About Ornamentation

As part of the front matter of the La Chavannée tunebook, the editors wrote a small introductory paragraph. Chris Ryall, the euro-oriented melodionista over on melodeon.net did a rough translation of the piece. In part, it reads:

Notation has been deliberately stripped of all ornament, and of various variations. Obviously, only beginners would then play these melodies 'as written' - for [other musicians] that would be sheer nonsense. One of the great strengths of Traditional Music has properly been a constant re-birth of its underlying melodies, nourished within the format of their associated dances. Musical notation has only a small role in this. It's all about interpretation.

I've heard this kind of statement in reference to a number of traditional musics, and I have to say -- if I might indulge in a bit of confession -- the ornamentation of trad music has bedeviled me since I first picked up a tin whistle in 1989. Each tradition -- Irish, English, Scottish, French, Quebecois -- has different expectations of what correct ornamentation is, and different expectations about how pedantically that "correctness" should be adhered to. The regimentation of Scottish bagpipe ornaments, for example, is legendary. When I played Irish music -- on flute, not accordion -- it was inevitable that a conversation would break out amongst anxious beginners. How to do the rolls! I found it very intimidating! Can you play that at speed?

"It's all about interpretation." When I did play Irish music, my ear tended to favor the less florid styles. I preferred Jack and Charlie Coen above all others, and was pleased to model my playing on theirs. I've never been a great musician -- either on flute or accordion -- but I've gotten good, and I love the instrument and love the music, and I hope that comes through. I try to play in a reasonably simple way that allows the tune to shine.

Playing Ornaments: At no point do my fingers leave my hands!
But I think about the ornaments, the twiddly-bits. Ornaments and variation are the "content" of interpretation. These can be cuts, rolls, trills, etc., or they can be rubato, fermata, actual melodic variation, harmonic variation, rhythmic variation, arrangements, dynamics, etc. The left hand. The right hand. I think I do okay with this. The Chavannée values articulated above are welcoming and inspire me to do better.

It's all about interpretation. The point is not to get it right. The point is to continue to play in a reasonably simple way that allows the tune to shine, and to continue learning the language of interpretation. Always continue learning.

Maybe that doesn't need to be said, but sometimes, I think, I need to hear it.

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