REVIEWED: Sweetheart “Resonance”
KEY: Low D
MAKER: Sweetheart Flute Company, Enfield, CT, USA, http://www.sweetheartflute.com
TYPE: Tunable, conical bore, wooden pennywhistle
MATERIALS: Dymondwood ™ (northern birch laminate) tube, head, fipple and tuning slide. Cork-lined joint. Buna O-ring spacers provided for tuning slide. Plastic thumb-rest included.
PRICE: Whistle as described above: $395.00 US. Optional Dymondwood™ flute head (which allows you to play this whistle as a keyless flute): $165.00 US. Dual compartment case (allowing for separate storage of body and head), $35.
BACKGROUND: Anyone who knows me at all knows what a fan I am of my Sweetheart “Professional” soprano D whistle, so when I was offered a chance to test-drive its new big brother, the “Resonance” low D, it should come as no surprise that I only hesitated as long as it takes to type “sure!” and hit “send.” I do have to say upfront, however, that while I have loved, played and collected whistles for many years, this is the first low D I’ve ever played for more than a couple of minutes (the lowest whistle in my current collection is a G). Make of that what you will. Like many devotees of the soprano whistle, I’ve found the prospect of low Ds, with their oft-mentioned high breath requirements, large tone holes and wide hold spacing (necessitating the dreaded “piper’s grip”) to be rather daunting. That said (and more on that later), some things I’d read about Sweetheart’s approach to the genre led me to think that it just might be the whistle to cure me of my “low D phobia.” So, without further adieu, here are my impressions:
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: ESTHETICS
I have to say, hands down, this is the most visually stunning low whistle I’ve ever seen. If you’re not familiar with the Dymondwood ™ laminate, you owe it to yourself to borrow a friend’s Sweetheart “Professional” or “Resonance” and take a good, close look at it…it’s lovely! It has the look of a beautifully figured, nicely polished, natural hardwood, and it feels so nice in the hand…solid and silky smooth. Color variations are normal between different batches of Dymondwood ™, and this whistle is distinctly ruddier in “complexion” than my soprano D, which tends more toward a golden hue. Both are very pretty. The laser-engraved Sweetheart logo on the head-end of the tube is an attractive touch.
Another thing that contributes substantially to the visual appeal of this whistle is its gracefully tapered shape. While some have compared the shape of the Sweetheart whistles to a recorder, I find that this model especially -- with its long, lean lines -- reminds me more of an Irish flute (not surprising, as it can be converted to a keyless flute simply by buying the optional flute head). It’s definitely an attractive and refreshing alternative to the “plumbing pipe” or “Generation on steroids” look of most low whistles.
One of the first things I noticed (when I could tear myself away from admiring the beautiful finish) was the size and configuration of the tone holes. Even though I’d been told that this whistle lacks the dauntingly large tone holes one finds on some low Ds, I was surprised to see that the tone holes are actually no larger than the ones on my Sweetheart soprano D (in fact, I held them side-by-side and, while the configuration is somewhat different, to my eye the largest and smallest holes on the low whistle are exactly the same size as the largest and smallest holes on the soprano…or close enough as to make no difference). I was also surprised (and pleased) to see that the distance between holes didn’t appear to be at all unmanageable. I also noted the slight offset of the G and D holes, which is clearly intended to make them more easily reachable…a touch that small-handed people (such as myself!) will greatly appreciate.
The tuning slide on the whistle I have is quite snug, which means the head sits securely on the body without tending to slide or wobble, but it takes a bit of persuasion to move. If you change tuning frequently to adapt to other instruments, you might want to lubricate the cork a bit (which is probably good practice from time to time anyway).
There is one esthetic issue, which I believe is a property of the Dymondwood ™: It does have a distinct, plastic-like odor. I don’t find it particularly strong or bothersome, and to my nose it’s a rather neutral smell in that I don’t find it to be either pleasant or unpleasant…just there. It also dissipates considerably over time (believe it or not, my husband and I actually conducted side-by-side “sniff tests” of this whistle with my soprano D, which I’ve had for a little over a year). I don’t think that most people will find this to be a problem, and to my mind the positive attributes of this material far outweigh this one [potential] negative, but knowing that there are people out there who are very susceptible to, and bothered by, certain types of odors, I think it should be mentioned.
COMFORT & GRIP: One of the things that really surprised me with this whistle is that I don’t need to use the “piper’s grip” with it. In fact, I find the standard grip to be much more comfortable and natural. Yes, there is a period of adapting to the difference in reach, which is only to be expected. For the first day or so, I hit more “clinkers” and got tired sooner than I would with a smaller whistle, but it didn’t take longer than that for me to adapt, and this morning I played it for an hour without undue fatigue. It’s possible that a person who is accustomed to using the piper’s grip on low whistles would find that to be more comfortable, especially when playing fast tunes…I don’t know. I do find it nice, however, that the combination of smaller tone holes and the slight offset of the two “ring finger” holes makes a standard grip quite doable. Hands differ, so your mileage may vary, but it definitely suits my style. I should note here that I have small hands and am mildly arthritic, so if I can manage this whistle, I would think that most small-handed people would be able to as well.
