Move Over, Recorder

802 member argues that child's first instrument should be pennywhistle

Volume CXI, No. 1January, 2011

Bill Ochs

Bill Ochs(left) and Rober Sithole at the 1993 Clarke Tin Whistle Festival in Coneyweston, England. Photo: Elizabeth Ikin, courtesy Malachite Film & TV

The future of live music rests in the ears and hands of our children. They will be the next generation of audiences and players. But what’s the first instrument most of us learned in school? The recorder.

Local 802 member and pennywhistler Bill Ochs recently released an instruction book called “Pennywhistle for Beginners” and has launched a new Web site dedicated to promoting the idea of using pennywhistles to keep music education alive in the school curriculum during tough budgetary times.

Ochs thinks the pennywhistle is a much better choice as a first instrument than the typical plastic school recorder.

“I know it’s a bit crazy to propose something new to schools at a time of austerity and budget cutbacks,” says Ochs, who is also a music teacher at Manhattan’s Irish Arts Center. “But I think this is an idea whose time has come.”

Ochs, who has been called “a central figure in the renaissance of the tin whistle” by National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” has a Web site to promote this project at:

For years the pennywhistle was one of the best kept secrets of the Irish and the South Africans. With the Celtic and World Music booms of the 1980’s and 90’s, the cat was finally out of the bag. People around the globe discovered the joys of the pennywhistle and suddenly it was popping up everywhere from “Titanic” to “Lord of the Rings” to SpongeBob SquarePants.

Everywhere, that is, except in school music programs, where the plastic recorder remains the beginner’s instrument even though many children find it more difficult to play than the pennywhistle.

I’d go so far as to say that the recorder can hold back some children’s musical development. The recorder’s fingering is complicated – the player must use forked fingerings even to just produce a diatonic scale. Then there is the second octave issue. The player has to “crack” or half-cover the thumb hole to get the recorder to speak in the upper register. If this is not done perfectly there can be serious problems playing some of the second octave notes, especially on an inexpensive plastic school recorder.

While the recorder is a much more sophisticated instrument in theory, at the elementary school level kids can actually play a wider range of music on the pennywhistle, get up and running with the pennywhistle sooner, and have a lot more fun with it. That’s because the pennywhistle’s fingering is much simpler and more intuitive. And playing in the second octave is a breeze on the pennywhistle because there is no thumb hole to crack – you just overblow. So even third-graders can play in the second octave with ease. This opens up a lot of musical possibilities.

Some may know about the Golden Eagles, a pennywhistle marching band that was started at P.S. 192 in Harlem by the school’s music teacher, Katherine Clyne.

The band was very popular in its school district and even marched in New York City’s Flag Day Parade. I think you’ll agree that you can’t really do this sort of thing in schools with the recorder because of the tricky nature of the recorder’s upper register.

I am sure that there have been teachers who would have liked to try the pennywhistle but just didn’t have a good source of affordable instruments and books.

That’s where Pennywhistles for Schools comes in. Our first customer is a new school in Brooklyn, the Bedford-Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School. The idea of starting a pennywhistle marching band at an elementary school should be very attractive. It’s a great activity for kids. And to help the process along, we have a page on the Web site dedicated to making drums and percussion instruments from found objects. So starting a school band on a shoestring budget is not just doable: with pennywhistles and homemade drums it can be done practically for nothing.

And who knows – maybe the next James Galway will be among those kids.

For more info, visit or call (212) 247-3231.