Top hand on tin whistle/pipes

Top hand on tin whistle/pipes

Hello! I’m 32 and I’ve been thinking of learning to play the tin whistle or something like the Scottish smallpipes, but I screwed up my left hand when I was in elementary school. The only potential problem I see is that the fingers on my left hand will no longer touch one another unless my hand is closed, and the minimum size of the space between them is set by the injury. From what I’ve read online, the left hand is placed over the top holes(for a right handed person). If I can’t manage that, I think covering the bottom holes at a slight angle would be an alternative. The whistle sites say dominant hand on the bottom holes is standard, but the alternative also works.

I was just wondering what your opinions are on it. You all have way more experience than I do, and I trust your advice more than a random website.

Re: Top hand on tin whistle/pipes

Hiya Steve,

Covering holes at a slight angle wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s obviously hard to “diagnose” this online. Yes, for right-handers (north paws?), you put the left hand on top. The only problem would be if you can’t space your fingers out enough to cover the holes, but you didn’t say anything about the *maximum* spread, so maybe it wouldn’t be a problem?

I would suggest you get yourself a cheap whistle and see how it works with your hands. All D whistles basically have identical layouts for the holes. It’s obviously a cheaper way than jumping in with pipes, plus with the added advantage that the whistle is easier to learn than any type of pipes + would give you transferable skills.

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Alex had a “screwed up” right hand - didn’t stop him :

https://youtu.be/NUnlV53bMWM


Never mind “standard” - do whatever works.

Per Tallec from Brittany was in the same flute class as me at the Willie Clancy week, 1986, I think it was :
https://youtu.be/tOKiFqZPcN0

He was one of the best in the class. An inspiration to us all.

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Michael Mcgoldrick is another player who, to say the least, manages just fine with the right hand on top.

As said earlier, get a D whistle and give it a go. If you decide later on to add keyed flute or bagpipes to your instrumentation you’ll need a ‘left-handed’ instrument which will no doubt come at a price premium over a ‘standard’ model, but makers do exist who will happily build one.

Depending on the nature of your hand injury (and I am most definitely not qualified to comment on the details of that) you could also look at the Susato range of whistles, which includes instruments with options to rotate the position of individual holes to make them easier to reach.

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Also Google ‘pipers grip’, which is a very common technique for covering flute / whistle / pipes holes.

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Although in general my advice to anyone would be to play the conventional way, that goes out the window when someone has specific issues. I’d just grab a cheapish tin whistle and give it a try; to be honest, there’s not a lot of difference between top and bottom spread on a whistle, especially between the index and middle fingers, so I suspect the answer might be either normal is fine or it doesn’t work at all (piper’s grip narrows the spread of your fingers, so that will make it worse). Once you do, let us know how you get on; I’m sure quite a few of us here would be happy to jump on Zoom and have a look.

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Re: Top hand on tin whistle/pipes

In the past people played with the right hand on top, and many still do today.

What is the spacing of your left hand, index>middle, and middle>ring, with the fingers at a normal relaxed curl?

That will tell us what size whistle would work best.

When you get to the bigger whistles the top three fingerholes can be spaced fairly wide as well, the difference is that the top three holes are generally more or less evenly spaced, while the bottom three holes generally have the index and middle fingers closer together, while the middle and ring fingers are quite far apart.

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I can’t believe that Per Tallec guy. I’m not quite sure how he’s doing that but its genius.
But to balance the Per Tallec example, I once broke a bone in my left hand and for a solid month I couldn’t cover the holes on *either* hand. While it didn’t hurt to play that much, it didn’t take much to make my normal grip stop working, even for the non-damaged hand everything was just slightly off

I think be open to the idea of playing left-handed (right hand on top) if that makes it easier. I am a lefty but always played right-handed because that’s what i saw other people doing.

