How to Play the Tin Whistle Like Mary Bergin
Published: February 15, 2021
Legendary tin whistle player Mary Bergin is the most iconic tin whistle player of our time. She single handedly revolutionised Irish tin whistle playing and elevated the status of this humble instrument.
Without her trailblazing influence, Irish tin whistle playing would never have reached the heights it has. She has inspired countless generations of musicians. Mary Bergin is, hands down, the greatest thing to ever happen to this oft-maligned and overlooked instrument.
Mary’s playing style is iconic and her technical skill enviable. Every Irish whistle player wants to play just like her, and rightly so.
Mary Bergin, for me, is what every whistle player should aspire to – pure trad. – Joanie Madden
So I’ve put together this handy guide for any aspiring tin whistle players, to show you how you too can follow in the footsteps of this whistling master.
Practice Makes Perfect
We all know the old adage. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!
Well, the same answer applies here. If you want to master the tin whistle and elevate your playing to the same level as Mary Bergin, then you need to practice.
We all love to marvel at the skill of great musicians, often remarking on their ‘natural talent’. The truth is however that talented musicians have worked hard to reach this level of playing. If you put in the work, you too will see the benefits. Establishing a daily practice routine will work wonders for your playing. This might sound daunting, but a daily 20 – 30 minute session is far more beneficial than one long practice session a week.
You’ll build stamina and develop muscle memory. Daily immersion will also help you commit the music to memory. So what are you waiting for? Let’s get to work.
If you need some help, why not check out my blog post on effective practice methods which may offer a little guidance on the matter.
Stamina & Drive
You might think that such a small instrument doesn’t require much stamina to play. This is a common misconception however.
If you listen to any of the great Irish tin whistle players, you’ll notice they all have one thing in common – lung power. Mary Bergin is no exception. See her in action below alongside the revolutionary tin whistle player, Michael McGoldrick:
Strong breath control is absolutely fundamental to good tin whistle playing. As an Irish whistle player, mastering your breathing is one of the most important steps toward mastering your instrument.
The breath affects not just your tone, but also the rhythm and flow of the tune.
So how do you develop lung power to rival your idol? It’s easy. Exercise!
Simple breathing exercises are an excellent tool to help you improve your breath control and increase your lung capacity.
Incorporating tried and tested exercises into your daily practice routine will help you gain full control of your breathing, your instrument and your playing.
Of course, regular physical exercise helps too, but breathing exercises can be practiced from the comfort of your couch. What’s not to love? I’ve put together a few suggestions, to assist any flute or tin whistle players on their musical journey.
You can find them here: Exercises and Technique to Improve Your Flute and Tin Whistle Playing
The Purpose of the Breath
Mary Bergin’s breathing is actually a feature of her playing style. She uses the breath to add a pulsing drive to tunes. In her own words:
In whistle playing, what I love is the combination of the notes and the breath. It’s not just a matter of taking in air, but of using the breath to give the tune a push forward. Where other people like to use continuous flow in their playing, I like to build the phrases up with the breath – give the tune a ‘hup’ every now and again. – Mary Bergin, Irish Times
Have a listen and see if you can identify the role of the breath in her tin whistle playing:
Mary’s playing is representative of the older, more traditional style of Irish tin whistle playing. Where she differs from the older generation of whistle players however is in her masterful use of ornamentation.
Mary Bergin has an amazing command over her instrument. Her technical skill is impressive to say the least.
Tonguing, cuts, rolls, triplets, slides and bounces – her playing is filled with these perfectly executed ornaments. Yet the music never sounds cluttered or excessively decorated. Each flourish and embellishment is carefully considered and added only to enhance the tune.
Mary uses ornamentation only when appropriate, depending on the needs of the music. As a result, her performances can vary from beautifully subtle to highly decorative, depending on the context.
Brightly ornamented but uncluttered, her playing is distinctive with a crisp articulation.
– Fintan Vallely
Her performance below with the iconic Joe McKenna, Alec Finn and Bríd Uí Bhraonáin is a masterclass in how and when to ornament and embellish. Her playing blends perfectly with Joe’s yet still contrasts beautifully when it needs to and, most importantly, when the music calls for it:
Choosing the Right Instrument
One of the easiest ways to replicate the sound of your favourite musicians is to try to get your hands on the same make and model of musical instrument.
