Bill Ochs, Tin-Whistle Master, Dies at 70

Bill Ochs, 70, a scholar, performer, and teacher of Irish traditional music who was called a “central figure in the renaissance of the tin whistle” by National Public Radio and “the leading tin-whistle teacher in North America” by the Irish Voice, died Oct. 5 in Mt. Kisco.

Born May 14, 1946, in Newark, New Jersey, Bill was the son of Herbert and Betsy Ochs. He split his time between his New York City apartment in Hell’s Kitchen where he had lived since the 1970s, and the Hudson Valley, where he shared a home with his partner of 15 years, Margaret Vetare, first in Cold Spring and more recently in Beacon.

Bill Ochs

Bill Ochs

Bill studied French and theater as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University and earned his MFA in theater at Sarah Lawrence in 1971. Ultimately, though, he dedicated his life’s work to playing, teaching and understanding the history of Irish wind instruments: the tin whistle, wooden flute and uilleann pipes. Drawn irresistibly to the pipes, he sought out teachers in the U.S. and Ireland at a time when almost nobody in this country was playing the instrument. His intense commitment to the uilleann pipes was furthered by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study in Ireland for six months in 1976. During this period he was also involved in the education programs of the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, where he taught for more than 40 years from its founding in the early 1970s through 2015.

Throughout the nearly half a century of his career, Bill delved into many aspects of traditional music: performing; researching and writing; producing albums of other musicians; and creating meticulous and beautifully rendered transcriptions of tunes. He was especially inspired by the music of Micho Russell, producing two CDs and a video documentary of the County Clare whistle player. He was perhaps best known as the author of The Clarke Tin Whistle, a history and instructional tutor he published in 1988 that has sold more than 250,000 copies.

But teaching was his passion, and it was as a generous and highly skilled teacher that he made the biggest impact. Most of his students were adults and whether they were advanced piping students or beginning tin whistle students who had never picked up a musical instrument before, he brought the same commitment to their success. Above all he wanted people to be moved by the music and to experience the happiness that comes with creating something beautiful.

Besides his immersion in Irish traditional music, Bill was a political activist who in the past decade devoted tremendous energy to the campaigns of Democratic candidates for U.S. Congress in New York’s 18th (and formerly 19th) district. He was also exhilarated by the outdoors and was an avid swimmer, hiker, cross-country skier, birdwatcher and canoeist. On the trail or in the canoe, he always wanted to see what was around the next bend.

Bill is survived by Vetare and her family and a sister, Sara Ochs, of Schenectady. A memorial service is planned for the spring. Memorial donations may be made to Doctors Without Borders (doctorswithoutborders.org).

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5 thoughts on “Bill Ochs, Tin-Whistle Master, Dies at 70

  1. I will remember Bill as a champion of democracy. He was a good man who made the world a better place.

  2. What a loss for all of us. Bill was a wonderful teacher who I had the privilege of taking classes from in the late 1980s. Anyone who was able to learn from him considered him a “guru.” But as brilliant as he was as a teacher, he was a greater person. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that we will not see the likes of him again.

  3. I knew Bill back in the 1970s when we were helping organize the Irish Arts Center on West 51st Street in New York City. He basically built the music department. Bill was Jewish and proud of his ancestry and cultural identity. He saw no conflict in his love of Irish music. Americans of every stripe were striving to make sense of the times we lived in and appreciating what culture was on offer. He first fell in love with Irish music when, strolling in Greenwich Village, he heard Liam Clancy playing a tune on a tin whistle. He was captivated. He passed his love on to thousands, myself among them. He honored us Irish Americans greatly with his passion and dedication. A kind of a hero, Bill Ochs.

  4. I am heartbroken. I did not know. I studied flute and pennywhistle with him for at least three years but had to stop about a year ago due to my busy schedule. I just sent Bill an email, asking if I accidentally got dropped from his email list. I think the world of Bill, such a kind man, such a talent! Oh, I have no words…

  5. I stopped taking tin whistle lessons with Bill when I moved away from New York four years ago. I was recently thinking of arranging Skype lessons, since no one where I’m living in Northern New York could approach his knowledge of the whistle, of Irish traditional music, or his sure method of teaching that instrument. Shocked and saddened by this news.