Bill Ochs:  The Chiff & Fipple Interview

Bill Ochs has been called a "central figure in the renaissance of the tin whistle" by National Public Radio's All Things Considered. He has devoted over 25 years to playing and teaching the instrument, as well as researching its history and repertoire. Bill is author of The Clarke Tin Whistle Handbook - now in its thirteenth printing with over 200,000 copies in print.  He produced Micho Russell's Ireland's Whistling Ambassador, nominated for "Best Celtic Album of the Year" in the NAIRD Indie Awards. He co-produced (with Ed Haber) Long Expectant Comes at Last, a recent solo album by Cathal McConnell.


Bill Ochs with S. African kwela master Robert Sithole at 1993 Clarke Festival
(Photo by Elizabeth Ikin; courtesy Malachite Film & TV)

Bill also plays the Irish uilleann pipes, which he learned from master pipers Andy Conroy, Pat Mitchell and Tom Standeven in Ireland and the U.S. Ochs's piping studies in Ireland were supported by a 1976 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.  Bill's uilleann piping credits include playing for José Quintero's Broadway production of A Touch of the Poet, Pilobolus Dance Company's Broadway début, the soundtrack for Bob Rafelson's film Mountains of the Moon and the première of Wind by Eiko and Koma at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. He was also piper in the original touring lineup of The Green Fields of America which included Liz Carroll, Jack and Charlie Coen, Michael Flatley, Sean McGlynn and Mick Moloney.

Bill has written on Irish music for New York Magazine, Sing Out, The Pipers' Review and other publications. He is currently writing a book on the music of Micho Russell. He lives in New York City where he teaches at The Irish Arts Center.

Bill Ochs has been a member of Chiff & Fipple for years now and has been a regular correspondent with your editor.  His input has been greatly valued.  He was interviewed for Chiff & Fipple by Dr. Paul Busman, the whistling & whistle-making podiatrist.

--Dale Wisely

Paul Busman: Tell me a bit about your background and how you came to be interested in traditional Irish music.

Bill Ochs: Though I'm not Irish, I heard bits and pieces of Irish music from infancy and always loved it. Then as a teenager I bought an album of the Irish ballad group, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. I was very taken by their music  — especially by Makem's tin whistle playing. That was around 1962, and it began a long journey which eventually led me right to the heart of the tradition.

Paul: How did you learn to play the whistle?

Bill: I wanted to start playing when I heard Makem in 1962, but couldn't find a whistle. The owner of our local music store in suburban New Jersey had never heard of the instrument. (Whistles were not widely available in the US at that time.) But seven years later, while staying with a friend in New Haven , Connecticut , I noticed that he had a Clarke C whistle he had brought back from Ireland . He wasn't interested in playing it himself, so he gave it to me. I was thrilled!

            There were no whistle books back in 1969, so I started to teach myself by ear, working out tunes I heard on records. Eventually I found out that there was a thriving traditional Irish music community in New York ; I moved to the Bronx in 1971 to be part of it. I became friends with Brendan Mulvihill, the great fiddle player, who was also a fine whistler. Brendan took me under his wing and gave me some pointers, such as showing me how to do rolls. There was also an excellent whistle book and tape produced in Ireland that year — Tutor for the Feadóg Stáin by Micheál Ó hAlmhain (Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Publications). I found that very helpful.


 "In the early 1970s — believe it or not — I was making my living by playing and selling whistles and bamboo flutes on the streets of New York ."

-Bill Ochs


            In 1972 I made my first trip to Ireland and met a number of master whistle players including Mary Bergin, Willie Clancy, Tom McHaile, and Donnacha Ó'Bríen. The next year I became friends with Cathal McConnell, the whistle and flute player from the group Boys of the Lough.  .By then I was also learning the uilleann pipes under the tutelage of Tom Standeven of Philadelphia.  A lot of technique carries over from the pipes to the whistle. In 1976 I lived in Ireland for half a year, studying the pipes with Pat Mitchell in Galway under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. So I was very fortunate to have plenty of guidance and inspiration at the early stages of my development.

Paul: You have arguably taught more people to play the whistle than nearly anyone around. I can't tell you how many sets of your Clarke Tin Whistle tutor book and tape I've given as gifts over the years. How did this project come about?

Bill: In the early 1970s — believe it or not — I was making my living by playing and selling whistles and bamboo flutes on the streets of New York . The Clarke tin whistle was my best seller. People loved its sound, the way it looked, and the fact that it only cost a dollar. It was also the world's oldest surviving example of the tin whistle — I had done some research and found out that Clarke Company had been founded in England circa 1843. It seemed to me that this fine old instrument could have an even wider appeal if it were presented in an attractive package with an instruction book and tape — not just a bare-bones tutorial, but something that brought the history, traditions, and folklore of the instrument to life.

               I approached the Clarke Company about this in the early 1980s. They were having difficulty meeting the needs of their existing customers at that time, so they were reluctant to get involved in the project. But in 1986 the company was sold to new owners who were very enthusiastic about my idea and encouraged me to proceed.