i also think if all else fails getting a whistle maker to customise you a barrel with spacing suited to your finger spread. i’m pretty sure that’s do-able and that good makers have the mathematics down so they can simply - eg i just compared my low C with a friend’s by the same maker, his version was circa 2009 and mine was circa 2021 - the hole distribution on his was different (closer together than mine), the difference meant for me his was easier to finger (because low C has a big stretch) and the transition between lower & upper octaves was easier on his. But mine had a stronger bell note, sounded more powerful and generally better.
This may or may not be the solution for a high D whistle (most common session key) because the holes on a little whistle will always be somewhat close together, you might want to jump straight into learning low whistle (low D.) Bit more pricy tho. And be warned that it’ll hurt your hands at first with low whistle, for at least a couple of months until you get used to the stretch, that’s normal.

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The only main disadvantage I’m aware of re having your dominant hand on the bottom is the fingering for whistles is the same as the Irish flute.

(So by learning the whistle, you get a good way on the road to also learning the flute (if you want to))

It’s a bit awkward playing a right handed flute with the right hand on top/facing you = gets a little complicated (but there are options).

If you don’t think you’ll learn the flute, I don’t think there’s any issue in having the right hand on top of that’s easier for you.

As above, personally i’d go to a folk music shop and look at a stock of whistles.

Some designs do have slightly further apart holes, but different tunings (C, Bflat, A etc) have progressively further apart holes with the same fingering that you might find work better.

As above, a low D is essentially a whistle in the same tuning but one octave lower (so you can play along with other players in a session) and usually played with pipers grip (fingers on an angle) with both hands anyway, so might be a good option. You can usually pick up beginner ones on eBay for not a lot just to check if the finger spacing will work for you.

You could then alternate “regular grip” and “pipers grip” between your hands to get a good seal.

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Left/Right Top/Bottom - makes zero difference if you’re learning from scratch. The convention is left top for right-handed players - but there are so many successful crossovers that I really don’t think it matters a jot once you’ve got the hang of it. Same goes for pipers grip with either or both hands - whatever works for you - especially if you have some flexibility issues from the injury. Do what works for you.

Start with the whistle (small, inexpensive). Everybody struggles with covering holes properly initially and moving between intervals etc. So make no judgement for 2-3 months at least.

And get a teacher - really does help from the beginning to have some guidance. And best wishes - it is definitely worth the effort and I hope your injury doesn’t prevent you playing.

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I remember Casey Burns telling me time he had a booth selling his wooden keyless Irish flutes at a festival and a guy picked up one of his flutes and started playing it backwards.

Casey said he had cut the blowhole in a way intended to being played from one side, the usual side for Boehm flutes. It now became apparent that blowholes should perhaps be cut to be playable from either side.

Irish fluteplayers who don’t use the keywork on their antique 8-key wooden flutes aren’t bothered when they play a usual righthanded flute lefthanded. They often have the keys removed or deactivated anyhow.

What amazes me is when I see an Irish fluteplayer playing a righthanded flute lefthanded and fluently using all the keys! Most or all are in awkward places.

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I use my dominant hand on top. I was never trained. That’s just how it worked out. Your post just informed me that this guideline exists. I’ve never heard of it before. It hasnt held me back. When you get right down to it a beginner player is going to be awkward no matter where he puts his fingers. It’s a new and unusual movement that you need to train from scratch either way. So don’t worry about it and just do what works best for you. The form of many of the best players would make a music teacher cringe. Likewise the playing of many a music teacher makes me cringe. As they say those who can’t do teach. If you love it and you’re driven to practice you’ll do just fine.

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I would like to add that there’s a big difference between a whistle flute or pipes. I wouldn’t self teach on pipes. There are specific movements on pipes like the cran the throw on d the birl and more that you really should get training from a teacher. Otherwise you’ll never sound like a real piper. Also there’s a lot of maintenance on pipes and you really need to have someone who knows what they’re doing at least for a year or so. Penny whistle and flute there are plenty of tutorials that will show you the basic ornaments.

