Opinions on modern Whistle playing?

Opinions on modern Whistle playing?

I’ve found that while technically impressive, some of the playing from modern day whistle players lacks lift. I don’t know. It seems that sometimes people think speed is all it takes. Maybe I’m just a pure drop purist.

Re: Opinions on modern Whistle playing?

More practicing, less typing.

Step away from the keyboard and go find a nice YouTube video to play along with.

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Can you give some examples of who you think lack this elusive lift?

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Re: Opinions on modern Whistle playing?

Please define ‘lift’ as understood in a trad Irish music context or perhaps music generally. Thank you.

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My humble opinion, you’ll know lift when you hear it. Until then you won’t be able to get it in your playing.
Disclaimer, I know lift when I hear it, I’m not claiming that my playing has lift.

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Yeah right. Mary Bergin lacks lift.
A new one for me.

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From listening to a fair few old whistle and flute recordings, a lot of them lacked a bit of lift as well, to be perfectly honest. I think there’s a good few modern whistlers with decent lift actually, if you know where to look.

There is a tendency (especially in a faction of this website) to view the past through rose-tinted glasses, and ascribe to them values they never possessed. While the tunes and the melodies and the styles of play back then may have been very different, a contributing factor to this was often that the instruments were poor, and the proficiency of the players was variable. This isn’t really apparent if you look at the better recordings, but is definitely the case in some more off-the-cuff-type recordings. I remember reading that of the flutes in northern Connacht, for example, were fashioned out of whatever material was available, including bicycle pumps and discarded piping. The musician was secondary to the dancing, and the required qualities for playing were rhythm, lift, and the ability to play a vaguely familiar tune, nothing else. Dancers needed the dance tunes, and needed to play them at consistent and predictable speeds. So this is what a musician aspired to do.

I suspect a large proportion of younger traditional musicians have never played for dance, and most of the rest of us play for dance only sporadically now. Additionally, the overall quality and repair of the instruments has improved immensely. Because of this, the focus of the music has switched to a laser-focus on the music itself. Modern musicians have the luxury of focusing on the embellishments and the intricate technical features without having to focus as much on actually maintaining a decent sound from the whistle or instrument. Ergo, the music sounds different than it did before, whereas before, having the rudimentary bones of a melody, without even knowing the full melody, was enough to successfully accompany dance.

Modern whistle playing is not alone in this phenomenon, I might add. The music out of many instruments has changed secondary to an overall improvement in instrument quality.

I think this clip from 1927 probably emphasises the difference between the modern and older whistle player - https://www.itma.ie/digital-library/sound/cid-230488 - I hear a proficient focus on rhythm with that rarely-heard-now overblow technique that mimics the fife, which I suspect is partially an adaptation to a constant struggle to keep a coherent sound out of a poor quality whistle.

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Someone at The Session: “Yeah right. Mary Bergin lacks lift. A new one for me.”

Nobody mentioned Mary Bergin. For someone of Kellie’s age, Mary Bergin probably does not qualify as ‘modern’, anyway. ‘Modern’ is a rather vague term. I am sure there are many young whistle players that play with as much lift as Mary Bergin and her predecessors, even if their playing takes traditional music in slightly new directions. I can, however, think of one or two ‘big names’ whose playing is characterised more by speed and precision (along with a good deal of musical inventiveness) than lift. This is not to say they are incapable of playing with lift – it is a stylistic choice.

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Creadur - *I* mentioned Mary Bergin. MB is alive and playing. She could be seen as *the* definitive whistle player of our age. So in my book she is a modern whistle player. If Kellie, or anyone else of that age, hasn’t heard of her, they are missing out - and I’d strongly recommend they gave her a listen. But I agree, ‘modern’ in this context is a vague term. Also, the whole statement regarding lift is a rather sweeping one.

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Dave, Danny: Please define ‘lift’.

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Is it ‘tightness’, ‘in the groove’ thing or a more personal‘on the money tonight’, ‘got my Mojo working’ type thing?

