The Chiff & Fipple Interview
If Michael Copeland doesn't make the most sought-after whistles in the world, he would certainly be on everyone's very short list in this regard. Connecticut-born Michael Copeland has dedicated his professional life to music. He played in rock bands in high school, and studied jazz piano at the Berklee School of Music. While at Berklee, he began to focus his attention on instrument making. After leaving Berklee, he worked in the Fisk Pipe Organ Shop in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he undoubtedly learned the tricky art and science of manipulating the weird acoustics of wind instruments. After leaving that employer and getting more and more interested in Celtic music, Michael learned to make wooden fifes, and for many years, he made bagpipes. Later, he began to build fine Irish-style wooden flutes. His reputation grew and players speak admiringly of Copeland flutes. In the mid-1980's, Michael studied the tinwhistle and developed the fine whistles for which he is has become so well known and admired in Irish music circles. Michael makes his whistles in his shop in Philadelphia.
Dale:Michael, thank you very much for taking time to talk with us.
Michael: Thanks Dale. Yeah, it's a pretty exciting time for us. Today, the fellow who is going to be building the new shop came in and tomorrow they'll be putting in the power. Today we're voicing 12 Low D's which we want to get finished before we move the shop.
Dale:You are moving your shop?
Michael: I moved from my old address to this building, which is an arts building--and I've been here about a year. We just need more space and especially with Jim Rementer working with me. When we are both in, it's pretty small. So this room is just down the hall and it's a much larger space. There will be a separate room for an office--I've never had an office in my shop before. Having met Jim has been a big influence on the whole operation. As the whistles have been seen and heard and played by more and more people, it got to a place where, you know, I had been making flutes for a number of years, and the whistles just became more and more of what I do. So, Jim is helping with the business end of things and that's been a huge help.
Dale:Tell us about your movement toward whistle making.
Michael: In high school, I played in rock bands, organ and guitar and that's how I ended up going to Berklee School of Music in the jazz school. But I quickly found out that what I really wanted to do was work on pipe organs and play rock music, and here I was in a jazz school. So, I left Berklee. I went to the Fisk Organ shop. After that I went out on the road and traveled the country, lived in some communes and then settled in Philadelphia. After I left Fisk Organ shop, there was quite a bit of time
"I quickly found out that what I really wanted to do was work on pipe organs and play rock music, and here I was in a jazz school."
before I started making wooden flutes. I made what is essentially a fife, a six-hole wooden flute. Then I got into making bagpipes. Uilleann pipes, and then lowland pipes and lowland smallpipes. During that time, I sought out recordings of Celtic music. It was being played a lot on the folk radio station in Philadelphia, the Boys in the Lough and other groups were touring. The Irish music scene in Philadelphia was becoming more active. So, in researching making woodwinds I came across this book on bagpipes, and that lead to making bagpipes, and then that's when I started listening to Cathal McConnall (whistle player in The Boys in the Lough).
Dale:I've been listening to his CD tutor in my car. I'm interested in how the pipe organ work helped you later with whistle design.
Michael: After making bagpipes, and then flutes, and then starting research on pennywhistles, I was trying to find out things like what the taper should be or what the fipple arrangement is, what proportions are ideal for the length and diameter of the tube. I would dig out old books I had on pipe organ acoustics and in that remembered that some of the pipes would have on either side of the window a little ear or flap that would help channel the air. It would help voice the instrument. And because the whistles I was making didn't have that wall there, I remembered the pipe organ experience and I made out of beeswax a little wall and put it on three sides of the window. It's like blinders on a horse...when the air comes through, it's like..."you can't do anything else until you do the work here, you're just gonna aim right for that edge there and then you can do whatever you want"...and that's what the walls do. It strengthens the low notes of the whistle. I was working on the Low D and was committed to making a tapered Low D. Because, coming from a flute making background, I understood what the taper would do. I wanted to apply that taper to a whistle. So I made a taper that like a flute taper. I used the same kind of techniques I used for the high D. But the low notes kept breaking up. But the walls seemed to help take care of that.
Dale:You've essentially stopped making flutes. I know you do some repairs on flutes, but, you don't make them anymore, right?