BACK PRESSURE: Very low. This is an “easy blower,” just like its little brother.
BREATH REQUIREMENTS: Low to moderate. This was another thing that really surprised me, as I’ve heard so many stories about needing lungs of steel to play low whistles. This whistle really doesn’t require much more in the breath department than my soprano D. Yes, you want to support it more in the second octave (think “tighter embouchure” and “good support,” not “more air,” and you’ll have it covered), and yes, you will need to learn new breathing points for familiar tunes, but it’s not going to leave you gasping for air and turning blue. It’s very responsive to breath pressure…you can “bend” notes noticeably blowing them sharp or flat, which I consider a positive (makes for expressive playing), but which some players may find less useful. It also responds nicely to chest vibrato.
FINGERING: You can play C natural using either OXX OOO or OXX XOX on this whistle. I found the first configuration to be just a hair sharp to my ear…not enough to be jarring, but especially on tunes that required spending a lot of time on C natural (think “Fields of Athenry”), I found I really preferred the second configuration. Half-holing works well on the larger tone holes, but is a bit more challenging on the smaller ones. The whistle is nicely responsive to the ornaments I tend to favor, i.e., cuts, taps, short rolls, slurs and trills. My long rolls are pathetic, so I didn’t torture the poor instrument by experimenting, but I see no reason why they wouldn’t come off equally well.
One rather useful characteristic of this whistle is that some accidentals can be cross-fingered. I discovered this while playing “The Ash Grove,” which has a high G# in the B part. The G hole being one of the smaller ones on this whistle, I was getting a bit frustrated trying to half hole it, so I tried dropping R1 down on to the F# hole instead (while fingering A with the left hand) et voila! I’ve tried experimenting with various configurations, and some work better than others…it doesn’t work quite as well in the lower register, for some reason. Still, it’s kind of a neat feature (especially if you’re as fond as I am of “The Ash Grove”!).
This whistle is well-balanced between the octaves. It has a good, strong bell note and is not inclined to squeak, but it is very sensitive to finger placement…if one of your fingers isn’t quite where it belongs on the tone hole, it will definitely let you know about it!
I have to say it: This whistle has, hands down, the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard come from a whistle. It’s rich and complex; somewhat dark in the lower register; resonant and somewhat flute-like in the upper register. There’s a slight woodiness to the tone that I find seductive. To be honest, the instrument it puts me most in mind of is the cello. The sound is rich with harmonics, but there’s no extraneous “air” sound (i.e., it’s not “breathy,” so while I wouldn’t call it “pure,” I don’t know if I’d call it “chiffy” either). I find it very hard to put down, even when my hands are getting tired from playing for more than an hour in an unfamiliar position. “One more time through ‘The Parting Glass,’ if you please! Oops…I haven’t tried ‘Eamonn a’ Cnoic’yet!” As you can tell, I’ve focused mainly on slow airs, primarily because I love them and because this whistle does them so very well. I have played some dance tunes on it and, aside from the fact that I’m not quite up to making fast fingering changes at this longer reach (resulting in a fair number of clinkers), it sounded great and responded well. I’d say it’s well able for whatever you want to play on it, but you’ll especially love it if you like the mournful beauty of the slow airs.
Moderate. It carries well, but isn’t piercing or shrill, even well up near the top end, which sometimes makes it seem quieter than it is.
CARE AND FEEDING
This is one area where Dymondwood ™ really shines…it doesn’t need to be oiled, and is much, much less sensitive to temperature and humidity variations than are natural hardwoods. Other than swabbing it out when you’re done playing, storing the head and body separately (because of the cork joint) and lubricating the cork occasionally, this whistle doesn’t require any more care than a metal or plastic whistle.
While this particular whistle was borrowed rather than purchased, I can say from my previous dealings with the Sweetheart Flute Company that the Sweets are wonderful people to do business with: They’re prompt, informative, and friendly, and they stand behind their products.
This is a beautiful, professional-quality instrument that is a real joy to play. The option of adding a flute head to it makes it adaptable as well. It may well be THE low whistle of choice for small-handed players, as well as for those who favor the look and the sound of a wooden instrument. My only caveats are, if you are highly sensitive to certain scents, you may want to try one out first to see if the smell of the Dymondwood ™ bothers you (noting that it does dissipate considerably over time, but is never entirely gone), and you may want to give one a test drive first if you tend to do a lot of half holing. Highly recommended.