So I have been playing whistles for many years but have lacked the guidance in order to increase my speed to play many of the faster traditional reels or jigs. I can play most aires with ease and can play reels and jigs slowly but struggle to play as fast as one normally would. What is the best way work on this? As well as learning types of ornamentation.

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I am not a whistle player. However, some of the best musical advice I’ve ever received in my life was from a whistle player(who also played accordion and flute). I actually made a post about it some time ago to elaborate what it meant to me and to see how others felt about it. It’s a long post because I wanted to document everything I experienced that night. Here are the main points from my OP:

"I have a challenge for you. What I want you to do is, take a tune, one tune, a simple tune that you’ve known for years; and don’t worry about practicing it slow, or practicing it fast. Just really take some time with every single note. And show us what you’ve come up with next time. "

"When he said, "…Just really take some time with every single note…" this resonated with me… Before, I thought "take some time with every note" meant "slow practice"… But no, that’s not what it means anymore. Now it means, "relax into the melody". Feel the notes. Be free in time, play with the time, don’t worry about playing at a fixed tempo or a fixed rhythm. Just relax into the melody. And let it penetrate every fiber in your bones."

"To take time with every single note, it’s like at times you have to go slower than slow. I remember when I started the "Concertina Progressions" course on the Online Academy of Irish Music, taught by Liam O’Brien. The first tune he teaches is, "I Buried My Wife and Danced on Her Grave". I had been listening to the tunes from the course, before getting into it, but when he started teaching it, I couldn’t recognize it. He taught it so slowly, that I would get lost in between phrases and kept having to go back to the recording to find my place. But since learning it, it is certainly one of my more comfortable tunes, because of that time spent "in" the melodies. It’s a "relaxed" tune for me."

Here is a link to that post.

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Try approaching from a different direction. This is at the heart of what sessions are all about: no one slows anything down, you learn at speed. And you can do the same thing at home: Put on a recording and just try to play along. You don’t have to hit every note to begin with, it doesn’t matter if you just get one note per bar, or one note per phrase, or just little snippets here and there to begin with, but as you keep going through it, over and over, you’ll find yourself gradually playing more and more of the tune.

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One idea, although it will be painful if you’ve played for a while, is to start the free trial of the OAIM online whistle lesson videos, and follow all the beginner ones during the trial, in case there’s some vital bit of technique/process you’re missing that’s hindering you.
It will be worth it in the long term.

E.g. if you’ve picked up the habit of getting rhythm through only micro-tonguing/staccato, rather than using ornamentation/slurs (like I had), it will hinder playing at session speed. Working through the beginner lessons helped me identify this/address it.

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Firstly you have to play slowly but in a way that can be sped up - not a whistle player myself, but belaytron hints that there are ways you can play which make it impossible or very difficult to speed up.

Then the way I’ve had success getting up to speed is just hard work with a metronome, concentrating on small sections of a tune at a time. Burton Kaplan’s book ‘practicing for success’ details several ways to work on this. For example you can practice each bar of a tune seperately with the metronome repetively over and over. When you are playing that bar over and over again you can concentrate more on making little adjustments to get it sound better, and once it sounds good, notch the metronome up. Then you piece the bars together and fly through the tune. The other technique I have sometimes used with longer more difficult passages is to repeat the passage at speed, but starting with two notes, then three, then four, and only adding a note when I have got the preceeding ones well.

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Hi Caleb

I’ve often read that a secure way to learn to play fast is to learn to play properly at a slow pace, and this is what my experience (though limited: two years on the simple system flute from scratch) has so far confirmed to me.

When practising by playing along recordings, I started slowing down the speed to 50%. At the beginning it was impossible for me to play along at this speed, but with practice and time this got easily within reach. At the moment, I can play with ease along a recording at a speed of 75% for reels and at full speed for jigs. For reels that are very familiar, I can play at full speed but it is challenging.

When practising with the metronome, a reasonable speed is 60 bpm for reels and 80 bpm for jigs.

The same principle applies to developing the ornamentation technique: 1) make sure you fully understand the ornament (how it woks and how it fits along the beats) 2) practice until you can play it slowly with ease.

Hope this helps

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I would guess that something about the way you are playing is stopping you from speeding up, and if that is the case practising with metronomes is not going to help. There can hardly be an instrument that requires less effort to play than a whistle, and yet it is possible to make it hard for yourself - for example with tension in the hands (gripping the whistle tightly), tension in other parts of the body, or mental tension. Everything has to be very light and easy. I would strongly suggest you have at least a couple of private sessions with a teacher, remotely or in person, who might be able to diagnose what is going wrong.

