Learn to Play the Irish Whistle

Ahh, the Irish Whistle: simplicity and grace rolled up into cheap aluminum and played through a plastic head. You’re not likely to find a more pleasing beginner woodwind, particularly if you’re not fond of recorders. Its rasping tones are sometimes used to identify it, but in truth, this noise is only produced by beginners. The first step in playing the Irish whistle well is to be able to identify one when you see it.

The Irish whistle is a tricky little instrument, and goes by a number of nom de plumes; you’ll see them called recorders (they aren’t – don’t refer to them as such!) as well as tin whistles, penny whistles, and Irish pipes (don’t use this term either – it’s actually a reference to the bagpipes). You’ll even see it called the cheater’s fife and in less couth circles, the bastard fife. And there is your first clue on how to play it.

If you know how to play the fife, you know how to play the pennywhistle; though I suspect that won’t help the average reader much. Irish Whistles have six holes of varying size going in a straight line up the center. You will sometimes see a seventh pinky hole, and even rarer, a thumb hole – not many makers will do this, as it skitters very closely into recorder territory.

But most Irish whistles have six holes, and are typically in the key of D. This means that, from the bottom of the whistle all the way to the mouth piece, the individual holes represent D, E, F-Sharp, G, A, and B. The Irish whistle can play more notes than this, of course, but they are the first ones you’re going to have to contend with. Hold the Irish whistle in your hands – right hand on the bottom, left hand on the top (regardless of whether you are left or right handed) and cover the three holes closest to the whistle head with your index, middle and ring fingers. Cover the bottom three holes with your right index, middle and ring fingers. Make sure that the pads of each finger are centered over the top of the hole. Blow.

You should hear a steady D note. If it’s wavering, steady your breath. Now lift the ring finger. Voila, E. Lifting each finger in turn will result in playing a scale. Do this until you perform the scale without messing up a note. (You’ll be able to tell when you do, trust me.) Can you play a scale? Don’t worry if it isn’t perfect, just yet. Part of learning to play and play well is to always strive for a higher state of musical knowledge, even when you’re still at the “baby” steps in learning.

That said, I’m now going to tell you how to articulate each note. Using only your fingers to play the notes is referred to as ‘slurring.’ It’s not bad; you’ll want to do it often. It is, however, necessary to learn how to use your tongue while playing. Cover all the holes and play a D note. As you lift your finger into the E position, touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth. This creates a momentary pause that enunciates the E note. Practice playing the scale without slurring. Practice it on every note that you’ve learned; this is the simplest, purest way to articulate a note on the Irish Whistle.

Ready for more? Too bad. Take all of your fingers off of the whistle and blow into it. You’ve now produced a C-Sharp. Congratulations. We’re going to take a moment and talk about these sharp notes: they’re pesky, sometimes, especially if a song calls for an F or C natural. F-natural is the harder of the two notes to play: cover every hole down to the F-Sharp hole (fourth hole down from the whistle head.) Now take your right hand ring finger and cover half of the E hole. Blow. You’ll have an F-natural, or something very close to it. This technique is commonly referred to as Half Holing, and is universally loathed by woodwind students. You get used to it. C-Natural is a lot easier. You can half hole it, if you’re feeling especially cocky, by covering half of the B hole, but the easiest method is called cross fingering. Each individual Irish Whistle will work a bit differently in this capacity, so it’s best to compare your C-natural to that of a well tuned piano, or a midi keyboard. Cover the G, A, and F-Sharp holes (Here is a crude tablature; O’s are uncovered holes, X’s are covered, and the whistle head is the = symbol: OOXXXO=). Blow – you’ll hear something either exactly at, or very close to C-natural. If you’re too far from a natural note for comfort, try alternative cross fingering, such as OXOXXO=, or even OOOOXO=.

The next note is Middle D. Cover every hole except the B hole; it will look like this: XXXXXO=. Blow, and if what you get isn’t a D note one octave higher than your lowest D note, you aren’t blowing hard enough. In the low register (the first seven notes mentioned in this article) you’ve likely found that the notes sound best when the whistle head is almost sighed into. If you haven’t discovered such, consider this your first hint. When you play a Middle D, the first note of the middle register or second octave, you must blow slightly harder. Not too hard, but hard enough to sound the note. To go up to your middle octave E, put your left hand index finger down, and lift your right hand ring finger: it will look like this: OXXXXX=. You will have to give this note a little more air.

The entire second octave after the middle D is played exactly as the first octave, except that each note will require more air, sequentially. And if your family was only telling you to shut up before, they will now be baying for your blood. These notes are shrill, and will only sound good with a lot of practice.

We’re going to talk about the third octave for a moment. On an Irish whistle in G, this is otherwise known as “the set of notes only your dog and a few select bats can hear.” On an Irish whistle in D, this is known as, “stop that caterwauling!” If the middle register sounds good after, say, six months of practice, the high register will take six months to even sound like music. The fingering in this register is entirely different, so if it confuses you, don’t worry about it until you’ve got the lower and middle register down pat.

Irish Whistle fingering for 3rd Register D: OOOXXO= and a lot of air.

Irish Whistle fingering for 3rd Register E: OXXOXX= and more air.

Irish Whistle fingering for 3rd Register F-Sharp: XOXXXX= and a small bellows.

Irish Whistle fingering for 3rd Register G: XOOXXX= and a car horn mechanism.

Irish Whistle fingering for 3rd Register: OXXXXO= and if you’re still alive after sounding this note, your family truly loves you.

Irish Whistle fingering for 3rd Register B: XOXOXO= and no amount of love will keep them from slaying you now.

Irish Whistle fingering for 3rd Register C-Natural: OOOOXO= and the Grace of God.

And for 3rd Register C-Sharp – Don’t even think about it. This note, mercifully, cannot be played.

Now that I’ve given you a step by step guide on either going deaf or having a brick chucked through your window, I’m going to give you instructions on playing your very first piece of Irish music. It is called Maids of the Mourne Shore, sometimes called Down By the Sally Gardens. If you’ll kindly direct your eyes to the image I’ve supplied, you’ll see something called a tablature. Don’t get used to reading music from tablature: it is healthier to learn Irish music from true notation, or to play by ear; I say this because tablature has no way of accounting for the beat or rhythm of a song. And a steady, flowing beat is the most important aspect of Irish Music. Before you even think about trying to play from the tablature, follow the link below and listen to the song.

If, for some reason, the MP3 doesn’t play, or you can’t hear it, enter “Down by the Sally Gardens MIDI” into any search engine.

Irish music, played well, has a racing tempo and a flawless rhythm. This is not so much the case in an Air, where the tempo and rhythm are often eclectic, but it any other type of Irish Music, such as the jig Kilavil, or Donnybrook Fair, you’ll find that the songs sound strange without these two key components. At any rate, listen to the file. You’ll hear a bunch of trills and gracenotes; ignore them for now. After you have the tune in your head, follow the tablature and practice the song down until you’re ready to play it.

Then go and prove to your family that you’re learning to play a musical instrument and not summoning banshees.

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