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Yes! I want a label. A definition. One assumes it’s different from ‘nyah’.
The clip above is quite rhythmic and at a good tempo. It’s also played tonally accurately.

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Kellie, on ‘Brother Steve’s’ site there are some whistle study tunes that you might be interested in. Lift is discussed along with other commentary on the tunes played.
http://www.rogermillington.com/tunetoc/index.html

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I am nether Dave nor Danny, but here’s my sense of what I mean when I say “lift”:
It is not a term from classical, Italianate music, with a corresponding 18th C,. Italian
word to be written at the top left of a composer’s page. It is a term which like many
used by folk musicians to describe traditional music is ill-defined, but I think represents
the rhythmic emphasis internal to the measure used to create an idiomatic dance pattern.

We do not play in “straight 8ths”, six-to-a-bar in jigs, nor eight-to-a-bar in reels. The
rhythm “breathes” with a clear definition of the primary -and secondary! - downbeats
within a measure. Now, on a dynamic instrument such as a modern fiddle or a plectrum
string instrument, or a drum, one can and usually will emphasize downbeats with a
dynamic, volumetric increase in loudness, just on the attack of that particular note. But
in a tradition (like Irish Trad) of non-dynamic (or stacked dynamic) music, one emphasizes
the down beat (on 1 and little bit on 4, in a 6/8 jig; on 1 and a little bit on 5 in a 4/4 reel,
counting eighth notes aka quavers) by stretching TIME -- it becomes a question of “rubato”,
as my classical musician friends would say. A whistle simply cannot play a first-octave F#
LOUDER, but it can play it a smidgen LONGER, and that can be used to emphasize a downbeat.

*The faster you play, the less evident this effect is.* If you listen to Brian Finnegan ripping the
roof off with Road to Errogie (I’m thinking Flook’s Haven recording) he’s playing so fast
that the internal “lift” isn’t easily discernable, as exciting and impressive as that performance
might be (one of my favorites). Mary Bergin, in her first Feadóga Stáin LP back in 1979, begins
with a set of three reels, the first of which, Ril Gan Ainm, (another favorite tune of mine) is
probably, I think, one of her own making. It’s just a bit slower, though in some ways a more
challenging piece to learn and play, but it has a lift, and internal dancing rhythm, which Alec
Finn can play against.

As many rural musicians in the old days played with a slower, lilting rhythm it’s easy to say
that lift is Trad and speed is not, but give a listen to say, Chris Droney’s blazing concertina
playing, with all the lift necessary for fast Clare dancing, and compare that to Gerald O’Halloran’s
typically much slower, nearly bluesy style. Both are steeped in the Irish Traditional Music of
County Clare.

JMHO, though based on an embarrassingly long period of close observation.

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Lift, Pulse, rhythm do definitions really matter, and even if you did define it, does it really help in any way, does it help to describe what a strawberry tastes like or should you just eat a strawberry ?

Any having said all that, for me when you think of lift you need to think of physical motion (dancing if you want) but it the dynamic in the music that imitates the natural motion it would require if you were to jump off the ground say 2 cm. you first of all load the legs with pressure and then release to get you off the ground.

As Noel Hill would put it, to describe a musician playing without lift/rhythm etc.., the musician stuck the dancers to the floor.

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Ok! Thank you pgm3. That was some essay! So it’s a ‘groove’ thing. Where the emphasis falls on the note groups and phrases and how much swing (tendency to dotted rhythms) there is.
These are variables. But if they come together within the ‘performing’ ensemble it’s called ‘lift’.
What about solo renditions and lift?

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Therlandais: don’t you know all musicologists intend to describe all music with one big mathematical formula?!

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Isn’t it called an elevator in North America?

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“Therlandais: don’t you know all musicologists intend to describe all music with one big mathematical formula?!”

Aren’t we lucky that we couldn’t read when we were born, couldn’t you just imagine how people would have tried to teach us to talk.

