Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

Odd question.
I’ve been playing whistle for nearly 2 years, but due to the way I originally learnt (tabs), I’ve never gained the ability to play by ear, which I want to now develop.

Part of the issue is there’s no way of playing the upper octave of a whistle quietly, hence you can’t really practice (eg try a phrase on the 3rd repeat) in a session, as people on other instruments seem to do/gain their experience from.

I’ve made a whistle quieter by putting tape over 2/3 of the fiddle, but then can’t really hear it in a loud session if I try to play along.

I’m hence considering rigging up a small microphone on my whistle, into a pocket amp, into a headphone to wear on one ear and try at my local session (they would be fine about it).

My idea being I can play notes which make sense in my head, not disturb anyone by hitting wrong ones, hear the difference to the session and hopefully pick up the ability to get it right.

Does this sound (a little odd but) sensible in getting to my goal?
If so, can anyone recommend a cheap mic/amp setup to accomplish this?

Thank you for your time 🙂

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

My practising is done at home. Would it not be easier to record the relevant tune at the session and practise at home?

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

I think there’s something about playing in a room with other people that would make me pick up the notes faster than listening to a recording, but I guess that is a backup option, thankyou.

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

If you’re worried about your whistle sounding harsh then get a softer one for those occasions. As mentioned above, record the session or the tunes you want, slow down the playback and listen on headphones at home to learn it. It’s really not worth the trouble and awkwardness of what you’re suggesting.

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

Randomly noodling is not the correct way to learn by ear, at least not until you are already very good at it.

The scientific advice is that learning to sight-sing and learning to transcribe, or play by ear, are the same thing - that is, if you can do one, you can do the other, and it certainly an approach I have found useful.

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Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

No way to play the second octave on a whistle quietly???!!!
Then you´ve never encountered a Mack Hoover whistle. As Mack says: ¨Quiet is my signature sound¨.
In the interest of domestic tranquility, he engineered my marital bliss whistle. I can now play in bed, early and late…

I’ve been developing a wee tool to help people learn tunes by ear.
The Tune Bot! I have a whistle/flute version and a mandolin/banjo version.
Do you want to be one of my test pilots?! I’ll send you a device for free and your job is to give me all your feedback on the device, interested? 🙂

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

Christopher, may I suggest that that comment would be better presented as a new discussion. And if you do that, please tell us more.

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

Definitely useful to develop the “by ear” technique. You should be able to play along softly enough in a session on a whistle to work it out. If not, practice playing softly or get a quieter whistle (Killarney is tidy for this type of playing). The microphone/amp is going to look ridiculous and it will be a new unwelcome dependency for learning.

The best way to practise the “by ear” accompaniment is >>at home<< with CD or YouTube playing full pelt and you not holding back either. No sheet music around. It’s hard to do this in a live session without knocking the others off their stride.

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

“Does this sound (a little odd but) sensible…”

Perhaps “… (sensible but) a little odd …” would better describe it. The reasoning is sound but I would say there is a bit of overthinking going on.

I agree with a couple of previous posters that, at this stage, it would be far better to turn up to the session with tunes fully-formed - and learning at home from recordings* can be a good way to do that. Of course, when playing a tune out for the first time ‘in anger’, it may well not come out fully-formed and you’ll find yourself having to be reminded of the odd few notes by ear in the moment. It depends on the size of your session and what the other instruments are, but I have found that most whistles (What sort of whistle do you have?) are actually not that easy to hear in a session, even in the upper octave, so it may be less of a problem than you think. But if people look at you funny when you hit the high notes, you can always just drop down to the lower octave for those passages until you are confident to play the tune right through. I would also say that the odd fluffed note is less likely to put people off than fluffed rhythm.