Michael: I still have a lot of wood for flutes around. I have the know-how. I had made up to an 8-key flute. That was my world, flute making, for 10 years. The whistles came along and over time crowded out the flute making. I still have the wood, the patterns...and I have the desire. From the whistle making, I've learned some techniques I didn't have when I was making flutes before, and I'd like to apply some of that to making flutes. Like making 12 keyless flutes at a time. I think that would be great. When the new shop is set up, I think I'll set aside some time to make some flutes again.
Dale:I bet you'd sell those boys.
Michael: I know there are other folks doing it. My dear friend Patrick Olwell, for example. We've actually talked about working together. He's visited the shop several times.
Dale:I've just fooled around with trying to get notes out of flutes for awhile now. I've struggled with it, especially with no teacher around. About a month ago I bought a Patrick Olwell bamboo flute in Bb.
Michael: The best bamboo flutes I've ever played.
Dale:I'm still an atrociously bad player, but there was an immediate quantum leap forward in being able to play. It's amazing.
Michael: So, when you can get a good Irish D flute you'll just be that much further down the road.
Dale:I've heard that when you started making whistles, you took apart a Clarke.
Michael: I really like the beginnings of the whistle I made. Frankly, I wasn't one of those flute players who wouldn't go to a session and take a whistle with me and take it out and play it. I didn't really like the whistles that were out there. I thought the Generation Bb was tolerable but it isn't a session instrument. I might play that one on my own, but not with others. I remembered I had an old Clarke C in the shop. One day, I guess I was bored with flute making. So I took it and using some of the stuff I had learned from instrument making. I would raise or lower the lip, fill in the cracks around
"But, when I blew into it and notes came out... I was flying. I love those moments."
the woodblock with wax and give it a going over... and I really loved the "flutey" sound when it was set up properly. So, thought, I should make one of these. I had a sheet of brass that was thicker than the Clarke. I unsoldered the Clarke C and laid it flat out. I still have it! I'm glad I kept some of these early experiments. On the lathe (a wood lathe) and a file, I filed a taper from a steel rod. I then annealed the piece of brass, wrapped it around a mandrel with a rawhide mallet, and soldered it together. I'd press it through a lead doughnut to smooth it down on the mandrel. I put a wooden plug in it, cut the window and drilled the finger holes where I thought they should be. It was all very crude. But, when I blew into it and notes came out... I was flying. I love those moments.
Dale:The plug was wood, did you say?
Michael: Yeah, rosewood. I made a number of whistles that were seamed on the back and silver soldered. I had refined that so you would have to look to see the joint. The first ones, I didn't stamp my name on them. They had wood plugs, one pin, and no tuning slide. Wendy Morrison, I think, and maybe also Tim Britton, encouraged me to put the tuning slide in. I eventually went to a black Delrin plastic plug. On the early whistles, I would hammer the lip down, tap tap tap. It was a neat process but it was very time consuming. Later I got a milling machine and could cut it out in one pass with that machine and then just file it with hand-files. I got a stamp with my name on it to stamp the whistles...
Dale:Didn't you have some stamped with "Philadelphia?"
Michael: That's right. I also had a little shamrock I used for awhile
Dale:Earlier you mentioned Tim Britton (piper, whistler, flute player. Makes pipes). Oddly enough, he was here (Birmingham, AL) on St. Patrick's Day. Did a concert with Paddy O'Brien (accordion player and Irish music expert). It was fabulous.
Michael: Tim was really instrumental in the fact that I'm sitting her talking with you today. He had started out as a highland piper. His father was a folk musician and he came out of family of music. I met Tim at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. He was about 12 years old, had gotten his first practice set of pipes and we really hit if off. We would just talk for hours on the phone about bagpipes and stuff. I was already set up to make pipes and I got him started with woodturning and he taught me the fundamentals of playing the tunes. He's a brilliant guy. He rocks.
Dale:Back to whistles, when you started making them, did you make high Ds exclusively?
Michael: The first was a C because it was based on the Clarke. I quickly made a shorter version to make a D. But then the next whistle I made, I think, as a low D.