Devices like cuts and rolls can also trip you up if you are making them hard for yourself. They are executed with tiny finger movements, no effort involved, like drumming your fingers on a tabletop so lightly that you can hardly hear any noise. You need to practise them until you can do them so easily and automatically that they won’t get in the way, even when you are playing a tune very fast.

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Stiamh hits the nail on the head re: don’t neglect looking at the mechanics of how you’re playing - less than optimal technique can sometimes be so subtle that it’s difficult for us to notice it in the moment, but another set of experienced eyes can identify it (videoing yourself when you play can also help you review what you’re doing).

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Metronome: start at 60, then 80, then work up to your session speed- 90, 100, 110- whatever. Playing on the beat is far more important than ornamentation

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I once got great advice from a ski instructor… “if all you do is ski slow that’s all you’ll ever do”. A little under thought maybe, but useful. For my part I like metronomes. Use one to stay in time and with the rhythm. Most of all set it to speed and not to your comfort zone. You’ll be awful at first. Then you’ll be better. After a while you’ll be pretty good. It takes time and effort. What doesn’t? The only way to learn a skill is to do the skill. Speed is “learnable”. Just remember to not give up playing music when you play fast.

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I think one of the keys to playing faster really is relaxation, which has been a bit of a theme in many of the suggestions above. As Stiamh mentions, if you’ve got a ‘death grip’ on the instrument, you are engaging muscles in your hands more than needed, and the more you are engaging the muscles, the slower your transitions between notes is going to be, because you’re having to fight your own muscles. Your hands should be relaxed, and your fingers should only cover the holes just enough to sound the notes. Everything is an economy of motion, and you want to make it as efficient as possible. If you watch experienced players (on any instrument), they often make the music look effortless — and when you’re relaxed and letting the music flow, it can absolutely feel effortless, too!

One of the ways that we are able to play music at speed is that we’ve developed neural pathways that know how to play the tune. This is often called kinesthetic memory, or "muscle memory". And that’s a good place to start, even though there are drawbacks of leaning on it as a crutch too much. (For instance, if you change an ornament or something, you might find yourself lost, because you’re hands have lost the pattern that you normally play). Ultimately, the kinesthetic memory comes into play, not in remembering how the tune goes, but more in knowing how to find the interval you want for the next note, and internalizing the ornaments. (Much like how we use kinesthetic memory to type on a keyboard… We think of what we want to appear on the screen, and our fingers know how to make the words appear.) This way, playing a roll on just about any note on the whistle simply becomes a ‘gesture’ and not a set of distinct movements that you have to consciously fire off in a row.

There have been a lot of discussions over the years here about techniques to help you play faster, and it might be worth your while to do some searching. I don’t think of this as specific to the whistle. Most of these suggestions apply to playing all instruments.

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Some good advice above.
I don’t play the whistle so here’s my 2 cents worth: metronome at all times, practice incremental tempo, no slow airs nor anything with rubato for a month, play the whistle ugly, like a machine.

And the most important (to me) is coordination. I think you need a rock solid rhythm with your breathing as well as the fingers, and they need to work precisely together.

Try at first playing single, repeated notes to the metronome with incremental tempo concentrating on just one action -breathing with the different consonants thinking about mouth/throat/ diaphragm muscles , no finger changes. Then after about three days of that do the same with just fingers, no breathing and try to hear your fingers tapping on the whistle.

Whistle mustn’t move around at all.

If your timing is solid, you can usually up the tempo to the equivalent of tremolo.

(But a real teacher will almost always help)

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I’m a firm believer in not practicing faster than you can play perfectly. Put me in the "perfect practice makes perfect performance" camp. I believe that once you allow yourself to play sloppily in the interest of speed, then that’s what’s going to stick.

I would absolutely not follow the "if all you do is ski slow that’s all you’ll ever do" advice given above. Terrible advice to just play fast and hope it will magically come together.

Playing fast when learning a tune can help you find those spots where you thought you really had something nailed down, but was actually marginal. That’s where you need to take the time to slow things down and figure out what’s going on and make whatever fixes you need as far as rhythm, fingering precision, whatever is causing the issue. The key is to be brutally honest with yourself and don’t let anything slip or happen by accident.

I absolutely agree with Reverend, relaxation is the key, and tension is your enemy. There is just playing fast, and then there is playing fast but it sounding relaxed and natural. That just takes time, precise practice as you develop muscle memory and flow with incremental increases of speed over time, which may be measured in years.

