Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

I’m relatively young to the instrument, so far I’ve picked up tunes I really liked and practiced some of them endlessly. Still, sometimes when I start learning a new tune, I struggle at the onset, more-so than for some other new tunes. This seems to be particularly the case for Edor pieces.

Recently, a non-Irish-trad musician friend, whom has a lot of background in music theory and piano, recommended practicing scales and arpeggios. Obviously tunes go and up and down the scales, but there seems to be far more to it than that for ITM. Curious about this?

From what I’ve read online, practicing arpeggios would be something like …

Dmaj: D F# A d f# a f# d A F# D … repeat
Gmaj: D G B d g d B G D … repeat

and shifted over for other modes of those keys.

An exercise for Cmaj:
F A c A F
G B d B G
A c e c A
B d f d B
c e g e c
g e c e g
f d B f d
e c A c e
d B G B d
c A F A c
G E C E G E C … repeat

I’ve read through a few discussions on scales & arpeggios (https://thesession.org/discussions/16301 , https://thesession.org/discussions/16264/ , https://thesession.org/discussions/18168 , https://thesession.org/discussions/33669). Some people seem to suggest working on scales, other say once past the beginner stage it’s better to work on tunes.

So, other than working on some scales & arpeggios for the few modes I seem to be currently weaker at (ex. Edor), is there much value in practicing them for ITM? Or is my time better spent on tunes?

And does anyone have good exercises for the different D + C whistle modes (major/ionian, mixolydian, dorian, and minor/aeolian)?

Thus far, I have learned tunes of the modes: Dmaj, Amix, Edor, Ador, Emin, Amin, Bmin, Gmin, and Dmin. A few Cmaj, Dmix, Gmix, Gdor, Emaj and Fmaj are on my radar too!

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

I cannot see possible value in the practicing of scales. You are either playing with one sharp or two. There are few chromatic runs to master. Work on tone, rhythm, style and interpretation and the rest will come.

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

This is one of those bag of worm questions, the board here will soon separate into the does and don’ts and the my way and the right way proclamations of many an overly done argument. For my part I think a lot of people miss out a great deal from not learning scales and arpeggios, they often become tune bashers, rushing to develop a repertoire without the composite skills to do so. It’s not an either or thing but it is very common in my opinion.

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

Irish tunes rarely are scalar. Silver Spire is the only one in my repertoire. Arpeggios are more common, but you’re better off just trying to learn a lot of tunes, trying to incorporate a nice catchy rhythm and learning to breathe in a way that enhances the rhythm.

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

I’m not enamoured of arpeggios on whistle. They might strengthen your ear, or not. I am in favor of them for flute, particularly for long tone/embouchure work. A better warm-up for whistle might be something like triplets played slowly, then increasing in speed ie: def,ef#g,f#ga,gab,abc#,bc#D, tongued an slurred, getting the lilt of an Irish triplet. Then descending. I like ‘step’ scales also: d-f#,e-g,f#-a,g-b up, then down.

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

I find that the odd arpeggio practice helps with my improvisations.

It certainly won’t harm you!

But tunes are the main event…

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

From my point of view it’s nothing to do perhaps with the music but the skills you develop to play it. Those tricky exercises and stuff are the things that get your motor skills sharp and that pays off in loads of ways. A wide repertoire is fantastic for developing your ability to play but only if you can actually articulate those tunes in a way that gives them the credit they are due.

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

“For my part I think a lot of people miss out a great deal from not learning scales and arpeggios, they often become tune bashers, rushing to develop a repertoire without the composite skills to do so.”

I’d second this, but expand it to include any kind of non-tune exercise, as well as listening. There is a certain kind of session player, very common here in the US, who goes out and gets an instrument and immediately either buys a tunebook or comes on here and starts learning tunes from the dots. Yes, learning a bunch of tunes is ultimately the best (many would say only) way to learn to play trad. But there is a huge difference between the notes and the music, and that’s a distinction lost on many players I’ve heard.

