The Questions People Ask a Whistlemaker
Misha Somerville answers questions often asked about an unusual and incredible profession.
Questions by Liam Hickson - mk owner and inquisitive mind...
What were your design goals for the Midgie? What was going to set it apart?
There are a few good High D whistles out there, even inexpensive ones - like Feadog or Generation for example, which are really pretty good. They rightfully have their place, but for whatever reason that evolution in whistle development went towards quite a sweet, thin and acute tone. In many ways it has been a valuable evolution because it has been great for players to develop breath control early on. It has always been difficult, however, to find a High D that you can really drive, lean into if you want to, and be rewarded with a full-bodied tone (particularly in the lower register) but also at the same time the ability to back off and retain a sweetness and tenderness, and offer the player that range in dynamics.
The mk Midgie has been many years in the making - a long and incredible journey to find an agile, full-bodied yet sweet High whistle which can be driven or caressed into life.
What challenges in designing the whistle did you encounter? Were there any iterations before the Midgie that you nearly released, but didn’t?
Some of the keys of whistles we've worked on have come to fruition easily, and others haven't. I always marvelled at makers that are able to come up with a full range of whistles from the outset. I mean, in theory you should just be able to perfect one size of whistle and then simply scale every dimension to produce a different key of whistle. In practice, several factors don't scale, so then everything needs tweaking. The airway, for example, is designed around how much breath and back-pressure we as humans can generate, and that doesn't change - i.e. we have the same amount of breath available to us for the High D as the Low D, despite the High D being half the size. The size of the tube is a factor too - tubes come in certain sizes and it may not be possible or economical to scale the tube diameter by a certain amount. So all these factors come into play.
Where the mk Pro A, for example, came together fairly easily, the Midgie didn't. There were several points along the journey when it was almost there but not quite. We initially worked on just getting the tone/timbre as good as possible and slightly sidelined tuning considerations, with the thinking that it could be finessed at a later point when the headpiece design was finalised. There is a logic there because the headpiece design does have a big effect on the tuning. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake though - we were working on a instrument which was roughly in tune with itself but was slightly below a High D in terms of its overall pitch. Through a process of making and testing, a really nice high whistle did emerge. Then Ewen White worked on bringing the tuning to exactly where it should be, but he couldn't get the C# in the second register to sound at all when we raised the pitch of the whole instrument to bring it properly into tune. I also tried and found exactly the same. It's just the physics wasn't letting that note sound, which was particularly frustrating as the rest of the instrument was sounding fantastic.
Of course while this was going on we were answering emails coming in from around the world, as we have been for almost 20 years, about if and when an mk High D might come about (emails which we don't mind getting because it helps focus the mind!).
Some players might not go as high as a C# on a High D, but there was no way we were ever going to accept this compromise. In Nov 2020 we had to go back to the drawing board to redesign the whole head and get to the bottom of why the C# wasn't sounding. In the end we had to use some techniques I had worked on ten years previously, over the course of about three years - but never put to use. This would allow us to change the internal dimensions of the tube that makes up the headpiece. That's the difficulty and beauty with this - the art comes into instrument making because it's impossible to try every single combination of the things that affect how the instrument plays, so you have to follow intuition to some extent. Sometimes you might trail-blaze a route in a new direction, like cutting a path through a thick jungle, and not find anything you are looking for. But what you are looking for can change over time, and sometimes you realise that thing that you are looking for, well you remember having seen it down the path you cut through the jungle several years/decades ago! And you can use that same path to get to it now. There's no map for this process - it's a journey with lots of dead ends.,.and treasure!
Did you have to make new tools to create the Midgie?
We often require specialist tools - sometimes those are available, sometimes they are not and we have to make them ourselves. For the Midgie we were mainly able to use tools we had made before, or source specialist tools. The drill that changed everything for the Midgie came from Brazil. You've got to keep an open mind and look everywhere for solutions.
Did you consult with any players while designing/testing the Midgie?
Early on in the process Ryan Murphy dropped by the workshop and tried one, Ali Levack also. Japanese musician, Hatao, was visiting Scotland and also dropped by the workshop. Mid-way through the process I sat down with Jarlath Henderson and he confirmed everything was evolving the right way.
Are you aiming for a release date?
There were many intended release dates along the way. But when it came down to it, meeting those release dates always meant there would be some kind of compromise in quality. I mean, I'm sure we could have thrown money at it and made it go faster and doubled or tripled the price of the Midgie, but we are trying to keep prices as reasonable as possible, because playing whistle should be accessible as it has always been.
What is a ‘sprung aluminium tuning slide’, and why is it different to the mk Pro design?
There are obviously a range of solutions to how a tuning slide can be made. It's possible to use an overtube - either from plastic or with o-rings, or plastic tape itself. If it's a plastic moulded head then the join between head and body can be made to slide. If you look at finer woodwind instruments though - Flutes, Saxophones, Oboes, there's no plastic involved in the slide at all. To be honest the use of plastic at all in musical instruments is pretty limited, which is a nice thought considering we pretty much live in an age of plastic.
When we looked at creating the tuning slide on mk Pro, we wanted to use no plastic and for it be slimline - constraints which we also applied to the headpiece. This was quite a high bar to set in many ways, and hasn't been without its challenges. Whereas classical woodwind players typically disassemble their instruments after every time playing, whistle players typically leave instruments assembled. This makes them much more likely to seize together which can then put excess pressure on the joints of the instrument. This caused us to develop a brass slide that was much more resistant to seizing [around about 2017], and we have since improved the joints also. But even so the holy grail, really, has always been to have an all-metal slide, that is sprung perfectly to the right tension, and made out of the same material as the head / body so that there is no join and making it possible to make the entire whistle out of thinner gauge material (which opens up lots of possibilities and is definitely something we will be experimenting with in the future). I believe the mk Midgie is the first whistle to achieve that. All that we've done is add some slots to the slide so it's sprung. It's so simple I find it difficult to believe it's not been done before - perhaps it has (although I've not yet seen it!).
Is this the first of a family of Eb to Bb mk Midgies?
That's the plan, yes!
Why the 'Midgie'?
All the most beautiful places in Scotland have Midgies. I mean, these animals - they really know where to hang out!
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Asking the Questions:
Liam Hickson is from Melbourne, Australia, and has been playing whistles for five years. He has received online lessons from his tutor who lives in Belfast for a year and has gotten serious about it as his COVID lockdown hobby. He originally took up the whistle to keep his neighbours happy, as his Great Highland bagpipes were too loud in his tiny apartment. His two cats are also nicer to him since starting to whistle! Liam has owned mk whistles for a year and a half after pining for one the first time he saw one. He read one of Misha’s blogs from 2016 mention trying to develop a High D in the mk range and has been anticipating one ever since. He owns a black mk Pro Low D and green Low F...and has preordered a Midgie already!