This fall I registered for a beginner’s tin whistle class at Siamsa, the Irish School of Music. A tin whistle (penny whistle) had been gathering dust for years ever since a musician acquaintance gave it as a gift for my son’s baby shower.
My son is now 14. For years the whistle sat in a toy bin. My son cared little for it and I thought I’d put it to good use. I was fearless about learning even though I haven’t played any musical instrument for years. I was comforted in knowing the tin whistle was originally viewed as a children’s instrument, a bit like the recorder. How hard could it be? After all, ‘Siamsa” is Irish for ‘pleasant musical diversion.’
How wrong I was. First, I was ignorant about the instrument and didn’t realize the one that had gathered so much dust over the years is in the wrong key. You need a tin whistle in the key of D. I’d forgotten that in traditional music people learn from one another by watching. There might not be any sheet music and you have to count on having a good ear. As well, Irish music is fast, very fast. Duh. What was I thinking?
I spent the first lesson using a whistle borrowed from my teacher. My fingers were too small to cover the holes properly and I squeaked all the time. I had trouble with the fingering and was useless at playing scales, never mind arpeggios. I wasn’t sure if I was holding the whistle properly and watched bewildered as the teacher showed the class how to play the Kerry Polka, a simple enough tune if you know how to hold the instrument and your fingers actually move easily!
Watching his fingers was like watching birds flying or trying to learn Martian or learn how to fold paper very quickly. I could watch but not mimic. It seems my brain just couldn’t send the messages so my fingers would catch up with what I was seeing. Everyone else caught on. They were playing the Kerry Polka in rhythm by the end of two hours. I was bewildered. The teacher offered me my money back if I wasn’t committed. That got my Irish temper flaring. I was determined to prove him wrong.
Snob that I am (not really, more like champagne tastes on a beer budget) I wanted a good instrument, not some cheap, poorly made whistle. I researched and discovered a guy in the States who tweaks whistles to make them sound better. I knew I would miss the second class (it was the night of the Arcade Fire concert) but figured if I ordered the whistle quickly I’d have it in time for the third class.
It didn’t arrive. Tried to cancel the order but the seller was insistent that I get a whistle and promised it would come the following week. I bought another whistle at a local music shop on the day of my third class. By this time I was two scales, two arpeggios and five tunes behind. There was no sheet music for a new tune we were taught in class and I had a hard time getting my fingers around the new whistle. I asked the teacher would he please not call on me to play in front of everyone else?
I was offered a ride home by some Siamsa musicians and on the way related the problem I was having in the beginner’s class. Like me, one man said he needed sheet music to learn the whistle and found it hard to learn by watching. He told me about these great tin whistle lessons offered on YouTube by a Jesuit priest. He was right. The lessons are terrific.
This week Canada Post delivered not one, but two tweaked whistles (seems I’ve been sent an extra one). Beautiful, easy to hold, easy to play and no squeaking. Problem is I was very behind the rest of the class and didn’t know the little tricks you only learn in class (how to quickly move from one note to another, do you cover all the holes or five holes for high D etc.) When I offered to pay my teacher for remedial lessons so I could catch up, he refused on the grounds that we don’t see eye to eye on teaching style. He prefers “no sheet music, trusting your ear, learning by doing.”
I quit the class and asked for a credit for the guitar class next semester.
I now own three tin whistles. Come hell or high water I will play the Kerry Polka by Christmas. Just watch me.