Of Whistles and Orchestras

I play violin in an orchestra.  Our violin crew varies, but generally we’ll have at least three violinists, oftentimes as many as six.  We have a performance coming up on Sunday, December 14.  During this performance, there is one piece which requires a pennywhistle.  It just so happens that I recently took up playing the pennywhistle.

So, during this one particular piece, which has a whistle intro and outro, I will be playing both whistle and violin.  This poses an interesting challenge: how do I keep the whistle in tune while we work towards the song where I play the whistle?  Worse yet, like I just said, I only recently began playing the whistle, so I’ve never played 1) in public, or 2) with others, much less a full orchestra.  My first time practicing with the full orchestra was just a couple of days ago, and I discovered that I need to work on it.

I can play the part spot on without anyone else playing, but when I get with the group, I have a tendency to overblow, which, on a whistle, makes for some bad notes.  The problem is partly that I’m not experience in playing with an ensemble, and partly that I can barely hear myself over the rest of the orchestra.  I’ve asked around for advice on playing whistle with an orchestra, specifically at the Chiff and Fipple forums.  So, here’s what I’ve got so far.  Feel free to add your own suggestions in comments.

  • Warm the whistle up, tune it with the piano, and KEEP IT WARM

This is, perhaps, one of the trickiest suggestions for me.  Since I play violin, I need to be comfortable and have a full range of upper body movement.  Suggestions I’ve received include sitting on the whistle, stuffing it down my pants (which would work brilliantly, I’m sure, but I do not think the conductor would be amused when I pull a whistle out of my pants in the middle of the concert :), putting it in a small sack with some hot water bottles, wrapping it with a “wheatie,” and blowing air through the whistle before playing the part.

  • Beware saliva buildup

This really still kind of relates to keeping the whistle warm.  When playing a cold whistle, particularly a metal one, your warm, moist breath can hit the cold inside wall of a whistle and condense.  This can cause a buildup of saliva, which can cause all sorts of interesting issues for whistle playing.  Keeping the whistle warm should help alleviate this, but there’s also another trick known as the soap trick.

  • Relax, trust yourself, don’t push it

Perhaps the most “general” advice, but also perhaps some of the most useful.  Somtimes you really just have to quit worrying so much about things and just do them.  “…Don’t try to compete,” one sentence from this particular advice giver ends.  That right there is a big part of my problem.  I feel like the whistle, which is the soloist instrument in this particular situation, cannot be heard, so I’m trying my best to make it louder, which doesn’t really work too well with whistles.  You can make them hit different octaves, tweak the sharpness/flatness of a note, but louder doesn’t really happen much.

So, that’s the advice I’ve gotten thus far.  I’ll leave you with the full quote from the general advice, because there’s a lot of good to be had there.

I’ve had the pleasure of playing whistle in orchestral/concert situations and it’s natural to be nervous, which will tend to make you overblow, especially if you think you’re not being heard amid the other instruments and start trying to compete. The only thing I can say is I learned to play within my own limitations and not compete. In other words, even if you don’t think you’re being heard, don’t try to compete. Take it easy, don’t push it, play within your own limitations and be a part of the whole. You may not hear yourself very well, but it’s amazing how those around you CAN hear it. In concert situations with other instruments, I’ve found that I often have to play whistle on faith because I can’t really hear myself well. I just have faith that I’m part of the mix and do the best I can without pushing too hard.

– Ballyshannon of the Chiff and Fipple forums

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~ by rev.mojo on December 9, 2008.

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