Caleb Hughes, I’d be happy to have a Zoom session with you to see exactly what you’re dealing with and maybe I can assist you with getting over this "speed bump". Please feel free to send me a private message if you are interested.

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FWIW, an electric guitar player, who was noted for being able to play incredibly fast riffs, once said ‘If you can’t think it, you can’t play it’. Sometimes when I ease into a tune (quietly) that seems maybe too fast for me, my brain seems to kind of slow down the tempo and I can find myself playing along just fine. Maybe I didn’t think I could play it, but when I reached the point where I believed I could, I did. This probably isn’t very helpful, but does illustrate, to me anyway, that a lot of this is purely mental. That is, aside from physical ability, technique, instrument, etc.

Posted by .

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At the end of the day it’s all mental, either through deliberate thought (think/do) at first and with practice, eventually completely created on-the-fly (just do).

In my experience, mastery begins when you move a skill from "think/do" to "just do".

I have to train my neural matrix somehow and the best way I have found is to give it good data to start with, which is where careful, precise practice has worked for me.

Of course, I can’t know what works for others, maybe others thrive on chaos.

The key is to learn how your brain acquires and master skills and then just do what works like a recipe.

Doing that takes all the effort and struggle out of the process.

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I reckon if I can’t handle the tempo there are two main things tripping me up, one is ‘finger problems’, the other is, as dfost suggests, not being able to think it fast enough - tiny fumbles where my brain is not far enough ahead of my fingers because I don’t have the tune as well as I thought.

Slower repetitions, followed by a nights sleep, seems to help.

[crossed with Michael Eskin - my comment was following on from dfost]

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Following from Michael’s post. I was meaning more towards the ‘just do’ phase. I don’t really count hearing in my head what does, or might, come next as thinking if my fingers just do it.

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David50, there is a lot to recommed the "stop and wait a day" process. It’s a huge component of what I do too.

When I’m learning a new tune, I’ll first learn it phrase by phrase perfectly from a slowed down recording until I can play it all the way through and start it on my own, gradually increasing the speed.

Then I’ll stop for a day.

Next morning, before I work on it again from the recording, I’ll force myself to sit and try to start the tune. Often times it feels impossible, like the tune is gone. I’ll sit as long as required until it shows up.

It always does.

During that time of nearly overwhelming blankness I can almost hear the neurons buzzing as the connections are made. Once I can start it after this process, I begin to own it.

I’ll repeat this process daily over the course of 3 or 4 days for a tune I’m working on.

At the end of that time, I’ve generally got it down to where I can play it in my session for sure if someone else starts it, another couple of weeks of work and I’ll generally have it to the point where I can reliably start it.

I’ve learned many many tunes using this process over the years and it’s a process that reliably works for me without any struggle/effort. It’s a purely mechanical repeatable process that I’ve learned to trust.

I wish I had this understanding 25 years ago when I started learning traditional Irish music. Took me 15 years to realize that some teaching methods like the "circle of death" lessons at tionols absolutely didn’t work for me, just made me crazy. Now I just record the lessons and work doing what works for me from the recordings.

Again, the key is to find the process that works reliably for your brain and just do that. Don’t let anyone force a "one-size fits all" solution on you.

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"I would absolutely not follow the "if all you do is ski slow that’s all you’ll ever do" advice given above. Terrible advice to just play fast and hope it will magically come together."

I totally agree. I’m personally in the camp that believes speed comes on it’s own, as it is a direct result of several other factors. Your flexibility, accuracy, dexterity, recall, etc. Matter of fact, I would go so far as to say that "speed" in and of itself is more of an attribute ーsomething that you are/have, rather than a skill.

When you think about it, whatever tempo you’re playing at isn’t the problem. The problem is something else, something that raises the question, "what exactly is slowing you down?", or even "what happens when you speed up?". Do your fingers fumble over ornaments and articulations(dexterity)? Do you start hitting wrong notes(accuracy)? Do you tense up and fall out of the the rhythmic pocket(flexibility)? Do you lose the melody altogether(recall)? Fixing any of those things is not solved by forced playing at higher tempos. They are fixed by ironing out the flaws through deliberate perfect practice at the tempo you already have.

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So, it seems that I’m the only who agrees with Mark M and ross faison. Hmm…

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Hmm indeed. 🙂

I tease, but it goes to the point that there is no "one size fits all" for this process of learning to play quickly seemingly effortlessly.

No matter what the approach that works for you, being honest with yourself about your playing is key. Make a recording of your own playing and listen to it, or get someone you trust as a player to give you feedback.

