Some wittering about whistles

This weekend saw me in two layers of thermals and a big black coat playing as one of Coton Morris Men’s musicians, and can I just say that (a) the inventor of handwarmers is hereby promoted by me to the status of a minor god, and (b) nobody told me that whistle players need to carry a windsock to make sure they stand with the wind behind them. Otherwise, while you’re trying to blow a note, the breeze blows back and all you get is silence and red in the face.

I have decided to drop all that Irish- tin- penny- nonsense at the front. The instrument doesn’t originate in Ireland, isn’t always made of tin, and even the cheapest ones cost about a fiver.

Here, for example, is an article about the oldest musical instrument in the world which is still playable, a bone flute from Jiahu in Henan province in China and here is a vulture bone one from Germany 35,000 years ago. Both of them are end-blown, from what I can see, so ‘flute’ is a bit misleading.

In deference to the fact that the whistle is one of the most ancient instruments on the planet, I’m adopting the plain Anglo-Saxon word for the instrument (hwistle) and just sprucing up the spelling a bit.

Speaking of Anglo-Saxon whistles, have a lovely video of someone who is either admirably non-gender-biased about their name, or not really Kate Corwen at all, playing one.

 

(And then once you’re on their channel, it’s worth taking the time to listen to all the other instruments – they’re just beautiful. The bullroarer in particular makes my hair stand on end. I’m not surprised it’s a form of communication with the spirits – nothing in nature ought to sound like that.)

Returning to the whistle, it gets a name-change once we come to medieval times, where it starts being called the flageolet, and the number of finger holes begins to standardise on six, sometimes with them all on the front (the English Flageolet) sometimes with four on the front and two thumb holes on the back.

Then in the 17th century, a man called Sieur de Turigny of Paris claims to have invented the instrument (possibly he invents a new detachable head or something) and there’s a big rush of enthusiasm for it, with Samuel Pepys (that dedicated follower of fashion) taking it up and paper-blogging about his practices and the concerts he went to see.

After that, hampered by its lack of ability with sharps and flats, it dies out as a ‘serious’ orchestral/concert instrument and the 19th Century sees it being reinvented as a folk instrument.

Robert Clarke of Manchester launched his tin whistle in about 1843, when it actually was made of tin and did cost a penny, and ever since then it’s been popular in English, Irish and Scottish folk music and also in South African kwela music:

 

After a quick overview of the history, here’s a round up of my adventures in cheap whistle ownership, in case anyone else wants to get in on this ancient tradition and doesn’t know where to start:

First of all, I have a five-holed deer bone whistle with a wax fipple, made by Jan Ellen of Regia. Bone actually gives a beautiful rounded note and I think this one, when it’s happy, has the best sound of all of mine. But it has no upper octave and there’s not a lot you can do with only 5 notes. (It’s too long to get my hand around to play the lower two notes and stop the end at the same time.) Also the wax tends to get squidgy if you play it for too long, and it stops working until it cools down again.

One of these days I mean to make a six hole bone whistle, but there’s intimidating maths involved, so I keep putting it off.

Secondly, I bought a Clarkes’ original (the company still make them to the original specs.) It is made of tin, has a conical bore and a wooden fipple, and is black & gold, very pretty. It has a breathy, woodwind sort of sound that is quite beautiful. However it’s very quiet – the sort of thing best played indoors. It takes a lot of blowing. And it also gets temperamental if you play it for too long (where ‘too long’ means for more than five or six songs.)

Then I thought “OK, so it’s the wooden fipple that makes it difficult. I’ll get a Clarkes Sweetone, which has the same conical metal body, but a plastic, moulded head.” The trouble is, it’s the wooden fipple that gives the original its woodwind sound. The Sweetone solves all the problems with quietness, having to breathe hard etc, but it sounds tinny and plasticky to me, like a child’s toy.

