By Kevin Levine

150 GEMS OF IRISH MUSIC FOR TIN WHISTLEGrey Larsen’s third instructional book and tune collection for the tin whistle (also known as the pennywhistle) presents a comprehensive explanation of pennywhistle performance in addition to a notated selection of 150 Irish dance tunes with suggested ornamentation. Following a similar organizational structure as his first two books, the first section of 150 Gems of Irish Music for Tin Whistle offers a concise explanation of pennywhistle technique as well as more detailed discussions of ornamentation, phrasing, and tune structure. It is assumes that the reader already has a familiarity with the basics of Western staff notation.

The 150 tunes included within Larsen’s book are divided into three groups based upon whether they are a) perfectly amenable to performance on whistle, b) non-wind in origin, or c) suitable for performance on whistles in keys other than “D,” the most common key for pennywhistles. This is a departure from the majority of tune collections, which are more typically organized by difficulty or tune type. Larsen’s choice to organize tunes in this manner, however, illustrates his commitment to developing a guide specifically for pennywhistle rather than another generic tune collection.

Conveniently included with Larsen’s book are two audio CDs consisting of recordings of all 150 tunes notated in the collection. Larsen encourages the reader to attempt to learn the tunes by ear from these recordings or at least develop aural familiarity with a new piece before attempting to play from the notation. Indeed, Irish music--and all forms of music for that matter--possesses a richness that cannot be surmised from notation alone. Given that Irish music is a tradition in which sheet music is more often than not used only as a mnemonic device, it is both appropriate and practical that Larson should treat the notation as supplemental rather than the recordings.

One of the many distinct and praiseworthy features of this work is the style of notation Larsen employs in order to represent the nuances of Irish ornamentation. It is unfortunate that the vast majority of instructional books for Irish pennywhistle tend to notate Irish ornamentation techniques in a misleading manner. Grey Larsen points out most astutely, for example, that the now-standard use of “grace notes” to represent cuts, taps, rolls, and other types of Irish ornamentation obscures both the timing and pitch of these techniques. The system of ornamentation Larsen introduced in his earlier work, The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle (2003), is used throughout this tune collection much to the benefit of those who are new to the pennywhistle and Irish style more generally.

Tin WhistlesAnother highlight of Larsen’s book is his detailed explanation of breathing strategies and phrasing. Pennywhistle and flute players are faced with a unique challenge given that they must periodically interrupt an otherwise continuous flow of notes in order to take a breath. Larson’s response to this challenge is to treat breaths as “silent notes,” which when conscientiously placed, can enhance the phrasing and contours of a tune. The numerous breathing strategies Larsen describes, in addition to his suggested opportunities for breaths throughout the notated tunes, illustrates this vital characteristic of pennywhistle style superbly.

Overall, 150 Gems of Irish Music for Tin Whistle represents one of the best instructional books for Irish pennywhistle currently available. It is an especially useful resource for complete beginners to the pennywhistle or those who do not have regular access to a teacher. Additionally, experienced players may find this to be a useful reference for learning new tunes or new settings of tunes they have learned previously.

Kevin Levine has an M.A. in Ethnomusicology, UCLA