Ornamentation Thoughts, Pt. 2
by L.E. McCullough
© L.E. McCullough 2010
D y wndr wht s mssng frm ths sntnc?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Do you wonder what is missing from this sentence?
Oh, the sentence had no vowels. It was difficult to read, difficult to comprehend, didn’t communicate what the writer intended. Most of us would dismiss it as a jumble of gibberish, especially if someone tried speaking it to us minus the vowels.
In Irish traditional music, ornaments are like vowels. Ornaments are an essential part of Irish traditional music. They’re not an idiosyncrasy or aberration or some means of showing off. They’re part of the music’s basic building blocks, and for at least two centuries master Irish musicians have been using them to construct and interpret traditional melodies.
I was fortunate to study with and personally listen to a few of those master musicians (including sharing a tune or two with Micho Russell, whose unique style is too often bandied about, wrongly, as a tattered battle flag for under-achievement). The first thing I learned was how to properly execute basic ornaments and how to fit them into the embellishment of the melody. I didn’t question my teachers’ use of ornaments any more than I would have taken issue with the use of vowels in the alphabet of a language I was learning.
When I started playing the music, ornaments didn’t come naturally — i.e., I wasn’t able to do them at all. But I just kept playing, learning one tune after another until one day (after a year) — boom! things fell into place, and I was able to play in a manner approved by bonafide members of the tradition. Don’t be discouraged! It WILL happen!
Do not be frightened or scornful of ornamentation. Being able to use ornaments will make you a more versatile, more accomplished player and a player in step with the tradition. It’s really that simple.
If you’re just starting to play Irish traditional music, I encourage you to learn how to play ornaments and feel comfortable using them. Yes, it’s a challenge, but it’s a significant element of the musical language you’re learning, so why not learn that language to the best of your ability?
If you were learning a new spoken tongue, would you want to be expressive or clumsy? Attuned to conversational nuance and subtlety or totally oblivious? Able to explore the culture’s richness or kibbitzing from the outside?
Your choice, of course, and there’s no real reason to agonize over it — but you’ll find your interaction with native speakers/musicians much more gratifying if you plunge in all the way.
In fact, you’re already better than you know.
Jst ply n.
Oh, sorry — “Just play on”.