Breathless in Saskatoon

Breathless in Saskatoon

No, this is not a plea for a mate or anything like that. I need help, the kind an experienced tin whistler might be able to give. I have played TW for a fairly long time, but I am not a good whistler. My problem is breathing. I keep running out of breath. This may be due to technique or it may be a breathing problem per se (because in hill climb cycling competitions, I had more breathing probs than my fellow competitors). Let’s assume for now it’s just poor whistling technique. Obviously, I would never run out of breath, if I took one after every 3 or 4 notes, but then the tune would sound awful. So, how do I get it right? Should I be able to play, say the A part of a reel, with 2, 3, or 4 breaths? For example, I posted a reel in the Tunes section called The Cottage on the Hill. It might help me, if experienced/good tin whistlers would try it and say where they take breaths playing it, e.g Part A, end of the 3rd bar, or 6th bar after the G, etc., etc.

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

You should be able to take only one breath before starting the tune round again on the first part, BUT, each tune is different. Why dont you look for the phrases, that is where I take my breath. Its the easy way to do it, that and practise.

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Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Thanks, Blas. I should be able to play the whole of the A part without a breath break?? I can’t do that, even with knowing the phrases and with a lot of practice.

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Is there some way of conserving breath as you play?

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

The big thing here is to use your diaphragm to control the breathing. Effectively - push your tummy out and then use your muscles to slowly push the air out of your lungs. Dont breathe with your chest! This is a bit like Tai Chi - finding your centre.

I am asthmatic and smoke like a train but have no problems with breathing.

You should look to draw breath in during natural ‘breaks’ in the rhythm and also to have enough breath to carry you from the end of the A part into the start of the B part so you don’t draw breath and create a ‘stop’ when you need to keep the tune moving on.

You are certainly NOT expected to be able to play half the tune on one breath!!

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Go raibh maith agat, a Bhreandain. That sounds useful. Not something that will bring instant success, but something I can work on. At first I thought you were saying I should be able to play more than half the tune in one breath, but then I realized it was the transition you were focusing on.

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Back again, Breandan. A bit of clarification. You were talking about carry over at the end of AA into B, not end of A back to A again, or end of BB and back to A??

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Mairtin - I carry over on most tunes at the end of each full phrase as it makes the tune flow better. That’s not to say that there aren’t some tunes where you want precisely that emphasis. But it is a useful generalisation.

So yes to each of your scenarios.

You will find that most tunes have natural places for drawing breath and it’s not always the same spacing between breaths. And not all your breaths will be the same volume. The point of the diaphragm breathing is that lots of little breaths can keep the bellows of your lung pumped up, which you can then release for a long or empahsised note or run when you need it.

Try this exercise - use your tummy to draw in as big a breath as you can then push very slowly and gently to see how long you can keep the note going on your whistle. You should be able to manage around 30 secs without getting puffed and without losing any note quality or strength after a wee bit of practice.

Good luck!

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Breandan, Re the exercise: I assume that means letting your tummy expand as you inhale?? If so, I tried your suggestion several times. I can manage 20-23 seconds, but not 30. So either I’m not taking enough air in or my control in blowing is not good enough.

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

It could also help to talk to an experienced singer. Singing, like any wind instrument, is about breath control and breathing from the diaphragm.

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Lazy, I didn’t expect that one. I’ve been a singer for most of my life, maybe all. I was in the Church Choir from about age 8 or 9. Sang at country dances, etc, wherever the old man played the fiddle. Won first prize on Roy Croft’s Radio Eireann (precursor of RTE) Beginners Please Road Show in Castlebar at age 11 or 12. Have won and placed in many folksinging competitions organized by pubs, carnivals etc. over the years. Always asked to sing at our Comhaltas sessions. From long experience of singing a capella, I can always start in the right key and I haven’t had a problem holding notes. BUT I do have those TW probs, so ???????? I don’t know why. The only thing that I can think of is that singing is so natural to me that I may have somehow compensated for any breathing deficiencies I have, but that doesn’t carry over into an activity that is more recent, TW.
Thanks for the suggestion.

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Mairtin, try thinking of your phrasing and where to breathe on whistle as you would singing. That’s a very natural way to find the places to take a breath.

