Foundational Tin Whistle Course

Congratulations on deciding to learn the Tin Whistle! It’s a great instrument and with patience and consistent practice, will bring you and your listeners much joy!

This is my introductory course for the Tin Whistle and is perfect for anyone just starting out or for those that have been playing a while but want to brush up on some foundational concepts.

Topics Covered

  • Tin Whistle Diagrams
  • Grip, Posture & Tone
  • Covering the Holes
  • D & G Major Scales
  • Tongue Articulation
  • Breathing
  • 4 Simple Tunes
  • 4 irish Traditional Tunes


Section 1: The Basics

Practicing any discipline takes lots of patience! Be patient with yourself especially in Section 1 where you might want to jump ahead to “Trad Tunes”. In the first section, for purposes of example and ease of learning, I use simple tunes such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, “London Bridge”, etc… This is done on purpose. Since you are already familiar with these melodies, less time is spent on learning the tunes themselves thus allowing you to focus more attention on the concepts & techniques I’ll be trying to communicate.

I have provided both video footage and written notation of all examples, exercises and tunes. While being able to read music is a good skill to have, it is not necessary for the traditional Irish musician. I strongly encourage you to learn the examples by ear (through the video examples) as Irish traditional music is best learned this way. You will find as you progress that written notation falls very short of communicating Irish traditional music’s finer and more defining points.

Tin whistles are simple instruments but it’ll be good to give names to the various parts of the instrument so that we can use them in our discussions later.

As you may already know, you can spend as much or as little on a whistle as you’d like. Inexpensive “cheapies” start about about five bucks whereas fancy high end / handmade whistles can cost several hundred dollars.

Perhaps the best way to do this is present a glossary of terms below, starting with the mouthpiece and working our way down.

Glossary of Terms


The mouthpiece on a whistle could be more correctly called a “fipple”. Indeed, the whistle is actually a type of “fipple flute”. The term mouthpiece is also sometimes refered to as the headjoint – though the term headjoint really means the whole top section (including the mouthpiece) of a tunable whistle (or flute for that matter).


Refers to the part of the mouthpiece that channels the air towards the blade (see diagrams below).

Tuning Slide

If a whistle is tunable, its tuning slide enables the player to finely adjust the whistle’s tuning by moving the head joint fore and aft. Moving the mouthpiece towards the body makes the whistle higher in pitch while the reverse is true for moving the mouthpiece away from the body. Most players tune to an “A” note (second hole down from the headjoint). Understand that this does not mean that you can make a D whistle into an Eb whistle by pushing in the mouthpiece more. If you were able to push the mouthpiece in that far, the whistle would not play in tune with itself or would not have what is called proper intonation.


Ok, so we’re already using big words! Intonation is a term used to describe how well in tune a whistle is with itself. This can be checked with an electronic tuner though as you advance as a musician, you’ll be able to hear right away whether or not a whistle exhibits good or bad intonation just by playing up and down through it’s range of notes.


Makes up the longest part of a tin whistle. This is where the finger holes are located.

Finger Holes

The holes that you place your fingers on to play the whistle. Most tin whistles have only 6 holes.

High End / Handmade Tunable Tin Whistle

High End / Hand Made Tunable Tin Whistle


Inexpensive / Mass-Produced Non-Tunable Tin Whistle


Inexpensive / Mass-Produced Non-Tunable Tin Whistle

Now that we’ve learned to hold the whistle properly, let’s start making some noise! We’ll start off by playing a simplified version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” that uses just fingers T1, T2 and T3 (“T” stands for Top- Hand/ “B” stands for “Bottom-Hand”). The trick here is that you seal each hole completely. If,for example, you do not seal the note “B” (T1) completely, the next note below – “A” (T2) will not sound fully or at all.

Mary Had a Little Lamb

Mary Had a Little Lamb, Key of G (Simple)

New Technique: Articulation

You should notice from the video example that we have to interrupt our air flow to sound out repeated notes (for example: “lit-tle lamb”). This technique is called articulation. The way that most whistle players articulate is by the use of their tongue (“tonguing”). This is done by “saying” syllables such as “ta” or “da”.

Now, try playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb in D”. This will require you to be able to seal all six holes properly since the lowest note in the tune is the low D note.

