Ornamentation Thoughts, Pt. 1

Ornamentation Thoughts, Pt. 1

by L.E. McCullough
© L.E. McCullough 2010

The Question: “is it better to play the tune without ornaments than to play the ornaments without the tune?”

I hear this frequently. And I answer with this impassioned plea:  for the love of all that’s holy and good, Don’t Be Scared of Ornamentation.

Ornamentation is your friend. It won’t harm you in any way. In fact, it will allow you to play Irish traditional music with confidence and authority.

Open your eyes and ears. The fact is that in modern ITM (for the last hundred years or so if you listen to early 20th century 78 recordings, etc.), ornamentation has functioned not as a take-it-or-leave-it embellishment but as an integral part of the melodic structure of the dance tunes.

Yes, you can play tunes without ornaments, but most players don’t. They play the tunes with ornaments and have woven the ornamentation into the very fabric of the melody. For whatever historical/musicological reasons, that’s the way it is in the Year 2010 going on ’11 — Irish dance tunes are played with ornaments.

Maybe that will change in a few decades if the music somehow shifts to a more basic rhythmic nexus as is occurring in Western pop music. . . where melody starts being severely truncated and expressed around simple rhythmic riffs. Could theoretically happen with ITM someday, and ornaments would fall off the melodic line like snake scales.

But don’t hold your breath.

For now it’s simple: if you’re not learning tunes with their ornamentation, then fundamentally you’re not learning the tunes.

You want to play acceptable versions of tunes with real IT musicians? Learn to play your dance tunes with ornaments. No excuses about how so-and-so famous musician didn’t use them — you’re not them, you’re you. . . and the culture that produced their idiosyncratic style is long gone. Zen-up and Be Here Now.

Agreed, mastering ITM ornamentation doesn’t happen the first time you try it. It took me a year to get it so it really sounded correct with what other musicians were playing. It takes practice. Takes diligence. Takes a certain level of digital dexterity.

But if you’re bothering to play the music at all and learning all these tunes, why not play them the way they’re supposed to sound?

Ornamentation in ITM is actually mechanically very simple, especially on whistle and flute. Your fingers basically do the same motions except at different places along the tube. If you’re having trouble with rolls or crans or triplets, there are maybe a million people playing them, so study what they do or just ask for assistance. IT musicians are almost always willing to share their knowledge and help.

I find that if I learn a tune, the ornaments happen without too much effort or thought. They plug themselves in to the melody as that melody establishes itself in my mind and then my fingers.

So, to the followup question “is it better to learn the tune without ornaments than to learn the tune with ornaments?” . . . yes, it’s good to have in your head a skeletal, un-ornamented, generic version so you can ID the melody in your mental filing system.

But then learn the tune as you’re hearing it. With whatever ornaments are there. You’ll be glad you did.

Incidentally, if we ever meet in a session and you’re unashamedly playing your un-ornamented tunes, I won’t mock or revile you. Won’t smirk or sneer or even scoot my chair away when you’re not looking.

But guaranteed, we’ll all have more fun if we’re playing in the same musical language. Or at least mutally comprehensible dialects.


About 1bigsoul

12th Generation American trying to convince this country to live up to its promise of liberty and justice for All.
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