Saturday, 6 July 2013

Pennywhistle mania

When you're a kid, you can be pretty certain that you will have a good summer. From mid-June until late August, you don't have to worry about anything except choosing ice cream flavors and deciding how you will amuse yourself for the afternoon. It is amazing--relaxing, enriching, entertaining, and, most of all, fun. Then you grow up and summers are like the other three seasons of the year, but with better weather outside your office window. If I had to make you a list of the top ten things that depress me about being an adult, having to work summers would definitely be high on my list.

However, I am currently "between contracts" (to be extremely euphemistic), which has given me an opportunity to have a bit of freedom this summer. For the past couple of weeks, I have been able to do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it. It's fantastic. I've watched DVDs, I've cooked elaborate meals, I've gone on ridiculously long walks along the coast, I've tried my hand at making a video, and, perhaps most enjoyable of all, I've taken up a new instrument.

Proof that I have been taking long walks along the coast--even in less-than-stellar weather

I last learned a new instrument in high school, when I decided that I absolutely needed to be able to play the guitar. Unfortunately, the idea of the instrument was better than the reality. I struggled to translate my musical savvy from the piano to the guitar, and it was extremely frustrating to me that I made very little progress, very slowly. The best I could ever do was use the guitar to play chords so that I could sing along or write my own songs; I never really got to the point where I could contemplate playing a solo or picking the main melody. My big problem was that I could never really wrap my mind around how the guitar worked. My understanding of the instrument was very superficial, and I had no real intuition. That (and my busy schedule) is why I haven't played guitar for at least a year, and so felt inclined to lend it to a colleague for the summer. "Why not", I figured? "What is the likelihood that I'll want to play it?"

Of course you know where this is going. With all this spare time (and energy!), my desire to make music resurfaced, but I had no instrument to hand...well, almost no instrument. On a shelf in our spare bedroom, tucked away in its original packaging, was a Walton's tin whistle that my mom bought me at least a decade ago when she and my dad were in Boston. I tooted on it a couple of times after I first received it, but have otherwise left it alone all this time; I had a guitar to play, after all, plus I knew nothing about woodwinds and had no real reason to make the time to learn.

My Walton's tin whistle, a.k.a. pennywhistle, a.k.a. Irish whistle, a.k.a. whistle

The whistle came with an incredibly brief instruction booklet and notations for a few songs. Many of them were Irish folk tunes that I didn't recognize, though I was able to attempt some of the traditional American songs that were included. Within a half hour or so, I could haltingly get through an entire song, but there was nothing magical happening. So I decided to get some help from the Internet.

My first whistle tune. Now that I have a bit of knowledge about the whistle, I'm a bit baffled by this notation. It's written in the key of F, but the Walton's whistle is in the key of D. Further, if you cover all the holes, as in the first note, you get a D, not a C (as shown here). Hmm.

What I discovered was that practically every man and his brother plays the pennywhistle. Apparently it is an extremely popular instrument--probably because it's portable, cheap (you can get a decent-sounding one for about $5), and, according to just about everyone online, pretty easy to learn. If you type "tin whistle" into the YouTube search bar, you get over 100,000 hits. You can find tutorials for learning to play things like the "My Heart Will Go On" flute solo from Titanic (like the one here) to "Concerning Hobbits" from the Lord of the Rings trilogy (like the one here). There are also clips of upbeat traditional dancing music (e.g., jigs, reels, polkas), as well as for slower, more haunting songs like "The Irish Sea" (a.k.a. "The Arran Boat Song") and "King of the Fairies."

Although you could jump in feet first and learn by copying, you can also get some actual instruction in order to learn the logic of the instrument--which is exactly what I wanted. Lucky for me, there is a fantastic website called the Online Academy of Irish Music, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. They have tons of videos for virtually every Celtic instrument you can imagine; for the whistle, they offer introductory, intermediate, and advanced lessons that not only teach you specific songs, but also scales, exercises, and techniques.