You may also be running into the problem of gulping in too much air, needing to dump some, and then inhaling again before your lungs have emptied. That’ll leave you feeling winded and ready to burst at the same time (speaking from past personal experience). Whistle takes very little air—no more than a normal conversation. Try taking smaller inhales and blow no more than you would to talk.

Posted .

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Two more things to try if you are game:

- take up regular swimming - nothing like this to build up breath power

- get a whistle that doesn’t require much air - I have an Alba "low volume" type whistle that has a smaller airway = less breath required

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Thanks again, guys. Just in the door, back from one of my other passions, cycling. 63.46 km and I didn’t have too much of a breathing problem. A bit tired, though. Maybe inspired a little by Landis’s incredible heroics today in the Tour. Whoosis, you play the whistle too. As Ed McMahon used to say, "I didn’t know that." I think I’m okay with phrasing and so on, but I think you are nearer the mark with your other point. I think I panic a bit and do some or all of the things you say. I will make a conscious effort to follow the advice given in your last sentence.
Harry (Is this one of those WHO conspiracies?), as a matter of fact, swimming is one of those things I’ve had problems with. For the kind of reasons given by whoosis. The low vol whistle might help me. How much do they cost and where are they made? In the short term, I will try to see if Breandan’s and Will’s advice helps.
Go raibh maith agaibh go leir.

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Mairtin - I used to play/teach blowey things as well as accordion, and I think knowing when to breathe is important - but in Irish whistle playing it’s pretty individual. It’s also pretty easy to hear what a lot of great players are doing on recordings, so I suggest that you listen and copy - not that you are necessarily going to copy them permanantly, just to get some ideas.

How you blow is the real deal. Here are a few things to try. Once you take a huge breath it’s hard not to blow hard and waste half of it. Although you don’t always need a huge breath in reality, this will help you get control of that diaphragm.

1) Take the biggest, deepest breath you can - even if it takes several seconds to tank up. Let it out as slowly as you can (but steadily letting it out). Try to increase the time you can keep blowing - 1st just blowing, then into a whistle on a low note, a high note. Then try to do the same taking the deepest quick breath you can manage.

2) Take a half sheet of paper, and hold it about 8 inches in front of you so that the bottom edge is just below mouth height. Blow just enough to push the paper forward very slightly. The object is to keep the paper pushed out slightly, but not waving or flapping. Again, you can try to increase your time, and use the slow deep breath to stretch yourself, then go to the quick deep breath.

3) Think of putting a column of air, not a splatter, into the mouthpiece of the whistle. Imagine how the water looks coming out of a hosepipe at medium to high pressure. That’s how the air should enter the whistle, not as if it’s being dumped from a pail.

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Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

I’m sure the above advice on conserving breath is useful but imho the more important skill to acquire is that of ‘dropping’ notes without breaking the rhythm. i.e. you create breathing space for yourself when and where you need it. No one says you must play a tune exactly the same way as anyone else or even the same way twice yourself and having to drop notes to breath adds variety to a tune. There are books and tutors on this but to take say a jig where the notes come in three’s you should always play the first note (it’s on the beat) but can drop one or both of other. e.g. if tune written says GFG, you you could play G breath G ….. G breath ……. G roll ……or GFG……….. take your pick according to your humour and need for air!

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Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Good discussion + answers guys. Just sitting on the outside observing but now chirping in cos I’m a mouthy git.
With relevance to my ITM + CBT thread - is your prob actually real or manufactured? Or rather once you realise you have such an issue, does it then become magnified, and eventually discernible by others who wouldn’t have noticed it had you not subconsciously highlighted it? Just a thought.