"When I set out to do this project, Clarke hadn't manufactured a D whistle for over fifty years. "


             By this time I had retired from street vending and had devoted thirteen years to teaching tin whistle classes at New York 's Irish Arts Center and St. Philip Neri School in the Bronx . The experience I gained from these classes honed my teaching skills and helped me develop a step-by-step tin whistle instruction method that worked for a broad range of students. I drew on these years of practical teaching experience when I finally sat down to write the Clarke book and record the tape in 1988.

             I completed the Clarke project in August 1988, just in time to ship the first batch of whistle/book/tape sets to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for its Christmas catalog. The book has gone through twelve more printings since then. There are now two editions — the original 6 x 9 inch "pocket" edition and a new 9 x 12 inch "deluxe" edition. The instruction tape has been upgraded to a CD. The individual components, as well as the three-piece set, are available from my website (http://www.pennywhistle.com).

Paul: The set was originally packaged with a C whistle and a key of C recording. Now it's available in D?.

Bill: Right. When I set out to do this project, Clarke hadn't manufactured a D whistle for over fifty years. Since the C whistle was the only Clarke available at the time, my original recording was in C. (My book was in D from the start. Long story — tin whistles are transposing instruments.)

            In late 1989, Clarke produced a new D whistle; I followed with a key of D recording in 1991. Releasing the key of D recording opened up a whole new market for the tutorial. People who don't play Clarke whistles began to use the package as a general tin whistle instruction method. The book and CD are compatible with any D whistle.

Paul: In addition to Irish tunes, the book and CD feature a number of Scottish, English, and early American pieces. How did you arrive at that mix?

Bill:  Though I specialize in Irish music, I have a great love for many other types of music. Down through the years my immediate circle of musical friends has included people involved in Scottish bagpipe bands, Cape Breton fiddling, Morris dancing, old-time Appalachian music, New England contra dancing, and fife and drum corps. I drew on all these repertoires when I put the book together — the bottom line was that each piece had to sound good on the whistle. It's an eclectic mix, though much of the advanced music in the book is Irish, reflecting the fact that tin whistle playing has flourished in Ireland and developed into an art form.

Paul: What have you been musically involved with since the Clarke book?

Bill: My most recently completed project is Long Expectant Comes at Last, an album of Cathal McConnell that I co-produced with my friend Ed Haber. Most of the tracks feature Cathal singing or playing the flute. There's not much whistle playing on Long Expectant, but the whistle tracks that we did include are vintage Cathal — dazzling, delightful, and a bit zany.

             Other than that, much of my time has been spent documenting the music of Micho Russell (1915-1994), the noted whistle player from Doolin, County Clare . I produced a video of Micho in 1993, and then released a CD of him in 1995. Both are titled Ireland's Whistling Ambassador. The projects grew out of three US tours Dennis Winter and I organized for Micho in the early '90s. I am currently working on a book about Micho and his music.

Paul: That's a long time working on Micho Russell-related projects. How did you develop such a deep interest in Micho and his music?

Bill: I first heard Micho on a trip to Ireland in 1974 and then again in 1976. I was utterly charmed by his playing. Micho was a complete original — someone who took a cheap, mass-produced instrument and found his own unique voice with it. I became a big fan of his and down through the years I collected all the recordings of Micho that I could find.

            But I was in no way prepared for Micho's performance on his first solo American tour in 1990 — this was nothing short of magical. Micho played with a joy and freshness I have seldom seen on stage. He completely mesmerized audiences wherever he went.

            It was not just Micho's music that people responded to — it was also his being. Micho belonged to a generation of country people who have by now almost completely vanished from the fabric of Irish life. His gestures, accent, and speech put people in touch with an earlier time. On more than one occasion people in the audience would cry when they saw Micho, making a deep connection between him and their grandparents or great-grandparents who had left Ireland many years before.                        

            In short, Micho Russell was not just a musician; he was a phenomenon. The direct contact I had with Micho through his US tours inspired me to try to document the many layers of that phenomenon.

Paul: What format will your book on Micho take?

Bill: First and foremost it will be a tune book. Micho's music is great fun to play. He was also a very important source musician. The list of people who have covered Micho's tunes reads like a "Who's Who of Irish Music." I've done over a hundred detailed tune transcriptions so far, with more to come. The transcriptions will include all the tonguing, slurring, stops, and ornaments that make Micho's playing so distinctive.

          The book will also include extensive text, photos, and interviews. It's important to document the cultural context of Micho's music. Some people are baffled by Micho's playing because they look at it in the context of modern traditional Irish music. But what if we go back several generations and compare Micho's playing to that of his own North Clare contemporaries, and the generation before them? This raises some interesting questions that I hope to answer in the book.

          Finally, the book will be a celebration of Micho's spirit. This was a man who touched thousands of people with his warmth, humility, and music. I hope to tell Micho's story through his own words, and the words of his friends, family, and neighbors.

Paul: Is there a publication date set?

