Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Reviews from the repairer's workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
 

Howard Low Whistle (in D)

Brian Howard low whistleOrigin: UK (www.howardmusic.co.uk)
Guide price: £118
Weight: 0.176kg
Date of manufacture: 2008
Date reviewed: March 2008

An exquisite contemporary variation on a traditional instrument

I begin this review with a disclaimer.
Although this low whistle bears my surname I don't in fact have any relationship to the manufacturer, it's merely a coincidence. I thought it'd better mention this from the start in case anyone thinks I'm plugging my own products (I'd never hear the end of it). There's actually quite an interesting story as to how I came to discover the existence of this particular instrument maker - but that's a story waiting in the wings (and believe me, it'll be a good one when it finally gets told).

You might perhaps wonder why I've chosen to review this instrument, given that it looks like nothing more than an oversized flageolet of the sort you can pick up in most music shops for less than a fiver a go.
Well, there are whistles...and there are Whistles...
The flageolet as an instrument (strictly speaking it's a family of instruments) dates back to around the 12th century in its most basic form, and around the 16th century as more or less the instrument we recognise today. It's really much the same as a recorder -the qualifying difference being that the recorder has 8 holes, the flageolet only 6 (although there are variations).
In its heyday the flageolet was quite a respectable instrument - Mozart and Handel wrote pieces for it (so there!), and the noted diarist Samuel Pepys was a keen amateur player. By the advent of the 20th century the flageolet had all but evolved, at least in name, into what we now call the penny, or tin, whistle - and had largely lost its classical roots, replacing them with rather more stronger ones from its folk music background.
Small wonder really, almost every culture globally has a similar instrument - it's probably the first thing a man (or a woman, to be fair) makes after they get tired of banging a stick against a bit of dried cow.

The low whistle doesn't have quite such a grandiose history, but there are examples known from the 19th century - though it's only recently that this instrument has come into the limelight, specifically through the Titanic movie theme and Riverdance.
The thing is, as with just about any popularising use of a musical instrument (I'm thinking in terms of the sax and "Baker Street" and the flute and "Annie's Theme") it doesn't really capture the breadth of an instrument's capabilities...even if it does encourage more people to take them up.
And if you bought one of these whistles to play the Titanic theme on, I rather think you'd be missing the point...and the fun.

The maker, Brian Howard, has been making whistles for over thirty years (the present design being in production since 1985) - and if there's one thing he's famous for it's never sitting still. It's been said that if your Howard whistle was more than two years old then there's a damn good chance that it will be completely different from one bought more recently.
Things have settled down in recent years and this model represents the pinnacle of the cumulative design tweaks over the years (at least until Brian finds a way to make them even better). The best way to keep up with the changes is simply to replace the head, which'll cost you about a third of the price of a new whistle.

The whistle itself is in two parts - the body and the head, with the body being a plain brass tube and the head ABS resin. Various tube finishes are available, the model reviewed being black power coated - which helps a little to stabilise the inevitable temperature changes associated with blowing through a thin brass tube, and also helps to increase the grip while you're playing.
The whistle is of the cylindrical bore design (tapered being the alternative). There are pros and cons on both sides, but I personally find cylindrical bores more adaptable.
The size and placement of the finger holes should not be underestimated - this is a big whistle, and there's quite a stretch between the E and D finger holes. To give you some idea of scale, the head is about the size of an alto sax mouthpiece - and the whole thing is just a couple of inches smaller than a standard orchestral flute.
Beginners are likely to be thrown by the stretch, as are contemporary woodwind players, but once you become accustomed to using 'pipe fingering' (where it's the fleshy part of your 2nd finger joint that closes the hole) it gets a lot easier. Incidentally, there's no reason to use pipe fingering on the left hand. If your fingers are large enough you should have no trouble closing the holes, and if you're coming from a clarinet or flute playing discipline you'll find this method of fingering rather more natural.
The beauty of the Howard low whistle is that if any experienced players laugh at your fingering style, you can bash them over the bonce with the whistle...

Low whistle headThe head is designed to be movable and thus makes the whistle tuneable - the seal between the two parts is nothing more complex than a couple of turns of PTFE tape. Very simple, very effective and a complete doddle to replace should you ever need to.
The build quality is superb. OK, so you'd think there's not much that can go wrong with a simple brass tube with half a dozen holes in it, but you'd be surprised. You'll find no rough edges here, nor any burred finger holes.
The head itself isn't much to look at, but it's very much the 'engine' of the instrument - and a lot of what goes into making this part is a closely guarded secret...it's what makes every whistlemaker's instruments distinctive.

