Ornamentation on Whistles

Ornamentation on Whistles

Hi all

I am a self-taught whistle player, and the only real instruction i have ever used is a YouTube video on how to play the scale. Ever since then, i have just found tunes on this website and learned them (only about 4), taking breaths while playing when i think it fits the melody and using a lot of embellishments that I use while playing my GHBs (these include grace notes and taps, sometimes a combination of both and when on F sharp, i sometimes use the pibroch embellishment “dare”).

On G I see advanced whistle players playing an A grace note (I don’t know if that’s what you call it in Irish music) and then in quick succession a tap on G as an embellishment. I have used this.

But the question I want to ask is if there are any strict rules regarding ornamentation on the whistle, and if there are, if there is some sort of book or tutorial I can learn them from? You might see that I have opened a discussion recently on flutes, I plan on buying one and I know there are specific embellishments (maybe very similar to the whistle?), but I feel I need to understand the whistle fully before I move on.

Any answers are greatly appreciated.


Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

You have a good start on the pipes. Cuts and taps are used a lot in the music to break space between notes. In fact, the reason flutes and whistles in this do so was originally to imitate the uilleann pipes.

Strict rules? Eh, not SO much. A popular ornament, which sounds like you might be describing on the G, is called a roll. Basically, a roll takes the space of three eighth notes in a tune. It done by playing the note itself, then cutting once and tapping once, effectively playing the note three times. A google search of “tin whistle roll” will yield useful results, likely.

Not sure what a “dare” is.

Here’s a webpage that explains some the ornamentation: http://www.rogermillington.com/siamsa/brosteve/twiddlybits1.html

I’m sure others here will have valuable advice.

Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

There are many such books and similar resources.

Brother Steve has a good introductory overview.
After working through the overview, note esp the “further study” link there. That consists of close analysis of different tunes by several great players, with audio, and is really valuable.

The Online Academy of Irish Music has some free intro material as well as their paid courses on whistle:

As for books, you might look for opinions on Mary Bergin’s

There are also tutors by Grey Larsen, Geraldine Cotter, and L. E. McCullough, to mention a few.

You might be well served to look up one of the folks on the board who is familiar with both the GHB works and whistle and flute and ask about common pitfalls, e.g. https://thesession.org/members/36889

Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

Ha - cross-posted on the Bro Steve reference. Great minds think alike!

Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

Thanks for good answers. I definitely am now considering buying Grey Larsen’s book on flute and whistle, a bit pricey though!

Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

Sorry, the other thing I wanted to ask was if you were playing a “roll” on the bottom hand, the “cut” note would always be A? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen people play B “cut” notes, but I’m not sure…and also for example, if I wanted to play a “roll” on B would the “cut” note be C and the “tap” go down to A? Or would it go down to G? That would be called a closed tap on the GHB.

And also, does anyone put the bottom D finger on the whistle when playing on the top hand (the rest of the bottom hand being off the whistle)? Sorry for not putting these questions in the original post, I just forgot about them.

Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

On the whistle cutting with the B sounds better to me in the upper register then A ( but not in the lower reg) - but you can cut with the G, A or B whatever sounds best, usually at speed it makes no odds.

a “roll” on B would the “cut” note be C and the “tap” go down to A? Or would it go down to G?
Either will work some find using two fingers ( down to G) easier.

D finger on the whistle when playing on the top hand - I do sometimes to steady it.

Grey Larsen’s book on flute - not my favourite player but some people do use his tutor - I’ve used June McCormack’s tutor in the past = she’s a nice player IMHO

Good luck

Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

I “second” or “third” the recommendation for Brother Steve. Sensible, easily accessible advice.

Grey Larsen’s book is precise, rich and encyclopedic. It is very complete for in-depth study, and is well worth the price. He has a long series of “studies” for specific technical exercises.

Mary Bergin’s book is on my list…

Larsen makes recommendations for decorations that are worth considering, although they are a little different from what most whistlers do. Usually players use only a couple of fingers for all the cuts. Grey suggests using the second finger above the open hole whenever possible. If you are ever heading to flute, that is a better habit to pick up from the start.

Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

Private lessons from a good teacher are incredibly beneficial. Many people treat it as an easy instrument and never get the most out of it. Said teacher will educate you on all the ornaments and articulations, and how they make the music what it is.

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Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

“any strict rules regarding ornamentation on the whistle”

Not as rigid as on the GHB, but there are unwritten “rules” nevertheless, or “performance practices” in musicology terms. As with any rules there are exceptions, and soon enough any discussion of whistle ornamentation will get people chiming in with the relatively rare exceptions. If the vast majority of people do something a similar way is it proper to speak of “rules”? Perhaps not. Perhaps “tendencies” would be more correct.

In general the same fingerings and “ornaments” can be played on whistle and flute.

BTW I reject the term “ornamentation” regarding cuts, pats, and rolls on the whistle and flute in the same way I wouldn’t regard GDE gracenotes to separate three Low A’s etc on the Highland pipes to be “ornaments”. Rather, they are ways to separate melody notes, which would be done by tonguing on the Recorder or Boehm flute. A cumbersome term yes but I consider them “digital articulation”. But yes they have some decorative quality too.