Mary Had a Little Lamb

Mary Had a Little Lamb, Key of D

At this stage you should be able to seal all six holes of the whistle properly so learning the D Major Scale will be easy. All you need to do is add the notes C# and D’ and violá!

D Major Scale

D Major Scale, One Octave

Practice this until you can play up and down the scale smoothly and accurately. Make sure that you remember to lift your left hand index finger for the higher D’ fingering.

Now, try playing a couple more tunes in the key of D before moving on.

London Bridge

London Bridge, Key of D

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (Key of D, First Register)

To warm up, and to get our ears back in the key of G major, try playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” again in G, this time playing the D’ note. Don’t forget to raise T1 when playing D’!

Mary Had a Little Lamb

Mary Had a Little Lamb, Key of G

You are now ready to learn the G Major Scale. Note the special fingering for C and again, don’t forget to lift T1 when playing D’.

G Major Scale

Before we move on to the next section, play through these simple tunes to help you become more comfortable with playing in G.

Frére Jacques

Frére Jacques, Key of G

London Bridge

London Bridge, Key of G

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, Key of G

At this stage you should be able to play fairly comfortably all the way up to G’ in the second register of the whistle. We’ll want to be able to play up to high B’ (and even a bit higher in future lessons). The majority of traditional Irish tunes never go above a high B’.

D & G Major Scales, Extended Range

To complete our study of the D and G Major scales…

Practice playing the D major scale all the way up to B’.

D Major Scale

D Major Scale, Extended

Practice the G major scale starting on G (circled) all the way up to B’. Then continue the scale all the way down to D and back up to G to finish.

G Major Scale

G Major Scale, Extended Range

A Few More Tunes

Practice playing in the second register with these simple tunes.

Mary Had a Little Lamb

Mary Had a Little Lamb, Key of D, Second Octave

Frére Jacques

Frére Jacques, Key of D, Second Register

London Bridge

London Bridge, Key of D, Second Register

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, Key of D, Second Register

Congratulations! You’ve come quite a long way! You should be very proud of your achievement.

To review, at this stage you should be able to…

  • Name the different parts of the whistle.
  • Hold the whistle properly.
  • Play the D and G Major Scales all the way up to high B’.
  • Be on your way to developing a good solid tone (Not shaky and filled with vibrato but nice and straight.)
  • Perform a few simple tunes.
  • Articulate notes by the use of tonguing.

Section 2: Trad Tunes

Again, congratulations on making it this far. I bet you’re ready to dive into the tunes! Before you dive in, let’s first talk about breathing…

In the tunes that follow, I have indicated good places to breathe within the tunes with a red single quotation mark. You don’t have to breathe every time you see the mark if you have enough air to make it to the next mark. As you learn more tunes you will start to intuitively learn where to take breaths without affecting the flow and rhythm of the tune.

Make sure that you are breathing from your belly. This will allow you to take in the most amount of air. It’s a common mistake to breathe in a way that just fills in the area around your rib cage. Since your ribs aren’t that flexible (like the area around your belly), you simply can’t breathe in enough air. A good way to get a sense of proper breathing is to lay on the floor and put a heavy book on your belly. You will naturally breathe from your belly when in this position and the book will go up and down as you breathe. Try to breathe in the same manner when standing or sitting. If your shoulders are raising when you’re breathing then you know you’re not breathing from your belly!

It might help to practice this type of breathing in front of a mirror so that you can watch to make sure your belly fills with air and that your shoulders stay down and relaxed.

Chances are that you’ve heard this tune somewhere before. A beautiful and simple air for us to get started with.

This is a great tune to work on your breathing with as it is meant to be played fairly slow. Make sure you are taking nice deep breaths from your belly.

Dawning of the Day

Dawning of the Day

A Polka is one of the many types of dance tunes in traditional Irish music. Polkas make up a large portion of the repertoire in County Kerry where, judging by the title, this tune originated from.

I’ve harped on this before but make sure you are lifting finger T1 when playing D’. This is a good tune to practice this good habit as it only comes up twice.

The Kerry Polka

The Kerry Polka


The jig is one of Ireland’s most popular types of dance tunes.