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I’m right handed. Though I’ve never considered it seriously, as I now do my fiddle, I’ve played tunes on a Clarke tin whistle ever since I was a kid (I still prefer the tin). It comes as a complete surprise to me that my left hand should be on the top. Why should it be?

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People just make rules. You’ll go crazy if you listen to them all. People go on endlessly about embouchure and where your elbows should be. Hilarious stuff. Just blow the effing thing until you get a sound you like. If it sounds good do it again!

But I wanted to make what I feel is an important point for the OP. On pipes the hard stuff is on the bottom hand so keep that in mind. On the flute or whistle Id say it doesn’t much matter but the top hand probably gets more action most of the time. Pipes are quite different. There’s some tricky moves that go on with the bottom hand.

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Speaking of made up rules… why on earth is the bottom hand supposed to be harder on pipes? Surely this would also interact with hand dominance and so on, and depend on the type of pipes. On uilleann pipes, I would bet most people learn to execute a clean F# roll sooner than an A or B roll, or a backstitch, partly because those are done by a non-dominant hand.

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I was just thinking,… like thousands of kids I was taught to play the recorder at primary school; left hand at the bottom.

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Dominant hand on bottom, sigh as s self taught whistler It never occurred to me but I regret learning the opposite way.
This means that Uilleann would need a left handed set , clarinet etc …. Would mean bespoke … ? So im limited as to what instruments I can play without spending a fortune .
Highland pipes the holes of the bottom hand are bigger than top hand and the dominant hand is bigger so perhaps this plays a part but i found no issues there myself as both hands are xl but a small dainty person might and my low d has a huge hole on the lower hand but not upper .
Historically woodwind had 2 holes fir bottom note so players could chose but its been standardized as right at bottom for recorder etc for hundreds of years ie:

The thumb of the left hand is to close the uppermost hole which is situated behind the recorder.) In his method published in 1732, Joseph Majer stipulates: “Linker hand” (left hand) for the hand above and “Rechter hand” (right hand) for the one below.

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He was talking about small pipes which are based on highland pipes. Most of the complex ornaments like d throws birls and others are done on the bottom hand. The top hand does different combinations of normal grace notes mostly.

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There isn’t an intrinsic “handedness” to tin whistle.

There’s an obvious handedness to left/right handed KEYED flutes given the positioning of the keywork. Even trying to play such an instrument ignoring the keys (keyless style) presents the challenge of blocks and keys in awkward positions. (Hence a number of celebrated lefties well known for butchering right-handed Rudall flutes to get the offending keywork/blocks out of the way).

But even a KEYLESS flute may have a handedness intrinsic to the embouchure cut. Most makers undercut the embouchure (it’s not a simple vertical bore-hole) as it widens slightly as it descends. But not all do so symmetrically - so the flute has an intrinsic bias favouring of playing on one side or the other, even keyless.

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@ Gobby:

“I was just thinking,… like thousands of kids I was taught to play the recorder at primary school; left hand at the bottom.”

Funny you say that as we were taught to play recorder by a recorder teacher next to primary school (optional course after school once a week but whole class joined) and a teacher on secondary school (here it actually was part of regular lessons) and all of them taught us we should use our right hand at the bottom and left hand on the top. As a right handed person I find it easier to cover and play with my right hand at bottom. But we did have a left handed person in the class next to primary school and that person was adviced to use the right hand on top and left one at bottom.

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I can’t remember if it was Tansey or Catherine McEvoy who cut off at of the keys and taped up the holes with electrical tape.

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@Wodanaz - Tansey

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Thanks kkrell! That was a funny story!

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“He was talking about smallpipes which are based on Highland pipes. Most of the complex ornaments like D-throws, birls, and others are done on the bottom hand. The top hand does different combinations of normal grace notes mostly.”

There are a few complicated top hand ornaments like the Edre on E and the Edre-like things that are done on F# and High G (which I can’t remember the canntaireachd names for).

