What’s the Best Book for Learning the Tin Whistle?


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So, you’re here to find which book is best out of the many that will teach you the tin whistle. It’s really understandable since it’s frustrating to spend time learning a certain method when there might have been a better book out there.

Finding the best book for learning the tin whistle depends on your goals and your current music abilities. The Clarke Tin Whistle Book is ideal for someone completely new to music, while Mary Bergin’s Irish Tin Whistle Book is especially good if you are primarily interested in Traditional Irish Tin Whistle playing.

By the end of this guide, hopefully together we’ll make it clear what goals you want for yourself and you’ll know some phenomenal book options that match up to those goals.

Finding Your Goals

Finding what your goals are can be a bit complicated since we all are starting from a different place. Let’s try and summarize the different options:

  1. I don’t really know much about it, I just want to learn the tin whistle
  2. I really want to use the tin whistle for contemporary music and play the songs I like to listen to
  3. I’m okay with learning the basics of other styles on the tin whistle, but really I just want to learn Irish “Trad”.
  4. I already know the basics of the tin whistle and would like to take my skill to the next level.

Think for a moment about where you are and what your goals are–the more specific you are the easier you’ll find the right tools to help you progress.

What’s Your Music Background?

Before you start wondering if you need a minor in music theory to learn the tin whistle–I can say absolutely you don’t need a background in music at all to start learning the tin whistle. It’s one of the most approachable and accepting instruments of all time–which is one of the reasons why I love it.

However, knowing your level of music background can help you know where to start.

  1. No experience
  2. I did piano lessons and band in high school but haven’t played anything since
  3. I know a good bit about music theory and am confident in learning a new instrument.

What difference does your musical background make you might be wondering?

Advantages of musical knowledge

  • Being able to read sheet music: Knowing how to read sheet music will accelerate your learning. When learning a new piece (especially if you are new to the tin whistle) is much easier if you’ve never played before.
  • Knowledge of scales and modes: Having a firm knowledge of modes is not only helpful in understanding what notes to play for a piece you don’t necessarily have sheet music for, but it’s also really fun–You can pull music pieces out of the air once you know which mode they are played in.
  • Transposing: Often you are going to have a whistle that’s not in the same key as the song you’re playing. Knowing your scales and knowing what notes to half-hole or otherwise adjust is an important skill to have.

All that to say, that learning a bit of music general knowledge will help your tin whistle skills go forward faster.

Tabs vs. Sheet Music

It’s pretty common to see tabs for tin whistle songs. A tab, short for a tablature, is a guide that gives you the fingerings rather than the musical notes on a traditional grand staff. Here’s an example of a D Major scale in traditional music notation as well as tablature:

The D Major scale for the tin whistle in traditional music notation and with an accompanying “tab”

Tabs are not a bad thing, and so feel free to use them to get a hang of some songs but they may hold you back in the long run if you rely on them–you’re not going to be able to find tabs for every piece of music that you want to play, and thus if you want to remove blockers it’s important as part of your goals to try and learn traditional music notation.

Plus, if you ever want to play anything else other than tin whistle, then you may be opening up doors of other instruments to yourself if you spend the time to learn traditional music notation.

Which Tin Whistle Learning Methods Are the Most Popular?

I was really curious to know how others learned the tin whistles and what methods they followed.

It turns out that by far, most tin whistlers learn heavily from YouTube, watching other whistlers or tutorials to improve their skills.

Next in line is the Clarke Tin Whistle book by Bill Ochs. This is actually the book I cut my teeth on the tin whistle, it came in second place in popularity after YouTube.

3rd Place was Mary Bergin’s famous Tin Whistle Tutor books. What’s really amazing about this is that her books are by far the most expensive out of any other tin whistle books in this list. Her fame definitely plays a part in that.

This will be the information we pull off of to determine which one of these methods is best for you.

What’s the Best Tin Whistle Book For Me?

I’ll line up the most popular learning options so we can stitch this all together

