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The Tin Whistle only has 6 holes and looks like a very simple instrument. Does this mean it’s easy to play? Looks can be deceiving.
While it is relatively simple to learn the notes and the basic scale of the tin whistle, mastering transitions, breath control and good tone, and most especially ornamentation ultimately make the tin whistle a challenging instrument to master.
I put myself to the test for the tin whistle so I could better answer this question for you, dear reader! I decided to learn the tin whistle for 30 days, starting from almost zero experience to see how much I could learn. I’m not a professional musician--I am actually just a regular dude that also played trumpet in high school. Read on to see the difficulty level of learning the tin whistle.
Learning the Tin Whistle: Easy or Hard?
Often before embarking on an instrument, you’d like to know how easy or difficult the instrument is so you can have proper expectations of your own abilities. Is the tin whistle an easy instrument to learn or a difficult instrument?
On my 30 day challenge to learn the tin whistle, I used the Clarke’s Tin Whistle book written by Bill Ochs. The book is a fantastic introduction to the tin whistle, and I discovered that the tin whistle, although simple in construction, has many, many subtleties that are difficult to master.
I found that I was able to learn the fingerings and smooth the transitions so I could play and memorize several songs without too much difficulty in a single month. I attribute some of that ability to the fact that I already have experience playing an instrument. Therefore, I’d say if you have previous musical experience that learning the basics of the tin whistle is easy to intermediate.
If you have no musical experience, then the tin whistle will fit in the intermediate difficulty category before you can learn to make it sound good.
Whatever your musical background, though, mastering the subtleties of the instrument, especially ornamentation will be downright difficult.
What makes an instrument hard to learn? Well, I’ve broken up this question into multiple parts so you can assess how difficult the instrument will be for you, since everyone is different and has a different musical background. I’ve also given a summary of how difficult the tin whistle is to learn in each of these categories.
- Producing a sound – Easy
- Learning the fingerings – Intermediate
- Achieving Good Tone – Intermediate to Difficult
- Transitions – Intermediate to Difficult
- High Playing – Intermediate
- Ornamentation – Difficult
Producing a Sound on the Tin Whistle
Thankfully, the tin whistle is perhaps one of the easiest wind instruments out there for making a sound. The tin whistle is actually pretty forgiving of the shape of your mouth and lips (called the embouchure) and how you blow air through the instrument.
The tin whistle is easy to produce a sound only by comparison. You’ll make plenty of squeaks while learning to play. In comparison, other wind instruments like the concert flute, the saxophone, the clarinet, and brass instruments like the trumpet, trombone, and the french horn all have specific embouchure requirements.
In fact, new students of those instruments may take days to actually get a sound, and many more months before they can make a sound that doesn’t sound gross. At least that’s what I remember from junior high school.
The tin whistle though is pretty flexible, here. A new player can make an okay sound within minutes if not seconds.
Learning the Fingerings
Learning the fingerings of the tin whistle is relatively easy. But, don’t be fooled, even though it’s easy, it took me a long time to feel like I had a decent hold on them. I still struggle with some fingering transitions to be honest.
While memorizing the different finger positions is straightforward, the difficulty here is actually getting your fingers to cover the finger holes completely. Even after hours of practice I found that I would still squeak because one of fingers were not closing off one of the tin whistle holes completely.
To overcome that it takes many hours of mindful practice. Because of that, I’d say learning the fingerings is intermediate difficulty.
Achieving Good Tone On the Tin Whistle
I suspect that improving your sound can be done over years of practice--getting to the point where people can stand listening to you will take several weeks of daily practice, but mastering tone on the tin whistle could take a lot longer.
Achieving good tone for the basic techniques is of intermediate difficulty, but beyond that good tone in the higher registers and with good control is difficult.
The hardest part about mastering tone on the tin whistle is learning the exact breath pressure needed for each note. If you have too much breath pressure for any given note you risk hitting the higher register as you slide down to the note you are actually trying to play. If you have too little, your notes will cut out and not sound good. Striking that balance of breath pressure is a challenge that requires some practice.
Transitions on the Tin Whistle
Even though the fingerings are relatively simple on the tin whistle--it can be very tricky to completely cover the holes, and it’s especially difficult to do this while you are doing any fast runs. On a flute or a clarinet you have the benefit of those definitive buttons. Buttons are nice because you press them, and the hole is covered unless there is a malfunction.
With the tin whistle, you are jumping back and forth between fingerings where your fingers are responsible for covering the holes. Therefore, without buttons that other instruments have, it’s pretty easy to make squeaks in transitioning.
Therefore, the difficulty of transitions on the tin whistle are intermediate. If you are playing fast, then some of these transitions are downright hard. There’s an arpeggio in a song that I was trying to learn and I spent several minutes every day for a week to nail just one transition and I still couldn’t get it very smoothly.
That being said, if you are playing basic songs with the notes close to one another, the transitions are pretty easy.
As I was going through Bill Och’s Tin Whistle book from Clarke, I was surprised to see the recommendation to practice high playing with earplugs.