This can sometimes be easier said than done however. Many professional musicians play instruments that cost thousands.
Well, if you’re looking to pick up the same instrument as Mary Bergin I have good news.
Mary plays an eclectic assortment of Generation whistles, alongside tin whistles by John Sindt, Pat O’Riordan and Michael Copeland. You can see her in action on one of her Generation whistles below:
While the latter – Sindt, O’Riordan and Copeland – produce truly beautiful whistles, their instruments are expensive investments. These tin whistles are also increasingly difficult to get hold of. Generation whistles however, cost less than €10 each. These mass produced tin whistles can be a bit hit or miss though.
Before high quality tin whistles became easily accessible, serious players would take the time to dig through a batch to find any hidden gems lying amongst them.
With the widespread availability of high quality whistles at affordable rates, this is no longer necessary.
Let me recommend two beautiful whistles that would serve you well in recreating the bright clear tone of Mary Bergin…
Wild Irish Whistle
This exciting new tin whistle is the latest addition to the McNeela family. It’s ideal for tin whistle players at any stage of playing – beginner, intermediate or advanced.
The Wild Irish Whistle is designed with ease of playing in mind. It offers amazing playability and great responsiveness. Most importantly, it doesn’t require too much huffing and puffing to produce a great sound, which makes playing and practicing a breeze.
This tin whistle offers excellent tuning between octaves and a bright, sweet tone throughout, even in the higher register. So you won’t get any unwanted shrill high notes when you play. Some whistles require a real workout when trying to achieve a clear tone in the higher octave, but the Wild Irish Whistle does the work for you.
This is a whistle that will encourage anyone to pick it up and play it as often as they can. From its playability to its beautiful tone, it will make learning to play an enjoyable experience right from your very first note. Even more exciting, it’s available as both a soprano whistle and alto whistle, in a range of keys.
See it in action below in the hands of Robert Harvey, a virtuoso whistle player following in the footsteps of Mary Bergin:
John O’Brien crafts the beautiful Setanta Whistles right from our very own workshop here at McNeela Music. We’re honoured to share our workspace with this legend of the Irish music scene, and to learn from his musicianship and craftsmanship. John’s premium tin whistles are a labour of love which is evident any time you pick one up to play it. But what is it that makes these new whistles so special?
John is an experienced pipes and whistle player who has toured with Riverdance. He designed these whistles to cater for his needs, and the needs of others, as a professional musician.
His full range of Setanta whistles includes soprano whistles, alto whistles and a stunning selection of low whistles. Each tin whistle offers beautifully warm clear tone in all octaves, excellent responsiveness and exceptionally accurate tuning.
These beauties are a worthy investment for any whistle player. You’ll be able to hear and feel the difference a premium instrument makes to your playing.
Feel The Music
If your only goal as a tin whistle player is to emulate your favourite player and sound exactly like her, turn back now. Individual style is just as important as matching the abilities of the greats. As is enjoyment. Why you play music is just as important as how you play it.
You could be the most technically skilled performer in the world but if you’re not connecting with the music you’re playing, if it doesn’t stir emotions and bring you joy, then what’s the point?
The other thing I value in music is, I suppose, something to do with soul… If the music is coming from your head – if you’re trying too hard with your head – it only reaches the head, and then kind of cuts off. I need someone to be playing from other space that hits another part of me. And that goes for any kind of music… if someone is using their head to try and impress me with all sorts of techniques and stuff, I actually switch off very quickly – no matter how good they are. – Mary Bergin, Irish Times
How do you develop this connection to the music? The answer is simple. Listen.
All of the greatest traditional Irish musicians have one thing in common. They each grew up on the music of their predecessors. They were immersed in traditional Irish music, surrounded themselves with it. They listened greedily to the playing of others in order to learn all they could about not just their instruments, but the music itself.
Listening to the music of legends of traditional Irish music is just as important today. Mary Bergin’s phenomenal solo albums are the perfect place to start.
