Six Ways to Break Out of Being a Beginning Whistle Player
~ OR ~
How I Became L.E. McCullough
(not that you would want this to happen to you or a loved one)
by L.E. McCullough
© L.E. McCullough 2006
First, thanks to Mike Reagan for suggesting this topic. I would have loved to have been party to this discussion when I started playing Irish music. I managed to figure it out, anyhow, by stumbling along and getting incredibly lucky in meeting a wonderful assortment of musicians who generously shared their music and knowledge.
However, I can only speak for me. I can only tell you what I did to end up playing the tinwhistle the way I do. Someone else may have other ideas, so laissez les bons temps rouler.
Know This: there are no shortcuts, no one-strike magic bullet fixes. You’ll need to put in many hundreds of hours of listening and practicing alone and playing with others in small groups and in big sessions.
Irish traditional music is deceptively simple. Yes, the melodies aren’t that complex and, no, the whistle isn’t a physically demanding instrument. But to play it in a manner acceptable to the members of the tradition, you have to master a fair amount of technical nuance and stylistic subtlety that goes deeper than just tooting out the notes in time.
Learning music is like learning a spoken language. You memorize the basic syntax and vocabulary, then you have to immerse yourself among native speakers in everyday environments. You might end up occasionally getting on the wrong bus or being mis-directed to the lavatory facility of the opposite gender, but you’ll learn eventually what sounds “right” in what context and how to make those sounds.
Hopefully, you’re already doing most of what’s listed below, and one day — literally, one fine day when you least expect it— you’ll hear yourself and realize you can play Irish traditional music on the tinwhistle really well.
1) Decide to play the instrument the absolute best you can. Commit yourself to making the tinwhistle sound as good as any other instrument you’ve ever heard. NO excuses. No “well, this isn’t a complex instrument so I don’t have to be in tune. . . or have a clear sound. . . or use correct ornamentation.” Think like that, and you’re doomed to mediocrity. Learn every single type of ornament possible, even if you later decide not to use them. See if you can play into the third octave — just because it’s there. Dream that you are standing in the middle of the UN General Assembly and the fate of world peace hangs on your ability to play “Si Bheag Si Mhor” so beautifully that every delegate will weep and vote to suspend all war for all time. LOVE THIS INSTRUMENT WITH A COMPLETE AND TOTAL PASSION. It is your voice, your soul, your communication with the universe. Any less, and you’ll always be a beginner.
2) Decide specifically what (or who) you want to sound like — be they whistle player, flautist, fiddler, piper, accordionist, whatever. Usually when starting out you’ll hear a player or two whose playing really excites you. Imitate them slavishly, try and play tunes exactly the way they’ve recorded them, copy every single variation and idiosyncrasy, become a veritable and unapologetic Musical Clone. Then – with all that floating in your brain – ignore it and do your own thing (see #6). Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery, it’s the best way to truly ingest fundamentals of style and technique and learn how the music works. . . while acquiring the perspective to eventually create your own style.
3) Be omnivorous and voracious. Read every Irish music book, magazine and tutor you encounter, listen to every Irish traditional music recording you can beg, borrow or download. I see people on whistle forums asking “Which tutor should I start with?” Answer: ALL OF THEM!!! Each was written from a unique perspective of an author who had a unique set of learning and performing experiences and very likely represents a unique niche along the big wide Irish Trad Style Spectrum you need to become familiar with in its entirety. Tutors are also written at different times and places and for different publishing/commercial purposes, so don’t deprive yourself of any potential knowledge contained in what might seem an out-dated or limited-scope tutorial. Remember, the greatest players of Irish music didn’t necessarily learn from other great players. . . they took in all they could and added their own individuality to create genius.
4) Get small and tight. Play frequently with one or two people at your level who are also interested in improving and exploring the tradition in depth. Mass sessions are good for getting new tunes, but you need the intimacy of a small group you can analyze material with. I mean, really analyze: listening to recordings in detail, discussing obscure technical details, comparing different tune versions.
5) Hang with older players. Even ones who don’t at first glance seem too smooth or accomplished. It’s tempting in our celebrity-saturated culture to focus on the most popular players, the most virtuosic players, the players who dominate the festival and concert circuit and who the media brings to our attention. And certainly, they’re worth listening to. But I can only say that some of the best things I learned starting out, I learned from players who were not well known or virtuosic. They maybe just had some one small thing in their style or repertoire that appealed to me and which I absorbed and may possibly even now be unconsciously passing along to somebody else. I guess that’s the way the traditition stays alive.
6) Learn how to make variations. Variation is a major element of a melodic-based music like Irish trad. Yes, you need to learn what the “standard” way of playing a tune is. . . then learn how to vary it within the tradition’s boundaries. Variation in Irish music is learning how to get really deep in the tune so that you can keep bringing out new facets that make the tune seem interesting. Variation is what makes you a unique player and enhances your ability to grow because you learn how to manipulate the structure of the tune. Variation isn’t improvisation, though some good variations can happen spontaneously. Sometimes a variation comes to you as a mistake that you correct and refine till it works. In fact, you can mark your progress as a player by the easier it becomes for you to make a variation as you play a tune, say, at a session.
Looking back on my first couple years of playing Irish music on the whistle, these are the things I now see made a big difference in my development. I sincerely hope they prove of some benefit to you.