Miles Baltrusaitis

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one week seriesWhy Learn the Tin Whistle?

I've been interested in the tin whistle (aka penny whistle) at least since high school when I first started to explore Irish music. I'd heard the odd reel and jig on St. Patrick's Day and admired the mellow tone of a the whistle mixed with accordions and concertinas.

I also appreciate how this sweet little instrument seems so simple. It's unassuming and grounded. They're inexpensive to buy and I presumed enjoyable to play after a short period of training. I also presumed it was reasonably easy enough for a child to learn. Much like the plastic recorders kids learn to play in grade school music class.

Beyond that, I imagined that one day I might be decent enough to approach other tunes like the Concerning Hobbits song from Lord of the Rings, the theme from Braveheart and, if I practiced really hard, My Heart Will Go On from the blockbuster Titanic.

What Did I Do to Learn Tin Whistle?

For Christmas, I received a tin whistle gift pack, containing a D whistle made by Waltons, an instruction book and a sample CD. I picked up the whistle, read through the booklet and attempted the songs without ever listening to the CD. (I'm sure I'll check out the CD eventually. I just haven't yet.)

I played through a few songs on the first day like "Scarborough Fair," "Whiskey in the Jar," "Red River Valley," and "On Top of Old Smokey." Each day (most often it was night after the kids were in bed), I ran through the songs once or twice. I never spent more than 20 minutes per day.

How Was a Week of Learning the Tin Whistle?

Not surprisingly, pretty challenging. I've tried learning wind instruments in the past but I always struggle with the breathing. I never know when to get more air until its too late. Sometimes I gather too much air and blow through the lower register, trying to expend the excess. That's when you get those lovely broken notes that flubber up an octave and back down.

After a few days though, I started to get comfortable with the amount of air needed and the developed the dexterity to transition between notes quickly. I realized also that my playing sounded cleaner when I would stop the air flow between notes by pressing my tongue against the mouthpiece. This, of course, made my playing a bit more staccato but I was willing to sacrifice the transition between notes for clean tone, which let me recognize the melodies.

I still am not completely comfortable going through anything but the simplest of songs but I could see an improvement in my playing. In the next few days, I'll post a day 1 versus day 7 versions of "On Top of Old Smokey" for reference.

What Surprised Me About Learning the Tin Whistle?

There weren't a whole lot of curve balls with learning the tin whistle. I suppose it was mildly surprising that the holes are not of uniform size. I was also consistently surprised by my failure to properly seal some of the holes when playing. When I read about tin whistles on wikipedia, I was surprised to find that the different keys are actually built to different sizes.


Will I Continue to Learn the Tin Whistle?

I think so. I would like to grow in confidence to the point where I could record a simple melody for a song that features tin whistle and the concertina.