Category Archives: Whistle Tips and Tricks

How to play major, 2nd, and minor keys with your whistle

These are simple instructions for playing your WhistleSmith Whistle in other keys.

This color coded chart shows you the Major key your whistle is tuned to in left column.

Start scale with bottom Start scale with three finger holes open.bottom finger hole open.

The 2nd key your whistle will play is in the center column.
The Minor key your whistle will play is in the right hand column.

Your whistle plays the Major keys using all the finger holes closed starting the scales.

Your whistle plays the 2nd Keys by starting with three finger holes open on the bottom of the whistle and the rest closed.

Your whistle plays the Minor Keys by starting with one finger hole open on the bottom of the whistle and the rest closed.

All About Whistle Tuning Slides 

Tuning a stringed instrument works by tightening or loosening individual strings to  achieve exact pitches on every note. Pianos, guitars, harps etc. all work on this principal and you can use static turners and tuning forks to set the individual strings.

Drums are tuned by tightening or loosening the head of the drum.

Whistles do not have a true tuning slide.

Each whistle is tuned to an individual key. The slide on a whistle exists to allow the mouthpiece and tone body to be separated for ease of carrying the whistle and for the maker to correct any length measurement error between the head and the holes in the tone body when assembling the instrument.

You also may want to read out whistle tips and tricks here.

This slide also sets the exact distance from the bottom of the sound hole in the mouthpiece to all the other holes in the whistle including the overall whistle length at the butt of the whistle. When this distance is set, the whistle plays exactly to the measurements of the original design and is tuned as closely to the notes in the frequency scale as is possible.

You cannot tune the whistle one note at a time like a stringed instrument, so the whistle is not tuneable to another instrument by moving the slide up or down. Adjusting the slide up or down will only make the whistle play out of tune by being sharp or flat on all the notes at the same time.

Once the whistle is set to specification on the slide, then all the notes may only be PITCHED Up or Pitched Down as a unit. The whistle has very close tolerances and adjusting  the slide can move the whistle tuning completely out of tune. You should find a setting mark on the slide to show where the whistle smith set the instrument when it was made. You can tune to a guitar, mandolin etc. by using the whistle as the pitch pipe for the other instrument to tune to.

Whistles are tuned to get an even run between notes in both octaves to eliminate any small variance  in individual notes. Whistles made of hard machinable materials like aluminum, brass, silver and polymer plastics do not lose their tuning and play well as long as the instrument is kept clean and buffed inside the bore and played in a warm place.

Polymer whistles play “warm” because the polymer material has an insulating factor and retains heat.  This is the best material to make a whistle that plays well in cold temperatures and an instrument that drys out quickly when playing in a damp location. Whistles made from wood that has been stabilized is in effect, made from polymer and works well in a range of temperatures.

A Short List of Whistle Tips

The reason whistles play out of tune is cleanliness. Over a very short period of time, whistles begin to develop an interior coating from saliva and bits of food the same as your teeth get plaque buildup.  Here is list of simple and quick things to solve this problem.

1.  Swab your whistle frequently while playing and always swab before putting you whistle away for the day. Move the swab back and forth in the bore of the whistle. Next, insert the swab all the way to the mouthpiece plug. With the mouthpiece hole blocked, blow the whistle very hard at least twice. Saliva in the mouthpiece will blow into the swab and be absorbed without making any sound. Remove the swab and set it aside to dry out for the next time it is needed.

Occasionally you must rinse the swab in mild soap and water and stand it up to dry over night.  Spraying the swab with Lysol disinfectant is a good idea.  Clean the mouthpiece and all the finger holes with a Q tip.

2.  Air conditioners and fans will disturb the air pressure in your playing area. Fans disrupt any echo you may have and add background noise that makes hearing your playing difficult.

3.  Temperature is important for correct pitch in your whistle. Too cold an area will increase the moisture in the whistle bore which in turn dulls the whistles ability to make proper low notes. The whistle will play flat until it regains the heat it has lost.

Very hot temperatures will make whistles play sharp. Keep your whistle in the shade and out of the sun when playing in the summer.

Try to avoid playing the whistle and then laying it down for a period of time. When you pick the whistle up to resume playing it must warm up again and moisture starts to collect.