The Edres on E and F# are often used in Light Music nowadays, in Pipe Bands too.

Of course the Highland chanter is ambidextrous and many pipers play with the right hand on top, regardless of which arm the bag is under. (Players with right hand on top use either shoulder, and it’s not unknown for players with left hand on top to have the bag under the right arm.)

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So I was just practicing my flute today and paying attention to what hand was getting all the action and for sure it’s the top hand on flute. I play 120bpm on reels and 140 bpm on jigs as a rule. To me that is a nice peppy dance speed any faster and it’s too fast for dancing. Any slower and it becomes chamber music in my opinion.

I will unreservedly say that on flute your strong hand should be on top. I don’t care what anybody says. I don’t care if it’s written in any textbook or what any teacher says. I would hate to play maids of mount kisco for example with my weak hand on top or really any number of tunes. No wonder people play so slow! It must be like a typewriter where they mixed up the keys to slow everyone down! That’s exactly what these rules will do to you! Opposite on bagpipes though. The tough stuff is on the bottom hand.

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> I will unreservedly say that on flute your strong hand should be on top.

And what do we mean by “strong hand”? Think about what you do with your “strong hand”. You throw a spear, control a fiddle bow, direct a pen, wield a knife. Those are all gross muscle movements originating from the shoulder.

When it comes to fine control requiring individual finger movement, we turn without thinking to the non-dominant hand: think about how you sew, how you knit, how you finger any fretted or unfretted instrument, how you manipulate an onion to hold it for dicing.

I’m sceptical that any of these really make a difference to the finished musician, which is why I tell any able-bodied musician to play whatever their instrument is in the “normal” manner.

> The tough stuff is on the bottom hand.

I have to say I don’t think that’s necessarily true for any species of bagpipe.

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Your dominant hand is better at fine motor skills.

I finger fretted instruments with my strong hand. I do everything possible with my strong hand. For me the trickiest movements on the pipes is the throw on d and the birl. He was talking about small pipes. That’s bottom hand stuff. The rest is just normal grace notes.

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> Your dominant hand is better at fine motor skills.

As I explained in my previous post, that’s an extremely simplistic way of looking at it.

> I finger fretted instruments with my strong hand

And you have no source other than your fertile imagination for whether that’s actually better for you.

> For me the trickiest movements on the pipes is the throw on d and the birl.

How do you get on with the fifth part of Norman Gillies’s Mason’s Apron?

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Your dominant hand is better at fine motor skills. That’s a fact. Look it up. I didn’t invent this idea. I don’t play the tune you’re talking about. I gave up the pipes to concentrate on flute.

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Interesting discussion: as a right-handed person I have to say that after many years of playing stringed instruments I feel that my left hand is at least the equal if not the more dexterous and stronger of my hands. Obviously I would never tell them that though, in the interest of keeping the peace 🙂
I think it just depends on the individual at a certain point, but certainly I would advocate for playing in the way that works best.

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“I will unreservedly say that on flute your strong hand should be on top. I don’t care what anybody says.”

Well then you won’t care about this post, but I think it’s not that cut and dried except for your own experience, which of course is valid for you.

For one thing, “handedness” isn’t always strong. There are people who are either fully ambidextrous or only have a mild degree of handedness. I’m righthanded, but will often switch off to the other hand for things a person more strongly righthanded wouldn’t do.

As for flute, there are some players who cut every note on the top three tone holes, others who cut with a tone hole immediately above the primary note, even when it’s on the lower tone holes. The first method would favor the strong hand being on the top section, the second method not so much. I know there are arguments about the best way to do cuts, either close or further away from the target note, but the fact is that people do it differently.

One other thing on flute is that personally, I find it easier to add finger vibrato in an air on the lower three notes because I’m using a flatter semi-piper’s grip there. A flat-fingered waver is easier than vibrato on the upper three tone holes where I’m using a more curved finger tip, so I tend to only use vibrato on those lower notes where it’s useful for it to be the dominant hand.