Bill: Not yet, but I've finally reached the culling stage after collecting material for over ten years. This is a labor of love that I do in my spare time. I am trying to get it wrapped up in a couple of years. In the meantime, if people are curious about Micho, there's the Ireland's Whistling Ambassador CD and video. The CD includes a 28-page booklet that provides an introduction to Micho and his music. There are sample soundfiles from Micho's CD (with accompanying tune transcriptions) on my website at:

http://www.pennywhistle.com/soundtransc.html#micho

Paul: Tell us a bit about your tin whistle teaching activities. Do you teach all levels of players, from beginning to expert? Do you teach at workshops in various locations, or just in NYC?


" I teach ornamentation after a few semesters of working on simpler pieces that introduce students to the different types of Irish dance rhythms. It's important to develop a solid sense of rhythm and phrasing before you get too deeply into ornamentation. "


Bill: Though I give an occasional workshop out of New York City , my main teaching activities are based in Manhattan , ten minutes from Times Square . I teach all levels — everything from Twinkle, Twinkle to the music of the great tin whistle masters. Most of my whistle teaching is done in groups of about six people. 

Paul: What's your teaching method? Do you follow your Clarke book?

Bill: What I do in the classes is greatly expanded from what I was able to include in the Clarke tutor, but it follows the same philosophy: don't overwhelm the students with too much information at once. We move along at a comfortable pace, working from the simple to the more complex one step at a time. The ultimate goal is for each student to achieve musical self-sufficiency — to be able to learn any tune from any source.

            At the beginning I teach people the fundamentals of reading music, but we also work a lot on ear training. By presenting the tunes slowly, broken down one phrase at a time, even people who have never played by ear learn to do so with relative ease. I teach ornamentation after a few semesters of working on simpler pieces that introduce students to the different types of Irish dance rhythms. It's important to develop a solid sense of rhythm and phrasing before you get too deeply into ornamentation.

Paul: What advice would you have for people learning on their own?

Bill: Never force yourself to play faster than feels comfortable to you. Cultivate a sense of ease when you play the tin whistle. Speed can develop gradually and naturally over time. Forcing the issue seldom leads to musical enjoyment, and usually causes your rhythm and phrasing to suffer. It's not even necessary to play the tunes that fast for them to sound good.

Paul: What tempos do you personally favor?

Bill: I enjoy taking my time with a tune. Micho Russell and other old players have been a big influence on me in this area. Micho played most of his reels at about 100 beats per minute, give or take a few beats. Other old-timers played reels at about 90 bpm. They played jigs about twenty percent faster, but never rushed. These tempos give a player plenty of time to savor the melody and bring out all the flavors of the music.

            I also use lilting,  the old Irish practice of singing a tune with nonsense syllables ‹ as a guide for rhythm, phrasing, and tempo. Good lilting is lively, yet relaxed. The syllables roll off the tongue in an easy, natural way. I try to create that same feeling in my playing.

Paul: What other instruments do you actively play?

Bill: In addition to the whistle, I play and teach the uilleann pipes and Irish flute. The pipes have been a constant musical companion for the last thirty years. My relationship with the flute has been more sporadic, mostly because for years my only Irish flute was a $50 "pawnshop special" — not a very good instrument. But in 1998 I bought a beautiful blackwood flute made by Patrick Olwell. I've been doing a lot more flute playing over the last few years thanks to Mr. Olwell.

Paul: What sort of whistles are you playing lately? 

Bill: I have a collection of old Clarkes and Generations that I've assembled down through the years. Most of the recordings that initially inspired me were done on these whistles. And this is the sound that continues to inspire me. I also enjoy playing a good Oak D, and in recent years I have been using the Waltons C whistle in some of my classes. One of my teaching spaces is a room with very live acoustics. The Waltons C whistles are perfect for group-playing in that space. They produce a mellow, flutey sound when the whole class plays together.


"My ideal high-end whistle would faithfully reproduce all the tonal qualities of the best examples of inexpensive whistles, but improve in the areas of consistency, longevity, and tuning."


Paul: What are your feelings about high-end whistles?

Bill: I have several of these as well. I play them in situations in which a bit more volume is desirable, such as a session with louder instruments. But for playing at home, I like a quiet whistle with what I'd call a more "traditional" tone — crisp, responsive, and sweet, with a bit of chiff or edge to it.

             A number of high-end makers seem to be going for a very clean sound. There are trade-offs involved in this voicing decision. If you take away the chiff entirely, you can wind up with a very dull-sounding instrument. The tone may be pure, but it's also a bit dead. Ornaments lose their pop and sparkle; tonguing articulations become sluggish and don't speak as quickly.

            My ideal high-end whistle would faithfully reproduce all the tonal qualities of the best examples of inexpensive whistles, but improve in the areas of consistency, longevity, and tuning. I haven't yet found exactly what I'm looking for in a high-end whistle, but I haven't tried everything that's out there. And if what I'm looking for doesn't already exist, I am sure that somebody will eventually make it. There seem to be new developments happening all the time.

             But meanwhile, I am quite happy to play my old whistles. At the end of the day, it's the music that matters most.