Best Way To Learn Irish/Scottish Fiddle Ornamentation

Edited: July 19, 2017, 11:05 AM · My teacher has a strong background in Irish music and has been trying to teach me ornamentation. She is quite good at it to the point that she can add it whenever she feels the need to.

I am finding that when I learn jigs, if I don't also learn the ornaments or at least try to play them, it is much more difficult to add them after I learn the music.

I read the blog Laurie posted on Irish Music ornaments with Andy Reiner. He isn't playing them quite the way my teacher does. Close, but not exactly. Her method seems much more apparent. I'm not faulting Andy, just making an observation on the differences I hear.

I am having some difficulty getting these ornaments. Similar to the difficulty I had in getting harmonics on a guitar.

Any suggestions on how to really get these well?
A practice recommendation?

My teachers methods are similar to Kevin Burke who I went to hear in person.

Replies (25)

July 19, 2017, 11:43 AM · My fiddling focus is Scottish, not Irish, but I tend to get ornaments better by listening to, and playing with, better players. Do you have the option of attending sessions or a camp? Attending those and observing master fiddlers was key for me.
Edited: July 20, 2017, 2:20 AM · Fiddle playing is learning by imitation, if you want to play like a particular player you have to copy their style. If it is not possible to go to the session, your best source is youtube or the publications by the top players, they often issue CDs or DVDs with their books. Kevin Burke published teaching DVD.

Irish fiddle bibliography
Scottish fiddle bibliography

July 20, 2017, 7:12 AM · The way I learned where to add things like burrls, turn, etc. was just listening to other people at the sessions and jams.
Edited: July 20, 2017, 8:56 AM · The way you improve your trills and mordents is by doing studies. Half of Kreutzer is trills. Someone needs to write a study book for fiddle ornamentation.
Edited: July 20, 2017, 5:52 PM · Here's my personal approach for what it's worth...

- First, I haven't rushed to include too much ornamentation in my playing. For the first few years I focused more on tone, attack, rhythm and other basics. To me it seems that ornamenting wobbly playing is simply putting lipstick on a pig... Now my foundations are a bit more solid I'm spending more time on the ornaments.

- Second, I've invested in good slowdowner software. I listen carefully to the players I most admire, slowing down their ornaments till I can begin to understand what they are up to. It seems that small differences in timing and emphasis are critical to an authentic sound, and this way you can begin to try and imitate their approach. There are lots of ornamentation tutorials on YouTube if you search for them, and the slowdowner in the YouTube player comes in useful too. Or you can download as videos or mp3s and use your own software.

- Third, I make up little exercises where I practice the ornament up and down the scale, over string crossings etc. As there are no systematic studies, we have to work things out for ourselves.

- Fourth, I'm gradually working out my own eclectic style and approach. Listening to archive recordings of Scottish fiddling it's clear that there was never such a thing as a standard style of ornamentation the way there is in military piping, so there's lots of scope for creativity while still honoring the tradition.

In terms of learning the ornaments as you're learning the tune, that may have a place for us beginners. But it's striking how the good players will rarely duplicate the same ornaments or bowings from repeat to repeat - as you say, for them it has become spontaneous. Which is we should be working towards, I feel.

July 21, 2017, 5:02 AM · Thank you for these helpful replies. Krista, yes there are a few sessions here. Mostly Irish. In fact , there's one here in my immediate area Sunday. When I go to these I get some insight, but it's usually loud where they have them in the bars and there isn't much elbow room.The one on Sunday afternoon sometimes doesn't have a fiddle player. I might be the only one.Still a worthwhile venture ;) Oh and I love Bonnie Rideout! She's a Scottish player right?

Pavel- Thank you for that info. I'm doing my best to imitate. So far It isn't happening the way I intended. I'll keep trying.

Adam- Thanks for that.

Paul- Yes, the ornamentation seems to be highly regional, or were at one time. Kevin Burke is really an englishman who went to Ireland and incorporated the Sligo style.You seem to be classically trained and this is a good approach too if I can find techniques to augment it.