Over the course of my first evening, I went from knowing absolutely nothing to familiarizing myself with all the notes on the whistle, memorizing a new song, and learning an exercise to improve my fingerwork. I have since picked up an additional three songs from OAIM, plus another couple from other YouTube videos. This is remarkable because memorization has never been my strong suit; I have always felt very naked without sheet music in front of me. I try not to move on to a new song until I feel confident about the last one, which is why my repertoire is pretty small even though I've been playing for several weeks. Now that I'm fairly comfortable with the basic tunes, I'm beginning to learn some of the embellishments that characterize the best performances, and also to play songs at speed (Irish music can be very fast!).

My whistles: my original Walton's, a Feadóg, and a Clarke.

Because whistles become waterlogged after a while, and also because each whistle has its own unique sound, I have purchased a couple others to keep my Walton's company. My first addition was a pink Feadóg, partly because I couldn't resist the ludicrous color, and partly because Feadógs are pretty highly regarded as far as inexpensive pennywhistles go (feadóg, incidentally, actually means "whistle" in Gaelic). Unfortunately, I think mine has a bit of a flaw, because it does not produce a good clear sound even on the easiest of notes. That is a shame because it responds really well to fingerwork and does a fantastic slide. My favorite whistle is my Clarke, which has a wooden mouthpiece. Some beginners complain about the Clarke because you have to learn a whole new "mouth posture" (if there is such a thing) in order to play it. It is totally worth the effort, though, because the whistle produces such sweet notes; the wood also gives the music a gentler, more haunting aspect.

The whistles are a terrible temptation throughout the day. Even though I'm technically unemployed right now, there are still things I'm supposed to be doing--most importantly, work on the revisions to my book. However, all I really want to do is wander around the apartment whistling (it is particularly fun to whistle in the bathroom, because it is so echo-y). I've taken to using the whistles as a reward; every time I meet a goal, I get to do a run-through of all the songs I know, and then it's back to work again. As you might imagine, I set myself lots of goals.

I also have some goals associated with the whistle. First of all, I want to eventually purchase a low D whistle (an octave down from the soprano D whistles I currently play) so that I can play the solo from Bryan Adams' "I'm Ready." It's a song I've loved since I first heard it on MTV Unplugged--way back when MTV still played music--and I have always been particularly captivated by the whistle portion of the track. (No wonder; it's played by Davy Spillane, who is practically a god of Irish music.) Secondly, I would like to pluck up enough courage to actually go play with people. I've already had an (unsolicited) invitation from a friend to go join in with his band, so it could really happen. I've always been shy about performing in public, plus I've never been good at improvising and just going wherever the music leads. Many whistle songs--perhaps even the majority--are meant to be played with a variety of instruments, for a crowd of dancers; I feel compelled to at least give this a try.

Bernard Overton, the "Father of the Low Whistle." As you can see, the low whistle is considerably larger than the soprano, and therefore requires more air. I will need to work on my lung capacity before attempting to make music with one of these! Image courtesy of Piper's Grip.

My only fear is that life will conspire to make this difficult. I never seem to have enough time to do all the things I want to do--the story of an adult's schedule. Even when time is not an issue, there are so many hobbies I start and then have to give up or cut down on for some reason or another (bowling, kayaking, swimming, soccer, guitar, singing...). There is some hope, though. Since getting back into photography a few years ago, I've been very consistent about taking pics and trying new techniques; I also continue to creep along with my crochet projects, and I manage to keep my blogs updated in some way or another even when I am swamped with work. It's all about finding ways to stay motivated, and choosing not to do the irrelevant stuff (*ahem* Facebook *ahem*) when you could be spending your time on more creative and rewarding things.

In the hopes that I will, in fact, continue to love and play the whistle as much as I do now, I have recorded myself performing all the songs I've learned to date. Hopefully I can periodically repeat the exercise in the future and see (or, more accurately, hear) evidence of improvement. That's the goal, anyway, and now that I've stated it in public, it will be embarrassing if I don't follow through!







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