At this stage you might be tempted to play fast. Make sure that you can play the tune without mistakes and without any tension in your body (hands, neck, shoulders, etc…) before you speed things up. You may actually need to play slower if you are having trouble getting through the tune or are experiencing tension. If you are having trouble with the same section every time, practice that specific part (could be just 2 or 3 notes) slowly until you get it right.

Also, remember your breathing! Are you gasping for air? If so, you aren’t breathing deep enough. Again, practice the tune s l o w l y and pay special attention to your breaths. Fill your belly NOT your chest!

Out on the Ocean

Out on the Ocean

The Reel is Ireland’s most popular dance tune type. I’ve been to some sessions where all that was ever played was reels!

This is your first trad tune that goes up to high B’. Make sure that you’re not “chickening out” and that you’re backing those higher notes with plenty of presure so that the higher notes do not squeak or break apart.

Peeler’s Jacket

Peeler's Jacket

Congratulations! At this stage you are well on your way to becoming a great whistle player! I’ll leave you with a few thoughts before we finish.

Listen to the Masters

If you haven’t started already, it’s time to start building your music collection of great whistle players. It’s very important to your development that you listen to great music since “you are what you eat”!

Recommended Listening

  • Mary Bergin: Feadog Stain 1 and 2
  • Joannie Madden: Sounds of the Irish Tin Whistle 1 and 2

Learning Tunes

You might want to get yourself a tune book and start learning tunes, applying the concepts that you’ve learned here. Of course, learning by ear is best. You might start trying to learn tunes by ear off recordings. A great tool to do this with is a program called The Amazing Slowdowner (Mac/PC). Click here to find out more. I use it just about every day in my own learning of tunes off of CDs and MP3s.


As if i haven’t harped on this subject enough! Without proper breathing, you’ll never be able to let the tunes flow as they should.

One thing I do when I practice is start out with a tune I am well familiar with, playing it slowly and focusing on my breathing. Because the tune is familiar, I can play it without thinking thus being able to focus in on my breaths (quick, deep breaths from my belly). If there’s anything that slips in my own playing, it’s my breathing. This is why it is so important to practice it regularly and properly.


If you wish to play fast, you’ll only get there by practicing slow. Make sure that you can play what you are playing without mistakes and without tension before speeding up.

34 comments on “Foundational Tin Whistle Course

  1. Well I’ve got this far Blayne. So far so good. I did try Ryan Duns YouTube lessons but felt I needed to be in his class for real to get the full benefit. The pace seemed a little fast on YouTube alone.

    I’m only two weeks in and I suppose i need to get the mechanics sorted out first. At the moment I’m having problems of hesitance when I need to go to the upper register. Scales are OK though, it’s just when I come across the high D’s as in Dawning of the Day that I get flustered. Hopefully practice will sort that out.

    Hope you will have more lessons later, after the Section 2 Trad Tunes.

  2. These really are great lessons. Thank you so much. They are really helping me to progress with my Tin Whistle playing. I also just found out that you are the founder of whistle and drum . com! What an awesome store that is! Thank you so much for everything.

  3. Blayne — great intro course! I am self-taught and have a lot of bad habits. While it is painful to go back to the beginning it is also very useful! (PS – I am still loving my Oz Vambrace whistle!)

  4. Thank you so much for a wonderful way of teaching these beautiful instruments, and wondrous music.

    I am now at an intermediate level (working my way through it, slowly but steady), thanks to you, in Tin Whistle only (for now). I still struggle a bit with my breathing, especially when playing jigs or reels. It seems I stress myself out too much when it comes to beating a regular pulse with my playing. So, I practice very slowly. In doing so I realized that learning more airs helps me ease and relax my breathing a lot more. I tried to learn some by myself, and even would improvise some. But, coming from you would be a lot better for me. This is the only air I found you recorded with the Tin Whistle, but it does not have ornamentation with it.

    Although I realize I could use those you recorded with the flute… I just thought I’d make that wish to you.

    Again, thank you for all that great work!

    • You’re most welcome Guillaume! I do have more airs in the full course but you make a good point, I think most of them I teach on the flute which is fine really as the same interpretations apply to the whistle as well. Will think about doing more airs on the whistle though.