There’s no exaggeration with that recommendations. Playing high can sound shriekish on the tin whistle, and I thought that it was kind of hard to get it to sound good.
I also thought that the tin whistle you have probably makes a big difference. My particular tin whistle I couldn’t get to sound very good.
After practicing the tin whistle for a month I learned that I had barely scratched the surface on the capabilities of such an elegant and simple instrument. After getting a hang of the basics, I tried to get a feel for the next level--ornamentation.
I quickly learned I was far, far out of my league.
Ornamentation is hard. No ifs ands or buts. While it’s not hard to perform many of the ornamentations (some of them are hard even by themselves), incorporating them smoothly into your music is very difficult.
The few songs I’ve tried that had notated ornamentation I found very difficult, even though I was only performing the basic ornamentation.
Being able to play the ornamentation is one thing, but playing it solidly and smoothly would take several months of constant practice to get right.
Summary: Is the Tin Whistle Easy or Hard to Learn?
If I were forced to give a straight answer, I’d say that the tin whistle is especially easy to pick up the basics, but difficult to master.
If you are looking for an instrument for a child, or you are picking up an instrument for the first time, be prepared for some growing pains--thankfully the growing pains don’t last as long as some instruments like the violin.
If you already play an instrument, then you are better equipped to start learning and you’ll find the tin whistle to be a joy from the start to learn.
How Long Does It Take To Learn the Tin Whistle?
It alllllll depends on your expectations and your musical starting point. If you are planning on reaching Mary Bergin level, you need to start thinking in decades.
If you want to be able to participate in an Irish session, then you may have to be practicing consistently for a year or even two before you reach that stage.
If you just want to learn the basics and be able to memorize and play a couple reels and some popular songs that you like, then you will be able to reach that goal within a month if you have previous musical experience.
This was my starting point--my most serious instrument was the trumpet for several years in junior high and high school, and I have some experience with a few more instruments, and I managed to learn to play several songs within a month’s time with an hour of daily practice.
If you don’t have musical experience, then you may need to shift your expectations back a few months before you can play the basics.
This table is an attempt to concisely display all this information:
Time Required to Learn the Tin Whistle
|Minimum Time Required of Consistent Practice||Achievement||Musicianship Experience Level|
|6 to 12 months||Ornamentation with high-speed playing (reels)||Experienced|
|3 months||High-speed playing||Experienced|
|1 month||Basic techniques with several songs||Experienced|
|9 to 15 months||Ornamentation and high-speed playing (reels)||Novice|
|6 to 9 months||High-speed playing||Novice|
|2 to 4 months||Basic techniques with several songs||Novice|
What Is the Best Tin Whistle for Beginners?
Perhaps one of the most wonderful aspects of the tin whistle is that it’s a very simple instrument, which means the instruments are extremely inexpensive. Like… $10.
I have a Sweetone Clarke tin whistle, and although I was skeptical that such an inexpensive instrument could do anything, I was amazed at how beautiful the instrument sounds.
In fact, I was starting to look at other tin whistles hoping to improve my sound when I found this Youtube video:
This woman uses the same tin whistle I have and she is able to make it sound amazing! I knew then it wasn’t the tin whistle, it was me!
I can say unreservedly that the Sweetone Clarke tin whistle is a great instrument for beginners.
The Walton’s Mellow D tin whistle is also a great beginner’s choice--and if I was to compare the two, I’d say that the Mellow D was slightly easier to cover the finger holes (they are slightly bigger), and so this one might be a better choice for a beginner.
Best Way to Learn the Tin Whistle
I now have some practice at this, and I can say The Clarke Tin Whistle by Bill Ochs is a fantastic resource for absolute beginners. I’ll give a few reasons:
- If you’ve never played a musical instrument before, Bill explains musical notation as he goes. I already knew music when I read this book and I think he goes a little fast, but definitely gives you what you need to get started.
- If you want to practice traditional Irish, Scottish, English, and even some old American tunes, this is a great resource
- Fantastic explanations on ornamentation
- The included CD is invaluable because you can hear some of the rhythm interpretations that are not obvious (or even notated)
Couple your learning with some YouTube videos and you’ll be onto a great start.
Is the Tin Whistle a Real Instrument?
Let’s clear the air here--some people may say that the tin whistle is a toy and doesn’t qualify as a real instrument. As a hobbyist who has some instrument experience, I can definitively say that the tin whistle is a real instrument. If you want more of that discussion, I directly about this question here in this article.
Is the Tin Whistle the Same as the Recorder?
In short, no, the tin whistle is not the same as the recorder. The biggest difference between the tin whistle and the recorder is that a tin whistle is built to play one scale (diatonic), while a recorder is a chromatic instrument, meaning it can play all 12 notes much more easily.
The tin whistle can play all 12 notes as well, but you have to do a technique where you half cover the holes, and is actually really hard to do (especially quickly).
The look of a tin whistle is different than a recorder as well--if you want to see more differences as well as an example graphic, check out my post here about this very topic.