This is a great beginner’s guide for you, with 10 Essential Tips for Learning How to play the Irish Tin Whistle.
You can also Learn How to Play the Irish Tin Whistle with confidence, emotion and expression…by taking my complete online course: How to Play the Irish Tin Whistle
1 – Start on a High D Tin Whistle
This is the standard key for tin whistles, and by far the most used. There are 6 holes on a tin whistle. Which means that it is designed to play 7 notes, from all holes closed…to all holes open… The notes of all tin whistles are in the major scale. On a high D tin whistle the notes are in D Major: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#… But you will still be able to play any tune in any major key or any minor key, simply by transposing the tune to your key of tin whistle.
2 – Holding your Tin Whistle
Hold it in front of you angled forwards, and then angle it down to a comfortable position. Then if you are right-handed you take your left hand and place your index finger on the top hole, your middle finger on the second hole, and your ring finger on the 3rd hole. Then you take your right hand and place your index finger on the 4th hole, your middle finger on the 5th hole, and your ring finger on the final 6th hole. Basically your left hand will always take care of the top 3 holes, and your right hand will play the bottom 3 holes. And your thumbs and pinkies will never be used to cover any hole, they will mainly be used for extra stability and support.
3 – Finger Placement (Pads)
It is important that you learn right from the start, how to place your fingers to cover the holes. Because one of the most common issues beginners struggle with is failed notes due to not fully covering one of the holes. If any air leaks out, you will often end up with a squeaky annoying sound. What you want to do is to use your finger pads, and not your finger tips. This way you will get a better seal around the holes.
4 – Mouth Placement (Kiss)
You want to place your mouth on the mouth-piece gently, almost like a kiss. Then relax your lips around the tip of the mouth-piece. You want a perfect seal so no air is leaking out, but still only around your lips. There should still be some distance between the tip of your tin whistle and the front of your teeth. Basically the tip should rest on your lower lip, then you simply let your upper lip fall down and relax to form the seal around the mouth-piece of your whistle.
5 – Breath Control
One of the most difficult things to learn if you are new to this instrument, is breath control. Because the lowest will require you to blow super softly, almost like blowing a feather out of your hand. And the higher you go up, the more air you need to blow to get to the sweet spot of the note. The second aspect of breath control, and why it is so difficult, is that the breath pressure will affect both the volume and sound for every note, as well as the tuning. So every note will have a sweet spot where the tuning is spot on, and where the tone of that note is balanced. That is why I recommend that you always practice with a tuner app, so that you can check the tuning on a consistent basis.
6 – Tonguing the Notes
You are not only blowing air to play a note on your tin whistle. You can shape the attack of each note by using different tonguing techniques. Basically how you articulate the air stream. A good starting point to get clear notes is to say “tu” for each note. If you want to get a softer accent you can say “hu”. And if you want a very smooth transition between notes, you can simply continue the air-stream, without tonguing the next note. Meaning you only change the fingering to get to the next note.
7 – Playing the 1st Octave Notes
You start by playing the lowest note, which is when all holes are covered. That will be the note of your tin whistle key. On a high D tin whistle, this note will be a D. Then you simply uncover 1 hole at a time, going up the scale. E, F#, G, A, B…and finally all holes uncovered will give you a C#. You can practice going up and down like this.
8 – Playing the 2nd Octave Notes
To get to the second octave you simply need to blow even harder. You can start by practicing on the lowest note, the D, with all holes covered. If you blow super softly you will get the low octave D, but as soon as you increase the air pressure you will get to the 2nd octave D. Try it on the other notes as well, but remember that you will need even more air the higher up you go. So playing the highest notes in the 2nd octave requires you to push a lot of air into your tin whistle. A trick t o get to the 2nd octave notes more easily is to use a hard accent in the start of the note, like “tu”. Another trick for the lowest note D, is to skip the top hole to get to the 2nd octave easier and cleaner.
9 – Avoiding Bad Sounds
There are basically 3 common issues that you will struggle with, which all can create bad failed notes and sounds on your tin whistle. The first is leaking holes, which you can solve by making sure you cover and seal the holes with your finger pads. The 2nd common issue is a weak or forced sound due to the wrong amount of air pressure for that note. You solve this by finding the sweet spot for each note by using a tuner, and also by listening when you play the note from a weak tone to a forced tone, then find the balance in the middle. And the final 3rd common bad sound issue is due to condensation within the mouth-piece. You solve this issue by making a habit of blowing out the moisture inside the tin whistle, on a consistent basis. And you do this by covering the tone hole on the mouth-piece, and then simply blowing hard. Make sure to cover that tone hole first though, or your ears will suffer!
10 – Learning Tunes on your Tin Whistle
There are several ways to learn how to play any tune on your tin whistle. If you are used to reading music, perhaps you prefer sheet music for the notes of the tune. The 2nd way which I personally recommend and prefer, is to use something called “Tin Whistle Tabs”, which basically show the notes as a finger chart for each note. Often with spaces to make it easier to see the phrases of the tune. And the final way is to simply learn a tune by ear, and muscle memory. Meaning you stumble around to find each note for each phrase of the tune, and then play it back without any notes or tabs. And, as with anything in life that you want to learn…practice a lot!
What is Next for Your Tin Whistle Journey?
I want to congratulate your for taking the leap, and going on an adventure to learn how to play this beautiful and amazing instrument. Learning how to play a music instrument is one of the most creative, inspiring and satisfying things in life. But don’t stop here. If you truly want to learn how to play this instrument with confidence, expression and emotion, I have added a link for you, to my online course on mastering the Irish tin whistle. Check the description below, and you will find a special discount link.