5 top tips for practising ornaments

By Melanie Spanswick

An aspect of piano playing which can be extremely tricky to implement is the inclusion of ornaments. An ornament is an embellishment or a ‘decorative’ added note pattern, in other words, notes which are not intrinsic to the overall structure of a piece.

They appear frequently in piano music, particularly in music from the Baroque and Classical periods, and their inclusion can easily derail a performance. Students can become so consumed with worry about ‘fitting’ the ornament into a passage, that it often deems the said passage unsteady rhythmically, sometimes causes a complete breakdown.

Whilst there are many ‘set’ ornamental patterns, and we could discuss forever about how they should be interpretated within a phrase (this depends on many stylistic factors), one thing remains certain; they must be played with care, rhythmic precision and ‘active’ or engaged fingers for clarity and precision. Therefore, how can we practise our ornaments, so that they lie comfortably under the fingers, contributing to a delightful performance. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Start by locating the ornament you wish to practice; it could be a trill, turn or mordent etc. Ensure that you are happy with your chosen fingering; does it work well with the preceding and succeeding material in your piece, for example?
  2. Now take the ornament out of context and work at it in isolation. It always a good idea to learn the piece without the ornament(s) to begin with, because this allows you to become accustomed to the pulse and note patterns before adding the fiddly embellishments, which bodes well for a clean account.
  3. Work at the note pattern within your ornament extremely slowly, sticking to your suggested fingering and using your finger-tips to produce a deep sonorous touch. Employing a deep touch, that is, playing into the key-bed, or delving to the bottom of the key, will help to firm up your fingers as well as cement the ornament note pattern. I advise my students to engage in the development of the first finger joint or the joint closest to the finger-tip. Engaging this joint, preferably in a ‘hooked’ finger position, allows for complete control of the key and eventually produces the ‘active’ fingers needed for close note oscillations, which are required in ornamental patterns.
  4. When secure at a slow speed, add accents. Decide which note of the ornament feels less secure, and add an accented touch to that note. Now add it to the stronger finger/s, so that you have eventually played each note in the embellishment with an accent. Further to this, another highly beneficial practice tool is to play each note in the ornament twice (or even three times), essentially playing duplets and triplets of each note within the ornament pattern. This is so useful, as it encourages a firm connection with the key.
  5. When these practice tools have been fully assimilated and worked at for a while, return to the ornament as written and play it up to speed, but with a much lighter touch. You should find that you can ‘skim’ the note patterns rhythmically and evenly.

As you add the ornament back into the piece, keep it light, fingers remaining close to the keys, for an effective and speedy embellishment, which should ideally not interfere with the rhythm or structural passagework of the piece.