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Not necessarily, Jeff. There is an interesting video on YT where Kevin Burke explains where the notion that practising slowly is the only key to playing fast falls down. Now this concerns the use of the bow in fiddle playing: to play a fast reel you will have to use the bow in ways that you won’t naturally do when you’re playing the same tune slowly. Anyone who can tunes at a decent clip on the fiddle will understand this immediately. (Analogous, though not completely, to the fact that running is not the same as walking, only faster.) This is a question of mechanics. I don’t know to what extent this applies to whistle playing. Perhaps, for those who use a fair bit of tonguing in whistle playing, as I do, the tongue is the equivalent of the bow. It has to be pretty agile!

None of this is to deny the benefits of practising slowly. Although, paradoxically, in my experience, once you can play traditional dance tunes at a proper tempo with good rhythm and accents, only then will you understand how to play them really well slowly. 🙂

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Another one is clunking. You basically sit there completely relaxed, doing nothing but you’re ready to pounce.

The task is to play say four notes REALLY fast and stop. That’s it. Wait ten seconds and try it again. If you trip up and it’s not perfect then you cut back to two notes.
The idea is to see the four notes as a word in a sentence. Your fingers get the muscle memory sorted out for each ‘word’ and then your head strings the words of the tune together (because your head cant think fast enough for individual letters/notes).
In time your head will being thinking in A parts, B parts then sets etc. But it all needs to be broken down first, labelled and played perfectly each time.

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The comment on bowing when playing slow vs. fast from Kevin Burke is very interesting.

As I’m coming from winds and free reeds as my instruments, there are different set of challenges playing fast vs. slow, more so on the concertina/box because of bellows use than on whistle/flute/pipes.

I don’t play fiddle and can only comment on what works for me on the instruments I play.

I encourage everyone to spend the time to find the process that works best for them and to take all advice, including mine, with a grain of salt.

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I am a firm believer that you need to practice at multiple speeds. Slow and steady practice is key for sure, but you’re not going to practice slowly for 10 years and then all of a sudden be able to blast out tunes at Frankie Gavin speeds (https://www.irishtimes.com/news/musician-plays-his-way-into-records-books-1.654195). Part of learning to play fast is done by, well, trying to play fast! The key though, is to understand what the speed is doing to your playing. Once you identify things that are happening to your playing, you can slow back down and work on those specific things, rinse and repeat…

And although I’m not the biggest proponent of practicing with a metronome, working on tempo is a good place to use one. Start by finding your comfort zone for speed, where you can stay relaxed, and play the tune in a musical way without making a ton of mistakes. Then try pushing that tempo up with a metronome 10 bpm. Observe where you make mistakes, or where your ornaments are negatively affecting your rhythm, etc. Then go back to your comfort zone (which will probably feel slower than it did before) and work on the things that you struggled with at the higher tempo. Then maybe set your metronome up 5 bpm instead of 10, and see how that goes. Pretty soon, that 10 bpm faster will feel like your comfort zone, and you can continue this drill. But again, the key is being able to tell where you’re struggling at higher tempos, and see if you can understand why. Recording yourself can help you diagnose things, too.

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"Recording yourself can help you diagnose things, too."

Yes, it’s sometimes the only way to truly diagnose things as it can be too easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re doing just fine when you’re not.

Every so often, I’ll be playing a set at a session that I think "Oh, this is going really well" and then the next morning I’ll see a video on Facebook someone covertly took of the set and I’ll think "Oh God, I suck. I’m a poser and a fraud, time to burn all the instruments". When that happens, I resist the urge to grab the lighter fluid and a match and take the time to revisit the tune set and fix whatever is going wrong. 🙂

I’m guessing I’m not the only one here who has had this experience.

The red record button is the arbiter of all truth.

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I would like to add the disclaimer that, from where I speak, "slow" is relative. Relative to what? Relative to whatever speed you start developing flaws in your playing. That could be 115bpm just as easily as it could be 90, 80, or 70bpm. The goal is to play at a speed where perfection is assumed, and then challenge yourself to continue raising that bar.

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jeff_lindqvist: "So, it seems that I’m the only who agrees with Mark M and ross faison. Hmm…"

No, you’re not. I’ve been trying to formulate a response to this without being dismissive of other comments. All suggestions of slowing down, focusing on each individual note etc., have their benefits. Of course, you cannot play fast without first learning full control of your fingers, knowing the notes etc. But for someone that has already been playing for many years but not got up to speed, it *could* simply be a case of ‘getting into your stride’. All the component skills may be there, they have just never been used at that tempo before.

