Let's start this page by listening to three tunes played on the Irish whistle.
The tin whistle was originally made in England. They started to be made from tin by Clarke’s, who used sheet tin manufactured into a round. The oldest Clarke whistles go back to 1843 when a poor, uneducated man with a musical talent, ingenious Robert Clarke, pioneered the use of sheet tin and solder to make them. These days, most children will have such a cheap whistle around the house. You can buy Irish whistles in different keys, such as C, D, E flat, F and G.
Irish musical instrument maker Eugene Lambe
(on the photo above) thinks that the penny whistle probably goes back to an
18th century wooden instrument called a flageolette. There were double and
A single flageolette used a simple hole system as the
whistle does. Coincidentally, this was very suited to Irish music. Playing it,
you blow into the top of a flageolette in the same way as you blow into the top
of a whistle.
Penny whistles or tin whistles are a cheaper, mass
produced, metal copy of that principle.
There are also more fancy forms of the whistle, created by and for music enthusiasts. These large whistles are called low whistles, and they come in all kinds of sizes. Again, you can buy them in different keys. With a low whistle, it is easier than with a tin whistle to produce half notes, because the holes are much bigger. Low whistles are more suited for adult players taking into account the large distance between the holes and their size which would be difficult or impossible to manage with small hands.
Eugene Lambe’s son Ian Lambe who lives in Ennistymon, is a maker of low whistles. He picked up the skills of instrument making growing up by being around his dad in the workshop. There is a lovely documentary called ‘Patterns’ on YouTube that shows both of them working together.
Playing the tin whistle is often how kids start out learning Irish music. The whistle is seen as a a good foundation for playing the flute in particular.
The tin whistle was brought to fame on the Irish music scene by players such as Miko Russell of Doolin, County Clare, and Mary Bergin of Galway. Miko Russell’s playing is a good example for a staccato style. He used rhythmic starts and stops. Mary Bergin’s playing is more melodic.
Some people have taken to modifying their tin whistle for different reasons. The Clarke whistle, for example, would benefit from using a wood sealant such as almond oil to be used on the wooden mouth piece. Some players like to detach the plastic top of their Generation of Feadóg whistles by holding the flame of a lighter underneath. This way they create a tuning slide, and the whistle can adjust to the other instruments playing in the session. If they don’t like the sound, these players will cut of small slivers off the mouthpiece until they get the sound they want.
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