Michael: I had heard Paddy Keenan play the Overton. When I decided to make a low whistle, I had tried playing the Overtons...people would complain about the stretch and the tone and I thought there were a lot of things I could do to improve it. I wanted to make a tapered bore. I knew that the tapering would allow the holes to be closer together. The first bore on my low whistles were essentially flute bores.
Dale:So, you have made Low D's much longer than I had thought.
Michael: I have a lab book that I've kept over the years, my notes and drawings. I have two of these now. So, in looking over those, I think maybe 1992 was when I started with the Low Ds. It's really been in the 1990's that I have made whistles in any numbers.
Dale:Do you have any idea how many whistles you've made?
Michael: I would estimate about 600.
Dale:I am wondering to what extent the whistles are evolving.
Michael: I think for the foreseeable future I will stay with the same basic design. The things I can change might seem very subtle. The nature of the taper. The voicing is dependent on a 100 different very subtle adjustments. All these ingredients that can be ...we've got this stew, you know, with all these ingredients, and you can fiddle around with it forever and maybe improving.
Dale:But it sounds like the changes you might make these days would be very fine changes, things you wouldn't see a few yards away...
Michael: Right. Or even a foot away, or even 3 inches away.
Dale:What keys are you making?
Michael: High D, C, Bb, A. We've also made Low G's and Low D's. In the past I've made Low F's. I've made high Eb and high E's. The bulk of them are high and low D's. My personal favorite right now is the A whistle. Right in the middle.
Dale:Seamus Egan may be your best ambassador. On stage, he plays his flute and your Low D and he always strikes me as playing the Low D with great affection.
Michael: I am so pleased by that. I heard him in concert recently. I got the video, which is great. I've talked to Seamus recently and he's talking about coming by the shop and looking at some other keys and we're happy about that, obviously.
Dale:Tell him Chiff & Fipple wants to interview him. Let's see-- Laurence Nugent--- boy, is he impressive. I've listened to his record and I just laid down on the floor.
Michael: Yeah, he's very brilliant. Didn't he win all Ireland a couple of years in a row?
Dale:Yes, I think that's right.
Michael: His family has won a lot of awards.
Dale:Laurence Nugent plays your whistles?
Michael: Yes. I believe he has a high D, a C, and a Low G.
Dale:I don't know if you have seen the cover of his newer CD (It has a photo of Laurence holding his twin infants and one of the infants has a Copeland whistle in his mouth).
Michael: Yes! It's a wonderful cover. I'd love to have a good copy of that photo. I'd really, really like to get that. It's one of my favorites.
Dale:I guess we should ask about the Star Trek whistle.
Michael: It's been kind of a fun thing, but at the same time, it's kind of like the Titanic whistle, I weary of that coming up over and over again. Like, you know, there was supposed to be a Copeland whistle that went up in the space shuttle. Until I talk to the person, or see that whistle, I just don't know. I've looked at the picture with Wendy and with Jim and it looks like a Copeland that's been decorated for the camera with a little tassel and everything, but I just don't know. I wish it WAS!
Dale:The Ressikan Flute. There's an entire website devoted to that. What about other "famous" people who play your instruments?
Michael: Well let's see, there's Tim Britton, Paddy Keenan, now Paddy had come by the shop and picked up a Low D whistle. I don't know if he's back to playing an Overton. Liam O'Flynn, he definitely came by the shop once and bought a D whistle and an A whistle. And on his album "The Given Note" he plays the whistle on quite a few tracks. The late Frankie Kennedy -- I had gotten a
"The late Frankie Kennedy -- I had gotten a whistle to him 6 months before his passing."
whistle to him 6 months before his passing. Bill Ochs of course, Bill's one of the people that I met shortly after Tim Britton. Bill and I corresponded many times over the years. L.E. McCullough plays one of my flutes. He doesn't play my whistles but he continues to play on one of the first flutes I made years and years ago.