And distinctive is very much what the Howard low whistle is all about.
Now, I can't claim to be as adept on whistles as I am on flutes, saxes and clarinets - but I've played a good few many in my years, and as yet nothing has come close to the tone and response I got from this example.
The volume is the first thing that hits you. It's easy enough to make a higher pitched whistle that can belt out a note, but as the pitch drops it becomes that much harder to maintain the volume. The Howard low whistle manages to maintain a good volume in the lower register without sacrificing the tone.
Of course, the whistle's true potential comes through when you back off the volume and allow it to find what I like to think of as its 'resonance'. It's a bit hard to describe exactly what this is, but it's effectively that point where volume and tone (and tuning) balance each other out. This is when a whistle starts to sing. A good whistle player will find that resonance and then work at making it happen at any volume...it takes time though.
Even more remarkably, this 'resonance' is maintained in the second octave...without the need for any increase in volume. Better yet, although it's quite easy to slip into the upper octave it's entirely at your discretion - there isn't that sense of instability that plagues some whistles. That's quite an achievement on a low whistle, I reckon.

Tuning? Well, I've said it before and I'll say it again - saxophones don't play in tune, you play them in tune - and the same goes for whistles. For sure, you need a head start in the shape of a decent bore and accurately sized and placed finger holes, and that's exactly what you have. It really shows in the upper octave too.
Resistance to waterlogging (in the head) is good too - I'm quite a dry player as a rule, so I tend to suffer less from this problem than most, but even on a long haul I had few problems.

Tonewise it's rather difficult to categorise this whistle. That, in effect, is the strength of this whistle. I could say that it's warm, but it's also bright. I could say that it's broad, but it's also focussed. Pick any description you like and it's probably in there somewhere. I would chuck in 'haunting' though - all low whistles are haunting, it's a fact of life.
This then is the whistle's forté - it stands on its own.
What this means for the prospective buyer is one of two things, depending on whether you're already a whistle player or a beginner. If you're a beginner and want to start on a low whistle then you'll absolutely love the Howard. It has an immediate response and a very 'morish' tone - it's quite hard to put it down once you've picked it up. It will lean to your preferences to some degree - mine is for a more 'baroque' tone, and this whistle will match many an expensive recorder in that respect.
If you're a seasoned whistle player then you'll already have your own ideas about what constitutes the tone you're looking for, but there's a better than even chance that the Howard will give you something that no other whistle will. In that respect, assuming you're a fan of the cylindrical format, the Howard makes for a worthy addition to the inevitable set of whistles the average player collects in a lifetime.
From a stage performance point of view it's worth noting that these whistles work well with amplification and recording as they tend to suffer rather less from sibilance and breath effects than many other low whistles.

I suppose it's fair to ask the question that if you own a flute or a couple of saxes, perhaps a clarinet - what good is having one of these whistles going to do you?
Quite a lot, as it happens. There are no 'fripperies' on a whistle - it's just a tube with a few holes, and you. Every note has to be aimed at, and once you get into the second octave you've really got to get to grips with your breath control. At the very least you could consider it a very handy practice instrument - it's light, tough, portable, relatively quiet and inexpensive (very inexpensive if you want to make do with a cheap one). It's a superb way to develop tone and an even better way to learn how to connect your breath control (your 'air column') with your embouchure and your ear. In particular, if you're coming at this instrument from the perspective of an open holed flute player you're simply going to love the degree to which you can bend notes on this thing.
Whilst any whistle will do pretty much all of this, the low whistle is a far more expressive instrument - and I tend to feel that leads to a more thoughtful playing style. Just about anyone can play fast, given enough time and practice, but going for the tone takes that little bit more. It's also a very different playing experience, and that alone is worth the effort - and if you're up to the challenge then this whistle has to be worth a try.

I said at the start of this review that it was mere coincidence that I stumbled upon Brian Howard. In fact it's a happy coincidence - I couldn't help but wonder whether the instrument that bore my surname would be of a standard that I'd be pleased to be associated with, if only in name. I needn't have worried, it's a Howard that gets the Howard seal of approval.

These whistles are available direct from the manufacturer, Howard Music, and distributors worldwide.
For further reading about flageolets and whistles I can recommend the following sites:
Chiffandfipple.com
Tinwhistler.com
Flageolets.com
Whistling low

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015