4. Lift your fingers over the holes high to avoid “shading” your sound. Finger holes are really little jets of air escaping the whistle and you want to keep them working properly.

5.Use hand cream to keep the tips of your fingers soft and pliable. The tips of your fingers will seal the finger holes easier and more completely and you will not have to grip the whistle as hard to play proper notes.

6. If your whistle has a joint to take the whistle apart…make sure it is tight and does not leak air.

If the joint is loose, the whistle will most certainly not play right or perhaps not at all!

Beeswax is excellent to seal the joint and will keep  the joint from moving. If you need to break the beeswax seal, just warm it up and it will soften and let go.  When replacing a beeswax seal, be sure not to get the wax in the bore of the whistle. Always buff the inside bore of the whistle after doing maintenance to your whistle.

7. When playing your whistle you must fill the bore of the whistle by tonguing the whistle on the starting note and when you take a breath of air to keep the whistle bore filled.

You cannot just blow the whistle, you must always tongue it to get a clear sound.

8. You get air from two sources when playing the whistle. The first is the breath in your throat and the second source is by taking a deep breath and filling your lungs. The small high D whistle generally can be played using only light breathing because it requires a minimum amount of air to play.

You will sound better if you take a deep beginning breath and then play.

Low whistles must be sharply tongued to fill the larger bore of the whistle. This requires a beginning deep breath or you will embarrass yourself by running out of air. The deep breath may need to be touched up a bit if the piece of music is long or louder than usual and you will have to practice to find where you inhale the extra air without it being noticed.

The Best Places to Play your Whistle

You should look for places that have a natural echo that will bounce the sound of the whistle back to you. This natural reverb or return echo is a sound your whistle lacks and will give you the missing link to getting great sound from your whistle.

Look for hard surfaces that echo or amplify sound and give a good sharp whistle return. Use a clear loud shout to see if you get a quick return echo. The quicker the return echo the better your music will sound.

There are bandstands that have been constructed in a lot of communities that are perfect for an impromptu concert in the afternoon. In Maine almost every town has a bandstand available for community use and folks gather there to talk, tell stories and make music.

Be prepared to draw a crowd of folks passing by that like your whistle music. Most likely, you will get a round of applause at the end of your performance. Play what you like and folks generally like what you play. I suggest a short medley of familiar tunes that your are confident in playing to finish up your concert in the park.

Playing music in the city provides lots of chances to find places to play your whistle. Brick buildings and alleys are excellent backdrops. Over passes, outside on an open porch, your garage with the doors open, a grassy knoll with surrounding hard surface buildings, are just a few spots to try out some music and find out how differently your whistle sounds outdoors.

Read my article on playing whistles at the Standpipe in Arlington Heights, MA for more insight on where to go to play outdoors.

Highways have lots of flood culverts with huge openings that are dry and accessible along the side of the road. I see folk playing, singing and recording music on their phones all summer in these types of places. There is a Trans Canada hiking trail and the Appalachian Trail in the US that will take you to places to play your whistle that are really unique. The two most common instruments that hikers like to play around the campfire are harmonicas and whistles and they both can be played while marching along the trail for company and to warn the bears that you are coming to visit.

Avoid things that interrupt the air in and around your whistle playing area. Inside the house stay way from air conditioners, fans, washers and dryers that are running, wood stoves and furnace registers. Try to play where the temperature is about 70 degrees and avoid extreme temperatures above 90 degrees because that will make the whistle play sharp. Warm air travels faster in the whistle bore, therefore the pitch will be faster and higher in the heat.

Overhead lights that have slow moving fans will make your whistle out of tune or hard to play slower tunes. Acoustic ceiling tile will absolutely cut the volume off the whistle you are playing by at least 30%. Acoustic ceiling tile is made to absorb sound and it is excellent at it’s job.

Your whistle will be at it’s best if you find a spot to play that has natural reverb and you will quickly notice how you whistle responds with better sound.

I have noticed that many players can play better with their eyes closed when learning new repetitions or when playing a new song and committing it to memory. By totally concentrating and shutting out everything around you, it is easier to memorize the music.