Grey Larsen,
The Essential Guide to the Irish Flute & Tin Whistle
(Mel Bay, 2003)

This beautiful two-volume, slip-case edition of Grey Larsen's The Complete Far Side contains every Far Side cartoon ever ... oops, wrong review. (OK, so this is a lame joke, one which Larsen has undoubtedly heard before. If I didn't make it, though, who else in the endless hordes of wannabe comedians would do it?)

I am an amateur self-taught tin whistle player, fooling around with the whistle just for fun. I also recently got a very nice Tony Dixon low whistle that converts into an Irish flute, and I've been messing around with that. So when I heard that Grey Larsen's The Essential Guide to the Irish Flute & Tin Whistle was available for review, I leapt at the chance to get some real information on both the whistle and the flute.

Larsen's Essential Guide is a superb book. It is full of information on playing these instruments and playing them in the Irish idiom. The book has eight major sections, including an introduction to Irish music, an introduction to the Irish flute and tin whistle, proper breathing techniques and ornamentation. Many chapters have good endnotes pointing to further sources of information.

I will mention two significant problems in the book now, for fear that the casual review reader won't read to the end of this review. The book contains fingering charts for both the tin whistle and flute. The first problem is that there are two errors in these charts. The whistle low register chart gives an incorrect fingering for the E. The flute low register chart gives an incorrect fingering for the second C.

The second problem is that this book doesn't have anything that assists the beginner with learning the note-playing basics. For example, the chapter on the tin whistle says, "Before you proceed further in this chapter it would be wise to make sure that you can comfortably and reliably finger and sound all the notes in the low octave of the whistle. A fingering chart for the tin whistle appears in Appendix C." That is the extent of teaching the beginner to play the notes. This is insufficient and not much use to the beginner. Exercises and several simple tunes should have been included.

These problems make this book seem inappropriate for the total beginner. However, it does contain a great deal of very good, very useful information on very basic concepts (e.g., breathing and holding the instruments) on which the total beginner should concentrate. I am left uncertain of this book's target audience.

That said, I also want to state up front that this book has several major strengths that make it well worth buying. It has excellent, in-depth chapters on ornamentation in Irish music. This book is worth it for these chapters alone. The chapters on holding the instruments and on breathing are very important for the total beginner. I found their instructions and discussions clear and easy-to-understand. In fact, I have ended up changing my hand position for the flute and mouth position for the whistle, thanks to this book, and have seen improvements in my playing.

This is not a tune book masquerading as an instrument tutor; it provides much more than a collection of tunes. Diligent work with this book combined with listening to good Irish music will allow the reader to gain a good grasp of Irish music and playing style. This book teaches how to play the Irish flute and tin whistle in the Irish idiom. Larsen has written from his experience playing and listening to the music, not just from common accepted thinking. He clearly states when he is saying something that may be counter to common thinking, and he is very good about pointing the reader to other books that he feels are beyond the scope of this book or that may discuss topics better than he could.

Throughout the book, Larsen stresses relaxation in holding and playing the instruments. This is very good advice, as it is difficult to play an instrument when the fingers are tense. The book is well bound, but that binding raises a conflict with this emphasis on relaxation. The book doesn't lay flat very easily and had to be propped open with heavy objects. This gave me an underlying fear that it would slam closed, which kept me tense. This book's audience would be better served if it had a high-quality spiral binding, which would allow it to lie open easily.

The first section contains an introduction to Irish music. There's a good discussion of modes and Irish dance music. In charts that diagram the various modes, half steps are indicated by slurs. Given that slurs are a common musical notation, I think this was a poor choice of notation to use here. There's also a description of how techniques of Irish piping led to techniques used in playing whistle and Irish flute.

This next section is an introduction to the Irish flute and tin whistle. There is an in-depth examination of the proper way to hold the instruments, the proper embouchure needed to play them effectively and proper hand position. An extensive discussion on playing techniques is also given.

The ornamentation section is extensive -- 13 chapters, around 160 pages -- all dealing with various common and uncommon ornaments. This section starts with chapters on cuts and strikes, the most basic ornaments. Larsen gives the common method of playing cuts, but follows with his own method, which he finds more responsive. Each cut and strike (from any note to any other note in the octave) is examined separately. Methods of using these ornaments musically are discussed. Most of the later ornaments are built on cuts and strikes, so this section should be read in order. Ornamentation examples are given using snippets of various tunes.

Larsen uses his own method of notating ornamentation and has a particular philosophy of how ornamentation fits into music. This ornamentation method is clear and allows expressive, fairly exact notation of ornaments. It also supports Larsen's ornamentation philosophy. It would be good to see this method picked up by others.

The book comes with two companion CDs, with many examples and tune snippets from the book played primarily on the flute and whistle, plus a few on concertina. These are quite useful, as they demonstrate the various techniques provided in the book.

Section 8 has note-for-note transcriptions of 22 tunes from excellent recordings from 1925-2001. These recordings are by some of the great flute and whistle players of the 20th century. Each tune is introduced with a biography of the performer and a discussion of the technical aspects of that performer's playing style.

Additional sections address the musicality of breathing, ornamentation exercises, and complete tunes from the ornamentation examples. There are several appendices, including fingering charts, the contents of the companion CDs and notes on playing Irish music on the Boehm (modern) flute.

I highly recommend this book. Larsen provides a great deal of information about how to play Irish traditional music on the flute and whistle. Strong foundational elements -- good technical skills before worrying about interpretation or musicality -- are stressed throughout. However, interpretation is discussed in context as appropriate. The book is filled with photos, drawings, and musical examples that illustrate his points. I believe this book will give a firm grasp of the technique and interpretation needed to play Irish music on the tin whistle and Irish flute.

- Rambles
written by Wayne Morrison
published 14 February 2004

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