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My posts are only my opinions. I respect everyone’s opinions and experience even if I don’t come off that way.

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In my view , apart from the additional strength of the dominant hand the greater size is the main consideration in covering the larger tone holes found on the bottom of whistles and pipes .
Dexterity can be trained up . As im sure we all agree ( is that even possible?! ) the more you practice at being dexterous the better you get .
After all, all we do is lift and replace fingers either individually or in combination and sequentially in various rhythmic patterns .

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Barring hand injuries etc. I would recommend beginners on the tin whistle to play with the left hand at the top. In other circumstances, it’s obviously do what needs to be done.

Fundamentally, there is no “right-handed” or “left-handed” way to play the tin whistle. I’m strongly left-handed, so I am aware of many musical instruments where there are left-handed ways of playing them. The tin whistle is definitively not one of them.

Why recommend left hand at the top, then? Because this is the conventional way to play woodwind instruments and as no-one knows the future, why create artificial barriers for yourself on other woodwind instruments?

PS. I wish people would stop referring to “left-handed” and “right-handed” ways of playing the tin whistle. It creates a false impression and potentially misleads new left-handed players.

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If the dominant hand has better fine motor skills, why do righties play guitar/fiddle/mando the way they do? ALL of the fine motor skills are done with the “weaker” hand. And honestly, woodwind instruments require both hands to have some degree of dexterity regardless of right/left hand dominance.

As far as the OP goes, the best answer was given in the first post (and others) – buy a tin whistle and figure out what works. It’s an inexpensive instrument, if it doesn’t work Steve will not be out much. Whereas, if he gets a set of small pipes, the “tuition” is a great deal more just to find out if his particular hand issue can work.

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There’s a notion repeated in this thread that all the fine motor skills for playing fiddle happen in the fingering (left) hand. That’s not the case. In reality, the bow is at least half the instrument. The bow hand wrist and fingers continuously make fine motor motions and adjustments at least as refined as the left hand. These enable the fiddler to create tone production, rhythm, timing, dynamics, and articulation. All the subtleties we hear in good bowing are the result of small, nuanced movements of the bow wrist, thumb, and fingers.

Also, contrary to an earlier post here, adept fiddlers do not use their bow arm shoulders much at all, certainly not enough to develop their deltoids and other muscles to a greater degree than on their fingering arm. Basically, the only time the shoulder muscles come into play is when you change “planes” to lay the bow on the lower (D and G) strings. If a fiddler is routinely moving their shoulder otherwise, including forward and backward or lifting in a shrugging motion, that’s down to poor technique.

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None of the references to ‘shoulder’ above say that gimpy. If you are referring to my comment it is all the other things that a dominant hand does that increase shoulder musculature.

Try reaching round the back for your right shoulder with your left hand fingers and vice versa. Most people can’t get as close with their dominant hand.

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David, sorry, I was aggregating your post with Calum’s. Apologies for putting words in your mouth.

More to the point, then, bowing a fiddle has little to do with gross muscle movements originating at the shoulder.

I don’t have a dominant hand, but I do have two equally worn out shoulders, so when I try your test, it produces laughably poor but remarkably even results. 🙂

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No problem gimpy. My main point was that preferred use may lead to strength but not neccessarily to greater flexibility.

The fact that people learn more skills with their ‘go to’ hand must make it very hard to test whether that hand is inherently better at learning new fine motor skills.

My bottom/right/dominant hand seems to require less practice getting its fingers round tricky bits than the top hand. But that could be because the top hand has the ‘essential’ cross-fingering (C natural and vented D) and usually has to coordinate with the bottom hand over them. On the other hand - 🙂 - bottom hand fingers less often need to coordinate with the top hand when doing anything tricky.

Seamus Egan (right on top for whistle, left on top for flute) may be an exception that proves something.