Whistle While You Geek


For most of my life I believed the verdict of one secondary school not-even-music-teacher, that I couldn’t sing in tune, let alone play an instrument. Then, about 10 years ago,  a VERY musical mate talked me into attending a folk festival workshop on the tin or penny or Irish whistle. They were on sale, for $10.00 AUD each.  OK, I thought, as my mate happily bought one and tootled a recogniseable tune instantly. I’ve been singing a bit lately and turns out I CAN do that. Let’s see what happens. If it doesn’t work, it’s only ten wasted bucks.

Tin/penny/Irish whistles are a feature of Celtic music, Irish and Scottish particularly. They’re called “tin” because in 1843 in northern England, one Robert Clark made the first, literally out of tin, and it cost a penny. Clark whistles still use the template, as in the black one second left above.

The whistle’s structure is basic – a  tube with some sort of mouthpiece to  blow air over a sound-making device, and six holes of various sizes at varying distances. Whistles 2Covering or opening holes will give you an octave of notes. Blow harder, and you’ve got a second octave. Blow harder still, and with earplugs, you can reach a third. Simple, yes. Making and playing a tin/penny whistle is like scrambled eggs. Anybody can do it. It takes a lot more to do it well. The three virtues sought in a whistle are chiff, or resonance, stability – when you blow up an octave, the note stays true – and durability. Cheap whistles MAY have all three, or they may not.

The Clark Original is a conical barrel – the alternate is a cylinder – with a fipple, or mouthpiece, of wood inserted in the squared top. The first whistle I bought was one of the generic cheap brands, a Walton, like the one at the left above: brass barrel, plastic mouthpiece, sound may or may not be true. Mine was true enough, but the mouthpiece was on crooked, so the high D always sounded coarse or shrill.

I took mine home with some sheet music – I learnt to read that at school – and tortured the neighbours and exasperated myself for months. Simple song tunes were possible, but the first time I hit a real Irish jig, the famous “Irish Washerwoman,” my fingers simply could not manage the D/C natural/B run-down in the second part. Added to that persistent sour high D, it nearly made me give up.

Then, at a folk gig with a mate in Poughkeepsie in NY, I heard somebody play a Clark Original. Whoa. So soft, so true, so much chiff …  After a lot of international to-ing and fro-ing I managed to order one, and I was hooked.

Eventually my brain managed the macro-routines that would let my fingers  reach the right notes without a five nanosecond delay – not possible in realtime Celtic music  – and I graduated  to tunes, and then to playing with other people, beginning with a monumentally patient guitar-playing mate, and then, with literal months of practice, aspired to join a group. A Celtic music group, formed on impulse by that same first musical mate, with guitarists, her fiddle, and a piano accordeon. I ended up as second melody instrument. I still recall, when I was handed the melody in a jig for the first time, when all the instruments united round the whistle, the chill that went down my neck.

At about that time the third whistle devil reared its head. My beloved Clark – my black “stealth whistle”  – suddenly started playing breathy or off. After exhaustive struggles and queries I discovered that I make an unusual amount of saliva. It had rusted the side out of the whistle just below the mouthpiece, and my Clark was no more.

That started my real sortie into whistle geekery. What to do? First choice, buy another Clark and dry it after each use. Yeah, but none of them were as sweet as the first. OK,  find a whistle with that sound but in something unrustable, like brass. I tried other cheap brands. Nup.

So it was time to foray into the high-end bracket.  I did a lot of reading on the Web,  learning terms like chiff and fipple. Then I bought a secondhand Burke, a name brand from New York, the whistle on the far right.  $200 USD new, which for a whistle is high. Peculiar shape, with a big drum under the mouthpiece, cork rings, a tuning slide – you can pull the top right off, but it’s actually meant to slide minimally up or down for hot or cold weather. Whistles are very temperature sensitive. I usually blow down mine for a minute or two before playing in any weather.