Re: Opinions on modern Whistle playing?

Lift means lively(not fast) danceable with energy pouring from it.

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Re: Opinions on modern Whistle playing?

So, ‘normal’.

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‘Normal for South London’ that is.

Re: Opinions on modern Whistle playing?

Yhaal House, I believe it is as applicable to individual playing as to ensemble. indeed, the trick to better ensemble playing (as far as achieving lift is concerned) is for everyone to be defining the internal-measure
beat emphasis in much the same way. I think the Bothy Band is a classic example of that, the Chieftains at times would play straight ensemble tunes and for all the descants that pop out they were tight. I chose to speak about Mary Bergin because she is a great example (as was Sean Potts) of a modern whistler with “lift”, but also capable of virtuosic displays of speed. Brian Finnegan likewise, though the well-known example I chose is not about playing for dancers, in fact, I think he sort of leaves the band a little behind there, he is so far ahead of the beat. It’s quite exciting, but most Saturday-night set dances would need a slower tempo (and more, ahem, lift) I would venture.

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Re: Opinions on modern Whistle playing?

@pgm3
Is the last word on anything, here, Clare Co., Ireland?

Now about rambling on ‘lift’. A school boy spending a bit of time with relatives in Ireland, recall never hearing one word about it. On going to school during rainy days it was considered unsuited allowing children to bicycle/walk the 3 mile to and from. So a ‘lift’ was arranged with one of the teachers, when one was ‘picked up’ and taken to, and from school by car.

That’s what the word meant in Ireland, rather as the word ‘session’ referred to men meeting in a Bar to drink a lot of beer.

About musicians it was said ‘ so and so is a lively player’ meaning that the person could ‘swing’ the tunes, like Jazz that came over the radio.

Mention of which, almost all dance music has to be ‘lively’, no hanging around like in a Sean Nos air. So R&R is it, Trad Jazz, and later Bluegrass. Get the impression that enthusiasts are concerned about how lively they appear to listeners as, mentioned above, most Irish dance music is not played for dancers today, but for listeners who sit and ‘appreciate’ the performance.

Considering nearly all those outside the culture do not learn the music in the traditional manner but from scores, e.g. like on this website, whereas players in Ireland learn by listening and then repeating, often in small bits of tunes until the whole is mastered, there should be little surprise when today overseas students get into dithers about how they appear to sound.

Think playing lively before a tune is mastered is ‘the cart before the horse’- itis as witnessed in many cases when book learned performers sound more ‘midi’ than native Irish - dance musicians.

So trying to find ‘lift’ or ‘nyah’, in short ‘lively’, for most students, most of the time is pointless, as it appears to be a byproduct of master performance not the other way around. If less dense, perhaps ‘lively’ badly played dance music does not have the same outcome.

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Maybe that’s what’s missing (for better or for worse). The dance element.

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Kellie, many, many YouTube videos out there of musicians playing for dancers that you might find useful.

Here are some examples of each of the tune styles as would be danced by step and set dancers.

Reels:

Step Dancers

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDLl1MATYiM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuDcENRGmGE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FB9cISmqgk4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXb7pEEcWq0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_zITCpSNBE


Set Dancers

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kn94A4otfAs

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQoH4_Wgghk



Jigs:

Step Dancers

“Heavy - Slower”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYsyU9n9e8Q

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebDa3ZgZcs0


“Light - Faster”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDYM2g8-qvo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KPojeFY5-C8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRwbnFVY9vM


Set Dancers
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQoH4_Wgghk



Single Jig:

Step Dancers
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ai0Hlob3KPc


Hornpipe:

Step Dancers
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4K3pS6FfnhM


Set Dancers
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmL0IXUjkUw



Slip Jig:

Step Dancers
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLeCLRK8Ws8


Slide:

Set Dancers
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmL0IXUjkUw


Polka:

Set Dancers
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmL0IXUjkUw


Set Dances:

Step Dancers

“The Blackbird”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qdrWU6xYzzU


“Garden of Daisies”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jt1sxEmH4LI


“St. Patrick’s Day”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXGyU22HLT0


This whole series on set dances may be of interest to you:

https://www.youtube.com/c/CelticNote/search?query=set%20dance

Re: Opinions on modern Whistle playing?