  1. No Book: YouTube
  2. Clarke Tin Whistle
  3. Mary Bergin’s Irish Tin Whistle Tutor
  4. The Complete Irish Tin Whistle Tutor by L.E. McCullough
  5. The Essential Tin Whistle Toolbox and The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle by Grey Larsen
  6. Walton’s Irish Whistle Book
Learning Method FeaturesGreat for Which Type of Learner
No Book: YouTube* Video tutorials for beginners and intermediate players (some high quality, some not)
* Video demonstrations of varying styles of Tin Whistle playing (sessions, famous players, etc)
* Budget-Conscious: YouTube is Free
* Need to hear and see: Visual learners are often able to focus better with video
* Specific Issues: Many of us don’t have tin whistle tutors available to us–but YouTube is a great way to look up a specific problem or challenge that we’re facing.
Clarke Tin Whistle Book by Bill Ochs * Sheet Music Tutorials
* Audio CD
* Exercises for beginners:
* Exercises for intermediate players
* Introduction to Ornamentation
* If you’re unsure about what book to get, just get this one–it’s the most popular book, and its reputation speaks for itself. Read the section below to learn more about it.
* Beginners to Music in General: Bill goes over the sheet music and basic music theory that you need to know
* Beginners to the Tin Whistle
* Intermediate players looking for a broad range of English, Scottish, a few American,and several Irish tunes
Mary Bergin’s Irish Tin Whistle Tutor * Tin Whistle tutorials starting for total beginners
* Huge emphasis on Traditional Irish Music
* Ornaments
* Drills and Exercises to improve technique
* Audio CD to demonstrate techniques
* Those who want to learn Traditional Irish Music (“Trad”): These tutorials are highly focused on teaching traditional Irish tin whistle methods
* Total beginners wanting to learn music in general
* Those who want to find out what the tin whistle is capable of
The Complete Irish Tin Whistle Tutor by L.E. McCullough * Tin Whistle tutorials starting for total beginners
* Basic technique analysis such as posture and embouchure

*Ornaments
* CD that Plays Along with the 91 Tunes
* Players who already know how to read sheet music (this book doesn’t focus on sheet music)
* Beginners to the Tin Whistle
* Those who need some help with ornamentations or breathing techniques
The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle
+
The Essential Tin Whistle Toolbox by Grey Larsen
* Incredibly Comprehensive Guides (460 pages and 180 pages, respectively)
* Deep discussions about music theory
* Verbose
* Well over a hundred ornamentation exercises
between the two books
* Beginners and intermediate players who want a deep-dive approach to learning the tin whistle
* Players who want as thorough training as possible for tin whistle ornamentation
* Players who want to understand the music theory, including scales and modes that fit within the tin whistle’s capabilities.

In short, if you are a beginner to music and the tin whistle, and you want a challenging introduction to the tin whistle, then the Clarke Tin Whistle book is a fantastic option for you. This book can take you to the beginning of the intermediate level if you practice in-depth.

If you are a beginner to the tin whistle but not to music, then L.E. McCullough’s Complete Irish Tin Whistle is another great option.

If you are a beginner to the tin whistle and even to music, but you are committed to sticking with the instrument and are willing to make a deep dive into Irish tin whistle style, then Mary Bergin’s books are a great option for you.

If you are a beginner or intermediate player who wants to shore up on tin whistle technique and want a technical and comprehensive dive into ornamentation, tin whistle technique, and music theory as it relates to the tin whistle, then Grey Larsen’s books are the way to go.

Why Read a Book? Is Video Better for Learning the Tin Whistle?

You know, that’s a great question, and ultimately it really has to do with what kind of learner you are. When learning how to play music, sometimes the thing you need is video, especially when you’re trying to learn about a particular physical technique.

For example, learning the tin whistle there are several techniques (sometimes called ornaments) that are specific to the tin whistle. A video demonstrating *how* to do these techniques is often the best way to teach. However, understanding some of the deeper details of where to play ornamentation, and a systematic approach to mastering them is really best done by a book.

In other words, books are a pivotal method for learning a long detailed process, such as learning an instrument. A video is usually only a snippet in the process and is helpful for overcoming a specific hurdle–but a book can walk you through the day to day effort of learning an instrument.

It’s easy to think that books are old-fashioned, and a book by itself is–but nowadays any music book tutor has audio, combined with the focus and organization of a book, they can be incredibly good resources.

Clarke Tin Whistle Book by Bill Ochs

The Clarke tin whistle book is an extremely popular music book. One reason is that one of the highest selling inexpensive whistles is bundled with the book (same as Walton), and so it’s easy for this book to get into the hands of its readers.

You can check this book out from Amazon, here.

I’d consider this book a fantastic introduction. There is definitely enough content to challenge an intermediate player as well, but there are other resources out there if you an in-depth guide on certain subjects–particularly ornamentation.

I’ll walk through the features I mentioned above and give some more detail:

  • Sheet Music Tutorials: Bill walks the learner through the music notation necessary to understand the sheet music in the songs and exercises. If you’re completely new to music notation, I would think that his explanations are a bit terse, but the information is there. There’s nothing that he doesn’t explain that he should have.
  • Audio CD: The value of this CD cannot be understated. Playing the tin whistle for any folk (Irish, Scottish, English) music requires understanding folk style. The Audio CD really helps you understand these styles.
    • Since I could read music, I was a little tempted to skip listening because I thought that all that was necessary was to play the music as written. It turns out that these folk music styles have unique interpretations of rhythm and articulation–they don’t match at all, sometimes! Audio CDs with any tin whistle book is necessary.
  • Exercises for beginners: The start of the book has very simple songs that help get the beginner on track. This was perfect for me, since I had no skill whatsoever in the tin whistle. By the end of the book, though, I had grown a lot and could play many of the pieces in the book.
  • Exercises for intermediate players: The songs in the middle and end of the book become very challenging and songs can take days of consistent practice to master
  • Variety of Tunes: One of the distinguishing points of the Clarke Tin Whistle Book is that Bill Ochs puts in tunes from many different origins, and thus Bill goes over many different styles of tin whistle playing. This was so fun to learn! English songs are articulated and played much differently than Irish. This is a fantastic book if you want an introduction to folk music from Irish, English, Scottish, and even some American traditions.
  • Ornamentation explanation: Bill talks about ornamentation with several demonstrations, but I would say they are introductory. This book is less about the deep subject of ornamentations doesn’t go very in-depth. Bill even frankly says that there are entire books on ornamentation and seems content to leave it to other resources to teach the skill in full.