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Thanks again, everyone. I hadn’t expected so much advice. Good job, Kris, I like the specifics. I’ll try those exercises. Just following the somewhat similar advice offered by breandan and whoosis yesterday, I think I see a little improvement (imagined or real?). And yes, Wounded, I know what you are talking about, and I have heard players do that to good effect, although I’d say the players I heard did it to give the tune variety rather than because they were running short of breath. I’ll try that, but I don’t know if I can be cool enough to use that technique before I hit the No-Breath brick wall. KML, I play a lot at home where I’m the only listener and the problem is still there. At sessions, I mainly sing, and on rare occasions I take out the whistle and join in.
It might have helped if I had given a bit more info about my tin whistling. Mostly, I play slow airs and I think I play them fairly well, although without the embellishments of really good tin whistlers. With these, I have solved most of the breathing problems. With the airs, I’m always thinking of how I would sing this and that really helps (I’d say about 80% of the airs I play I knew as songs previously). I am not able to play reels, jigs, etc., at top speed, except for the odd one, but I would be happy if I could play the tunes I know at less than top speed with no obvious stops. As regards the listening to good players, Kris, the problem for me would be the speed at which they play. Since they play so fast, e.g. Mary Bergin, they can play with fewer breaths. It couldn’t hurt to listen, and of course I do, but I usually listen for enjoyment rather than for picking up technique.

Anyway, thanks to you all. I’ll try to put your advice to good use.

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Slow down some of those recordings, even half speed, including Mary’s, it might surprise you how often she does breath. Mind you, it’s something we have to do. Sorry I’m late, I wasn’t sure what this thread was about. Like someone previously, I’m an asthmatic and have lungs that have now made it that I can’t go to smokey sessions, still a case here in the U.K.

On Kris’s suggestion, and with regards to exercising the diaghram, an old flute practice for building muscles and understanding is to blow through a straw. You could do something similar by pursing your lips and using the air to just seperate them and escape. It’s also about becoming aware of those muscles in your gut. Be fat, don’t let the expansion of an inhalation fill up into the chest, it needs to go out and increase your beer belly.

But this is about breathing while playing a wind instrument. A dear friend who was a fine flautist in the Irish style, had emphysema. He did a lot of rapid breathing when he played, but he made the breaths count for something, they became an integral part of his playing, and he was damned good too. It was very unusual, but it worked.

Speed can cause some of the sort of frustration you mention, so slow down. You said you like airs, well, play some of your favourite reels and other things in a slower fashion, so you can play with placing your breath here and there ~ FOR EFFECT! ~ not just because you have to breath. Since you do have to breath, why waste that moment of silence, make it count for something. A superb artist at this in your realm was Micho Russell. He used his breath wisely, as did Josie MicDermott. I’d be surprised with your interest if you didn’t have recordings of both.

Once you start to have fun with those quiet spots, and you start to hear how they can contribute positively to a tune, you’ll relax and stop worrying about it. Hell, go overboard, find something like a hop jig or slip jig and puntuate the hell out of it with breaths. It is one of the most important embellishments a wind player has, not to be wasted…

Find places to put in some Z’s, rests, and play with it…

Like the open white spaces around subjects of art, or in graphic design, the silences and pauses help to define and excite the music…

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

"I can’t go to smokey sessions, still a case in the UK".

Still a case here in ‘England & NI’ you mean ‘ceolachan’.

The other bit of The UK, Scotland, have got it right.

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Yes they have, and Ireland, sweet Eire! ~ They got there first…

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

I’ve sent you something via email, but if you find it useful and think it might help others drawn to this discussion, or get others to submit some of their own ideas along these lines, add it here, but maybe I will since I’ve gotten up the nerve to add this next bit. Play with breathing, and here’s something from your notebook that’s great for that, and it can be taken nice and slow and relaxed to start, with swing of course. It isn’t the same take as submitted on site here, as I play the tune differently, but I hope you like it just the same, it is an old standard and gets a lot of air time, including in sessions where hornpipes are a feature…

The Stack Of Barley ~ hornpipe
Key signature: Gmajor
Submitted on December 5th 2003 by gian marco.

Exaggeration is a good exercise…as if you were like my friend, had emphysema, making that need work rhythmically without sacrificing the basic melody and swing of the tune…
| x | = space for silence or a breath… I’ve left out the ‘arrows’ of swing, but in my usual fashion I follow with a more complete transcription of the tune with those arrows ‘>’ and minus the x’s for breath. I also have fun using the occasional snap in my playing of hornpipes, but as I’m a bit around the twist, varying influences, I haven’t notated that here.

