Learning another instrument: the tin whistle

So on this blog I’ve already written about starting to play recorder earlier this year, then taking up flute again, and even just barely getting started with Baroque flute.

Yesterday I started playing the tin whistle for the first time ever!

This basic cheap Feadóg tin whistle is the one I am currently using (Abby picked it up at some point years ago while in Ireland, and I dug it out of a box in the basement yesterday).

Feadóg tin whistle

Why on earth am I playing this thing, which looks like a toy?

Upcoming performance at the Holiday Ball

I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post that I am going to be performing music in the Pittsburgh Contras and Squares annual Holiday Ball (coming up Friday). I have been practicing hard, trying to get up to speed on playing the music on either recorder or flute.

Practical considerations

I had early on decided that I wanted to try to play the flute instead of the recorder in order to get a bigger sound than I would with a recorder (since there will be around thirty musicians total playing, including a whole lot of loud fiddles, accordions, brass). I also wanted to use this goal as a nudge to get better at flute generally.

But as a beginner, frankly, at flute (I played only aimlessly in the past as a pre-teen), I’ve been finding it quite difficult to play all these Irish jigs and reels at full speed. OK, after one week of practice I can say that I find it impossible at this point to play these at full speed on flute. Part of the reason is that the music is almost all in keys with sharps, and I find it much easier to play music on the flute with flats (which is all I did as a child).

I use the metronome method of gradually improving my speed while working on getting things right at a slower speed, but even after a week, for example, I progressed on the Chorus Jig (check out the video of sample fiddle rendition) from metronome marking 78 to 80 to 90 and to 100, but I can’t go any faster than yet, for just this one of around thirty pieces on the program! (I’m guessing from our rehearsals that we will be playing at 110 or faster.)

I tried switching back to soprano recorder but it is all still pretty difficult.

Enter the tin whistle

I also became dissatisfied with the “heaviness” of the flute in playing this kind of music (music I have never been familiar with, actually). When I discovered that the soprano recorder sounded pretty good in one of the pieces I tried it on, I wondered what the “authentic” ways to play this kind of music were. I looked on YouTube, of course, and found no shortage of professional and (mostly) amateur performances of jigs and reels on recorders, Irish flutes, and tin whistles.

The tin whistle is an authentic instrument for this Irish dance music!

At the first rehearsal, Jim had suggested I play tin whistle, and I had thought he was joking, but Abby said she had one, and I vaguely remembered her showing it to me once. So yesterday I dug up the tin whistle, and Abby even found a two-volume instructional method for it of Irish tunes. I didn’t use the method, since I already have Irish tunes to play, but I spent an hour learning the fingering (which turns out to be pretty similar to the Baroque flute’s, both based on D major) and watching and trying to follow along with some good videos online I found through a Web search.

Of course, what I really wanted to learn was the authentic style, involving various forms of embellishment and articulation. I learned about taps, cuts, rolls, slides, etc. and started trying to experiment with them.

I had a lot of fun spending an hour on that yesterday, but one single hour on a new instrument and new musical style isn’t enough. If I played a tune slowly, I could add some appropriate embellishments, but I had a hard time playing anything fast at all. I know I could be much better after two weeks, but I don’t have two weeks. I have till Friday. I will see what I can do in four days of practice on the tin whistle!

Today’s final rehearsal

This afternoon, Abby and I went to the final rehearsal for the Holiday Ball. I brought my various instruments.

I had a tough time because there was music I hadn’t even seen yet, much less sight read, that will be on the program. This music goes at breakneck speed, and I felt pretty helpless. I figure I will sit out of what I can’t play, or just contribute with some notes to provide support to the chords. Tomorrow I will map out a plan, to figure out what I can play, on what instrument, and what to sit out of.

Dancing at the Holiday Ball

Since so many musicians are expected to gather to play on Friday, and seating space is limited, we were asked whether any of us were interested in only playing for the first or second half of the program. Abby and I volunteered to play just the first half. So I’ll have less music to try to go over before Friday.

Abby is interested in dancing with me during the second half. I’ve never done contra dancing in my life. I suppose I should be a good sport and give it a try.

(Update of 2012-10-07)

It turned out that at the holiday ball, I ended up deciding not to dance at all, but just played music.

But 10 months later, Abby and I did do a full contra dance workshop for my first time! And it was a lot of fun.

The future

I am amused and grateful that by accident I have come to yet another musical instrument of interest, the tin whistle. I will try to get better at it this week for the Holiday Ball, but I have to confess that I don’t know what I’ll do with it outside of that context. I don’t exactly go around playing Irish dance music. As far as my musical goals are concerned: I’d like to return to my long-term project of improving a lot on the modern flute in the coming months, and continuing my recorder improvement as well. I will put Baroque flute on hold for a while, till maybe spring.

There are other instruments also, but time is so limited. Some time ago, I only barely got started on accordion and have no idea when I’ll return to that. Also I started up on piano again, but have put that aside again. I have a ukulele that I have barely started on, but Abby and I seem to be meeting people who are getting into it lately, so at least I know that if I wanted to take it up, there would be a local community to tap into.

I figure that to get good eventually and rapidly at any instrument, I need to spend at least half an hour a day on average of practice, and I cannot really spend more than an hour a day total on music right now, so that means working on no more than two instruments at a time.

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