a fine flute player who has a very useful flute site. Brad got it from pipemaker Eugene Lambe. Who got it from... Enough already. Ed.). Emphasis on the words "works for some tunes": it works only for truly pentatonic G tunes containing no F#s or C-naturals. A good one to start with is Out on the ocean.

To play this tune in A, simply move all your fingers up one hole. With all your fingers down, the D hole is open, the third finger of your bottom hand will now be covering the E hole (rather than the D hole), the third finger of your top hand covers the A hole rather than its usual G hole, and so on. The first finger of your top hand is not covering a hole at all but resting on the body of the whistle above the topmost hole.

Now just play the tune as though your fingers were in the normal position. Hey presto! Out on the ocean in A.

You might need to adjust your version of the tune to avoid any F#s you might have stuck in there. This is a good thing - the tune will stay pentatonic and will automatically sound more traditional!

Another commonly fiddle-jacked tune this trick will work for (again possibly subject to a little reworking to avoid Cs and Fs) is The foxhunter's reel. And if you feel like giving fiddle players a taste of their own medicine, try playing Willie Coleman's jig and Christmas eve in A using this method in a session and observe their consternation! (Although if you get into a "weird keys for old tunes" contest with a halfway decent fiddle player, you will almost certainly lose. He or she will rightly regard dipping into your bag for a different whistle as cheating.)

Also, have fun looking for other old pentatonic tunes that you can give this treatment and let me know if you find any good ones.

Updated 10 October 2006