June 27, 2004

Chiff & Fipple 61,394th RUNNER-UP ON "AMERICAN IDOL"

I think we would have had a chance of winning except that while we were singing Barry Manilow's "Mandy," Simon was making rude faces at us.  Also, we used to date Paula Abdul, and she still carries a grudge about that little bit of unpleasantness.




ask Dr. Fipple

Issue #4


This week's question comes from Mr. Jason Bohannon from Smyrna, Georgia.



Whoa, Dude!  As you young people would say, "chill out" on the "'tude."  I'm wiggin' over here.

"Chiff & Fipple"  is all about tinwhistles and about the crazy, mixed-up people that make them and play them.  Here is a picture that may help you.

This is a tinwhistle--and it sort of illustrates what Chiff & Fipple is about.  It may remind you of "The Windingo" in some ways. Although they are related, they aren't the same thing. 

The Windigo is a spirit of cannibalism that haunts the Algonkian - speaking Indians of Canada.  It can take both physical and mental forms. It is a half-phantom, half-beast that lives in the forests and preys on human beings. It can also take the form of a mental disorder that causes its victim to become a zombie that performs acts of cannibalism.

It can feast on flesh and blood, it can change shape at will, and it can scare its victims to death with a single look. It can strike such terror into a person that he would be rendered into a cannibalistic zombie void of all personality and individuality.

The Windigo has been described as an evil spirit, a ten-foot tall demon with an enormous head, gigantic teeth in a twisted mouth, beady eyes, and supernatural strength and speed. It moves faster than the human eye could follow, and can blend into the trees and winds. It may also be a human cannibal, for to come into the presence of an Windigo will trigger the transformation into one. To be bitten by one and to dream of one would also lead to the transformation. Unlike the transformation of vampires and werewolves, the curse of the Windigo is irreversible.

I hope this has helped you with your question.  

Dr. Fipple

Issue #1 Issue #2 Issue # 3  



Dear Dale,

Just a note to say that Sandy Jasper, Elfsong whistles, is now making low D's in copper and brass. In full WhOA flight I bought one, they're great.

Kevin McNeill





by Bill Ochs

Bill Ochs has been teaching tin whistle, uilleann pipes, and Irish flute in New York City for over thirty years. He is the author of The Clarke Tin Whistle, a tutor and tune collection."


In the May 2nd issue of the Chiff and Fipple newsletter, Grey Larsen gives advice to beginning tin whistle players. I agree with much of what he says, except for some statements in item #5. I quote the item in full: 

"The unfortunate portrayal of cuts and strikes as grace notes, in the instructional materials available before my books came out, causes a great deal of confusion on the nature, sound, and function of cuts and strikes. Players with the grace-note mindset tend to play cuts and strikes as bona fide notes of ambiguous duration, placed somehow, somewhere in between the 'actual' notes of the tune.  These 'grace notes' muddy the rhythmic waters.  They clutter up the music, and obscure the natural beauty and simplicity of the tune.

When one adjusts one's thinking such that cuts and strikes are no longer notes at all, but instead are extremely brief sounds (in effect, with no discernable duration or pitch) that form the articulation or attack of a melody note, everything falls into place and the rhythmic waters become clear."

It is true that cuts and strikes are "extremely brief sounds…that form the articulation or attack of a melody note." But if someone does not understand how to play these ornaments correctly, it is not necessarily the fault of the notation. It may be the result of limited exposure to Irish music. Careful listening and observation, as well as persistent practice, are key to mastering ornamentation. This will hold true no matter what symbols are chosen to represent cuts and strikes.

Some historical context here: the grace-note symbol has been in use in classical music notation since the baroque period, but it did not mean the same thing universally, as musical style and performance practice differed from country to country.[1] In some places the grace note was indeed interpreted as a "bona fide" note that borrowed its time from the melody note.

But Celtic musicians adopted the grace-note symbol for their own purposes over 180 years ago, in the first published transcriptions of  Highland bagpipe music.[2]  They used the grace note to represent the extremely brief sound that articulates the melody note, and to show the player what fingers to raise or lower. 

Moving into the Victorian era and then modern times, the grace-note system became the standard for all published collections of  Highland pipe music. Countless thousands of people have learned to play the Highland bagpipes using written transcriptions based on this type of notation, without any apparent confusion.

