Woodwind Vibrato

Something that is not often thought about in scoring for winds is the use of vibrato.  In the six families I have covered (flute, recorder, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, and bassoon), some use vibrato, some do not, and others are in betweeners.

Flute

Flutes almost always will use vibrato.  I once wrote a flute passage where I wrote “senza vibrato” and the poor flute players were dazed and confused as to how to do this.  While flutes now play with vibrato as a matter of course, it used to now be this way.  Even some places in Europe (namely Vienna) never use vibrato.

Sir James Galway teaching flute vibrato.

Emily Beyon teaching flute vibrato.

Recorders

As a general rule, recorders never use vibrato.  This is mostly due to the method of sound production where the player cannot control pitch or volume through manipulation of embouchure or airstream.  A subtle vibrato can be produced via the abdomen, but the essence of recorders is their quaint, rustic feel.

Laoise O’Brien teaching recorder vibrato.

Oboe

Like flutes, oboes are generally played with vibrato.  The vibrato helps to smooth out the edge of the double reed sound.  Unless otherwise specified, an oboe player will always use vibrato.  For loud strident passages, senza vibrato can be asked for.

Clarinet

In the US and in most of Europe the clarinets are played without vibrato.  This makes it the only standard woodwind instrument that never uses vibrato.  The only time vibrato is called for on the clarinet is for jazz music where the sound is expected.  The non-use of vibrato is part of the clarinets coolness; it’s why a composer would choose a clarinet over an oboe.  I once heard a recording of a famous clarinet solo (Prokofiev 5) played by a Czech orchestra where the clarinets do use vibrato, and the sound just felt weird and unsettling.

Roeland Hendrikx explaining clarinet vibrato.

Eddie Daniels teaching clarinet vibrato.

Saxophone

Traditionally, the saxophone is always played with vibrato.  Also, its vibrato (produced by the jaw) is different from every other woodwind (produced by the abdomen).  This means that the saxophone’s vibrato always sticks out.  I have never understood why players use the jaw vibrato over the abdominal vibrato of the flutes, oboes, and bassoons.  Having heard saxophones played without vibrato, I find this sound immensely appealing, rich, and warm.  The vibrato detracts from the pure tone of the instrument in ensembles.  However, in solos, the vibrato is quite welcome.

Harvey Pittel teaching saxophone vibrato.

Timothy McAllister teaching vibrato.

Bassoon

The bassoons are our go between instruments.  Most bassoonists will know when and when not to play with vibrato.  If the instrument is in a large ensemble setting and buried in the sound, most players will not use vibrato.  However, in a solo or a soloistic passage, a warm fluid vibrato is used.  Range also plays a factor in the use of vibrato.  Low notes usually will not have vibrato.  The contrabassoon will almost never use vibrato except in the rare solo passage (Mother Goose and the Concerto for the Left Hand by Ravel).

Arthur Weisberg teaching vibrato.

Kristen Wolfe Jensen teaching vibrato.

High soprano

Instrument in the highest register (Piccolo, G Treble, and E-flat Flutes; A-flat and E-flat Clarinets; and Piccolo and Sopranino Saxophones) will use vibrato much less frequently than lower pitched instruments.  The reason for this is the unstableness of the notes will have an unsettling effect.  This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but a general word of caution.

Contrabass

In general, the lowest instruments in the ensemble should not use vibrato.  When vibrato is applied to the fundamental, the rest of the ensemble cannot have a stable base in which to tune to.  As the Contrabass Clarinet will never use vibrato, the only real worry here is the Contrabassoon (and only rarely the Contrabass Saxophone).

Scoring for Vibrato

Some examples of how to score for vibrato are to use instruments or instrument groups interchangeably.  For instance, have the flutes play a chord then have the recorders play the same chord (or a correlating chord).  The effect will be vibrato – senza vibrato.  The same can be done with clarinet-saxophone combinations.

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2 thoughts on “Woodwind Vibrato

  1. Jie

    If a clarinet with vibrato makes you feel unsettled, might I suggest listening to the guanzi/duduk or the bawu (assuming you haven’t already). Further assuming you don’t know what they are, the first are basically double-reed clarinets and the second a free-reed clarinet.

    Personally, I find the clarinet without vibrato rather dull; I’d much rather have a player play using an abdomen-produced vibrato, as it can be quite beautiful.

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