Role of the Tin Whistle

Role of the Tin Whistle

So, I would just like to check to make sure that I am understanding how a tin whistle fits into trad music playing in groups. It seems like tin whistles, being a melody instrument, either play/carry the main melody in a song or, when there are other melody instruments around (including voice), may take up harmonies, counter melodies, and such instead of playing the primary melody in a tune/song.

Is there a point when a whistle could take up rhythm somehow?

I apologize if my wording is bad, my music theory is both terrible and very rusty. Thanks!

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

In Irish Traditional Music, the rhythm is really provided by the melody players. So in that case, you could consider the whistle as being part of that. But if by "rhythm", you mean "accompaniment", I would say not so much.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

Thank you, Reverand! Right, my error, because melody has rhythm too, even if there’s no percussion (accompaniment?). I meant more in the vein of the video Michael posted, but in regards to Irish Traditional. 🙂

Did I have that right about playing the melody, harmonies, counter melodies, etc, though?

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

I can’t speak for anyone else, but personally, I wouldn’t want to hear harmonies or counter-melodies on whistle during a session.

Backing instruments like guitar or bouzouki are pitched down below the melody line, so the backing doesn’t compete for attention with the melody. One reason mandolin players are usually advised to play melody and not chordal backing, is because the pitch is the same as the main melody instruments in ITM like fiddles and flutes, so it can be distracting. A whistle might be even worse because being pitched even higher ,it’s very clearly heard. The norm in Irish trad is melody above, and harmonization/rhythm backing below. The Trad Police won’t stop you from trying this at home, but I’d recommend caution about bringing the idea to a session. Maybe it could work on a low D whistle.

The whole idea of counter-melody on any instrument is a fraught topic in this music. I’ve only heard it done well by very high-level players, like Ale Möller on latmandola. One of the only two times I’ve ever seen someone actually disinvited from a session, was an octave mandolin player who insisted on playing imagined counter-melodies on every tune based on the chord movement, instead of taking the time to actually learn the tune. It was very distracting. The session leader told this person not to come back unless they could learn the tunes, or do less distracting chordal backing.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

Beat box with a recorder! Niceee!
Great video that one you posted above Michael!
Let me have a guess:

If that guy came to a session of ITM, and the notes he plays with the recorder matched with the melody line of the tunes, in my opinion it would be completely acceptable.

If the notes that he plays didn’t match the melody all the trad police would be on him, and most likely even some of the players that have nothing to do with the trad police. For the reasons explained by Conical bore in the comment just before this one.

But that’s just me taking the guess.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

"The whole idea of counter-melody on any instrument is a fraught topic in this music. "
IMO it is

In my opinion, a lot depends on how the background melody is played. A counter-melody, in my opinion, makes sense if it is a second voice, but if it is a competing melody then I agree that it can get in the way. However, you can play long notes in the background on the whistle as a backing track, as can, for example, the bass. The second form, which I like very much and practice myself, is adding in the background, playing quieter, and accompanying melody, just like we do when someone sings. But in fact, you have to do it very skilfully, because the second voice absolutely cannot compete for attention with the first one.

An example and my attempt here (one of the recorded sessions where I play whistle in the background):

http://ethnotrans.fun/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/The-Irish-Connection-Dowspuda-2002-07-Track-07.mp3

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

I think it could IF you use a low low whistle IF there are very few players at the session OR everyone at the session plays the particular tune straight, no individual variations IF it’s a simple, maybe arpeggio counter melody and IF everyone at the session is happy for you to play a tune like that. Then why not?

The problem with a group is that often there are individuals who want to just do their own thing, in the group. That’s ok, it’s just that if everyone does that then it becomes a very different kind of group and that’s not ok.

What about someone playing, for a couple of tunes per session, didgeridoo rhythm in the background that would be great! Especially if it was, say, just the last run through of each x3 tune, using relative minors for example. And if it was played a bit like a double bass by someone who is really into supportive, background rhythm/percussion.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

Atsunrise, exactly, we have two variants: all play the same melody unisono, it is simple and easy for any traditional sessions. If we want to start something more, e.g. second voice, background melody, e.t.c. we need agreement and rules…

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

Here be dragons! Counter-melody and harmonies would generally be unwelcome. You’d want to be in very sure-footed territory with a group to introduce. Put simply - it’s generally not considered good style.

Whistle has lots of ornamentation specifically designed to accentuate the rhythm and phrasing of the tune while preserving the melodic integrity. Counter melody or harmonies aren’t necessary to enhance the tune.