*Making recordings at your regular session is good from the perspective that you get the particular repertoire and versions of tunes played in that session. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that everyone present will be playing a tune the same way - one might be a visiting musician having learned it from a diferent source, another might be particularly liberal with their melodic variations, another might still be learning the tune and have a couple of notes wrong… so it can sometimes be hard to extract a definitive melody line from the ‘heterophony’. You might, therefore, want to back up your learning with other sources. Recordings of solo players can sometimes be good for learning from, but beware that some players, in a performance situation, will ‘personalise’ tunes more than others, so you could end up with a version that nobody else plays. CCE’s ‘Foinn Seisiún’ series is a good source of ‘pedestrian’ versions of tunes, that would be compatible with most sessions. In short, when learning a tune, seek out as many different sources as you can and ultimately, based on those sources, you make an executive decision how you want to play it. In time, when your ear skills are more finely honed, you will be able to adjust your playing of a tune to match (or at least, converge with) that of your fellow players.

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

Thanks everyone for your kind replies/advice (and thank you Christopher Robin, I’ve sent you a PM).

I think the consensus seems pretty strong to learn at home and not try to learn tunes I don’t know during sessions.

I’ve managed to learn/memorise around 50 tunes (through tabs) since I started in 2018 but still regularly go to sessions where only e.g. 1 will come up and for the rest of the session I’ll sit in the circle (loving the music), but otherwise not participating.
I was hoping there was a way to do more/learn new ones I hear/learn the “play by ear” ability/play-a-long a little to make the tunes stick in my head, but will listen to your kind advice and head back to youtube 🙂

If anyone does know any good videos/articles explaining a process/programme for building this ability (or how to “sight sing”) I’d appreciate it, but otherwise thanks for your advice and time 🙂

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

Apologies CreadurMawnOrganig I posted the same time as you.

My whistle is a tony dixon DX005 https://www.tonydixonmusic.co.uk/product/soprano-whistle-key-of-d-3/

I think the issue (!) is my session is extremely friendly and supportive and I’m not sure if they’d tell me if my whistling was an issue or not!

I think the fundamental issue is when I watch fiddlers at a session with a tune they don’t know, they tend to hear the first repeat, start playing occasional notes quietly in the second repeat and then have the majority of the tune by the third repeat.

I’d love to be able to do this, but currently as I can’t play by ear (and I assume you’re only supposed to play when you know a tune), I miss the tune out in it’s entirety and don’t get any closer to my goal (whereas, if people couldn’t hear my whistle, I could probably start approximating it now and rapidly learn).

I’ve got the message though, microphone idea is (at best) odd and I’ll head back to my room and youtube and also check out CCE’s ‘Foinn Seisiún’ series and in particular look for solo youtube videos.

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

I have a friend who rigged up a little personal monitor to their mandolin for the exact same purpose, being able to hear if they were playing the tune properly without being loud. But my response to that is that part of your responsibility as a musician is to create good, solid tones out of your instrument, so to a large extent, you’d be teaching yourself the wrong lesson with something like that.

Getting yourself inserted into a session is always a bit of a dance. It is very difficult to get good at playing with other people without actually playing with other people. And you don’t need to be a perfect player (as if there is such a thing) before you join in sessions. But you want to make sure that you’re not being a negative factor in the session, which will generally happen if you’re noodling along to tunes to try to learn them, no matter how quietly you’re doing it. So you have to tread the line carefully!

So I agree with others. Get your tunes under your belt by practicing at home. Using recordings of the session that you would otherwise be sitting in is a great way to go about it, because you’re learning the tunes the way that those people play the tunes. But make sure you’re also working on getting clean, clear tones out of your whistle. Almost every whistle player I know gets a bit self conscious about the aggressiveness of the upper octave. As other people have mentioned, different whistles can make a difference in that too. But in a group session environment, you want those notes to be strong and clear.

