Tin Whistle Tonguing Techniques

Tin Whistle Tonguing Techniques

In this lesson, we’ll talk about how (and where) to properly use your tongue while playing a tin whistle. The truth is, you can play a tune without using the tongue at all and use other ornaments instead. But, sadly to say, those who don’t get the tin whistle tonguing right are most probably playing unarticulated music. Also, improper tonguing may lead to problems with controlling the airflow too.

Why use tonguing on a tin whistle?

Technically, you use your tongue to split the same note into multiple notes instead of just playing a single long note. It’s the most basic way to play repeated notes. Or, use it when jumping from lower to upper octave to avoid squeaks. But, most importantly, tonguing is what gives the accent to a melody and shapes your playing style in the first place. Ultimately, how often you use the tongue will depend on the feeling you want to express while playing the whistle.

How to use the tongue correctly?

Basically, you just say “T” or “Tuh” or “Tah” or “Toh” while blowing into the whistle. However, this may not be straightforward, depending on the language you natively speak. It just may not come naturally. Try with a couple of variations until you are satisfied with the sound. Just as with blowing pressure, this “T” doesn’t have to be too sharp but also not too soft.

To prevent any confusion, make sure to avoid hitting the mouthpiece. Your tongue tip should touch your palate, very similar to how you speak. What it actually does is stopping the airflow for a moment and letting it through again. So, we want this transition to happen as fast as possible, regardless of the tempo in which we play. Do not stop blowing while using the tongue as we don’t want to “play a pause”. It is something completely different, which we’ll talk about in more detail in the upcoming lessons.

Besides playing repeated notes, tonguing is what gives the accent to a melody and defines your playing style in the first place.

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Basic exercise on tin whistle tonguing

Similar to the blowing, just try to play the low scale (D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D) and backward, tonguing each note. You can also tongue the same note a couple of times before you move to the next one. Once you get a good feeling about the sound, continue with the upper octave, and then try a random variation of the notes. Feel free to be creative.

Tonguing patterns in Irish traditional music (i.e. jigs & reels)

If your goal is to play Irish traditional music, this explanation might be slightly advanced, but I feel it’s not bad to give it a mention. In jigs, which are 6/8 signature tunes connected in 1-2-3 rhythmical phrases, you can usually tongue notes 2 and 3. This will make the tune accented as pronouncing “ha-ta-ta”, “ha-ta-ta”. Not a requirement but a good place to start thinking of.

When playing 4/4 signature tunes such as reels, there’s no rule of thumb as it mostly depends on the melody itself. Sometimes, you want to use your tongue on odd eight-notes only, avoiding to tongue the even notes. Or the opposite, use your tongue on even notes only and skip the odd ones. Since a reel is a 1-2-3-4 rhythmical phrase, we may want to use the tongue on notes 1 & 3. Or the opposite: 2 & 4. The idea of this approach is not to tongue consecutive notes. There is, however, another widely used pattern, which is to tongue the notes 2 & 3 and skip tonguing on 1 & 4. Frankly, there are a lot of combinations that may fit the melody and you’ll get a sense of it mostly by listening to Irish traditional music.

A great example of tin whistle tonguing

As a beginner, this video below is not here to get you demotivated. Quite contrary, it showcases how tin whistle tonguing can go a long way. The tune is played by Brian Finnegan, arguably one of the best whistle players in history. Concentrate on this recording to hear how his tonguing (besides other ornaments) provides the attitude and a punchy feeling. The tune set sounds so convincing.