To give an analogy, I have a degree in classical voice. In college, I’d invite friends of mine to the operas we’d put on, and I’d often get the same reaction after it was done: “how do you remember it all?” True, 3 hours of Mozart is a fair bit to get into your head. But any opera singer will tell you that that’s the easy part. The real work comes once you actually know the notes, and you start to try to make music out of it all. A good classical musician can sight-read a sheet of music like a normal person can read a recipe out of a cookbook, but there’s a lot more work to be done if you’re going to make a delicious cake!

The point of scales, arpeggios, and other exercises is to make playing the notes second nature. You can get this by just learning tunes, but you have to be selective about which tunes you start out learning. Pick tunes from all possible keys, and with all possible awkward passages and combinations of notes. If a tune looks hard or has a passage you think you can’t play, isolate it and play it slowly until you can. Exercises do the same thing, teaching your fingers to move effortlessly around the instrument. Some think they’re boring, and if you find yourself not wanting to pick up the whistle because you feel like you “have” to play scales, it’s counterproductive. But, perhaps because I’m coming for a classical background, I find them useful. I’ve actually worked out one exercise that gives me every two-note combination I need:


dC#d dCnatd dBd dAd dGd dFd dEd dDd

EDE EFE… etc.

And don’t forget that there are exercises that work on cuts, pats, rolls, and other ornaments as well, which can be very useful when trying to make music out of those notes! But again, ultimately, whatever gets you practicing in a productive way is the best answer here.

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

The most important thing is to enjoy the time you spend with the instrument in your hand. Hornpipes are often arpeggiated. You might consider playing hornpipes rather than isolated arpeggios and zero in on the ones that seem awkward.
As far as tunes that use scales (runs of notes) these few come to mind: Piper’s Despair, John Docherty’s Barn Dance, Ashmolean House, Leitrim Lilter. I’m sure there are dozens more. Playing scales is definitely not a waste of time. Ask any accomplished classical player.
From my perspective, the value of doing finger exercises yields more benefit on the fiddle than on other instruments that I play. Exercises develop transferable skills -- transferable to many tunes -- while playing the same tune over and over might only benefit that one particular tune.
But as with all things musical, YMMV.

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

First off, any whistle player who says they never practice scales and arpeggios is deluding themselves.

If they’ve spent many hours practicing tunes they’ve spent many hours practicing the scales and arpeggios that are built into the tunes.

The real question is whether or not practicing scales and arpeggios seperately has any value. I don’t think it can be proven that it does.

For me, an awareness of scales and arpeggios helps me learn tunes by ear at full speed more easily, because it’s far faster to recognise a pattern than to have to seperately learn each individual note.

Important in that regard is being able to recognise which scale is being employed. It’s often not a full diatonic scale, but a gap scale of some kind. When I hear someone trying to learn a tune and they play a note that doesn’t exist in the scale the tune is in, it tells me that the person hasn’t recognised that the tune is question doesn’t have all seven notes of an ordinary scale; in other words the tune is hexatonic (missing one note) or pentatonic (missing two notes).

Sightreading musicians practice scales and arpeggios because the purpose of their practice isn’t to learn tunes but to develop the ability to play any music that’s placed in front of them. Learning tunes is pointless when you’re paid to show up at a gig and flawlessly play the music on the music stand, music which you have never seen before and which you will never see again. You can play anything because you’ve practiced everything. You can sightread at full speed because you can immediately recognise musical patterns and don’t have to read from note to note.

This has a parallel in ear-learning Irish tunes: if you have all the patterns under your fingers you can quickly recognise the patterns that go to make up a reel or jig, and quickly learn a new tune. A bar of a reel might have eight notes but those notes might make up only one or two motifs; you only need to identify the motifs, not all eight individual notes.

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

Furthermore, knowing your scales doesn’t mean just DEF#GABcd back and forth, but also being able to identify (and play) stepwise patterns like afge faec , G2BG F2AF and so on.

(Written when Richard’s post was half as long…)

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

Thank you everyone! Much appreciated.

