Cuts – Tin Whistle Ornamentation

Cuts – Tin Whistle Ornamentation

In this lesson, we are going to cover one of the widely used ornaments on an Irish tin whistle (penny whistle), and that is the cut. As a beginner, if you tried to explore what you can achieve with the fingers on the whistle, you probably managed to achieve something very similar already. Cuts are arguably one of the easiest yet great sounding ornaments.

How to play cut ornament on a tin whistle correctly?

Two things are crucial for playing a cut:

  1. You do a cut by lifting a finger and put it back to its hole.
  2. You do it as fast as possible.

The sound you want to hear is like pronouncing a very short “blah”, or “plah”. If you move a finger too slowly, you actually play two notes, and that’s what we want to avoid. A note decorated with a cut should have the same duration as if played without it. Therefore, make sure you are not lifting a finger too far, it’s just a quick transition. I find that the most common beginner “mistake” when doing a cut is its speed.

There’s one more piece of the puzzle, and that is to know which finger you particularly use to cut the note you are playing. While it’s logical to use the same finger that is playing the note itself, most of the players use a different finger instead. Wast majority agree a cut sounds crunchier, thus that’s considered the correct way. You may come across advice that cuts should be always done with a finger above the note you are playing. For example, if you play a note E, you do the cut with the finger over the F# hole. However, there is another way that I and many other players use. And that is to use G finger (ring finger) for all of the notes from D to G and B finger for the remaining two.

Feel free to experiment and try the way that suits you best. In the table below, there’s a cheat sheet that explains what fingers to use on which notes.

Playing noteCutting finger (hole)Alternative

When and why use cuts?

Technically, you can use a cut on repeated notes instead of tonguing. However, cuts are intended (as other ornaments) to emphasize important notes in a melody. They fit very well in Irish traditional music and are often used on many notes during a song or a tune. And also, one can easily say that cuts are kind of a native ornament for woodwind instruments, therefore you can hardly make a mistake no matter how much you are using it.

Preferably, you can use both tonguing and cuts at the same time which gives a note even crispier accent. Rhythmically wise, in Irish traditional music, I already mentioned in previous lessons that ornaments are usually used on odd notes, especially in faster tunes. That is, in reels for example, which usually have 8 times eight-note bar, a cut will sound really logical if used on notes 1, 3, 5, 7, and so on.

The cut is entirely independent of the tune tempo. If played correctly, it always sounds the same, in both slow airs or fast jigs.

Practicing cuts on a tin whistle

Quite the opposite of slides, cuts are entirely independent of the tempo. The ornament itself should always sound the same, as fast as possible, no matter if a tune is a slow air or a fast jig. So, start practicing simple scales and then change the tempo on a metronome. You will find out soon that it’s much harder to play cuts correctly at a slower pace. But that’s good. If it’s hard, it only gets you to become better in the long run. Playing ornaments in fast tunes can be cheating, as moving fingers fast can easily be misinterpreted as an ornament, even if not done correctly.

A good example of tin whistle cuts

Liam O’Flynn hits the nail in the head in this Planxty’s live performance of the song “As I Roved Out”. And besides cuts, he does very nice rolls too (we’ll come to these soon). I really love his style, enjoy!