The Burke was OK, and it was a session whistle, meaning it was loud enough to be heard over our piano accordeon, but… I tried a couple of other brands, a plastic whistle, the new Clarke, a conical tin with a plastic mouthpiece, in the middle above, which the  major whistle-player I knew really loved. Noooo, not quite.

Then said whistle-player sent me the URL for a demo tune for whistles made by a guy called Ronaldo Reyburn,  in Oregon. “Sounds just like a Clarke,” she said, “but it’s brass.” I listened. It sounded good.  There were some heavyweight testimonials. I took the plunge.

My Reyburn D arrived after a few weeks, fresh from the work-queue and  international mailing. It was brass, beatifully milled, with a tuning slide, a lovely maple “head,” or mouthpiece, and  everything promised: just like a Clark , only steadier and clearer in the top octave, and the chiff was as good as a flute’s. I played it for hours. Three days later, the head fell off.

Dragontongue had struck again. The glue couldn’t withstand my spit. We tried on the spot glueing, etc. etc. Nothing worked. At last Ronaldo designed an entirely new head in a synthetic material, Delprin, which he  now uses on all his whistles. (Not entirely due to my experience, some far more notable people  suffered head-fail too.) The first version was *almost* as good as the maple head: clear, stable, lovely chiff, loud enough to handle the accordeon. The second version, in some subtle way to do with the wings and mouthpiece shape – the way the air’s channelled through the mouthpiece is absolutely crucial – was almost perfect.  That’s the whistle second from the right above, the one I still play.

On the scrambled-egg scale I probably rate somewhere just above good,  and I’ll never make a player of classical music on anything, but learning the whistle has added a new dimension to my life. When with great trepidation I let myself be manoeuvred into attempting to learn the fiddle, I found it hard, but much easier than starting from scratch. My brain already knew the process of learning finger macros, my ears were attuned to what was in tune/ key and what wasn’t. But the joy especial to Celtic music, the freedom not merely to listen to a tune but to learn its basic notes, then make it your own, playing whatever variation you want  that particular time around, to play alone or get the other thrill of joining in with people, all of that the whistles first gave me. I’ve had a high return on my 12 years of whistle geekery.

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Whistle While You Geek — 3 Comments

  1. I own several penny whistles, ranging from cheap to good, mostly because I pick them up when I’m caught somewhere without an instrument and they’re easy to grab and play. I was forced to leave my harp behind when I went to Ireland, and I bought two penny whistles and a recorder over there to use instead.

    I recorded myself playing a whistle in the center of a stone fairy ring at Lough Crew, and when I got back to my cottage, the videos I took before the playing were there and the videos I took after the playing were there, but the video I took of myself playing in the fairy circle was gone without a trace.

  2. I don’t know if this happens where you are, but in the UK primary school music lessons nearly always involve the entire class learning to play a few notes on the recorder because it’s believed to be the easiest proper instrument out there (sorry, triangle players). Recorders are Not as euphonious as penny whistles…

    Being an eighties kid, I was terribly disappointed when they got out the recorders in my first music class and I realised we were going to be playing with small woodwind instruments rather than synth-pop-making machines…

  3. Sorry to be late getting back on these. Stephen, that story about the fairy ring is spooky cool, but somehow right. Prob. nobody but a Sidhe muso wd. be allowed to play in a stone circle (is that what you mean by fairy ring, and where was it? I know by Lough Crew, but did it have a name?) and actually have the recording survive…(!)
    I cart whistles about with me too. Usually a neat little pull-apart, which means you can also tune it, can’t even remember what breed it is; the name rubbed off. But it was great for bus-stops etc., before I had a car, and also for sessions overseas – when I dared to play, that is.

    Hampshireflyer, yes, in Oz they also teach recorder at school, that is, ordinary schools. I went to Correspondence school – home learning, nowadays with School of the Air live broadcasts as well – till secondary school, so never had an instrument to try out until then. It’s the one big regret of my life, that I spent 3/4 of it not knowing I cd. play, and being able to play, an instrument. Any instrument. Music when you play is so very different – even listening to other people do it.