@jarek - Was presuming the original question was in the context of instrumental ITM DANCE music (jig/reel/hornpipe etc.) versus folk/ballad/songs/airs (Irish or otherwise). Accompanying singers is a whole different ball game. And the general rule of thumb would be don’t jump unless the singer requests or you’ve played with them before and are sensitive to their phrasing and interpretation. Respect the singer, let the song shine. The no-harmonising or counter melody rules don’t apply here - but if they put the singer off or distract from the song - the singer won’t be happy with you.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

The topic is "Role of the Tin Whistle: I would just like to check to make sure that I am understanding how a tin whistle fits into trad music playing in groups. "

I try to say that "trad music" not only "jig and reel"… ;), as a second I hope "if we agree in-group/session we can"…

I hope this topic is not another war ;)

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

The tradition is heterophonic.

Which is not quite the same as playing in unison, such as would be the result if all the players at a session were reading off the same sheet music for the tune, or all the players had agreed upon a single exact note-for-note version, foregoing the normal process by which each player would make small adjustments to the melody to suite their own instrument and personal style, as well as foregoing the natural process of not playing the melody quite the same each time.

It is these processes which result in each player at a session bringing a slightly different version of the melody to the table. The result is called heterophony.

What isn’t part of the mainstream tradition (at least at trad sessions) is having some players play melody while others play harmony parts, counter-melodies, droning parts, rhythm patterns, etc.

Except if you’re Paddy Moloney.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

It is not quite clear what the OP means by ‘groups’. Most of the answers relate to playing in *sessions*, and the collective expectations associated with that. As far as *performing* with a group (‘band’) is concerned, you are free to try out (with the consent of your bandmates) whatever musical experiments you wish, including using a whistle for countermelody or rhythmic accompaniment; ultimately, your audience votes with its feet as to what sounds good and what does not, irrespective of how ‘trad’ it is. Pushing the boundaries beyond a certain point may lose you a slot in a dedicated tradtional music venue or festival, but it might get you gigs elsewhere.

But, where traditional sessions are concerned, there is a (generally unspoken) consensus among the musicians as to the overall sound that is to be created – what fits and what does not. Sessions vary, of course – some are stylistically very conservative, others are much more open to experimentation, innovation, variety and outside influences – but it may take a few visits to a particular sessions to suss this out fully, so it is best to enter with the assumption that the ‘pure drop’ aesthetic applies.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

…And what Richard D Cook says about ‘heterophony’.

It is important to make a distinction between *heterophony* and *harmony* or *countermelody*. In the heterophonic scenario, each different variant of a tune played is a self-standing melody, not designed specifically to fit with any other variant. Different variants may chance to harmonise with one another at points, and be in unison at times but, more often than not, they will also form momentary dissonances. In my opinion, the repeated tension-resolution cycle of these dissonances and consonances add to the sense of motion in the tune,

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

Wow, thank you so much for all the great information - it really helps clarify things! I had NO IDEA it was such a contentious topic!

I started playing tin whistle 20+ years ago, but didn’t get very far, and picked it back up about a year ago. Sometimes when I practice, I follow that recommendation of playing along with recordings to make sure I get the timing and stuff proper, but often feel like I sound like I am competing on the melody lines (again, my music theory is both bad AND rusty, so terms may be bad), whether that is guitar, fiddle, voice or whatever, and was trying to figure how else I would fill in. But it vould just be that I still don’t have NEARLY enough skill development to sound right, yet.

Sessions are a wholly unknown experience for me AND I am trying to disregard the idea of "one true way" to play a song/tune (I grew up playing piano), and sometimes when I watch session videos, the instruments sound clashy, and I am trying to figure out how to not do that? It might be an ear issue though - I might only THINK they sound clashy bc maybe I can’t speak the "language" yet. My closest experience is drum circles, but I don’t think those are straight equivalents.

I am just starting to get a grip on ornamentations, but it’s a struggle for me, and maybe it will help?

Thank you again just SO MUCH!

* "Heterophony" is a great new word for me and may be part of my issue - will look into it more, thank you!

* By "groups" I DID mean both like a band or jam situation and also sessions, so thank yall for addressing both AND their differences!

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

The best advice I ever got: before you join a group for the first time in a session, listen to that group play a thousand times… 🙂 .. and don’t be angry if you get kicked out, just change pub… ;), if it turns out that there are no more pubs, it is a sign that you should learn to play because you are not doing it very well.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

So, I’m not saying OP I necessarily thinking this, but there is often an underlying issue with these kinds of questions, which is that people are looking for an easier way to join a session than playing the tunes. It’s the same impulse that often leads people to buy a bod grab or bring their guitar along. Learning tunes is hard and time-consuming. Unfortunately, people often think that playing accompaniment is a way “in” without doing that work.