      On breathing – yes, it’s good to have little goals when it comes to breathing. Just as you practice an unfamiliar (notice I didn’t say “tricky”) phrase, it’s good to practice a section where you’re breathing is less than stellar.

      One tip here. Often times students think that they don’t take in enough air. This is rarely the case. What usually happens is that one usually takes in plenty of air but then expels too much on the first few notes of the following phrase. This is especially true for flute players but it’s an issue with most wind players and singers.

  5. I just received my Tin Whistle and I just LOVE IT!!!!
    I already know how to read music…so I went right into some songs.
    All I have to do is work on my breathing technique….but that is coming along.
    THANK YOU so much!!!!

    • Perfect! Yes, breathing is so key. I find that if I have my breathing worked out, the rest flows so much easier and I’m able to play with less tension. Always good to build on a solid foundation so the time you’re spending on working out your breathing is time well spent!

  6. The most important thing I learned on this page is in regard to tone. “The go-to (default) tone should be flat as a board, without vibrato.” That is something I had been wondering about and hadn’t read elsewhere, as my tone has been a bit naturally wavy according to where my breath is at that particular moment.

    • Awesome that you tuned into that Mark. It’s not to say that you sometimes won’t use belly vibrato but it’s good to have independent control over that instead of having a constantly wavering tone – as you well pointed out.

  7. Whew! I did it ! My eyes open wide when I hit a high B !! LOL Looking forward to more lessons. I ordered a low D whistle for small hands and it should arrive soon. I am a 68 yr old grandma and this is a new interest! It detracts from chronic pain AND I can’t EAT while whistle blowing!!

  8. One of the problem I’m finding is that if I stand i I have uncovered many holes, whistle falls
    I the little finger is difficult to control that rests on the flute.
    little finger control is difficult, when you go fast is outside the support

    you recommend me something?

    • Just takes time getting used to the balance – over time you’re find what works best for you. You’ll find that over time the whistle balances on the supporting thumbs with a bit of assistance from your bottom lip for support. My bottom hand pinky also helps out a bit. I’ve seen some folks use their bottom hand third finger closing the bottom hole but that doesn’t work well on all whistles. I prefer to use my pinky for this reason.

  9. Hi there. Just getting started and having trouble getting to the links to the music. Videos work great but the links just take me to the same site.

    • Ah! Sorry to get back with you a bit late. I see the sheet music isn’t displaying right either. I’ll get on that soon. My computer is going in for service tomorrow but when I receive it back, I’ll make the fixes!

  10. Hi there!! Moving along on the lesson! Enjoyed our conversation a week or so ago. Saw no one had posted for nearly a year and didn’t want you to feel lonely! Hope all is well in Greeley!

  11. We just got back from a vacation to Ireland! It was wonderful! What are your thoughts on Killarney whistles. Or Sentana ones. Both made in Ireland. Hope you are well!

    • Awesome! Killarney whistles are good players though they are not made in Ireland – I believe Pakistan if my sources are correct – and are a copy of Sindt whistles. Have not played Setantas.

  12. I need a count in for Peter’s Jacket. It starts off sounding like a jig but then a beat goes missing. I can’t see well enough to read the music. How do I hear this tune in 4/4? I feel like my ears are on backwards.

  13. I’m glad I found you. I started with another program, but had the sense I might be developing some bad habits so I’m glad to be restarting from the beginning. I could use some help with how to hold the whistle. My fingers are “double-jointed.” and they tend to lock. If I’m super focused on keeping them relaxed, that takes care of most of it. (as long as I don’t anchor with my pinky). But I’m having trouble with my thumbs. They bend backwards really far and this becomes very uncomfortable. When I relax them enough so that they don’t automatically bend back, the whistle has to rest on the side of the thumb, around the middle of the first joint. This doesn’t feel very stable. Would thumbrests help, or do you have any other suggestions?

  14. Hey Blayne
    I’m back after a couple of years as I feel I need to revisit the fundamentals because try as I might I don’t sound “Irish”…yet.
    What do you suggest? Just reviewing everything?
    I had a classical teacher until Covid who guided me to do music theory and tone developments but I can’t quite launch in spite of marrying that with youtube clips of various Celtic aficionados.
    Is it finger speed in the end?

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