When we first dive into a new piece of music, it’s like entering into a whole new world. Everything is fresh and exciting and new.
And from these first few steps we hope to create a polished, reliable, beautiful piece of music.
But how we traverse this new terrain affects how it sounds in the end. It matters how we handle the twists and turns. It matters how we sculpt the figures.
In music with ornaments, there is a path that will lead you through safely and securely.
What Are Ornaments?
Ornaments are embellishments that add to the psychological character of a musical line.
A very common ornament is the trill. But we can also use “grace notes”, slides, rolled chords, and other techniques to ornament notes.
Ornaments Have Rules
The laws of reason and taste suggest against putting a 100-pound gold star on top of a six-foot Christmas tree. We can predict this would crush the tree and defeat the purpose.
So it is with musical ornaments. Ornaments serve specific purposes and need to obey a set of rules. Otherwise, they distract from the musical line (melody) and confuse the musical communication.
One of the main rules ornaments must obey is this: Ornaments must not distort the basic rhythm and pulse of the musical line.
Ornaments must not distort the basic rhythm and pulse of the musical line.
Don’t Mess with the Underlying Rhythm
Ornaments serve to add emphasis and character to a musical line.
If an ornament alters the underlying pulse of the music, its overstepped it’s bounds. It is now upstaging the main point (the melody) and is subtracting from rather than adding to the music.
When First Learning Music, Omit the Ornaments
So, when we first learn music with ornaments, it’s best to omit them until we’ve mastered the music without them.
After we have the actual musical line in mind, we can then reintroduce the ornaments.
Because we’ve worked through the line without the ornaments, we’ll be more likely to notice if we do anything to corrupt the rhythm.
Yes, This Means You, Too.
This rule of learning music applies to players at all levels. It’s tempting to think that we can get away without going through this process, because of XYZ.
But the best players will approach music in this way.
When we deconstruct the music we understand the different elements involved. Then we play with more organization and beauty.
Bonus: It’s Faster!
It is also easier to work on simple lines of music. When we deconstruct the music and play the parts separately, we learn the music on a deeper level.
When we put the parts together again, we bring all that experience of the separate lines to the task. Because we know each separate part, we can notice interactions, similarities and contrasts.
Music will come to a higher level in the same or less time when we use a logical process to first learn a tune.
Otherwise, it’s common to ingrain mistakes that take a long time to overcome and retrain.
What is Rubato?
We could also think of rubato as a sort of ornament.
Rubato is a jargon term that means speeding up or slowing down.
Rubato is stretching or compressing time.
A very common form of rubato is the “_ritard_”, or “_ritardando_” (often abbreviated, “rit.”. This term suggests that we slow down.
Other forms of rubato include accelerandos (speeding up), fermatas (suspending time), and others.
Time Is Relative – Know Your Starting Point
To play with time, we must first establish a point of comparison.
We (and the listener) must first know the given speed and pulse of the music. Once this is firmly in mind, we can then alter it.
“Imagine a rubber band. If you stretch it too much, it breaks. If you relax it too much, it sags.”
A former teacher of mine described it this way: “Imagine a rubber band. If you stretch it too much, it breaks. If you relax it too much, it sags.” (The Buddha also used a similar metaphor in describing “The Middle Way” as the best path in life.)
When First Learning a Tune, Omit Rubato
Leave out any stretching or compressing of time when first learning a new piece.
First master the music without the altered time/pulse. Then you can alter time with greater intention and with better results.
Special Note About the Tricky Spots
It’s very tempting to slow down at the tricky spots.
After we do this many times in practice, we come to hear the slow down as “right”. It becomes natural to our ears.
The problem is that other people still hear it as “wrong”.
So, be sure you can play your music without any stretching or compressing time before you alter it.
If you need to take extra time to work out the tricky spot, or if you need to improve your skills in some way, do it. It’s all for the better.
How You Practice Is How You Play
When we take the time to learn music intentionally, with a mindful process and patience, we get more from practice.
First, we become better musicians. We gain new skills when we need them. We notice any problems at a root level and work to fix them. Our music becomes more organized and everything we play sounds better.
And second, we have more fulfilling practices. When we explore music with curiosity and interest, we are more likely to enter a state of “flow”. We have more incremental successes and form deeper relationships with our pieces.
Omit any ornaments or rubato when first learning a new piece.
Focus on the “means whereby” you learn a tune, rather than an end goal of just learning notes.