Vibrato on the Tin Whistle

Vibrato on the Tin Whistle

Using vibrato on a tin whistle is probably not one of the favorite ornaments among Irish traditional musicians. It originally comes from classical music, but I think it’s worth giving a mention. At least in terms that it might help to practice the air articulation, which is a good foundation and in favor of fingering ornaments that you will use more frequently.

What is vibrato and when to use it on a tin whistle?

Technically speaking, vibrato is a technique of adding tonal vibration to notes by making slight pitch variations. Also, in terms of rhythm, these variations need to be evenly spaced to make vibrato sound correctly. You will hear it more often in slow airs or ballads than in fast-tempo tunes. It kinda gives the emotion to a melody, it’s somehow natural to use it on long notes especially on phrase endings.

How to do a tin whistle vibrato?

There are two most common ways of doing vibrato on a tin whistle:

  1. Using the fingers
  2. Using the diaphragm

For the first solution, you “shake” the finger two notes below the original note. It means that if you are playing a G note, for example, you leave one empty hole (F#) below and rhythmically move the finger above the E hole. If you are playing A note, you want to shake the finger above the F# hole, and so on. Also, keep in mind that “the rule of two notes below” is not strict. It depends on the whistle itself as well as its specific note. Sometimes it may sound better if you do it with three notes below instead of two.

And while the fingering technique is probably more straightforward, I stand behind the opinion that it sounds slightly artificial. Not to mention apparent cons that you don’t have two holes under the notes E and D, so the finger vibrato on these is literally impossible.

The second technique, which I more recommend, is by using your diaphragm. It’s harder to achieve and needs more practice, but it sounds more natural, and you can use it on any note. There are no limitations. So, playing vibrato by using diaphragm means that you alternately lower and increase the air pressure while playing a note. Keep in mind that to do it properly, you should never stop the airflow, and you should articulate those vibrations to align with the rhythm of the song. You can play faster or slower vibrato, which means that speedier vibrato usually has twice as many fluctuations in the same duration.

Pitch variations need to be evenly spaced to create a correct sounding vibrato.

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Practicing vibrato on a tin whistle

Every specific whistle requires a different amount of air, so I would definitely suggest trying both methods to find out what sounds better for your particular whistle. Cheaper whistles usually have a very low threshold when it comes to tonal pitch variation thus sometimes it’s not even possible to do the diaphragm method without getting squeaks.

For the diaphragm method, you can practice vibrato even without the instrument. The technique is very similar to singing vibrato. Therefore you can just sing vowels and try to articulate the air correctly. It’s a great exercise. Of course, doing this on a whistle is necessary later on to figure out the back-pressure of your whistle. You can play the scales or whatever you think is natural. Vibrato usually takes a lot of air, especially in upper octave notes, so try to practice it on a single note for a couple of seconds, then take a deep breath and start with the next one.

A good example of playing tin whistle vibrato

Just to get a quick sense of how vibrato is done correctly on a whistle, watch and listen to the Lonesome Boatman tune below, done by a legendary player – Finbar Furey. Pay attention especially to the intro. In this video, he is using Low G whistle, but nevertheless, the principle is the same for a tin whistle, a low whistle, or an Irish flute. You can notice that he combines both diaphragm and fingering techniques, which is interesting.