Irish musicologists adopted the grace-note system to represent cuts, strikes, and related ornaments played on a range of Irish instruments. Scholars such as Breandán Breathnach, Pat  Mitchell , and  Jackie Small have used this notation in highly respected works on traditional Irish music.[3]


Grey Larsen writes that cuts and strikes have no discernible pitch and the symbols he has devised to represent them are pitch-neutral[4]: 

But while cuts and strikes do not have an easily discernible pitch, they do of course have pitch, like all sounds no matter how brief.[5] Because of this—and because of the acoustic properties of the whistle, pipe chanter, or flute—a cut or strike on a particular note can have very different qualities, depending on which finger or fingers are used.

As an experiment, try doing a standard cut on the second-octave E of your whistle, using the ring finger of your top hand. Next try cutting the second-octave E with the middle finger of your top hand.  These ornaments sound distinctly different from each other. The first example is smooth and unobtrusive; the second is bright, chirpy, and much more pronounced.

The two cuts are portrayed below in the two notation systems: 

The grace notes in the traditional notation tell us to cut the E by moving the ring finger in the case of the A grace note, the middle finger in the case of the B.[6]  The Larsen symbol simply tells us to play a cut between the two E's.

Shortly after I started to play Irish music in the late '60s, I met a wonderful old whistle player from Co. Mayo named Mickey McNicholas. Among the many techniques he used, Mr. McNicholas sometimes cut the high E with the middle finger of his top hand, as described above. This cut sounded particularly dramatic on his favorite instrument, the Clarke C whistle.[7]  

If I were to do a detailed transcription of one of Mr. McNicholas's tunes, the traditional grace-note system of notation would allow me to precisely document this very interesting fingering choice.  The Larsen notation would not afford this level of detail. It would leave a musician who was reading the transcription guessing as to which finger was used to do this particular cut.  

Moving on to strikes, these are generally done with the finger directly below the note being ornamented. Let's take the strike that's used to separate two G's: the standard method of doing this is to quickly flick the index finger of the bottom hand at the fourth hole of the whistle, while sounding the note G. 

But a combination of fingers can also be used. Some players strike with all three fingers of the bottom hand, so for a millisecond all holes of the whistle are covered. I've heard uilleann piper Séamus Ennis do this in his whistle playing. And virtuoso whistler  Mary Bergin occasionally uses this technique as the strike component of a low G roll.  The three-fingered strike has a much more percussive sound than the standard strike on G.  

 The two strikes are portrayed below in the traditional and Larsen notation systems: 



The F-sharp grace note in the traditional notation tells us to strike with the index finger of the bottom hand.  The D grace note tells us to strike with all three fingers of the bottom hand, just as if we were playing a D, but only for a millisecond.  

Again, the Larsen symbol simply tells us to do a strike between the two G's. It does not tell us which finger or fingers are used, nor does it illustrate the distinction between these two very different sounds. 

Many other examples could be cited, not just from the whistle, but from the uilleann pipes and flute as well. Suffice it to say that the finger or fingers you use to execute various ornaments can produce very different sounds. Sometimes the distinction is subtle, while at other times the distinction can be quite dramatic. Grey Larsen says as much in his books, and has very definite recommendations about what fingers should be used.[8] Yet his notation system is ultimately non-specific about the choice of fingers.


So does the grace note symbol need replacing, as Grey Larsen advocates? I would say that for informal notation of tunes, one should use whatever system one likes, or finds convenient and practical. If you already know what fingers you are going to use for these ornaments, it makes little difference what symbols or abbreviations you choose. 

But for detailed transcriptions and documentation of the music of master players, I believe that the grace note should be retained. Given the range of sounds that can result from different fingering choices, we need a symbol that indicates precisely what finger or fingers are being used produce a particular ornament.  The grace-note symbol, once its application in Irish music is understood, is admirably suited to this purpose. It has the advantage of almost two centuries of use behind it, is widely accepted by traditional musicians, and works well for a number of instruments. 

A word about this last point: if you can read music and ever plan to move from playing the tin whistle to playing the uilleann pipes, you will definitely want to understand grace notes so you can study the existing literature. Some ornaments that sound good on the whistle may not work very well on the pipes. Grace notes help us understand these critical stylistic details. 