On holiday without a whistle and feeling withdrawal symptoms, I bought a brass Feadog whistle with a green plastic head. It was shrink-wrapped, so I didn’t know until I got it home that the ‘C’ was weak and flat. This one isn’t playable at all and I was very unimpressed.

Then I found a silver-coloured metal Feadog (tin, nickel, aluminium? IDK) with a plastic head at a jumble sale, which I bought for a pound, and that turned out to be a good one. It sounds harsher and more metallic than the Clarkes’ original, but the notes are true and it’s nice and loud for outdoors playing, and a much better tone than the Sweetone. I draw the conclusion from this that if you’re going for a Feadog, make sure you play it first to be sure it’s OK.

Still looking for something with the lovely tone of the bone/Clarkes original, but without all the playability problems, I got ambitious and bought a more expensive polymer whistle from Tony Dixon Music for the princely sum of £12.55 and struck gold. The sound is loud but sweet, it’s very responsive in the upper octave, easy to blow and play, and OK it clogs up with moisture from time to time, but they all do that. In fact it’s so good that I’m thinking of getting a second one from them (tuneable this time) as a backup.

Anyone else got any recommendations? Has anyone tried the new Tony Dixon whistles with the conical bore? Are they any better?  Hilary from Coton plays a Suzato whistle and that sounds lovely too, though I’ve never tried it to see how easy it is to play, and it costs twice as much as mine without sounding any better. After that, they start getting prohibitively expensive, and I can’t see how the really expensive ones are any better than the affordable polymer ones. Is there any advantage to the enormously expensive ones, other than prestige?


Comments (6)

HJDecember 5th, 2011 at 5:02 pm

You should find out what they play in South Africa and use that – the whistle in the video sounds lovely!

Alex BeecroftDecember 5th, 2011 at 6:35 pm

It’s lovely, isn’t it? It sounds like a mini saxophone. I think the video says he made his own out of a spoke from a wheel, though, and that runs me up against the complicated maths thing again.

Sandra LindseyDecember 5th, 2011 at 7:30 pm

You probably knew this already, but “flute” used to be a generic term for “tube that’s blown to make music” and could be anything from pan pipes to whistles to recorders to what we these days call “flutes”, the transverse flute. I know all this off the top of my head because I researched it for my A level project (“A History of the Flute and its Music”). My teachers convinced me to focus more on the music than the evolution of the instrument due to it being easier to get hold of information, but I remember wishing I could find more than the one passing reference to the “nose-blown flutes” of Ancient Egypt…

Grace RobertsDecember 5th, 2011 at 10:25 pm

Oh sod it. I can’t watch the videos on my iPad. That is soooo typical. They are wonderful but I wish Apple would DO something about it. Grrrr!
The last video I saw was, I think when you had just learnt to play the whistle. do you really have to carry a windsock? that’s bringing all sorts of hilarious images to mind. Lol.

Alex BeecroftDecember 6th, 2011 at 9:55 am

@Sandra I think that’s one of those things that I knew but I didn’t know I knew, if you see what I mean? I hadn’t actually articulated it to myself, but now that you say it, I roll my eyes at myself and go ‘Oh yeah, I knew that!’ Good point, anyway :)

It surprised me no end how difficult it was to find definitive dates and facts even for a timeline of the whistle, what with the way that it kept changing its name and being re-invented, so I see what your teacher meant! But if you’re into nose flutes, there’s an amusing (but IMO not very tuneful) example here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1EP-nwi438&feature=related

Alex BeecroftDecember 6th, 2011 at 9:59 am

@Grace Oh, that’s interesting. I have envied people their iPads, without any prospect of ever getting one myself, so it’s comforting to know there’s something they can’t do ;)

I mentioned the windsock idea to one of the other musicians, and she said “but we’ve got morris dancers. You only have to watch the way the hankies are blowing.” So we do watch the wind and make sure we’re standing in the right place, but we use the dancers’ hankies instead of windsocks. This does prevent some embarrassment :D

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