Feadóga Stáin and Feadóga Stáin 2 are two of the greatest Irish tin whistle recordings ever made. They are a treasure trove of tunes and a masterclass in tin whistle playing:
If like me however, you’ve already committed these two brilliant albums to memory, then what should you listen to next?
What Came Before
Who did your musical idols learn from? Who did they listen to growing up? Find recordings of these people and listen to them. Go back to the source. Listen to a variety of traditional Irish instruments… The more the music gets into your head, the better the music will be that comes out through your fingers. – Caitlín Nic Gabhann
Mary’s playing was hugely influenced by the flute playing of Packie Duignan and the whistle playing of Willie Clancy. So why not listen to the music of these two legendary icons and see what it was about their own playing styles that inspired and influenced one of the greatest Irish tin whistle players of our time?
Sometimes when I encourage people to listen to older recordings they can be put off by a few things – the recording quality, and, sometimes, the playing itself. While older playing styles may not be immediately pleasing to unfamiliar ears, I promise, they have a wealth of knowledge to offer.
When I look back on myself as a younger musician I would have sought out a lot of the older players. They mightn’t have been technically brilliant, or had the most amazing ornamentation, but they had something special – and it’s the rhythm. That’s the thing that’s going to get the foot tapping, get the body moving. – Mary Bergin, Irish Times
Even the most technically skilled musicians still have plenty to learn from the veterans of Irish music. So listen to every recording you can get your hands on (a much easier feat in this digital age than it was back in my day) and ask yourself what these musicians are bringing to the music? What is that special something they have that remains unrivalled by technical brilliance? Soul.
Tin Whistle Tutorials
Luckily Mary herself has recognised the demand for whistle players wanting to follow in her footsteps and emulate her playing. So helpfully, she has produced a series of three tin whistle tutors.
This comprehensive tutorial spans three volumes and is the culmination of many years of performing, teaching and honing her craft. Each book caters for a different level of ability from Beginner to Professional level. Learn more here.
In a market riddled with unhelpful tin whistle tutorials, Mary’s books are a godsend. She pours her expertise into every page and track, happily sharing her insider knowledge. She is not only a gifted performer, but a wonderful teacher too.
Tin Whistle Lessons
While Mary’s tutor books offer brilliant guidance to aspiring whistle players of any level, the best way to really accelerate your playing is with tin whistle lessons.
A good tin whistle teacher will guide you on your musical journey while challenging you in fun and exciting ways. They can offer expert guidance and insight into the music and help you to develop your own style.
The Ultimate Tin Whistle Course
I know that sometimes access to high quality teachers can be difficult. That’s why McNeela Instruments now offers a complete tin whistle course with professional whistle player (and our brilliant in-house whistle maker), John O’Brien.
Our Irish tin whistle lessons will equip you with all the skills and tools you need to sound good right from your very first note. Our Beginner Course will teach you everything you need to know about the tin whistle, including basic technique and ornamentation and your first six session tunes. In fact, you’ll be session ready in just ten weeks!
These ten structured video lessons will teach you everything you need to know to be session ready. Learn basic technique, ornamentation and your very first Irish session tunes all in a fun, relaxed environment. Follow John’s expert guidance to establish a good practice routine and in just ten weeks you’ll be a competent, confident player, ready to progress to the next level.
Why stop there?
Once you’ve completed our beginner lessons, why not move on to the intermediate and advanced courses too! Let one of the best teachers in the world guide you on your musical journey.
Whatever your goal, we want to help you be the best tin whistle player you can be. So, whether the destination is your local Irish music session or Carnegie Hall, let us help you get there.
Our Intermediate Course promises to help you unlock your inner musician. Develop your musicianship skills, unlock musical literacy, master advanced ornamentation and of course, learn the best session tunes going. After just ten short weeks, you won’t even recognise your playing!
Finally, for the truly motivated, there’s our Advanced Course. These lessons are suitable for even the most experienced whistle players – we guarantee you’ll learn something new. The final series in our tin whistle course will transform you into a master tin whistle player.
So what are you waiting for? If you want to be the next Mary Bergin then let us help you get started on your musical journey.
[Image: Féile Traidphicnic]