The Stack Of Barley
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
R: hornpipe
K: G Major
|: gf |
e x ed B x dB | A x AG AcBA | G2 x A BG (3Bcd | e x A x A x gf |
efed BedB | AGEG (3ABc BA | GFGA (3Bcd Ac | BG (3GGG G2- :|
GA ||
|: B x (3Bcd g xxx | agfg e xxx | g x gf edBd | e x A x A xx g |
a xx f gedB | c x (3BAG A x BA | G x GA B x Ac | B2 G2 G2- :|

|: g>f |
e>fe>d B>ed>B | A>GE>G A>cB>A | G>FG>A B>G (3Bcd | e2 A2 A2 g>f |
e>fe>d B>ed>B | A2 A>G (3ABc B>A | G2 G>A B>dA>c | B>GG>F G2- :|
|: G>A |
B>G (3Bcd g2 f>g | a>gf>g e2 (3def | g2 g>f e>dB>d | e2 A2 A3 g |
a2 (3agf g>ed>B | c>BA>G A>cB>A | G>FG>A (3Bcd A>c | B2 G2 G2- :|

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Connecting the dots ~ as such tunes would also be good ones to practice your breathing on…

"Tunes to start learning on the whistle."
# Posted on July 20th 2006 by bodhranmad

Always first on my list of recommendations, even if I’m late again, is to find a wind player, flute or whistle, you like who lives locally, and get some tunes from them. You will subconsciously be picking up their breathing patterns too, and as it is someone who’s playing you liked, it is likely that their choice of where and how to use breath is something you also like, though you might not be completely aware of that. One-to-one exchange of tradition is where it is at definitely, the social interchange, and the acquisition of technique and style and the feel of the music ~ even better if it is a dance musician, someone with the dance in their playing.

Having had to struggle to get oxygen into my lungs, and a situation that has damned near killed me on several occassions, not just lung disease, you have my sympathies and my best wishes.

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon


Taking a breath ~ I checked your tunebook to see what you’ve been playing and have selected a set to look over and see about notating possible breaths into them using ‘x’. You didn’t have any slip jigs in your tunebook but that isn’t saying anything. Though not in your tunebook here’s a popular bouncy slip jig that you might give a try to experiment with breaths and even articulating more bounce into it that way.

Classically breaths can be taken at the end of a measure, to emphasize the following primary beat of the next measure. Pipers would give their right arm to be able to so easily and electively articulate with those pauses. Also check the submission on site here, and its comments ~ but even better, find some recordings, or ask a local wind player to teach it to you ~ and ask if they’ll let you record them playing it. If you make them take it slowly, well, they will have to take more breaths and it will be more obvious…:

Not in your tunebook ~ slip jigs ~ "A Fig For a Kiss"

Points where breath might be taken (N = the value of a note unspecified):

N2 N = Nx N / N3 = Nxx / NNN = NxN

Classic places to ‘use’ a breath for a slip jig:
| N2 N N2 N Nxx | ~ | N2 N N2 N NxN |
| Nxx N2 N N2 N | ~ | NxN N2 N NNN |
| Nx N Nx N Nx N | ~ it should be ‘fun’ and serve a purpose, not just a must…

A Fig For A Kiss
Key signature: Edorian
Submitted on June 9th 2002 by Josh Kane.

T: A Fig For A Kiss
M: 9/8
L: 1/8
R: slip jig
K: E Dorian
|: G2 B E2 B BAG | F2 A D2 d AGF |
G2 B E2 B BAG | B/c/dB A>GF E3 :|
|: g2 e g2 e edB | f2 d f2 d A2 f |
1 g2 e g2 e e2 B | d>BG G2 d e2 f :|
2 g2 e f2 d e2 c | BdB A>GF E3 ||

Variations on the opening bars for the A-Part:

|: G2 B E2 B B2 G | F2 A D2 d A2 F | ~

|: G2 B E2 B B3 | F2 A D2 A A3 | ~

Variations on the opening bars for the B-Part:
| g3 g2 e B2 e | ~ | g2 e g2 e B3 |

| g2 e e2 g B2 g | f2 d d2 f A2 a |

| g3 e2 g B2 g | f3 d2 f A2 a | g2 e fed e3 | d2 B AGF E3 ||

~ accenting the bounce:
|: Gx B Ex B Bx G | F2 A D2 d AxF |

I’ll send the others, a jig, hornpipe and reel from your tunebook, later. Maybe they will help.

