How to place a tin whistle in the mouth and blow it

The tin whistle is a simple instrument and you’d think that how to place it in the mouth and blow it would be simple and obvious. That’s until I read some rather strange advice from anonymous people on the web.

Bad and strange advice seems par for the course for the web, but I’ve seen this given on a tin whistle web forum (not Chiff and Fipple I hasten to add!) where beginners were seeming to take it as good advice.

The bad advice?

Basically it consists of people telling players to pucker up their lips, in one case to widen their lips and purse them at the same time! Often it’s telling people to tension and pucker up the lips when going into the upper octave.

Some strange advice talks of “blowing in different directions”, of taking the fipple from the mouth, of “narrowing your airway”, making “fast air” rather than blowing harder for the second octave (what does this even mean?) and blowing down straws.

Why is it bad advice?

Because the tin whistle is a fipple flute, its basic “embouchure” is made by the mouthpiece. You don’t need to purse up your lips, narrow airways etc. because there is only one place that the air is going, down the airway of the whistle.

It’s also bad advice since it tells players to introduce tension in the lips and mouth. Tension is the enemy of good playing.

How to place the whistle in your mouth.

The only “embouchure” that you need for a tin whistle is relaxed lips making a seal around the top of the whistle. The lips do nothing more than that.

So, where do you place the mouthpiece when playing the tin whistle?

Place it on the bottom lip, so that it just protrudes over the back of the lip, and then gently close up the lips around it forming a seal. The end of the mouthpiece should be poking a few millimetres beyond the lips, but not as far as the teeth; not between the teeth.

There should be no tension. You do not need to purse the lips, use them to direct air or have any tension in the jaw. Just relax, and let your lips close naturally around the mouthpiece to form a seal.

That’s it so far as the mouthpiece goes. It’ll feel a little different with differently shaped mouthpieces, but the key is to stay relaxed, no tension in the mouth or jaw, and to form a seal around the mouthpiece.

We refer to “blowing” down a whistle, but it’s really a more gentle process than that, it’s more like controlled breathing.

Again, we do not have to “direct” the air by making any special airways, puckering up or introducing tension. The air is directed by the whistle mouthpiece, it can only go in one direction as you blow and the size of the airway is the hole in the top of the whistle.

What you need to practice is breath control. We do it naturally with speech, and with a little practice you’ll start to naturally give the right amount of breath for each note.

Getting to the upper octave literally means blowing harder, though as mentioned above, it is more refined than this. Again, don’t be tempted by those who state with such authority that an easy way of getting into the second octave is by puckering up etc.

It’s nonsense. Look up videos of well known tin whistle players (professionals), do you see them constantly puckering and unpuckering their lips as they gurn their way through a tune? No, you don’t.

As you practice notes, going up and down the scale and trying that in both octaves, to get clean notes is to tongue them. Don’t listen to those who say that tin whistles are never tongued and are always played legato (that is without a break between notes). It’s not true. Some players use more tonguing, and some less, but it is done.

Simple tonguing means raising the tip of the tongue to just behind the teeth , on the flat part of the upper jaw between the teeth and the ridges further back. Do it as if you are saying “duh”. What happens is that this stops and then restarts the air flow. You can vary the “strength” of this stop by increasing the pressure, making the “word” harder with more of a “tuh” sound and gentler, hardly making contact at all with the tip of the tongue. Just experiment.

One thing that you will find is that this attack at the beginning of a note will make transitions from the first to the second octave easier and clearer.

There’s lots more to be said about tonguing and other advice on blowing tin whistles and fingering tin whistles , but this is as far as this post will go since the purpose was to counteract some bad advice and give some better advice to beginners.

Andrew Wigglesworth
Melodeon and whistle player

Slightly obsessed with playing traditional music.