Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?

Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?

Okay, I don’t have any examples for show-and-tell, but I’ve noticed in very old recordings of whistle playing that there’s a lot of tonguing and very little of the long legato that we hear today. Is this something that changed radically over a generation or two, or have I just stumbled upon some old unrepresentative oddities? Surely somebody here can hold forth on the evolution of whistle playing.

Re: Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?


Ya know, I was thinking about the very same thing today when I was playing my whistle.

I really don’t know why, but what I think is that it has to do with the way playing in general has changed..


1. Influences by pipers [Johnny Doran comes to mind, and other open style players]

2. Trying to think of how to word this…

back then: Playing was more free-ish to an extent. And if I’m right, whistle players never really played as fast as they do now right?

now: Going back to tempo, I suppose it’s more legato as a result of speedier playing? Like how it’s easier to play swing 8ths at a moderate pace, but as you increase tempo, the 8ths become more straight.

Then again, I could be completely wrong, so don’t take my word for it! =P


Re: Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?

I think it depends on who you listen to but you’ll hear both styles and often a combination of both. To quote my all time whistle "goddess" Mary Bergin (as far as I’m concerned nobody will ever touch her!) - and she made this comment about ten years ago - "there are lots of different styles of whistle playing. Some people use their tongues quite a lot and have a sort of staccato style. Then others wouldn’t use very much tongue - and instead rely on their fingers for the ornamentation. The style that I would use is a combination of the two; the tougue to punch out the rhythm and the fingers for ornamentation - the rolls and such."
I also think whistle players are influenced by the pipes (a lot of whistlers are pipers too) Johnny Doran and Paddy Keenan both have that nice legato pipeing style which is emulated in a lot of whistle playing. But then take Gavin Wheelan he uses a lot of triplet ornamentation in his playing and octave leaps which are best executed with tonguing.

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Re: Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?

Not a lecture! Just a few humble observations. 🙂

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Re: Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?

A has been mentioned many times before on TheSession, there are probably more uillean pipers in Ireland -and the World - today than ever in history. And most of them play the whistle as well. So it’s not surprising that whistle playing in general is more piping-influenced these days.

To quote Armand:
"back then: Playing was more free-ish to an extent."

Perhaps, because of the relative lack of outside influences on the music, there was less tendency to ‘protect’ the music by consciously adhering to particular styles of playing. Many *did*(and many aspects of style come about as a by-product of the capabilities and limitations of the instrument) - which is how the music has survived so long. But those of a more creative bent were perhaps able to interpret tunes in unconventional ways without being accused of "going against the spirit of the music" and such like. Those individuals are no doubt responsible for much of what we call ‘traditional’ today.

Re: Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?

In the little book that came with my first Clarke penny whistle, I think it said that the use of the tongue was more prevalent in English whistle playing than in Irish. So, if you aspire to be known as a "British folk musician," (see other recent thread for details on that), use your tongue more!

Re: Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?

One musician today that comes to mind that plays in the older style is Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh [Kitty Lie Over album with Mick O’Brien aka best album ever aka sex in Bb]. You don’t really get a chance to hear just him playing, but if you watch/listen to him in concert.. It’s a treat, I tell ya!!


Re: Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?

There are still loads of whistle players who tongue a lot. So, I don’t think there’s no such thing as "revolution" in whistle playing. The thing is, they don’t appear on many commercial recordings.

Re: Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?

By the way, I myself tongue a lot. That’s probably because I started learning whistle in Scotland, and Carmel Gunning of Sligo is the main source of inspiration.

The most old-fashioned whistle player I’ve ever met in person is Fermanagh man Francis Rasdale, who regularly plays in Enniskillen. He appears on Hidden Fermanagh Vol.1. Ah, Cathal is also a great whistle player.

Re: Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?

Interesting, slainte. It makes sense that that style wouldn’t just go away over a generation or two. Just another way that the recording standard is different from the everyday-common-folks playing standard.

Re: Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?

Bob, don’t forget to take my words with a grain of salt.

Re: Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?

Micko Russel is somebody of the not very old whistler who plays with a lot of tonguing and kind of simple. I think it^’s a fascinating style!
BTW the same discussion with the same results could follow regarding flute playing styles!

Re: Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?

I have heard Francie Rasdale many a times in Blakes of the Hollow and he is an excellent old style player. However, his younger Daughter, Sheena, is even better at the old style of playing. The one think I really like about listening to Francie is that he changes between low notes and high notes and it sounds wonderful. No one else I know or have heard plays like that.

Re: Can someone lecture on the evolution of whistle playing?

Cathal McConnell does that too!

To tongue or not to tongue ~ past and present and future? ~ lecture?

How about a bay full of sea salt?

