Steafan Hannigan
& David Ledsam,
The Low Whistle Book
(Mel Bay, 2001)

In recent years, the low whistle has gained a great deal of attention. It has been featured in the music for Riverdance and Titanic, thus ensuring its popularity for some time to come. The haunting quality of the low whistle is a visceral sound, one that grabs both the gut and the imagination. The low whistle has such exponents as Finbar Furey and Joanie Madden, who make the instrument both wail and dance. Sin É/Mel Bay have produced a low whistle tutor to bring this beautiful instrument to the masses.

This tutor teaches how to play the low whistle and provides some basic instruction in the idiom of the whistle. It could probably be used by the complete novice to music and music notation, but it seems geared more towards those with some musical background. This book also focuses on the low D whistle, but much of its information can be applied to other low whistles.

The book has chapters on topics including fingering notes, basic music theory, breathing and control, ornamentation, whistle history and buying a low whistle.

When learning a new instrument, the correct finger position is imperative for proper playing. This book contains quite a few diagrams showing the finger positions of the whistle's notes and methods of performing various ornaments. There are also many photographs of well-known players that show how they hold the whistle.

The book has an easy-going conversational writing tone and usually explains things very clearly. However, it does introduce some terms without defining them, or sometimes giving the definition several pages after the term is used. Chapter 2's section on breathing and control is a very useful addition. However, there's a mistake in the time signature table in the same chapter -- the column labeled "Key Signature" should really be labeled "Time Signature." This table also indicates that 4/4 tunes only stress the first beat. This isn't true for other non-Irish idioms with which I am familiar, but it is possible it may be true for Irish music.

The book doesn't have many basic exercises. For an introductory book, it really should have more for developing basic skills. The ornamentation section provides a good introduction to playing in the Irish style. While it is essential to listen to good players to really pick up the style, this stylistic information is very useful in providing a guide of what to listen for. A very good discography complements this section by providing titles of many recordings of good whistle players.

Over 47 tunes are included in the book, divided into beginner's tunes, improver's tunes and player's tunes. The tune selection is very good, with a lot of classics included ranging from the easy, starting with "Amazing Grace" (improperly identified as being Scottish) to the difficult, "Phryjig" by Mike Cosgrave.

A CD is included with the book. Most of the book's text is read on the CD, and many examples are played. The beginner's tunes are all played on the CD, but the improver's and player's tunes are on a separate disc that must be purchased separately.

While the CD is useful, it does have some major problems. The CD track numbers and book index numbers don't always match, and there isn't a vibrato example on the CD, as the index indicates. The publisher would be well-advised to fix this problem before reprinting the set.

This is a stylistic issue, but I would have preferred the introductory tunes to be played straight, without ornamentation. For the beginner's sake, it would have been good to provide a straight, as-written version, followed by a whistle-specific version.

This book/CD set has a lot of good things going for it: fingering descriptions, tunes, instruction on ornamentation, breathing tips, discography and a description of what to look for in a buying a low whistle. The set does have some problems, but the worst have been detailed here. Overall, this is a good tutor and I recommend it if you are interested in learning to play the low whistle.

- Rambles
written by Wayne Morrison
published 18 January 2003

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