Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Reclaiming the tin whistle

The living tradition of whistle playing is being gradually squeezed out of existence by a pincer action from music colleges and American Irish traditional musicians. Rather than being traditional music we are creating a false tradition. It is not possible to teach a folk tradition. You can document it, but as soon as you start to teach it you have to create a snapshot of something which will become the standard. Sadly, our snapshot was at a time when whistle playing was at a low ebb.

This low point is typified by the homogenisation of traditional music into something called "Celtic" which subsumes all music of Irish, Scottish or even Welsh origin into something like an Irish style (but a very lazy approximation of the joyfulness that used to typify Irish traditional music). This change is quite recent - certainly during the second half of my lifetime. It originates in the USA, where maintaining an Irish identity is very important to many people,  and is further reinforced by the teaching of whistle in music colleges with examinations, even here in Scotland (if you can believe that). It may even relate to the popularity of the film Titanic or the Riverdance stage show.

A while back when I was working in a community centre we had a traditional music course for young people booked in and they all played their instruments in what I would call this pseudo-celtic style. I regularly get comments on my YouTube videos saying that I am doing it wrong because I am not doing it in the Irish style. I went as far as to do some recording in Irish traditional style to show that I can do it, but simply choose not to unless the music requires it.

The difficulty with this is that in Scotland we do have a more staccato style of playing with less slurring because our music requires it. Scottish whistle playing is part of a living tradition, with music learned from other people and handed down. Once it is prescribed by music colleges it will end up like the sort of regimented non progressive (and quite frankly joyless) jazz that tends to dominate that genre of music.

Combined with this is the trend towards more and more expensive instruments. Part of the charm of the penny whistle is that it is a cheap instrument which requires no maintenance, can be carried with you and replaced if it gets damaged. Now that people are moving more to wooden whistles (which require as much drying out and maintenance as a clarinet or oboe) whistle playing is loosing some more of its spontaneity.

I have tended to play on the Clarke whistles a lot which sell for less than £10. I also have Shaw and Dixon. My most expensive soprano whistle was £17 (a Shaw C) although I do own a Dixon alto G and a Shaw low D which were more expensive. There are two local music shops selling whistles with prices up to £250. Quite incredible. There is also a move to larger whistles like the Chieftain to produce more volume, when volume is really as much about a solid sound achieved through resonance rather than just putting a lot of air through the instrument. These very large whistles reduce the ability to play nimbly and the large finger holes make playing in tune chromatically much more difficult.

The tin whistle is, of course, an English instrument (invented in 1843 by Robert Clarke). An awkward fact that is denied by many an Irish American musician for reasons that make no sense or have any logic behind them. Yes, there were six holed flutes before Clarke, but the cheaply available instrument taken up in Ireland was his invention and we should not be surprised by this as Ireland was part of Britain at the time.

On another stylistic note, I have also pioneered the playing of classical music on tin whistle, rediscovering the 19th century flageolet tradition and using some of its techniques (such as bell stopping and chromatic playing). This has tended to be more appreciated by orchestral woodwind players rather than folk musicians, but it has proved what's possible musically with an instrument that costs so little.

So where does it go from here? Sadly, given the experience of other folk traditions like jazz, the battle is probably lost. Watching the whistle players in bands on the hogmanay TV shows there was a clear domination of low whistle and pseudo-celtic or Irish playing styles. It is probably too late to do anything about it, but by raising the issues here it will hopefully start a debate.


  1. some good points in there Gordon. Very much agree with your overall point about potentially loosing some of the soul of folk music.

    I'm not sure if however you are suggesting that the only right form of the whistle is its cheap version? We could stop trying to improve it. I would agree that basic whistles are great - but that's not to say musicians shouldn't be finding expression with better instruments.

    Some of the players on the Hogmanay show were in fact Irish - great players, closely linked to the tradition here and in many cases living in Scotland. The link between Scotland is close and should be cherished. I would suggest no-ones trying to take over anyone else's music.

    Again though, enjoyed the post.



  2. Hello Misha
    Thanks for the comment.

    I am undecided about expensive whistles. They obviously have their place, but when I have had expensive whistles they haven't been carried around with me in the way my cheaper ones are.

    My main concern is about the defining of a set whistle technique, taught in universities and music colleges. It has to be a living tradition.

    That's not to say that I only play folk music. Rather cheekily I do a lot of classical music on whistle:


  3. Gordon

    I like your blog, and I enjoyed listening to your multi-part tin whistle piece on YouTube, but I really don't agree that there is a problem here. There are always trends in music and as a whistle player, I'm simply happy that so many people are getting enjoyment from the use of such a simple cheap and effective instrument. The fact that there are people teaching it, in whatever style, is great. If anyone is concerned about learning it in a staccato style, there is plenty of useful hints and lessons aimed at recorder players that could be easily adapted.

    Do you think the oboe needs reclaiming for folk music too? It was originally a shaum and used for folk dances?

    What about the guitar? Does it need reclaiming by classical music away from the endless strumming by pop musicians?


  4. Interesting points. I am English (with some Scottish and Welsh ancestry somewhere in the mix) and originally started learning whistle to play with a Morris dance side. Also one of the sessions I attend has a mostly English focus although another is more eclectic. Hence most of the tunes I am playing are English in origin and I'm not always sure that playing in a legato style suits the tunes. One of my fellow Morris band members, who happens to be Irish, suggested the same and that I was slurring too much, given our band's style of playing. I had learned to do that because all the instruction out there in internet land told me I should: now I consider whether it works with the tune and the people I'm playing with. Of course I could give up and play recorder but prefer the tone of a whistle.