Basic ornamentation: slides or glissando

The slide is one of the most striking and characteristic devices used by whistlers. Gives a tune a yearning quality - "lonesome", if you like.

Sliding into a note (glissando, or more strictly portamento, to use standard musical terms) is used in many styles of music. You can think of it as a way of decorating, or drawing attention to, an important note, or of imbuing the note with added emotional weight. On a whistle, there's little you can do to vary the volume or intensity of a note, and so slides are a particularly useful element in our spice-rack.

I like judicious (read: sparing) use of slides. I have a record of a highly rated young whistle whizz whose playing is so suffused with slides, even when playing reels, that after a time I feel seasick listening to him.


A slide means an upward glide into the note you want to play, generally starting from whatever note lies immediately below the target note.

In most cases, this means the slide covers a semitone or whole tone. For example, you will generally slide into an E from a D (whole tone), into an F# from an E (whole tone), into a G from an F# (semitone) etc. Cs and Ds require special treatment.

Does one ever slide down into a note? Traditionally, in Irish music, no. But in recent years fiddlers have taken to doing this on occasion (to the consternation of some grey eminences, who consider it non-traditional), because it is easy to do on the fiddle. On the whistle you can manage it to some extent, perhaps in certain slow airs. You can probably achieve a similar effect, especially using a low-pitched whistle, by using the breath to make the pitch of a note fall.

I do, however, enjoy sliding up into a note and back down again - see A sneak visit, below.

How is it done?

A slide is produced by gradually uncovering a tone hole. You can do this in a few different ways.

If you play with the flats of the fingers, as I do, you can simply slide your finger forwards (away from the palm, in line with the finger). As you push forward with your finger, keeping your thumb in the same place, the curve of the whistle body causes your finger finger to lift off the hole gradually.

This is what I do most of the time. I use another technique for the index finger of my top hand, and occasionally that of the bottom hand. Under the index fingers, the tone hole lies closer to the fingertip. So here I flatten (straighten) my finger, which causes the tip to lift away from the tone hole.

Another way of sliding is to push the finger upwards (along the axis of the whistle, towards your mouth). I tend to do this with my ring fingers, because I find that pushing forwards with the ring finger tends to destabilize my middle finger. But that's just my fingers.

I have also seen people, particularly those who cover the tone holes with their fingertips, pull the finger towards the palm to uncover the hole.

Basically, I don't think it matters much how you execute a slide. How it works musically is much more important.

Why slide? And where?

In my book, you use a slide for the same reason you use most other ways of decorating or a note: to emphasise or draw attention to it.

In other words, you slide for the same reason a singer would slide into, or swell into, a note - because the note is musically or emotionally important and you want to highlight it.

It follows of course that you don't slide just anywhere and everywhere. Not all notes in a tune are strategically important or carry strong emotional impact!

If you're not sure whether the note really warrants a slide, try singing the tune. You'll easily feel the note's importance - not necessarily because you slide into it when singing, but because of how much emotional weight you want the note to have as you sing.

Slow airs lend themselves very well to slides - partly because of the feeling they can convey, and because, being slower, you have plenty of time to execute slides effectively. I do use slides in dance tunes, but to a more limited extent.


I have no examples to post at present! I may get around to posting some at a later date. Just listen to your favourite whistler on record. He or she will demonstrate much better than I could.

Sliding up and down again - a sneak visit

I use this trick mainly using the index fingers, either to slide up from a B to a C-natural and back again, or from an F# to a G and back again. Both these intervals are only a semitone. In the normal run of things, I only rarely use half-holing to play C-natural, but in passages consisting of B-Cnat-B, I slide up to a half-holed C and back again.

Sometimes, using this technique with the bottom hand to slide into a G, I don't uncover the G hole fully, so that the note produced is a little flat. It's almost a quarter-tone slide. The flat G gives a very special effect (extra lonesome!).

I use something similar, but in reverse, to perform microtonal slides down and back up from various notes, using non-standard fingerings. For want of a better term, I call this trick a "wah-wah", and intend to devote a future topic to it!

Problem notes

For most ornaments, the notes C and D often require special treatment. In the case of slides, C-natural is dealt with easily, sliding from a B into a half-holed C-natural. C# is no problem either, involving a whole-tone slide from B.

The note of D is a little different. Sliding into a bottom D is not really on. Actually you can hook your little finger around the end of the whistle, partially covering the end of the pipe,  to play a low C# and then slide into a D. I can't see a real-world application of this trick, although probably some 11-year old prodigy somewhere is perfecting the technique as I write this. (Not on a low whistle though, I think!)

Similarly, I can't see sliding into a high D from C# as a practicable option. You can however, in certain tunes, slide from a B or a C-natural to a C#, and then immediately whack down all the fingers you need for a high D. This can gives the effect of a slide into a high D. For occasional use only!

Don't make sliding a reflex!

You'll occasionally come across a player who seems almost unable to lift his or her fingers cleanly off the tone holes of the whistle - practically every note seems to get a sliding treatment. I speculate is that this is because, when the player started on the whistle, he or she discovered the slide, and liking the effect, began to use it instinctively. For playing dance music, this habit can be a considerable hindrance: your reel or jig or whatever is likely to sound woolly - if not seasickness-inducing - and it will severely restrict your speed. So don't let your fingers slide unless you consciously want to produce a slide. Just lift them off, upwards.

Updated 15 April 2001