The issue, as discussed here, is that the melody is primary in trad, and accompaniment isn’t really even so much secondary as tertiary. You can have a perfectly lovely time playing tunes with nary an accompaniment in sight. And it takes a whole hell of a lot of work for the accompanist to be adding something. Honestly, at a number of sessions the accompaniment actively detracts IMO. And the same is true for anyone trying harmony/countermelody; outside of a few highly arranged performance settings I’ve rarely if ever heard something that fits.

So, what I’d say is that anyone who is looking to do anything with a tin whistle in trad should learn tunes. Learn, learn, learn. Play the tunes. Focus on the melody. When the music is in their ear and their fingers and their mind, then *maybe* something halfway decent might come out. If Mary Bergen or Kevin Crawford started playing a countermelody at a session, I’d imagine it might be worthwhile. For pretty much anyone else, I’d say stick to the melody.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

Hey, bigsciota, that’s a lot of good info! I really want to reassure yall that I have been learning tunes (the melody part) so far but was very concerned I was going to cause issues with other melody-instruments by doing so. I have always been solo, but want to make sure that if I ever get the chance to play with others, I am not causing issues. Also, I suck at improvisation (these ornaments are a struggle, but fun to learn) and was a little alarmed that there might be a whole host of things I was supposed to be learning but had completely missed. 🙂 So your post is actually very reassuring!

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

Personally I like melodic variation, harmony, even rhythmic variation, in all it’s forms. It’s what makes any tune exciting, interesting. I like to call that an "arrangement". That said, a session is not the venue for arrangements, not a "jam", not a performance. A session is more likely about, as Barry Foy says succinctly, "Certain tunes, a certain way, on certain instruments" (or something to that effect). While "Variation 101" may work in some sessions, a graduate level "Thesis in Jazz Solo Performance" probably won’t be. There’s a time and place for everything.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

I was going to say something about unison playing in Irish trad sessions until I saw Richard C. & Creadur M. O. set me straight by bringing up heterophony.
So, I’ll go into lurker mode; trusting more experienced players’ have this one.
You’re in good hands, Educated S. 🙂

edit:lurker mode to follow…

Someone brought up Kevin Crawford. That’s unfortunate.
I cut my teeth playing sessions where a number of people either listened to every Lúnasa album or
(one person) knew the band personally (Bo a is music freak who always meets musicians & gets invited to play with them). Two other players have played w/Brian Finnegan, et.al. My point is when all these whistle freaks were in the session we would typically stick to the norms. Occasionally though, when we played a set from Lúnasa or Flook, we may have gone contrary to playing tunes the way the old guys did. It was a great learning experience but not something I’d try is most Irish sessions.

over & out.

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Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

The first time I listened to Mary Bergin, it dawned on me just how much the whistle is a rhythm instrument. Bergin is a master (mistress?) at using articulation (tonguing, fingering and timing) to create rhythmic drive, and it is notable that she accomplishes that on such a "simple" instrument.

You could contrast rhythmic-articulated expression with a more lyrical-melodic approach. In comparison to the whistle, the flute has a lot of dynamic range (volume control) available. That lends itself to expressing the melody like a singer would using loud and soft notes. In the absence of dynamic range, the whistle is left with emphasizing the expression of the melody via rhythmic methods, i.e. articulations.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

"Bergin is a master (mistress?)"
nimble, agile, adroit…

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Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

Mary Bergin is crazily accurate - enough that it sounds completely facile, and you don’t realise that that Feadog album is really quick, particularly reels. Been learning half that album recently, and usually i’m not bothered by speed, but that’s seriously hard to play along with.

On a continuum of tight to loose playing (that’s still got good feel) Mary’s playing is very tight and rhythmic. Her phrases are atypically short. There is more than enough colour with ornaments, and they are all brilliantly executed so there’s essentially no ‘ebb and flow’ for going over an ornament vs playing without. There’s a clear conception of the melody, where it feels like she’s nailed the best version of the tune in terms of notes that fit the mode - they sometimes ‘jar’ in a good way with what you expect if its a tune you already know, where what you expect is more mundane & melodically flat. Her breath control and phrasing is the best thing for me, its easy to be too formulaic, or to simply dither on a phrase till you run out of breath. Her breaths add rhythm.

