Rolls: the "dah-blah-blah" method

As I said in the previous page, we are going to learn by doing. Follow the instructions here carefully. When you get to the next page I'll tell you what we've been doing!

Step 1. Mental preparation.

  1. Forget absolutely everything you think you know about playing rolls. (For example, if you think that rolls consist of a note decorated first by a higher note and then by a lower note, deprogram yourself immediately! If you think that a roll is like a classical or baroque "turn" or "mordent", flush that notion down the memory hole now.)
  2. Now tell yourself, rolls are very easy to play on the whistle. (They are.)
  3. Now tell yourself, I have plenty of time to play rolls, I do not need to rush them or get tense. (You don't. In fact you mustn't get tense.)
  4. Now read the above steps again, slowly, three times. <

Step 2. Listening preparation.

If you are not alone in the house, and you have any pride at all, you might want to close the door of your computer room before trying the next step.

Now say out loud, slowly, "Daaah-Blaaah-Blaaah". (I'm not joking!) Each syllable is equal in length and there are no gaps between syllables. Do this five or six times.

Step 3. Practical preparation.

Having got over the embarassing bit, we now do the same thing on the whistle.  Take a low F# for starters, it's perhaps the easiest note to roll.

  1. For the first syllable, "Daaaah", play a long F#. Say about two seconds. Tongue the note -- the tongue represents the "D" in Daaaah.
  2. In the second syllable, "Blaaah", the "Bl" represents the cut, which we will play by lifting our G finger momentarily and putting it back down again very quickly. The "aaah" is another two seconds of F#.
  3. In  the last syllable, "Blaaah", the "Bl" represents the tap or strike, which we will play by quickly dabbing our E finger onto its hole and lifting it again. The "aaah" is another two seconds of F#.

The three syllables together should sound like this (click the icon at left)

Make sure you are keeping the same rhythm as when you spoke it. The key to the whole process is the "Bl" bits. You do not play a musical note here, you merely interrupt the main note (in this case F#) with a little blip above or below.

I find that students often have trouble getting the "tap" part of the roll snappy. This is absolutely vital, and your roll will never sound convincing unless the tap is very rapid. Your tapping finger should dart down and just bounce back off the body of the whistle, immediately returning to its place one or two centimetres above its hole.

That's all there is to it. Believe it or not, if your roll is sounding like the sound clip, you are a very short way from being able to execute expert rolls in tunes. Of course, you have to speed things up a bit - but not that much.

Caution - speed restrictions! In speeding up your roll, you shorten the "aaah" bits but keep the same proportion between the syllables.

Progress first to "daah-blaah-blaah" for a few minutes, or until your spouse has thrown something at you, and when you can play that...

... you can go to "dah-blah-blah". You're practically home!

If you can make your roll sound like the last clip, you're ready to move on to the next page. If not, or if you're not sure, skip to the troubleshooting paragraph at the bottom of this page.


Since I can't hear your efforts, I can't tell if you're doing it right. Listen carefully to yourself. Does your roll sound like dah-blah-blah? If not, don't go on. Start over. And remember - you need to throw out all your preconceived ideas about rolls and just follow the instructions.

The most common errors that beginners make in learning rolls are:

  1. Cramming the roll into too short a space of time. Remember, I advised you to forget everything you thought you knew about playing rolls! Repeat the whole learning process, starting with Step 1, and make sure you are making three distinct syllables, all of approximately the same length.
  2. Sounding five distinct notes. The cut and tap should not form an audible musical note. They merely interrupt the main note for the briefest interval of time. If your roll sounds like "Daaah-Bee-Daaah-Bee-Daaah" (listen to the clip below), your cut and tap (remember, Bl, Bl) are not snappy enough. You have to get your fingers working very quickly here, and for this your hands (and your mind) must be relaxed. Go back and practice your cuts and taps. Read the topics on these ornaments.
  3. Not sounding the first note long enough. This is a variant of "A" above - read what it says there!

If your roll sounds like this, go back to the start. (Do not collect $200.)

Updated 14 October 2004