St. Patrick's Day party: playing tin whistle and flute

Henry and Franklin

Henry and Franklin and Abby

Abby and I went to Henry’s place for a St. Patrick’s Day party, for which I had promised to play some music.

Today was one of the happiest days in my entire life!

Music preparation

All week, of course, I’ve been practicing tin whistle, and also some flute as well, in preparation for this party.

Actually, I bought a brand new tin whistle just yesterday at the local music store down the street from home, Acoustic Music Works.

My new Clarke Sweetone tin whistle

It was a cheap Clarke Sweetone. I got this to replace the Feadóg tin whistle that I used initially to learn but was badly out of tune.

I had picked up from the library a nice little tutorial on tin whistle and learned a few tunes and some basics of ornamentation:

Learn to Play Irish Tinwhistle

Completely unlike the classical orchestra world, here, the tunes are very easy, but all the interest is in the personal solo expression and ornamentation.

At the party

There were, of course, fewer guests than at Henry’s birthday party. That was good, because it meant it was easier to get to know some people better (whom we had met at the earlier party) and also some new people we hadn’t met before. Actually, since Abby and I arrived very early, we got to know Henry better and vice versa before other guests arrived.

Abby and Franklin in green


There’s always chess at Henry’s parties, because the kids like to play, and some adults too. I didn’t play this time; last time I did, but it was very time-consuming (Abby had to drag me away so we could go home), and I wasn’t playing any music then!

Boys playing chess

Music jamming

Yes, there was jamming, before and after dinner. One of the young guys, Vassily, was eager to play accordion, and played waltzes and stuff from memory, and he had also brought a tin whistle and book, having heard I was coming with a tin whistle. (But he didn’t actually end up playing his!)

It turns out that Vassily is interested in a wide variety of music, including Balkan, so Abby got all excited about meeting someone new who into the music she likes. Abby brought her tambourine and joined in a bunch of the jamming.


Any time I hear someone on accordion playing a waltz or polka, I just have to dance with Abby!

Abby and Franklin dancing

Tin whistle

I’d only had a couple of days to work on tin whistle playing, so I’d only prepared to play a couple of tunes. But after I quickly ran out, people wanted more. And Henry wanted to accompany me with accordion or piano. I figured, what the heck, I’ll sight read some of the stuff I hadn’t even looked at in the tutor book. So I did, Henry figured out chords quickly, I stumbled around with lots of “wrong notes”, and it was all nevertheless OK.

In fact, not all of my notes were actually “wrong”: they just weren’t what was printed, but as long as stuff goes with the harmonies, there is no real sense in which the notes are wrong! That’s what’s so liberating about playing Irish music. I’m not following some orchestra score where every dynamic, every flurry of fast notes is carefully notated and is supposed to be followed exactly. And nevertheless, this freedom does not mean pure chaos. You still have to be aware of the stylistic conventions, of the implied shapes of phrases that you want to maintain or transform in some consistent way, etc. I really feel that playing this kind of music makes one much more connected with the role of “composer”, being very actively engaged and making short-term and long-term decisions about where to go.

Vassily and I did some random jamming where he tried to accompany me as I read through some Irish music.


I also played flute for the first time in my life for people outside the context of school band and the CMU All-University orchestra I had just quit.

I chose to play an arrangement of “Londonderry Air” for flute and piano, from “I Used to Play Flute” so Henry accompanied me. I was standing as I played. I was so nervous that my leg shook like crazy and I thought I was going to fall. I should have played sitting down. It was a huge deal for me, working up the courage to try to play flute while feeling like I was still a rank beginner (I still have terrible breath support and tone). I knew I didn’t play well, but I’d gone out there and done my best. I was proud of myself for that.


I enjoyed continuing to get to know Henry and his other guests better, and feeling more and more comfortable about playing music with them and for them. I felt like I was really coming out of my shell, both socially and musically. This is only the beginning.

(Update of 2012-03-30)

Check out my report on the next Henry party Abby and I attended.

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