Basic ornamentation: vibrato


You all know what is meant by the term vibrato. It's the technique of adding a "wobble" or vibration to a note by making rapid microtonal variations in pitch. You can hear this in the singing of old ladies in church, or operatic sopranos, and in the playing of nearly every trained violinist (except those of the baroque school).

In my opinion, vibrato is one of the most overused and overrated devices in music. I think it's a pity that violinists and singers use it systematically and seeming uncontrollably -- it's almost as if they don't like the true sound of a violin or voice!

The use of vibrato in Irish traditional music has been the subject of a great deal of debate. There are those who think it has no place whatever, those who think it should be used sparingly, and those who have no problem with it whatever.

As a fiddle player, I like next to no vibrato. I love the sound of a slow air played with the bare, plaintive sound of bow on string. I think this carries more emotional weight than vibrato. But then I don't like sugar in my tea.

My attitude to vibrato on the whistle is similar. But it all depends on how you do it -- see below.

How is it done?

Vibrato can be produced in at least three different ways:

  1. In the throat. Please don't do this. At least not while I'm in the room. It sounds ghastly, adding a horrible tension to your sound.
  2. Using the diphragm. This is the technique used by classical recorder and flute players. I wouldn't bother with it on the whistle. (But then I don't bother with sugar in my tea.)
  3. Using the fingers. You can produce vibrato on certain notes (basically those that leave at least two tone holes uncovered) by shaking your fingers up and down above the exposed tone holes.

The third of these techniques is the only one I would recommend.

Depending on the note, and the whistle, you may be able to touch the whistle body while doing the vibrato. Or you may have to keep the fingers just above the whistle body.

To experiment, play a low G on your whistle. Then start shaking using the 2nd and 3rd fingers of your bottom hand. Try an F#, shaking with the 3rd finger of the bottom hand.

This type of vibrato actually works better with lower-pitched whistles.

There's the basic technique. Up to you to listen for it and in the playing of good players and copy it if you like.


I have no examples to post at present! I may get around to posting some at a later date.

Most players of low whistles use finger vibrato to a greater or lesser extent. A good example is Paddy Keenan.

If you want to hear some extreme vibrato, find a recording of Finbar Furey playing his trademark slow air, The lonesome boatman, on a low whistle. I'm pretty sure he's using throat vibrato all the way through this tune, and although he does it spectacularly well, I think I'd rather hear him play the tune without. (But I don't like sugar in coffee, either.)

Updated: 15 April 2001 (formatting 14 October 2004)