At the end of the day, any system of notation will have its limitations and can only tell part of the story. This is an aural/oral tradition. One cannot learn to speak a language fluently without hearing native speakers.  The same holds true for this music. 

—  Bill Ochs 


[1] For a discussion of this, see Michel Debost,  The Simple Flute, ( New York : Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 97–100

[2] See for example Glengarry's March from A Collection of the Ancient Martial Music of  Caledonia called Piobaireachd by Donald MacDonald, circa 1822: http://www.piobaireachd.com/library/glengarry.htm 

[3] Breandán Breathnach, Ceol Rince na hÉireann II (Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig an tSoláthair, 1976); Pat  Mitchell,  The  Dance Music of Willie Clancy (Dublin and Cork:  The Mercier Press, 1976); Pat Mitchell and Jackie Small,  The Piping of Patsy Touhey (Dublin: Na Píobairí Uilleann, 1986)

[4]  The symbols in this example were typeset using the Larsen font, which is available for free download at:


[5] While the human ear under normal listening conditions cannot ordinarily detect the exact pitch of a cut or strike, these brief sounds can sometimes be isolated with waveform editing software, and then looped and studied.  The actual pitch of these sounds often does not correspond exactly to the pitch represented by the grace note. A complete discussion of this is beyond the scope of this article.

[6] I hope you can see the tiny leger lines that differentiate the A grace note from the B grace note. If they do not appear clearly on your computer monitor, please try printing out the page. Of course in a publication these tiny lines would appear crisply and clearly.

[7]  Just for clarification, I am not referring to cutting the actual E on the C whistle, but to cutting the note we commonly call E—i.e., the note that is played with five fingers down.

[8] Grey Larsen,  The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle (Pacific,   Missouri:  Mel Bay Publications, Inc., 2003), pp. 118–121




Thanks to Bill for this fine and scholarly article, and for Grey for his piece in last month's issue.  We are fortunate to have these two experts with us.  This could be a kind of Chiff & Fipple Point/Counterpoint scenario--and both of these men are far too courteous for either to refer to the other as an "ignorant slut."





Dear Dr. Wisely:

Noting that you have pictures of various animals on your web site, (i.e. gorilla, whistling rodent, etc.) I was wondering if you might be able to help me out with an animal problem. My cat (Southwest is his name) is attracted to my whistle to the point that I cannot practice when he is in the house. If he is on the other side of any door he beats his head against the door to the point that it is distracting. My friends tell me this is unusual as cat usually flee the sound of a whistle. Perhaps I should try to teach it to beat its head against a bodhran instead. Are there any bodhran playing cats that you know of?

Sincerely yours,
Bill Townsend
Bar Harbor, Maine

Dear Bill,

The coolest bodhran playing cat I know is John Joe Kelly from the band Flook.

Photo by Jane Hansen

Also, in order to give an answer to your question, I need to know whether your cat is beating his head in 2/4, 3/4, or 4/4.   Thanks.





I am very pleased to announce that Cormac Breatnach and Martin Dunlea (Their CD, Music for Whistle & Guitar, I would short-list for my favorite whistle CD of all time.) are planning to travel to the U.S. in mid November, 2004 to perform some house concerts.

They have received interest from Seattle, Washington, and might be performing in N.Y.

They recorded in late April 2004 with U.S. actress/singer, Vanessa Williams, for her forthcoming Xmas album, on two tracks, "The Holly & The Ivy" and "Silent Night". Ms. Williams plans to perform on the east coast in November to coincide with her album release. There is a possibility of Breatnach & Dunlea joining her on some performances should their schedules meet.

Anyone interested in offering to provide musical engagements (be they house concerts, or otherwise) should contact Cormac at cormacb@indigo.ie.




From the message board, Ronaldo Reyburn writes:

I have recently completed a re-design of my high D and C whistles. The new design has changed the way the air moves thru the fipple and offers a whole, round, full-bodied tone of character and richness. I have also changed the hole patterns to accommodate this new fipple design and repositioned the perturbations. The result is an instrument that plays with a more focused sound, due to less breathiness which obscures some of the subtle tones, and plays sweeter in the upper end. Due to the tighter voicing of the new design, there is also an improved balance between the octaves and one can simply flow up the scale as sweetly as a mother’s love.