Overall, this book has helped me and has helped countless others learn the basics of the tin whistle.

If you’re a beginner and don’t want to invest a lot of money I’d highly recommend this book as a starting point. I felt like the pace and explanations of the instrument were fantastic–as a true beginner I didn’t feel left behind.

Quick Testimonial

For the sake of science, I took a video of myself having no experience at all playing and then 30 days later after practicing the tin whistle an hour a day learning from the Clarke Tin Whistle Book.

I can’t think of a better way to see the effects of study. Minus the fact that I get stagefright and can’t seem to play as well in front of a camera as I can when nobody is listening:

I had a ton of fun practicing and learning from the book. I loved learning the different tunes from the different countries and I thought it was fascinating to learn the feel of the different styles. I got through most of the book up to the ornamentation, and that is my next goal to focus on the next time I get a chance to focus on the tin whistle.

Mary Bergin’s Irish Tin Whistle Tutor

In case you don’t know– Mary Bergin is a legend in the Irish tin whistle community. She is incredibly skilled and talented in the art of playing the tin whistle.

Mary is also famous for her desire to share her knowledge of how to play the tin whistle. She’s taught many in personal lessons and classes–which to be honest is an odd combination. It’s not very common to see someone so famous for their instrument also spend so much effort teaching that instrument.

Mary also has created two volumes of Tin Whistle Tutorial. Her third volume which was to cover advanced tin whistle techniques is on indefinite hold and may never be released.

Perhaps one of the most differentiating points about Mary Bergin’s tutorials is that they come with so much audio. Her first volume arrives with 2 CDs and her 2nd volume comes with 3 CDs.

This means that she tries to give more of a classroom or 1-on-1 experience learning the tin whistle.

Her 1st volume covers the basics and is targeted to beginner to intermediate, while the 2nd volume is targeted towards intermediate to advanced.

I have not personally gone through this book, but I have asked those who have–the reason why you’d pick Mary Bergin’s tutorial over others is if you want to learn Traditional Irish playing style.

Mary goes through tremendous effort to explain the “internal rhythm” of Irish music. This is not captured in any standard music notation–but she has created her own notation that she puts alongside traditional music notation to help capture the subtle interpretations of rhythm and articulation that is specific to Irish music.

You can learn more about her tutorial at her website, here.

As of this writing the 3rd volume has not been released.

The Essential Tin Whistle Toolbox and The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle by Grey Larsen

I put these two books together because they are by the same author and they complement the same goal of teaching the tin whistle. You can find them both here on his website.

First off, these books are incredibly detailed and verbose. It’s not atypical for an average music teaching tutorial book to be under 150 pages. The Toolbox is 180 pages, while the Essential Guide is 480 pages.

480 pages!

I asked other tin whistlers that have experience with Grey Larsen’s work, and their reviews were very warm. Although these guides are borderline overwhelming with the amount of detail they have, they walk through every aspect of tin whistle playing and technique to solidify your playing.

The Essential Tin Whistle Toolbox is a little gentler for the beginner and has more exercises for someone just starting out. It talks a lot about ornamentation but doesn’t dive into the deepest ornamentation topics that the Essential guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle has.

Another focus in Grey’s works is to learn how to play by ear–a highly valued skill for a tin whistler. Often during Irish sessions (Wikipedia) (in the U.S., you could compare this to the term “jam session”. These sessions are shared among equally skilled musicians in a public place like a pub), the players have never seen sheet music for the songs they are playing! Often the players listen very carefully to a song and will learn it by ear.

If you want a full if not comprehensive look at ornamentation, the Toolbox is a good option, if you want everything with more detail, get the Guide. Or… get both and start with the toolbox and grow into the guide as you need.

L.E. McCullough’s Complete Irish Tin Whistle Tutor

You can find this book at the Whistle Shop which has an overview of the details of this book as well as a way to order the book, or it is available on Amazon here.

I won’t rehash all the information that the Whistle Shop shares about the book, but it seems like this is also a good option for beginners, even if it doesn’t go through how to learn sheet music.

When asking around about the book, many feel that it’s a solid book, and is excellent at explaining ornaments and breathing techniques.

Peter Mitchell

Founder of this website. Lover of sound, music, hot sauce, and technology.

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