As far as learning by ear goes, there is nearly endless discussion on this forum about it, but I will just say this: The only way to get good at learning by ear is to learn things by ear, and then keep learning things by ear, rinse and repeat… It may seem completely useless at the start, when it would be much *easier* to learn from notation. But start with little chunks. 3-4 notes at a time, or maybe a phrase at a time. After you learn another 50 tunes by ear, you will be getting pretty good at it. And then, at some point in time in the future, your ear and your familiarity with the music will get to the point where you can carefully pick up tunes in sessions without it being a drag on the session… I would say that the vast majority of my new tune acquisitions these days are just from people I play with playing tunes fairly regularly. After a while it gets to the point where you’re familiar enough with the tune just from hearing it, and familiar enough with your instrument that the line between known and unknown blurs, and you can (sort of magically) play things that you’ve never played on your instrument before. And THAT is a point that you can’t get to if you only ever learn from notation and never work on your ear learning 😉

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

What I forgot to say, is that to learn any tune by ear you have to be able to hear the tune in your head. So listen, listen, listen and then listen some more. Until you know where the tune is going, you won’t be able to learn it. I say that as someone who had to work hard to learn by ear. I’m not great at learning by ear, but at least I’m now competent at it.

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

Thanks both, that’s very helpful (particularly the tip about not being self conscious about the higher octave in tunes I know. I hadn’t considered it but I definitely am guilty of this)

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

If its a friendly session they will want you to contribute - so have one of YOUR tunes ready each evening (or better still a set of 3 that go together)… and offer to play. Don’t worry if you are a little shaky - again the session should put the guide rails on it. Unless you’ve been learning a lot of weird stuff - they probably know but don’t play regularly a fair few from your 50 tunes.


The suggestion above to record a night in your regular is very solid one. And ask the names of the tunes (and cross reference or play along with other versions of same tunes on YouTube or Spotify etc.). You will probably find that there is a core repertoire of 30-50 tunes commonly played AT THAT SESSION and they are the ones you want to learn.


You need to remove the stabilisers now. If you’ve learned 50 tunes from score and can play them with some competence - you have your wings and are ready to fly. You will be surprised how quickly you will adapt.

I used the Walton’s book/CD “Ireland’s Best Tin Whistle Tunes” with playing by Harry Long and Gavin Ralston. 110 tunes, 2 CDs plus book. The first 15 or so tunes are familiar airs/songs that you are likely to know and are played slowly. This should get you going with the “by ear” game. The tunes progress from there - but each is played only once (AABB parts typically). For me, I’d let it go through tune after tune for 5-10 at a time and then loop back over them. I thought that was better than just looping on a single tune until I had it. Gets easier over time. It’s ok to revert to the book to fix a difficult phrase or to check the tune once you’ve got it by ear.


Somewhere along the line - perhaps after learning 30-40 tunes this way…. the method just clicks. And you’ll find yourself learning a polka on the second turn of the A part.

The Foinn Seisiun book and CD (from Comhaltas) are your best friend for popular repertoire. Take a SET a WEEK (usually three tunes) or per MONTH depending on your learning speed. That’s your homework. No score, no ABC, no cheating. Just keep playing along until you’re getting the hang of it. The FS series are recorded from real session groups playing at regular speed - so not easy. Might be better after a slightly slower pace as suggested above.

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

What a convoluted idea.

Just practice muted at home for the most part and then unmute once you are partly fluent with the notes and finally try out a session after.

You can ‘noodle from the start’ if you want in a session sure but all this amp and mic business? I think they would go over less well than just noodling muted or not in a session.

You won’t ‘pick it up quicker’ by learning by ear in a session vs from a recording, not sure why you would think that. Your brain just needs the practice of learning by ear, wherever it comes from.

For me I think I would learn slower from a session as a session only lasts a couple of hours once or twice a week so if you only relied on that you would not be practicing at home at all which is where you spend the majority of the time, not to mention all the self consciousness i feel playing in a session as it is which would make remembering the notes the last thing on my mind and would probably forget 90% of it.

Oh and btw I have been playing whistle about as long as you (around 3 years now) and started from ear from the beginning.

Re: Whistle “playing by ear” practice - microphone and amp?

Thanks for the advice gbyrne, I’ve ordered the book and CD and slowly (but deliberately) working my way through it seems like an obviously great idea! 🙂

I’ll also try and be a bit braver about starting some of the tunes in my session rather than waiting/hoping they turn up (it’s tricky as a new player to understand the extent people are happy with you doing this).