Here’s some of what I’ve gathered from this discussion so far:
- There’s mixed thoughts on whether strictly practicing scales and arpeggios outside of tunes is useful for the whistle, but most of you lean towards ‘yes, it has value’
- Having an understanding of scales and arpeggios helps with properly learning tunes more quickly, and with learning by ear
- Practicing scales and arpeggios helps build the “muscle memory” for different fingering patterns which could come up in a tune, helps playing the notes become second nature
- It’s worth identifying tunes I have difficulty with, or passages of those tunes, and practice them slowly. Which effectively could be like practicing a scale or arpeggio pattern
- Hornpipes are a good source for practicing arpeggios within tunes

Some exercises to try:
- Slowly go through (and speed up on): DEF, EF#G, F#GA, GAB, ABC#, BC#d (and other parts of a scale)
- Step scales:
DF#, EG, F#A, GB, (up, then down)
G2BG, F#2AF#, E2GE, etc.

- All two note combinations:
dc#d, dcd, dBd, dAd, dGd, dF#d, dEd, dDd,
EDE, EF#E … (etc.)

Are there any other exercises worth checking out?

In regards to ordinary scales (all seven notes), hexatonic scales (missing any single notes of seven) and pentatonic scales (missing any two notes of seven), what might practicing hexatonic or pentatonic scales look like? An exercise relevant to ITM?

I’ve read a bit more about those scales (https://thesession.org/discussions/39387, and https://sites.google.com/site/rocnyslowsession/theoryworkshop/3), it seems a bit arbitrary the way I’ve read it, and I’m sure there’s a deeper wisdom available. I could take any one or two notes of a scale to practice hexatonic or pentatonic scales, but are there versions of hexatonic or pentatonic scales which are more common in the different common keys of ITM? (Music theory terminology doesn’t have as much meaning to me yet.)

About motifs, Richard said “a bar of a reel might have eight notes but those notes might make up only one or two motifs; you only need to identify the motifs, not all eight individual notes.” Motifs being patterns, and those patterns often drawing from scales or arpeggios I gather?

Thanks again everyone!

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

“Are there any other exercises worth checking out?”

You want to be able to go from any note to any note,

“In regards to ordinary scales (all seven notes), hexatonic scales (missing any single notes of seven) and pentatonic scales (missing any two notes of seven), what might practicing hexatonic or pentatonic scales look like? An exercise relevant to ITM?”

I don’t think you have to practice gapped scales. If you’ve done your exercises above, you can already go from any note to any other note in the scale(/tune). Gapped scale or not, you have to be able to hear what you hear, and also to play what you hear.

Polkas are usually easy to pick up, but a pentatonic one like the Munster Bank ( https://thesession.org/tunes/9873 ) will be even easier.

“Motifs being patterns, and those patterns often drawing from scales or arpeggios I gather?”

Many tunes are full of figures like E2BE dEBE , G2DG EGDE , G2BG cGBG , A2eA BAeA , D2FD ADFD , e2cA eAcA and so one. Parts of scales / broken arpeggios. Once you know a couple of tunes with such patterns, you don’t have to learn them again for every new tune they may appear in. An entire measure has become one chunk.

Good luck!

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

Great, thank you jeff! That’s a neat little polka too!

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

When I saw this discussion I expected a lot chaff. But I found all the comments thoughtful, open minded, and helpful. Maybe we turned a corner and the world can become a better place.

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

Fun with scales:
The Raivlin - Barbara McOwen 1993 - is interesting with almost all scale movement.
If you ignore the d and D drone notes you have these ascending / descending scale runs:
* = d or D drone
X: 2
T: The Raivlin
K: Dmaj
Part B: FGA**B* dcdefg f efg efg eF*EDEFGA D
The whole tune is just scale runs with drones (pedal notes to be more precise) throw in.
https://thesession.org/tunes/10342 setting 2

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

Great tune for scales Steve, thank you!

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

All practice has value, as long as you start slowly and carefully enough that you don’t practice mistakes.

