I play the pennywhistle. Maybe it’s the small streak of perfectionism in me, maybe it’s that I’ve never had lessons, but taught myself; from books and by memory (I am not good at doping out a melody I’ve never heard), perhaps it’s that I don’t want to look a fool in public, but I don’t often play where people I don’t know well can hear me.
I used to play the cello. I took music theory and music appreciation in college. I listen to a lot of music. I don’t want to suck in public.
But I have, here and there in the filk community, been brave enough to noodle along when there was instrumental accompaniment (once or twice,a t a house-filk I’ve been brave enough to play a piece, or two, solo… that’s actually pretty scary). Last night (I’m at OVFF) there was a guitar being played with verve; and a room full of instruments. One of my weaknesses is I can’t hear what key something is in, and pennywhistles are not chromatic., but I was pretty sure it was in G, and if I was quiet enough I could figure out if I was wrong without too many people hearing me be awful.
It was in G. Which is when I discovered something. I can actually play the thing. I like Irish/Scottish music. I like bagpipes. I like renaissance, and baroque, and classical music. I like jazz. Pipe music, and a lot of Irish/Scottish trad music has a lot in common with jazz. Long riffs of repetitive phrases with minor variations, which suddenly break into something new; as well as a tradition of sliding one piece into another (look and see how many trad-influenced bands, like Boiled in Lead, or Battlefield Band, have songs that incorporate the “jig o’ slurs” style of playing. Battlefield Band’s, “After Hours” has a break where they toss in semi-random tunes).
I found a phrase, down at the bottom of the whistle, which fit the feel of the song, and I played it through, four or five times, so my fingers could find it when my ears wanted it. Then I took of, ranging up and down the piece; some flights of fancy in the second octave; ornamentation and trills along the home phrase; lifting the home phrase up to the second octave and dragging back down long the spine of the key; sometimes I was under it all, other times I was more forward; even playing some rhythm games and syncopating to the guitar.
I still can’t play “traditional” whistle music. I am only half-competent at playing the airs of songs, but it seems my time in classes, and my time with the headphones in; even my singing in the shower, has paid off. I can jam, and I don’t suck.