It is the most ubiquitous instrument to be found in the British Isles, and the name penny whistle denotes the humble price sellers procured at one time that would be the entry point for many students looking to play traditional music.
Most of the Irish school children pick it up at an early age, and for those who stay devoted to traditional Irish music use it to delve deeper into the genre. It had great utility for the house dance, the fireside session and because the fingering was similar, a valuable adjunct to uilleann pipers learning their craft and tunes.
But that simplicity may have led many to overlook or dismiss the whistle as an integral part of the Irish traditional music landscape. It may very well have been the Chieftains Paddy Moloney and Sean Potts who raised the reputation of the whistle as members of the trail-blazing ensemble and in a duet recording in 1973 on Claddagh Records.
A young musician named Mary Bergin from Shankill, Co. Dublin who had been playing the tin whistle since she was seven was moving towards the forefront and would soon become the undisputed Queen of the Tin Whistle.
For more than 50 years she has been a standout musician on the whistle, and late last year her dream of creating the definite Irish tin whistle tutorial book came true as the first two (of three) volumes were introduced at the Willie Clancy Summer School and the Catskills Irish Arts Week in the summer, and launched officially in October at Dublin Castle.
Bergin grew up in a household where traditional music was cherished, and many great musicians like Willie Clancy, Mrs. Crotty and Julia Clifford visited the home and shared the pure drop.
In addition, the music clubs in Dublin on Bridge Street and Church Street and the Pipers Club on Thomas Street influenced her formative years. All became regular haunts along with the fleadh circuit for the Bergin family as Mary sopped up the atmosphere, the” gra” and the tunes that filled her soul and inspired her fingers.
Not hard to consider when you are playing and listening to such icons as Seamus Ennis, Tommy Potts, Joe Ryan, John Kelly, Michael Tubridy, Joe Liddy, Dessie O’Connor, John Egan and a host of other seminal players that made Dublin such a cauldron brewing great trad music while preserving it in fine fashion for the next generation.
That crowd was certainly playing it for love as there wasn’t much money circulating around traditional music back in those days. And while a simple tin whistle would have a job being heard over a batch of fiddles, flutes, pipes and accordions, they would also carry it along the rhythmic wave that gave such power and drive to what was essentially Irish music for dancing.
Bergin took that spirit and lift and applied it to her tin whistle playing, raising it to a high art form in itself as evidenced by two seminal solo recordings, Feodὀg Stáin (1979) and Feodὀg Stáin 2 (1993) which remain as must-have albums for those who know their music and for any serious musician taking up the tin whistle. It certainly inspired the young American tin whistle queen Joanie Madden who wrote the foreword.
Bergin also recorded four CDS with her Galway friends Dearbhaill Standún and Kathleen Loughnane in a choice Galway-based ensemble known as Dordan which married traditional music with baroque music suiting the harmony of whistle, fiddle and harp. She also contributed to the tasty Eamon de Buitléar’s Ceoltoiri Laighean’s Crooked Road recording released in 1973, and to De Dannan’s Anthem released in 1985.
She also toured with her late sister Antoine McKenna and Joe McKenna for many years and played in ceili bands like Ceoltóiri Naomh Eoin and the Green Linnet Ceili Band. In 2000, she was recognized by TG4 as the Traditional Musician of the Year or Gradam Cheoil for her life’s work up to that point.
Alongside her performing career was a dedicated commitment to teaching Irish music on the tin whistle and furthering its appreciation through her own classes, weekend workshops, summer schools and festivals, and it was considered a coup for any of them to land such a talented artist.
It wasn’t only her teaching techniques and prowess that they valued, but her penchant for telling stories and infusing her lessons by encouraging her students to put their heart and soul in to the music to get that much more out of it.
Seeing her in action for 18 out of the 19 years the Catskills Irish Arts Week has been in session, Bergin bounded up and down Route 145 in East Durham like one of the younger students, so thrilled was she to be among people who shared her love of the music.
If her life experience were marshaled into academic credit, she could easily have a doctorate from the Irish World Music Academy at the University of Limerick. She has been that prolific and mentored so many tin whistle students over the years.
Bergin was encouraged to document her life’s work in a teaching manual that could put her theories and practical teaching method into black and white for a long time. And she began that task a number of years ago wrestling with the concept for what she wanted to do and then finding the time and finances to do it the way she wanted to. The Arts Council helped out with the funding part.
Bergin finally settled on a tutorial that would break things down from the very beginning and move at a pace students could determine at their own speed. The tunes would be buttressed with accompanying CDs keyed to the pages in the spirally-bound volumes (I and II are in print) that deal with the techniques laid out in her training program.
The lessons would follow from the foundation built from the beginning and lead naturally from one to the other but could be repeated until mastered one by one and comfortable enough to go forward.
While basic in its form, the instructions are precise and will help not only the beginner but also the intermediate learner in breath control, articulation and then ornamentation which will ensure greater progress when playing for pleasure or performance.
Bergin recommends that all start out with Volume One to ensure students grasp her time-tested teaching techniques that have placed her in such great demand wherever Irish music is taught.
In it you will find much to keep you busy and 45 tunes specifically selected and arranged by Bergin to help you move along in an organized way.
For intermediate players perhaps a good chance to correct any impediments to your playing or advancing in skills. Many of the tunes will be familiar, whether it is “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “Níl Sé ‘na Lá.” Bergin ensures students will now see them anew imbued with the essence she uses to color her chunes.
In Volume Two considered for the intermediate to advanced student there is more work beyond the fundamentals of the opening course, introducing other dance forms like jigs, reels, slides and hornpipes, to grasp the essence of what she calls “the internal rhythm” that is essential to the playing of Irish traditional music and developing that nyah or soul that many strive for in their playing.
Three CDs accompany this manual with 56 more tunes from the vast dance music repertoire which will broaden your scope and comprehension.
The books can be ordered separately or packaged together ( €50 for Volume One and €60 for Volume Two at the introductory price still and $172 for both and shipping to the U.S.)
At first glance it may seem a steep price to pay for penny whistle instruction, but you are talking about hours and hours of lessons from the pre-eminent master teacher on the whistle that have been painstakingly prepared to get the most out of the dedicated docent. It would cost that much more to have the same individual treatment in person with Bergin were you to have the chance.
Volume Three is still a work in progress, as is the online club she is developing to further help those who purchased the books to keep up with developments and resources as the training program evolves further. You can order the books from www.maryberginwhistle.com.
And if you get your hands on them right away, perhaps your form will improve to the point where you will be ready to take Bergin’s advanced tin whistle class at this summer’s 20th annual Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham July 13-19.
Even she would be impressed with progress like that and move you to the head of the class.