In general, whistle as a rhythm instrument? Pretty much nobody else is that tight. There are instruments where solid rhythm appears to come easier, at least to my perception.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

Re heterophony vs. unison: I would like to add that perfect unison can be great too, when two or three players know each other’s playing so well that they intuitively perfectly synchronise all their ornaments, phrasing and variations; a whole session of 10 or 15 people all playing in perfect unison as if from an orchestral score, not so much. But where there are instruments of different types played together, a certain amount of heterophony is inevitable, as different instruments lend themselves to different types of ornamention and articulation, and sometimes differences in placement of ornaments and phrasing.

I would also like to echo Big Sciota and Tom Stermitz (and others further back in the discussion) that, in a well-played traditonal tune, on whistle or any other instrument, the rhythm is intrinsic to the melody, not ‘added’ by another instrument.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

As a piper a term " rhythmic fingerwork" from jim macgillivrays book was a revelation.so ive applied it to my whistling , tapping in time…..Plenty practice still to do of course , as always, but i keep at it.

Brid O’Donohue’S first album is solo whistle….. get it.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

Ooooh, thank you so much! I listened to Mary Bergin when I first started learning but had no ear whatsoever yet so had no help of telling what she was doing, just that she was incredible. I was just looking for her books a few days ago, too, but I need to circle back around again to see what I can hear.

And I need to puzzle out the ideas/practices between rhythm-articulated playing and more lyrical-methodical, too!

Thank yall for all the good homework!

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

@Educated Savage: Mary’s books exist still - got book 1 for a friend’s kid recently. http://maryberginwhistle.com/purchase.html
Had a skim of them. Book 1 has no jigs or reels I think, the tunes are simpler, there’s tonguing & cuts introduced. A lot of excercises. Wierd, counterintuitive as i got chucked into jigs and reels ‘this is a roll’, cuts and cranns came later… Where she tongues in particular was kind of concerning, because i was thinking ‘i wouldn’t do it there, am i doing it wrong’? Some of the beginner exercises are tricky. Trickier in fact than i remember eg learning rolls to be. And ironically the little simple tunes (usually children’s tunes or waltzes) are straightforward enough, but my sight reading was not up to ‘air-like songs’ like ‘Samhradh linn.’ (sp)! Thankfully, there’s a tutorial CD with it as well. A novice is going to spend a good while graduating from exercises after the first couple, I think.

They’re probably worth having. Her playing definitely has a ‘recipe’ and it certainly beats figuring it out for yourself. Otherwise, things like working out emphasis is something you get by ear and hard experience, and you don’t really know *what* you’re doing until you break it down and analyze it. And of course, if you’re having a bad day and your playing isn’t flowing, when you don’t have a formula to fix it, you just have to wait for the gods of nyah to return to you!!!

Ironically, I’ve started to get my feel back after a slump in part by slowing things down and also by taking on a student. Having to take some care and craftmanship to try and do the simple things well at a slow pace was helpful for me too!

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

Strict unison playing can sound impressive, but it’s more sterile than, say, a trio of fiddle, pipes, and flute in which each musician is playing a setting perfectly suited to their own type of instrument, and reflecting their personal style.

I’m fascinated by the way, in ITM, each instrument (uilleann pipes, box, fiddle, flute, banjo, high whistle) has a dialect, in like manner to trumpet and sax in jazz, where various transcriptions could be identified by instrument by considering the musical choices the players made alone. Add to that each player’s idiolect.

I was transcribing a Bothy Band tune, and I was having a hard time identifying what note was played at one particular point. Slowing it down to half-speed (where the timbres of the pipes, flute, and fiddle become more differentiated) I discovered that at one point the three instruments were playing G, A, and B simultaneously, a perfect example of heterophony if ever there was one.

Re: Role of the Tin Whistle

Thank you so much, TheHappyCamper! I was on Mary Bergin’s website looking for them, but I think I got distracted instead. Looking forward to getting them!

And I JUST read a few days ago that we can slow audio down now without changing pitch! This is going to help SO MUCH! I know my ear needs a lot more work in differentiating sounds and figuring out what is going on. In another post, someone mentioned that they listen to ITM 2-3 hours a day and that it has been helping their ear, so I have just started doing this, too. I really hope it helps me, too!

And Richard, yes! We (my hunny and I) were struggling with this - we’d each study a song seperately (he plays guitar) and when we attempted to play together, what we’d play sounded SO DIFFERENT note-wise. And the same issue when I played along with recordings. Knowing that different instruments are not supposed to sound the same ecen though they are playing the same melody is SUCH a relief and reassurance!