I always wanted to learn to dance, but I get what you’re saying perhaps I’m nostalgic for a time that never was

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The dancing clips are confusing, the solo dancers are Step Dancing, the groups are Set Dancing.

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@Goose - why is that a problem? It’s just what you would expect.

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I always preferred sean nos dancing though

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@pgm3: The first tune on Mary Bergin’s Feadóga Stáin is a version of “Molly Bawn”, which is a trad tune.

@Kellie: As for “modern whistle playing” that “lacks lift” I want some examples so we know what you mean.

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I’m mostly talking about people like Brian Finnegan

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@Kellie
I don’t see where Brian Finnegan is lacking, including when it comes to what you are calling “lift.” He plays whistle, but in a contemporary style he himself defines. His playing doesn’t have to conform to some view of what traditional music should sound like. If you move past seeing his playing in terms of its “speed,” there’s so much he incorporates into his playing to contribute to its groove. Maybe it’s not a pure drop groove, but he isn’t a pure drop player, he is a contemporary player with undeniable groove through the way he swings his tunes and adds in lightning fast double and triple tonguing. I believe this holds true for other contemporary whistle players; I don’t see them as worse than the whistle players of the past, they might just have a more contemporary playing style that conflicts with past tradition.

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I’d say that playing has some nice lift

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The flute? So it’s what you expect for dancing?

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The Whistle, the flute it doesn’t matter what instrument it’s on or how many instruments are playing. It should be danceable.

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Sorry, Austin. I asked was it the flute video you were responding to because I posted 2 videos. Flute 1st then banjo.

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@Kellie, all the replies above should make clear the one thing lift is NOT: A cerebral exercise. You mentioned wanting to learn to dance… do it! There are lots of sean-nós dance resources online nowadays if that’s what appeals to you; not all free, but some are.

Moving your body is a great way to start building a natural relationship with danceable music -- and that danceability has something to do with lift, doesn’t it?

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@Kellie: In your “lift” / “no lift” examples above you compare two completely different settings for whistle playing. Brian Finnegan is playing together with a drum kit, a guitar player and a fiddler. Kevin Crawford is playing solo, unaccompanied, and also slower. No wonder there’s a big difference in playing style. To be fair to them, you should compare to a solo performance of Brian Finnegan.
When playing with heavy backing, it’s easy to “surf” on the backing when playing the tin whistle. When playing unaccompanied, you have to provide the rhythm yourself.
There’s also a difference in the choice of tunes. Brian Finnegan plays a modern style composition, whereas Kevin Crawford plays a more traditional style tune.
So do you have any examples of whistle players besides Brian Finnegan that you think lack lift?

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I’m of the opinion that suggesting Brian Finnegan lacks "lift’ is exceptionally naive. As with many top players, he can play whistle in any style and with as much lift as he chooses.

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Thank you for this great discussion and the many examples. I learned a lot!

Related note: I played renaissance dance music (e.g., from the Playford collection) on recorder both for real dancers and with an ensemble who never saw people dancing it before. HUGE difference. Now I have a word for it 🙂

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Lift and rhythm are not the same thing in my eyes

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Michael, if we’re thinking of lift in terms of dancing I can see the dancers (in my minds eye) with the tunes played by Jim & Kevin. At least that’s a definite impression I have while listening to the entire clip.

Austin, I’m not sure why you’re comparing these two clips. It’s probably just me but when I listened to Oisín’s reel I didn’t instantly think of dancing. Do you listen to it and consider it “more lifty” in terms of dance? Or is it something else which makes it liftier than Michael’s video?

Very good playing though. Cheers!

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