I have been in sessions many times where I have initially felt as if I couldn’t keep up (even in fairly moderate-paced sessions), like my whole body is resisting, but once I stop thinking about it, the muscles relax and I fall into tempo with ease. For someone not experienced at playing in sessions (Caleb Hughes does not actually describe himself as such – perhaps he could confirm it), it takes a huge leap of faith to jump in and start playing along, and when it doesn’t initially fall into place, it is easy to give up there and then. MarkM’s suggestion of playing along to recordings is a good way to put your up-to-tempo playing to the test without fear of embarrassing yourself in public.

"I would absolutely not follow the "if all you do is ski slow that’s all you’ll ever do" advice given above. Terrible advice to just play fast and hope it will magically come together."

I don’t think anyone is suggesting that just playing faster will solve everything – it depends entirely on the underlying level of skill you already have. But you’ll never play fast unless you try playing fast. There is no harm in trying it. At the very least, as Michael Eskin says, it shows up the areas that need working on.

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I don’t think it’s an "either/or" situation - as has been pointed out by Jerone and others, playing as fast as you’re able until flaws appear allows you to identify what areas you need to specifically work on to play fluently at speed, and then go back and work on those phrases or whatever it is that’s holding you back.

There’s no point in just playing fast with errors over and over, hoping the errors will just iron themselves out, just like there’s no point just playing slowly over and over and hoping that speed will magically be bestowed upon you. One common thing I’ve seen happen regarding prolonged history of playing slowly is that it becomes a comfort zone for the player - it’s very reinforcing for them because they’re able to confidently play through the tune without mistakes. Then when they go to speed up more often than not too big a jump speed-wise is made and the wheels fall off - that’s really punishing so the player retreats back to their comfort zone of slow speed.

The point Kevin Burke makes in that video clip regarding how the mechanics of playing fast differ from playing slowly is something that folks don’t always think about - the fine muscle movements involved in playing fast aren’t the same as the ones you’re using to play slowly. I knew a fella who was trying to get his banjo playing up to session speeds - when you watched him play a tune slowly one very noticeable thing was that he was lifting his fingers off the fretboard in an almost exaggerated way because of the slow pace he played at. Then when I asked him to try playing the tune a wee bit faster he attempted to, but was still using those exaggerated movements of his left hand fingers and it was tripping him up. Once he started working on keeping his fingers closer to the fretboard (and minimising how far the plec travelled when he hit a string) he found it a lot easier to start building up speed without errors.

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"The point Kevin Burke makes in that video clip regarding how the mechanics of playing fast differ from playing slowly is something that folks don’t always think about - the fine muscle movements involved in playing fast aren’t the same as the ones you’re using to play slowly."

Flute and whistle players have an additional consideration of deciding where to take a breath within the tune. At different tempos the notes fly past at a different rate, while the need to get enough oxygen by taking frequent breaths is a constant. This means you’re probably going to pick a different place in the tune to breathe if you’re playing the same tune at a slow tempo vs. a fast one.

One thing I’ve learned to be aware of on flute, is not letting myself be trapped at a too-slow tempo because I’ve internalized certain places to take a breath while learning a new tune at a slower tempo. At a faster tempo I have to make conscious decisions on where to change the breathing point within each phrase. Otherwise it can get close to hyperventilating as the tempo increases. With a change in where I take a breath, the tune is more comfortable at a faster tempo. Fewer breathing points get you through the tune as the tempo increases.

This is probably something a very experienced player doesn’t have to think about, you’ll just automatically shift breathing points as the tempos change.

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Comical Bore: “This is probably something a very experienced player doesn’t have to think about, you’ll just automatically shift breathing points as the tempos change.”

Yes, this is true, but like variation and ornamentation, having flexibility in where one breathes in tunes is something one can practice. It’s crucial not to have fixed breath spots for tunes for exactly the reasons already mentioned above.

Finding natural pauses, dropping/splitting notes if required, use of taking a breath as an ornament are among the strategies one can practice at any speed.

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Michael, I agree that flexibility in breath points is good but that takes a while to develop. I wanted to point out this "mechanical" issue with woodwinds, because it might not be obvious to those just starting out. Or at least it wasn’t immediately obvious to me.

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I think nothing is obvious to someone just starting out. 🙂

When I teach my whistle tune classes, even though they are for newer players, I specifically will spend time talking about where to breathe in tunes. I talk about both the obvious places, as well as how to grab a breath in other places if required without interrupting the flow of the tune.

It’s something that ideally should be taught to all whistle and flute students early in their instruction, not after they have been playing for years.

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Thank you, David. I learned a new word from Wikipedia: galamatias.