Be aware of your diaphram, but I suspect you are, sounding relatively healthy. There are some practices in certain branches of yoga that have breathing exercises that can help, also used in good exercise practice ~ counting your breath in, holding it for a count, and then blowing it out for a count. The latter bit is different in the flute teachers way ~ done as almost a whistle, quiet, forcing the lips to part and requiring a little more effort, also doing it using the muscles of the diaghram, feeling those muscles and even watching them contract…

Best of luck ~ ‘c’

Further on "The Stack of Barley" ~ you’ll find some other variations and ideas for the tune in its comments. As mentioned, any N2 or N3 offers a clear advantage for taking in air… I have two jigs and two single reels and also one of your dad’s reels I’ll try to work up for you… However, if you have specific tunes in you’d like me to do, a few, just let me know and I’ll see what I can do. I hope these offerings are of some use. It would be easier and more natural if I was in Saskatoon and could give them to you over a pint… 😉

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon

Thanks, ceolachan. I’m absolutely flabbergasted that you have this much time/energy for offering advice. If I tried to do this much, I’d never get near my whistle at all (and then breathing wouldn’t be a problem), not to mention the fiddle. Some of my other distractions are things like watching the Tour on TV, then going out to do my own bike ride. We must make hay in Saskatoon while the sun shines. Well, actually, it shines nearly every day. Change that to when the temps are above 0. That’s about May to Sept. For now, I’m just going to say Thanks, Go raibh mile maith agat (When I was a young guy in Dublin, we used to say Go raibh mile moths agat, moth being the local slang for a girl, mo’ in Dublinese). After I have had time to digest all your offerings, I will respond, but most things I do, I do slowly (No, no, girls, that’s the one thing I can’t do slowly.)
Slan go foill,

Re: Breathless in Saskatoon ~ a few polkas to play with

The Ballydesmond Polka (2 / 3 )
Key signature: A Dorian
Submitted on August 16th 2001 by Jeremy.

K: Ador
|: AB |
c x B x |A x G>A | B/c/d ef | g x ed |
ea g/a/g/e/ |dB G/ x/ A | Be dB | A x :|
|: B/c/d |
ea a>g | dg g x | ea ab | g x ed |
ea ge | dB G>B | ce dB | A x :|

Din Tarrant’s ~ polka
Key signature: Gmajor
Submitted on June 5th 2004 by kjlowe.

K: Gmaj
|: D |
G x G>A | B>A B/c/d | GB dB | AG ED |
G x G>A | B>A B/c/d | e/f/g fg | AG G :|
|: x |
Bd de/f/ | g>f ed | Bd de/f/ | gB A x |
Bd de/f/ | g/a/d/f/ e x | B/c/d Bd | BG G :|

Cronin’s Kitchen ~ polka
Key signature: Adorian
Submitted on July 23rd 2006 by ceolachan.

K: A Dorian
|: AB cd | ef g x | ag/e/ dB | AB G x |
A>B cd | ef ge/g/ | ag/e/ dB | A x A2 :|
|: ag ed | ef g x | ag/e/ dB | AB G x |
A>B cd | ef ge | a/b/a/g/ e/d/B | A2 A x :|

"The Britches Full Of Stitches" ~ polka, other keys & ways in the comments
Key signature: D Major (& A & G)
Submitted on October 24th 2002 by Paddy.

K: A Major
|: A>B cA | BA cA/ x/ | A>B c/B/A | BA F x |
AA/B/ cA | BA ce/ x/ | | A>B AF | FE E x :|
ee/f/ ec | BA B x | e>f ec | BA F x |
e>f ec | BA Bc | AA/B/ c/B/A |FA E x |
e x ec | B>A Bc | a>f ec | BA F x |
ee/f/ e x | BA B x | AA/B/ AF | F x EE/F/ ||

A couple of jigs have been worked up and one of your dad’s reels, and then I’ll leave you in peace. I hope they help in some way. Remember, take things like this slowly ~ AND RELAX!!! 😉 Don’t build in tensions, always a problem when you are relearning something or changing your way with it. Some of the moments given for catching a breath are 1/16th notes, but you can get a bit of air and give a bit of punch with a short silence ~ x/ ~ good luck…