#18 - So You Wanna Hear About Ornaments?

A Short Guide To Ornamentation on Wooden / Irish Flute

First off, I'd like to thank all the folk who responded to my request for future subject matter in this column. All of the suggestions were thought provoking, though some may prove anatomically impossible to achieve. More on that later...

One of the most popular requests for information was in the area of ornamentation. Here is a brief overview of my philosophy on this subject. By the way, I am not limiting this topic solely to the techniques involved in traditional Irish flute or whistle playing.

To me, the term ornamentation refers to the act of highlighting a certain note, or group of notes, in the passage of a tune. I believe that there are seven general categories of ornamentation. They are breath pulse, single grace note, triplet, mordents (crans, rolls, etc.), glissando, vibrato, and multiple tonguing. Coincidentally, there are also seven venial sins...funny how that worked out.

Anyway, this tip is going to cover the first three: breath pulse, single grace notes, and triplets. We'll go after the rest in a future tip.

The most basic ornament is the so-called 'push' or 'breath pulse.' I have also heard this referred to as a 'cough' or 'bark' in Ireland. This is the ability to emphasize a specific note. Not quite over blowing or breaking the octave of the note, but instead putting a dramatic pulse on the intended note. This is the best way to create drive or lift in your playing. Remember that dance music has a hard-driving beat at its heart. It's your job to put that beat or pulse into the music. Adding this pulse to your playing creates the lift that is much sought after in traditional Irish music. There are various ideas about where this pulse should go. While often played on the downbeat, it can also be used in conjunction with other points of technique to bring more texture to your playing. But remember, we're trying to create a throbbing heartbeat, not a cardiac arrest.

The first fingered ornament would be the single grace note. Play a B and flip the first finger up and down quickly. That is a single grace note. Now play an A. Flip the second finger up and down one time quickly. The quicker you move your finger, the more snap to the grace note. That is an A single grace note. Now play a G. Flip the third finger up and down quickly one time. That is a G single grace note. There is an Irish jig called Willie Coleman's. The first two measures are all eighth notes. They are the notes BAG AGF# | GED GBD. Using this exercise, you can now add a single grace note to the first note of the first three note groups. Single grace notes are commonly used on the first note of a note grouping, but can be used throughout tunes. This technique can be used to play any single grace note...some discretion is advised.

Next come triplets. This basically means a group of three notes joined together but unbroken by articulation. Sometimes triplets begin and end on the same note. AGA, for example. Or they can cross a wider span of notes. Such as the triplet ABC# followed by an articulated d, which is common in American fife music. Triplets can be played as one single triplet or in a series of several, such as in the Rights of Man or Belfast Hornpipe. Although a triplet is a group of three notes, it is played rhythmically as one beat. The trick to playing triplets well is to remember that the second note is the most important. Finger triplets more slowly than you think they should be played. This will help bring out the second of the three notes, which creates a clear triplet.

SPECIAL ADVISORY -- I know that these methods may not be what you've seen or read in other places. I think you are reading this to hear my thoughts and opinions. These techniques are the ones that I use and encourage my students to use as well. I'm not saying that other people are wrong, but hey, this is my column. Nyah-nyah-nyah!!!

Things coming up will include how to roll, sliding fingers, pulsing vibratos. Few of these techniques are absolutly neccessary but they are so much fun to do!!!!