Its been a year since I took up playing the Irish Whistle; first the “Penny”, then the “D” then, in short time, my ambitions lead me to the “Low D” and, for Christmas, I upgraded to the even more sonorous “Low D Pro” in gleaming brushed silver. Its become one of the loves of my life.
I’ve spent a year teaching myself to play…the hands-on way. I quickly dispensed with the slow route and sheets of painstaking music (my ability to read them dredged-up from school days recorder groups), to do what I really longed to do and teach myself by ear. I’ve always had that knack, since I was very little, as my deafened parents would have testified. I pick up the “flute” and just dive in where I think the opening ditty should be placed, note-wise, and then noodle it around until I get there, sometimes teaching myself a new piece in minutes or moments and sometimes…when its more ambitious…paining over it for hours, but I mostly do…until, well, now I have a repertoire of about 100 pieces in my Spotify play-along list (sometimes I have to improvise to a different key than I can find as a backing piece, but that’s OK; my playlist is just a reminder). My minutes or hours of playing music on my whistle have become like another therapy, an outlet, a way of expressing who I am through a more responsive and immediate instrument than my voice, or even my writing or painting. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that it has been very good indeed for my health!
One of the things it has become a medium for is the sheer variety of self-expression that lies, otherwise, dormant in my soul. It could be a folk ballad or Irish air, or a favourite aria from my beloved opera (I taught myself a lot of those over the summer!), a pop or rock classic, something cheesy or nostalgic, a complicated or ambitious piece of classical from Rimsky-Korsakov or Debussy or a lilting refrain that comes to me from long long ago and I don’t even know where it originates yet there it is, suddenly, playing out from the end of my whistle. Or it could be the sweeping soundtrack of an emotional film, a comedy piece like the theme from Captain Pugwash, a woeful favourite from Midlake or Chris de Burgh (yes, I was busy breaking my heart back in the ‘80s…), that theme from a TV program or advert when I was a kid, or whatever else happens to come to me…and things do that more than ever, like fragments of the memory bank of my whole life seeking the light.
In fact, over time, all the dormant refrains that ever moved or spoke to me get to come out to play and its like suddenly finding you can sing; that you have the most responsive voice ever, with two and a bit unwavering octaves at your disposal, and can turn it to almost anything. Which is why, I suspect, the Irish whistle has had such a revival of popularity lately, with YouTube tutorials and online forums of young adults abounding. It’s like a portable voice that never delivers a “duff” note, and you can take it pretty much anywhere too. In fact, it has a wonderful spontaneity to it; which works well for those who never “do” because they “can’t make the time” for something else. Very often, I have it wedged by my side while I’m working so I can pick it up to play whenever I get the urge, often triggered by some music I happen to be listening to. It even comes with other health benefits. It deeply relaxes me, encourages me to playful, experimental and creative, whilst laughing off my many small failures, and it keeps me fully in the present moment. Then I’ve noticed how regular use has helped improve the pace and depth of my breathing, which is often an underlying factor in chronic health issues, and it encourages me to stand and “make large” and expressive with my gestures (again, it can be a trait of long-term health challenges that we become rigid and small in our movements).
The thing is, the whistle might not be for you, but (if you are like most people) there may be some other instrument that you’ve always longed to play, or even a way that you’ve always longed to express yourself other than the obvious (“longing to paint” is one of these means, as I’ve discussed with just so many of the visitors I get to chat to at gallery openings). In fact, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years encouraging people to just give these things a go yet there is so much fear around making the first attempt. People are so ingrained in the belief that they lack something before they even start, yet probably the only thing that is missing is the self-encouragement to do it; the rest will fall into place if you take that first step.
Yes, it takes courage and resolve to learn a new skill but the only thing, usually, stopping us is a fear of failure or ridicule. Well, you can imagine how much of the latter I expected when I took up the penny whistle a year ago, at the age of nearly 50, having ordered this small colourful object that looked like a child’s toy off the internet and yet see where it led? I can hardly imagine life without my “low D” now. Its like the “voice” I had always been missing and it allows me to express myself out of all the very deep corners that had longed to see light, delivering to that daylight so many old emotions that wanted to come up to be released, which is such a powerful way to heal. Most importantly, it’s not for anyone else; I shy away from even the most casual audience because it’s all done for me, not in the name of “performance”. As such, it is one almighty symbol of The Truth that there really is no other reason or necessary incentive for doing anything in your life; in fact, you are re-learning the most important motivation of all, which is Do It For You…JUST For YOU! Very great healing comes out of all your effort when you operate from this stance and its nothing to do with delivering a virtuoso performance. Perhaps this will be the very first time you let yourself do something for no other reason than the fact you want to and this can be a momentous breakthrough in any healing process.
So, if you’ve a song in your heart, for heaven’s sake let it out…give it expression and the wings to fly.
For one reason or another, its been a few weeks since I played my “flute” for more than five minutes and I’m missing it so much it almost hurts, so today is the day I give it my full attention. I’m looking forward to it like you might otherwise look forward to a deep massage or a holiday on a desert island and yet it is so easy to reach for and always there doing its best for me; and it always understands me, hears me out, lets me have my say and helps me to say it. Just imagine having that in your life; it can be utterly transformative.