So, in most Irish flute playing there’s very little “ornamentation” in the true sense of the word.

The basic notions are extremely simple. You have “lower gracenotes” which in GHB lingo are called “slurs” (hence the Jig Of Slurs, a tune created as an exercise in these) and are called “pats” in ITM. You just pop a finger quickly on the highest open hole available.

And you have “upper gracenotes” which are called “cuts” in ITM. On the GHB the typical “working finger” is the upper-hand index finger, which is usually doing a gracenote on most beats in Highland piping. On the whistle/flute this finger isn’t used nearly as often. The most work is usually done by the upper-hand ring finger which is used (by many trad players) to cut all of the lower-hand notes.

A is cut with either of the available fingers above; B can only be cut with the upper-hand index finger.

Unlike Highland piping, where there’s nearly always a “cut” on the beat, on the whistle and flute there’s often no cut or ornament on the beat. If there’s a roll on the beat note that the roll typically starts with a plain un-ornamented note. This is strange for GHB players, oftentimes.

Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

Another shout for the Grey Larson book. I know it’s heavy going for many but for anyone used to analysing GHB technique it should be pretty intelligible. I also agree that not everything in there is common practice, as Richard puts it, but if you can play it the differences will be straightforward.

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Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

I am a highland piper as well. A couple years ago on vacation in Ireland I bought a cheap whistle. I was doing OK with it mostly playing by ear. I got the Larsen book last year which was helpful. Earlier this year I joined Blayne Chastains site. It is an excellent resource with videos on basic skills and ornamentation, as well as full library of tunes. He breaks each tune down in multiple videos and ends with a track with the full tune so you can practice playing along. Well worth it. Last month I started taking some lessons at Connecticut Academy of Irish Music. I can say it is nice to have some live tuition as well.

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Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

One more question: does anyone have a concise explanation about blowing patterns on the whistle?


Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

“One more question: does anyone have a concise explanation about blowing patterns on the whistle?”

My understanding of this question is that you’re wondering how to decide where you breathe within tune. If so, the most concise explanation I can give is that you have two main options:

1. Skip an entire note (usually an eighth note) to take a breath

2. Shorten a longer note by the value of one eighth note to make room to breathe

And one simple rule applies to both cases:

Don’t breath ‘on the beat’ or ‘on the pulse’.

This means in a jig, for example, you don’t want to breathe on beats 1 or 4, or in a reel you don’t want to breathe on beats 1 or 5, or on a slip jig you don’t want to breathe on the 1, 4 or 9, and so forth.

It sounds a bit tricky, but with enough listening and practice it’ll happen subconsciously. The key is to feel where the pulse lands in the tune and that only comes with experience.

Oh, and breathe before you have to breathe. If you absolutely need to breathe you’re more likely to just inhale at any old point in the tune and mess up the flow.

Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

^^by the way, there are no original ideas of mine above, it’s all paraphrased from various sources I used when developing an algorithm to allow a computer to try to identify appropriate breathing places within tune transcriptions 🙂

Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

Hi Richard, what is the jig that you played at the end of your 3 minute video tutorial?

Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

The tune at the end of Richard’s video is the third part of the Pipe on the Hob, if I’m not mistaken.

Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

Probably- I’m terrible at remembering tune names.

What’s cool is that you have the opportunity to roll C, D, and E in sequence, and it’s good for practicing these rolls (if you want to). There are plenty of trad players that never roll C natural or D.

I too came to ITM from Highland piping, and much of my experience over the years has been helping GHB players with their first steps on their path to uilleann piping. I know all the “wrong” things GHB players do because I’ve struggled with them all myself. In truth very little of GHB technique transfers directly to the uilleann pipes, flute, and whistle.

There’s one for sure! The GHB “bubbly note” uses exactly the same fingering as the uilleann pipe’s “tight” triplet G F# E. Other than that, it’s really only the pats/slurs and upper gracenotes/cuts.

Re: Ornamentation on Whistles

“One more question: does anyone have a concise explanation about blowing patterns on the whistle?”

I don’t think a concise explanation is possible. The subject is complex.

If you mean when to take breaths, that’s the thing: flute and whistle players, when learning tunes from instruments that don’t take breaths, have to figure out where to breathe.

One place that usually works is to breathe in the spot you would (or could) play a roll. You just touch on the first note, then take a breath, leaving out the 2nd eighthnote of the roll, and jumping back in on the 3rd eighthnote. So in a jig GGG becomes G ’ G (a comma in flute music indicates taking a breath). In a reel it’s the same with rolls that begin on the beat, so GGGA becomes G ’ GA. On the rolls that begin one eighthnote after the beat you can take a breath right after hitting the second note of the roll, so BGGG becomes BGG ’. These things make much more sense when you hear them.

So, in tunes with lots of rolls (or roll-equivalent situations) there are plenty of places to take breaths. Tunes that have loads of scalar runs and arpeggios are trickier, you have to leave out a melody note to carve out a breathing-spot.

Many good fluteplayers turn the necessity of taking breaths into a strength: their breath-taking spots are chosen and emphasised in such a way to give greater lift and drive to the music.

Now if by “blowing patterns” you mean tonguing, that subject is even more complex!