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

For a very simple example of how much faster it is to pick up a tune by being able to recognise patterns (rather than separately identify each individual note) is the second part of The Atholl Highlanders

A mixolydian
|:Ace Ace|Bdf Bdf|Ace Ace|Bcd cBA|
Ace Ace|Bdf Bdf|cae fed|cdB A3:|

Upon hearing that, anyone who knows arpeggios would instantly recognise an A Major arpeggio to begin the first bar and a B minor arpeggio to begin the second bar; so that in a split-second they know and can play five of the eight bars that make up the second part of the tune.

If the person can also recognise scales they can instantly recognise and play Bar 4 and half of Bar 7.

The only bits that aren’t either a straightforward scale or arpeggio are the the first beat of Bar 7 and the first beat of Bar 8; so one could say that a person who had practiced all their scales and arpeggios would only need to figure out two beats out of the sixteen beats that make up the part, being able to pick up the part eight times faster than the person who can’t recognise these patterns and has to learn the tune note-by-note. (Yes people like that exist… I’ve had them in workshops.)

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

The version of The Wise Maid I learned many years ago, close to this one, has a 2nd part that’s full of arpeggios

|:d2 AG FDFA|dfaf gfeg|fAdf eAce|dfed cAAc|
BDGB ADFA|dfaf gfed|Bdce dBAG|FAEA D2:|

Imagine how long it would take to pick that up by ear if you didn’t have all the arpeggios under your fingers!

But how quick to pick up if you do have.

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

I don’t think that anyone disputes that having the scales and arpeggios “under your fingers” is a major benefit when learning new tunes… But the real underlying question here is whether taking the time to learn the scales and arpeggios outside of the context of tunes gives you enough of an advantage to make it worth it.

For my part, I found that just practicing scales and arpeggios became a rather mindless process, and ultimately very boring and counterproductive in some ways. (Because I would dread having to practice, as opposed to just playing tunes, which is practice in its own right even though I never dreaded it). I found that when I was doing what I really enjoyed (learning and playing tunes, as opposed to mindless, rote practice), it worked just fine to build my repertoire of scales and arpeggios. It certainly felt way more productive to me!

All of this is really about helping you build the neural pathways that allow you to play certain pieces of the music without much effort (often termed as “muscle memory”). So the ultimate answer to this question probably needs to be answered on a personal basis, depending on how you like to learn, and whether you stay engaged enough that simply practicing scales and arpeggios out of context will give you the boost you are looking for… And then you can decide (maybe in retrospect) whether the time you put in saved you even more time with learning tunes in the long run…

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

And Richard’s example of the Wise Maid is an interesting one for me. I learned Wise Maid pretty early on in my playing, and I certainly struggled a bit with learning it because I didn’t have the arpeggios internalized. But one might be able to argue that my struggle with it was very productive at helping build the neural pathways for those arpeggios - in effect, practicing the arpeggios repeatedly, only doing it in context instead of out of context…

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

It’s not just about pattern recognition and manipulation. Here are some quotes from two former professors at the Conservatoire de Paris on scales and appreggios:

It is, however, of urgent importance, that the scale should be diligently practiced. Therefore, knowing as I do, the importance of this branch of study, I have treated it at length, and in every variety of key. By this means a perfect equality of sound, as well as a legato and correct method of playing, may be obtained.
--- J.B. Arban in “Complete Conservatory Method for Cornet”.

Like all wind instruments, the Clarinet can only play the notes of a chord by distributing them (Appreggio). You must pass rapidly over the different notes of the appreggio in order to make it entirely with a single breath. If the fingering is heavy and unequal, if the sound is cut at each note, it is no langer appreggio, - it is only passing quickly over several notes.
--- Hyacinthe Klosé in “Celebrated Method for the Clarinet”.

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

It’s not all in the mind and your neural pathways Rev it’s also in the fingers and the breath. Without the strength and dexterity in the fingers and the control of the breathing you can blow away as much as you like and never really get it. It’s not all about learning tunes either, it’s about being able to express them and actually have the music mean something to you and by default any listener when you play it too.

Re: Tin whistle: Scales and Arpeggios

Thanks for the advice and tunes!

Yes, I want practicing to remain enjoyable, will be mindful of that.