The Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society, Inc. STIMS
John Sindt, musician, craftsman, artist

Felix Dolan: accompanist extraordinaire

The Amazing Brian Conway

Nyack craftsman masters Gaelic notes

Randi Weiner

The Journal News

NYACK -- The sound of a drill on brass tubing and plastic filled the echoing reaches of John Sindt's home shop as he watched the digital readout measure thousandths of an inch for the mouth opening of his newest penny whistle.

"It's all about tolerances," the 66-year-old retired Lamont Doherty machinist said, reaching for a small vacuum hose to eliminate metal and plastic shavings from the freshly drilled hole. "If you change that, you change the way it's going to sound. I like to just keep them as close as I can to the same measurement so that they're consistent."

The slight and silver-haired Sindt is an internationally known instrument-maker, a man who is six months behind on orders for his high-end whistles even though he doesn't advertise and makes an instrument that is relegated to a niche market and that music stores usually sell for $10 and online catalogue stores sell in bulk.

"Without a doubt, John Sindt is one of the finest whistle makers in the world," said Joanie Madden, a Yonkers resident who plays a Sindt whistle in her traditional Irish band, Cherish the Ladies. "Some of the best of the whistle players in the world play them. It's his attention to detail and quality of craftsmanship. He plays. He understands what we're looking for: tone and purity of sound and intonation. These things make for a great instrument."

Irish traditional music is a subgenre with its own rules, tunes and sound. Its jigs, reels, hornpipes and slides are played on fiddles, concertinas, bodhrans and uilleann pipes, depending on who's sitting down to perform, but just about every group includes the tin or penny whistle.

The six-holed metal whistle that resembles a recorder is often the first instrument mastered by amateur musicians interested in playing Irish or Scottish music because it's simple to learn. It has a distinctive sound, a clear, cool tone and a two-octave range. Longer "low" whistles are part of the family, but Sindt only makes the soprano version.

The haunting melody line in the theme from the movie "Titanic" was played on a penny whistle, although more often than not, Sindt said, penny whistles are background instead of solo instruments because they're not particularly loud.

"It's not a dominant instrument, and I don't think it should be," he said. "It should be like a little bird, just tweeting away."

Sindt, who grew up in Blauvelt, didn't set out to be a musical instrument craftsman. Originally a tool-and-die maker, he worked for Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory for 42 years, creating the scientific instruments used to measure earthquakes, plot the ocean floor and explore the lunar landscape.

Although he claims an Irish great-grandmother, Sindt never gave Irish music a thought until 1982, when he was sent to Greece to do some work on Lamont Doherty's scientific ship. His wife, Ann Esmay, a one-time English groom, was working in the computer room at Lamont Doherty and the pair planned a vacation in England, Scotland and Ireland on their way to Greece.

They stayed at a bed and breakfast at Scotland's Loch Lomond, where the night's entertainment included an accordion player and dancers.

"It looked like a lot of fun," Sindt said of the dancers. "When we got back, we got some instruction in ceili (pronounced kay-lee) dancing in Blauvelt at the Irish Center, then we hooked up with the New Jersey Gaelic League. Just about that time the very first of the dance masters from Ireland started coming over and teaching set dancing. That's where I got hooked on the dancing. Along with the dance, I started getting interested in the music. We were at a festival somewhere, and Ann picked up two ... penny whistles and that's where it started."

The problem with a lot of cheap penny whistles is there isn't a consistent tone. Sindt began fiddling with the windway of his whistle, trying to get a better sound out of it. The fiddling around evolved into an attempt to make his own whistle and research into instrument making. He eventually created a brass whistle he liked.

He played it during a workshop with master whistle-player Mary Bergin, who liked the sound and asked him where he got it. Explaining that he made it, he gave the whistle to her just as she was starting on a tour, and orders for whistles like Mary's began coming in.

When Paddy Maloney of The Chieftains broke his longtime whistle and asked Joanie Madden for emergency help, she sent him several, including a Sindt whistle. He chose the Sindt, which he still uses.

Sindt makes about 300 whistles a year and has made more than 2,000 in the past 15 years, each taking about five hours, or two hours each if he's making 10 at a time. He uses commercial rolled brass or silver tubing and plastic caps. Brass whistles cost about $95 each, silver whistles about $140. He makes several sizes and keys, and has mailed them to the Philippines, Israel, Dubai, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Venezuela and, of course, Europe.

"It's a very simple design but very precise, and that's how I keep the consistency and the tone as close as I can to a musical instrument," he said.

The penny whistle

The tin whistle was an outgrowth of wood and bone whistles and pipes that had been around since man first made music.

Robert Clarke of Coney Weston in England is considered the first man to create the wooden whistle in tin in 1843, rolling the flexible metal into a long conical shape and punching six holes along the front.

Also called a penny whistle, the tin whistle was widely popular shortly after its introduction. It was easy to play, cost about a half-penny and earned its experts ready cash.

The whistle comes in different sizes and keys. The most popular key and the one sold most often in music stores is the D whistle, which plays well with most traditional Irish tunes.

John Sindt also makes whistles in A, B, B-flat, E, E-flat, C and C-sharp. The C-sharp was made on request to play along with uilleann pipes - the sit-down version of bagpipes that is the Irish national instrument.

LoHud video

- John Sindt makes a whistle at

Copyright The Journal News

March 17, 2007

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