I tried to keep away from this discussion, as I knew I might ruffle some feathers and get myself in trouble, including with friends. I don’t like these assumptions based on limited experience, or a ‘hunch’, not that I don’t like and appreciate ‘hunches’, they are good seed for discussion, but ‘establishing’ such-and-such as the ‘old style’ or ‘old-fashioned’, that definitely caught in my throat with a glottal stop…

First, and well established and known and appreciated, at least amongst pipers, there are two basic ends to that tradition, both accepted and appreciated, included by me, though Seamus Ennis recognized three styles and tried to make them geographic, associating the ‘close’ to the North, and having a third style he called ‘normal’ or ‘drawing room’ ~ anyway, just dealing with technique ~

The legato side, tied (slurred/joined) notes. is sometimes referred to as the technique of the travelling pipers, open, flowing, free, Johnny Doran, Willy & Leo Rowsome ~ the long bow of piping…

The staccoto style, or close, detached notes, as played by John Potts Senior, and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Seamus Ennnis & Willie Clancy at it, as well as Tommy Reck, who studied with Potts, and another I admire and who I’ve also had the pleasure of hearing and sharing music with, this technique is sharp and bubbly ~ the short bow of piping…

Now to whistle, and no further, as that is where this started. Let’s go to the earliest recordings ~

Great stuff was coming out of Dublin back then, and often without the interruption of bad accompaniment, like what happened in America with much Irish music, daft piano banging, and amongst those early recordings was the whistle playing of Peter Guinan, 1875 - 1949, who, if you want ‘old-style’ and ‘old-fashioned’ and from IRISH in IRELAND, he was from County Offaly, he recorded 8 sides in the late 1930s, some with the fiddler Kieran Hynes, and he is quite clearly and beautifully LEGATO!!! Also in that realm is the whistle player Festy Conlon (who’s father was a fife player), of Spiddal, the Connemara Gaeltacht, County Galway. Now that is definitely Irish…

Festy Conlon
Recording: From Galway To Dublin: Early Recordings Of Traditional Irish Music
18. 1937 ~ Off To California / The Liverpool ~ Peter Guinan
I wish there were more of his music available…

Recording: Various Artists: The Breeze From Erin
1.) The Choice Wife ~ Willie Clancy, pipes
2.) Banish Misfortune ~ Festy Conlan
3.) The Bag Of Potatoes / The Sligo Maid ~ Festy Conlan
7.) The Morning Dew / The Woman Of The House ~ Willie Clancy, whistle
8.) The Queen Of The Rushes ~ Festy Conlan
10.) An Raibh Tu An GCarraig ~ Festy Conlan
11.) The First House In Connaught / Miss McLeod ~ Festy Conlan
13.) Taimse Im Chodladh ~ Willie Clancy, pipes

Recording: Various Artists: A Living Thing
11.) The Bag Of Potatoes / Sligo Maid ~ Festy Conlon & Tim Lyons
12.) The Queen Of The Rushes ~ Festy Conlon & Tim Lyons

Recording: The Totally Traditional Tin Whistle Tape ~ Various Artists
10.) Una Bhan ~ Festy Conlon

Recording: The Coolin’: Classic Slow Airs And Laments
1.) Roisin Dubh ~ Festy Conlon

Beautifully tongued, and a favourite ~

Recording: Josie McDermott: Darby’s Farewell

More ~

Willie Clancy ~ who’s whistle playing I would consider to be in the middle, taking both ways with it…

Micho Russell ~ I’d also put him in the middle, though more tongue than slurs, and again a favourite. His style has been described as in imitation of his mother’s concertina playing, ending up with something unique, an inspired use of silence and articulation, tongue and breathing… But he also slurs. There is also some belief that you can tell the age of his tunes, before trying to roll and after. The earlier takes being more akin to the concertina? But, and I have a load of recordings, commercial and otherwise, he does slur as well as tongue, if the latter being prevalent in his ‘unique’ style.

Recording: "The Russell Family Of Doolin, County Clare"

Recording: "Micho Russell: Traditional Irish Music From County Clare"

Recording: "Micho Russell: Ireland’s Whistling Ambassador"

Recording: "Micho Russell: The Man from Clare"

Recording: "Micho Russell: The Limestone Rock"

Etc…just about any ‘Various Artists’ to do with ‘winds’…

School recorder lessons, always incomplete and unfinished, have a lot to do with machine gun style tonguing, examples often being suggested from England, and North America too. The worst commercial example of this is any attempt at trad by James Galway, like his take on "Sweeps" / "The Belfast Hornpipe", not something I recommend except as a curiosity piece, but sadly one of the recordings that it seems inspired many folk to take up the penny whistle… I know this intimately because I’ve had to unravel resultant misconceptions…

When I’ve been in a situation of teaching I try to get them to play without any other articulation than clean movement of the fingers. We eventually get to articulation, but not as an excuse for covering up bad fingering and poor timing, but as a choice rather than a necessity, to make it do something, to serve a purpose, and the same with the necessity to breath with winds. why throw it away, or have it dominate you, why not understand the value of silence and use it to good effect? ~ for interest? That’s the way I look at this one aspect of technique, that it is just that, a technique that can be used with effect… I have the same attitude toward the twiddles, that they should help rather than hinder, as they can when they are just thought of as something for show and exhibition, rather than something to aid the purpose of dance music or the emotions in an air…

So, is that lecture enough, for a start? Was I sufficiently dogmatic? 😎

To tongue or not to tongue ~ past and present and future?

Oops! I forgot a link ~

Recording: "Various Artists: Traditional Dance Music Of Ireland"

9.) The Gosson that Bate his Father ~ Sean "Jack" Maguire = stacatto
~ the father of the fiddling brothers Jim & Sean Maguire

33.) Music at the Gate ~ Seamus Ennis = legato