|Nick playing his new Tony Dixon whistle|
About ten years ago I met an enormously talented woman who was, among her other talents, a cook, an artist and Irish musician, part of the duo/trio known as Dobhran ("Otter" in Gaelic) which played at Celtic festivals, weddings and wineries, and had produced three CDs of their tunes. In order to get closer to this marvelous creature and to move more easier in her circles I decided to learn to play some Irish instrument. Since I have almost no native musical ability, the fiddle was out, and likewise any rhythm instrument. so I settled on either concertina or penny whistle. For economic reasons the whistle won out and I have been trying to master this deceptively simple six-hole Irish noise-maker ever since.
Learning an instrument is like learning a language--it's a consciousness altering act. First of all you have to "court the instrument", caress it, coax it, discover what it (and you) can and cannot do together. Then, as you start memorizing pieces, a part of your unconscious emerges that can play the instrument without any conscious effort on your part. Then your performance becomes a peculiar dialog between the new being inside you that can play the whistle "by heart" and the conscious mind that wants to direct the sound into new paths. Playing music "by heart" is a fascinating conversation between conscious and subconscious entities resembling Buddhist meditations involving breathing which is another physiological function where the border between unconscious and conscious operations can be shifted at will.
The penny whistle (known also as tin whistle or Irish whistle) probably never ever cost as little as a penny. (The name may have arisen from small boys playing it in London streets "for pennies") but they are remarkable inexpensive--usually at prices less than $10.00 US. For that reason we whistle players are prone to WAS (whistle acquisition syndrome) in which new whistles are acquired at the drop of a hat. Sometimes friends unwittingly feed this addiction--three of my fondest whistles are gifts--1. a classic tin Clarke from my next-door neighbor; 2. a Guinness-branded aluminum pipe bought at Blarney Castle by a fellow whistle player and 3. a brass Walton purchased in Dublin by Bruce Damer after receiving his PhD from Trinity College. Wherever I am, I look about for new whistles, hoping to find that unattainable grail--that magic instrument that exactly fits my nature, the perfect whistle that is all "sweet spot"--no sour or squeaky notes--that delirious whistle that plays itself, that effortlessly pours forth seductive melodies that charm the savage beast, court the ladies or stir the tribe into battle.
After playing for years in sessions around Santa Cruz and in a few paid gigs, I decided that I was ready to appreciate a more expensive instrument (good hand-crafted whistles sell for as much as $300) and after shopping around on the web decided to buy a tunable polymer whistle from Tony Dixon who works in Devon, England. The whistle arrived (about $50 from Lark in the Morning in Mendocino) and I have since been coaxing, caressing and discovering both its virtues and its flaws--many of which are located, of course, on my side of the fipple (mouthpiece).
I have been fortunate to find a few good whistle tutors, both live and on the web. Foremost web tutor being the musical priest himself Ryan Duns, SJ. Best source for whistle lore = Chiff and Fipple. And for traditional Irish tunes and commentary see thesessions.org One of our local Celtic music luminaries, Mike Long has put together a collection of more than a 1000 Irish tunes ("more tunes than are good for you") which he privately circulated and has now made available on the web. And for tuning your instrument, calibrating your tuner, or just playing around with sounds, there's the Online Tuning Fork.
One of the most instructive comments on my budding career as a whistle player came a few years back from an experienced fiddle player in one of our sessions: "You're really sounding good, Nick," he said, "For a long time you've been really terrible." To an insecure musician like myself that kind of honest feedback was truly encouraging.