Dale:I believe he still plays it. (UPDATE Note: L.E. McCullough wrote me on 4/17/99: Dear Dale: Excellent interview with Michael Copeland, a true innovator in the field of traditional flute and whistle making. One correction, which I hope you will broadcast to the whistle world. I do occasionally play a Copeland D whistle when occasion demands. In fact, I bought it from Michael himself in December, 1997, when visiting his shop.....And I still have one of the two original Copeland flutes. Best, L.E. McCullough)
Michael: Three were made. I had one, which disappeared when I was in the hospital with an aneurysm. So the only ones I know of are the one L.E. has and my brother has one.
Dale:Are there other whistle makers that you admire?
Michael: Of course, Chris Abell. I really admire his work and my partner, Jim Rementer had gotten several Sindt whistles. One of which I have here, (Mike plays a scale), very nice. You know it's a little top heavy but I admire the machining, how accurate it is and if I were to make a whistle of this style I would like it to be like this.
Dale:I know you told me once and I am endlessly fascinated by the fact that you start with a cylinder when you make a whistle.
Michael: Yes, well I've spent a lot of time developing that. At first, like I said, I made it out of a flat sheet. I had a whole process of cutting it out and soldering it with about 9 rings of wire banding. I got it really down so you could hardly see the joint. But then while looking for tubing for tuning slides, I came across a fellow, from Lawson Brass (he lives outside of Baltimore), and he and his sons make, from scratch, French horns. So I went down to get some tubing and he showed me how they take a mandrel and with a seamless tube, step the tubing with draw rings and draw plates down onto the mandrel. Then they put the whole thing through a prepared steel washer to smooth the steps down. So you start with a cylindrical tube and end up with a tapered tube.
On the high D whistle, the head joint and body are made from one tapered tube. With the Low D and others, the head joint and body are two separate tapers. We prepare a cylindrical piece of tubing for the tuning slide and solder it to the body. The body is then trimmed to size. We lay out the tone holes on the body and drill them. Next the Copeland name is stamped on the head joint and we use a milling machine to cut a slot for the window on the mouthpiece. If it's a low whistle we fashion, out of flat brass stock, the wall that is silver soldered in place. A piece of cylindrical Delrin is fashioned on the metal lathe to fit in the top of the head joint. The Delrin plug, especially the slot, has to be very accurate within one or two thousandths of an inch. The lip is stamped down and the window is filed by hand to the proper size and the instrument is voiced by filing various bevels on the lip. When the voicing is finished and I am satisfied how the whistle plays, the plug is pinned using two brass wire pins. The beak of the mouthpiece is formed by cutting the curve on the bandsaw. Then sanding drums are used for the final shaping. The whistle is then buffed on a buffing wheel and given a bath and prepared for shipping to its new owner.
Dale:Whistlers want to know: Which do you think is better: Nickel or brass?
Michael: Personally, I prefer working in brass more than nickel because I guess it's just a friendlier metal.
Dale:Do you make silver whistles anymore?
Michael: I'll be making them in the near future.
Dale:Do you play whistle much? Do you ever play in public?
Michael: I play at sessions or gatherings where music is played, and in the shop of course.
Dale:Do you have favorites among the inexpensive whistles?
Michael: The Clarke, Sweetone, and Susato.
Dale:If time were to permit, are there instruments you would like to make that you aren't making?
Michael: Sometime I'd like to finish an idea I had a number of years ago for a whistle pipe. It's bellows blown, where the drones and the chanter are both whistles and have no reeds.
Dale:You've told us you have some news about the business side of the Copeland.
Michael: Yes! We have reorganized the business by incorporating. Of course, now I have Jim Rementer as a partner. He's a skilled machinist and a musician. He helps in the shop making instruments. And he's also great at business organization and using computers. I feel extremely excited and pleased about what's developing on those lines. Production is up and because of this we are currently moving into a new, larger shop as I mentioned before. And we are working on our own web page which is http://www.copelandwoodwinds.com. It should be up not long after April 15th.
Dale:I'm sure people will come by. Make sure your hit counter is running. Thanks, Michael.
Michael: Thanks, Dale. You have a great whistle list and website.
Dale Wisely is the Undisputed King of Internet Whistle Journalism and the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.. His Internet newsletter for whistle enthusiasts, Chiff & Fipple, has over 2500 subscribers.
Copyright 1999,2000 by Dale Wisely, Ph.D.
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