I continue to use Delrin for the head, which has that wonderful woody sound, as you all know, and I still like the warm tone of brass for the body.

I am happy to let you know that our beloved L.E. McCullough has put his STAMP OF APPROVAL on the new high D (he has not yet played the C). You can read his endorsement on my site at www.reyburnwhistles.com. Kevin Carr, the amazing fiddler, piper, whistler, concertina player extraordinaire, has also added his comments to the ENDORSEMENTS page. Kevin is also the person playing the new sound samples on the SOUND CLIPS page so I invite you to read what he has to say about the new whistles and have a listen to the clips.

My wait list is fairly short at this time so come and get 'em.


Note from Dale:

Ronaldo sent me a sample of his newly designed high whistle in D.  I am extremely impressed with this exceptionally well-made whistle.  It has a gorgeous, full, round tone with deadly accurate tuning and level volume across the range.   The best tuning slide I've seen since the Burke Al-Pro models.   A very fine high whistle.  These are available for $90, considerably less than a tank of premium gasoline.




I don't have ample opportunities to mention Susato whistles here.  I was freshly appreciating these whistles recently when I had occasion to bundle up a variety of these plastic wonders and take them with me for a short trip out of town.  Although players are somewhat divided in their assessment of the Susato sound (some misguided players find the whistles too loud or shrill), I think these are some of the most consistently good whistles on the market with one of the most dazzling assortments of keys and configurations.  And, they can't be drowned out by accordion players.

Thanks to some characters on the message board:  vomitbunny and Cyfiawnder, for coming up with this catchy heading.




Thanks to those of you who made a contribution last month.  I was a bit concerned that the response would be so overwhelming that I'd have an ethical crisis on my hands:  More money than I need to cover expenses.  That definitely didn't happen.  

The reason my costs have gone up:  A long-time supporter of Chiff & Fipple made a substantial regular contribution (monthly) to Chiff & Fipple and I asked him to stop because I thought his contribution WAY beyond the call of duty.  I also recently converted the subscription list to a bCentral account.  I did this reluctantly and only after I couldn't locate a satisfactory free option.  (Free options tend send out messages to subscribers that get interpreted by mail servers as SPAM).  I can't tell you what a difference it has made to use this service.  It has cut way down on the time I have to spend in maintaining the mailing list subscriptions and in preparing the issues for mailing.  But, it costs--there's a monthly fee.  I also pay for storage space on my web server.  It all adds up to approximately $100 a month. That's a bit more than I feel comfortable funding personally.  So, to have this offset a bit is a tremendous help to me.

So, here's a revised list of ways to support C&F financially.  This is entirely voluntary.

1.  The Amazon.com kickback.

If you use amazon.com, this one is really easy.   Establish the following "bookmark" or  "favorite site" link that takes you to amazon.com.  Owners of independent bookstores are exempt from this request to use this link.


When you use this link to buy anything, Chiff & Fipple gets a cut.  It's not much, but it adds up. 

2.  Cafepress.com merchandise

We make a little money from selling Chiff & Fipple merchandise through our cafepress store:



3.  Google Ad-Sense ads.

Since last month's issues, I'm trying out participation in the Google Ad-Sense program.   This automatically puts ads, which are supposed to be related to whistles & music, on some of the C&F webpages.  


UPDATE: For an update on C&F finances, see here.


IX. people who, so far as we know, don’t play the whistle 

a rotating gallery of people who don’t play the whistle, and aren’t likely to take it up.  


Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan


Stay tuned for more people who, so far as we know, don’t play the whistle (A Quinn-Martin Production)




Field of 4,000 Gold Stars at the new World War II Memorial in Washington. Each of 4000 stars represents 100 lost during the war (Photo by Richard Latoff)




Chiff & Fipple is a production of the North Central Alabama Home Gorilla Breeding Association, in association with Red Wolverine Enterprises,  and 3Fish ProductionsOur privacy statement is now online.


customer service

Having trouble with your whistle? Call Amy at Chiff & Fipple customer service.




Lord, help us see how near is your kingdom.



FastCounter by bCentral