Young and old gathered Sunday on the West Side of Manhattan at the Irish Arts Center for Bill Ochs's workshops on the Irish tin whistle, a sixholed instrument in the flute family. A close cousin of the familiar recorder that many of us played in elementary school,the tin whistle is part of Irish traditional culture, where farmers gathered around the fire in the kitchen to play these pennywhistles.
Mr. Ochs's introductory workshop featured "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star" and a Gaelic song from Donegal, "It's Not Yet Day." Students in the class included Buddy Niederhoffer, who is studying dumbek drumming at Makor and has studied harmonica at the New School. His girlfriend, Keisha Franklin, said after the workshop that she now realized tin whistles were played in the film "Lord of the Rings."
"Tin whistles may be the most userfriendly instruments there are" Mr. Ochs said. "They're easy to play; with six holes, you have six to one odds of playing the right notes." You can put one in your backpack or glove compartment. At $10 "they're almost disposable. It's not like leaving a Stradivarius in a taxi cab."
Though not of Irish descent, Mr. Ochs said his mother once got a blood transfusion from an Irish policeman. His Jewish family background is from Poland, Hungary, and Russia. He recalled the time in 1984 when Purim and St. Patrick's Day nearly coincided, and he collaborated on a program with fiddler Alan Kaufman called "From Lublin to Dublin," involving klezmer and bagpipes and some tin whistling.
When did Mr. Ochs first become interested in this traditional music? Growing up in New Jersey, his first exposure came when his parents brought home music from "Brigadoon," with its Scottish-influenced lilt. By age 14, he became a fan of the Irish ballad group, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.While working as a dramaturge for an experimental theater company in New Haven, Conn., Mr. Ochs discovered a tin whistle in a friend's house. Like a pied piper, he was soon practicing while walking to work.
Moving to the Bronx in the early 1970s to be near the Irish music community, he met fiddlers Brendan and Martin Mulvihill and flute player Johnny Cronin. He studied uilleann pipes in Philadelphia and flew to Ireland on a National Endowment for the Arts grant, where he studied with piper Pat Mitchell.
In addition to teaching three classes beginning January 24, a documentary film he made about Micho Russell, the famed whistle player from Doolin, County Clare, will be shown January 27 at the Irish Arts Center. (For more information, go to www.irishartscenter.org.) Russell, a charming figure, was known as "Ireland's Whistling Ambassador." In the notes to a CD of Russell's music, Mr. Ochs relates an anecdote that Mick Moloney, who is professor of Irish studies and music at New York University, recalled about meeting Russell at Euston Station in London on his first trip outside Ireland. Russell planned to stay with his sister but couldn't remember her married name. She lived in Shepherd's Bush, and, coming from a small town in Ireland, Russell figured he would inquire there, but it turned out that about 200,000 to 300,000 people lived there. Russell eventually conceived of a plan to contact his brother back in Ireland, since their family didn't have a phone. Mr. Ochs writes:
On Sunday morning his brother Gussie would be going to mass back in Doolin. Micho knew exactly which mass Gussie would attend and ex actly how much time it would take him to cycle from Doonagore to the Doolin church, just the other side of Roadford. There was a certain hill enroute at which Gussie liked to get off his bicycle and walk. Halfway up this hill was the Doolin post office, which had a telephone. As the post office was also a small country shop, it would be open on Sunday, so the plan was to phone there at precisely the time Micho predicted Gussie would be coming up the hill.
'Hello, this is Mick Moloney in London,' said the voice on the telephone to a somewhat surprised Doolin postmaster. 'Could you go to the door and see if Gussie Russell is coming up the hill with a bicycle?' After a brief silence came the reply: 'He is.'
Micho Russell and his brother Gussie then spoke on telephone for the first time and he was able to locate his sister in London.