I think you hit the nail on the head here. I'm still considered beginner or beginning intermediate, so maybe I'm putting the cart before the horse. I think I was concerned I would have more trouble learning the ornaments later as opposed to making them a regular part of my practice.
If I get it right once,then I can continue to practice it. The problem is, so far I'm still trying to get the first ones right. I can get close.

My two favorites are the brief "hammer on" by a non playing finger, and the swipe. Both look very easy when my teacher does it.I believe it's a matter of timing. My timing is just a tad slow. Same with the swipe.I'm not slow, but I'm doing these slow :)

I like your point 4 Geoff. I think I'm finally starting to "let go" so to speak of the rigidity of the written music. I'm starting to feel the music and look at it more in the Irish way, like it's a private interpretation of the written music. Still in time so others can follow, but open to artistic nuance. This can be difficult for someone who plays a lot of notation. It's the only way I can get these tunes down to begin with because I don't know all of them. Probably never will since there are probably thousands of them.
Something like the Tarbolton is more difficult for me to find a place for ornamentation.
Others are easier and give more space, like the Kesh, Cliffs Of Moher, The Butterfly. Those basic beginner songs are where I've been trying to add the ornaments.

I want it to eventually become spontaneous.
Thanks for that good advice all.

Edited: July 21, 2017, 10:40 AM · I've had numerous Irish fiddle tutors in my time, most of them quite good, a few not quite so. In my experience the ones to avoid are those who teach tunes so s-l-o-w-l-y, a couple of measures at a time, that the students can't get the feeling of whether it is a reel or jig (I'm not joking), even less the structure and sound of the tune.

The other one to avoid is the tutor who over-ornaments the tune to the extent that it is really difficult to get the hang of the basic tune - a bit like over-decorating a Christmas tree so that you can't see the tree itself.

In both these instances, unless the tutor provides sheet music, the best recourse is to look up the tune on-line. The leading on-line source is the Irish music forum, in which the number of (mostly) Irish tunes on its database runs into five figures, each tune with well-printed sheet music for down-loading, and often with useful comments from the membership.

July 21, 2017, 6:22 AM · I once attended a workshop with Martin Hayes who asked what people wanted to learn. Of course ornamentation was at the top of the request list. He said, "Ok, listen to this." and he proceeded to play a beautifully intricate and rhythmic reel as only he can do. When done he asked, "what did you notice about that tune? What was unique about it?" We all sat silent and he said, "I didn't play one ornament".

James Kelly is as good an Irish fiddler as ever lived and you can get a few Skype lessons from him. He has put a lot of thought into the structure of the music and how to teach it. He's great for teaching the fundamentals of ornamentation and how to practice them. Search for his web site.

July 21, 2017, 8:40 AM · Bach and other baroque keyboard music is often laden with ornamentation, sometimes (depending on the editor) excessively. As a piano student I was taught to learn the piece first before dealing with the ornaments.
Edited: July 21, 2017, 9:21 AM · Trevor you have certainly had some varied experiences.
I've noticed the skill level at the session seems to determine how fast the songs go.
Since these are mostly upbeat tunes with a few exceptions there isn't much slow happening.
I am sometimes using the The confusing thing there is there are sometimes multiple instances of the same tune, maybe even in a different key. In those cases I need to consult the local players to determine the one I need to learn. I just ran into this in looking at a tune my teacher suggested I learn. She called it" The Sally Gardens" There is also a slower tune by the same name. She was referring to a reel.
To further complicate the issue, one tune might go by several names.The is a fantastic resource though.

Tom, Yes I see your point. Well made. I will look up James Kelly and thank you.
Maybe not classified as ornamentation but no less effective are the ways in which the beat is accentuated by the bow and the ability to bring notes in and out of focus with bow pressure.Different beats are sometimes stressed in Irish music.Slides and carrying one note along with changes almost like a drone figure in too. IOW they see a passage as a total musical "word" instead of playing each letter of that word.Triplets aren't usually really triplets in the technical sense. It might be more like da daaa da or da de de daa, even though the note is written like a triplet. An ornament might take up one 8th note in 6/8 time.In a triplet it might be da swipe da.

And here's the next thing that I think might be a hang up. I'm failing to account for the time an ornament takes. Simply adding an ornament would take the music out of time.Even though my ornaments aren't correct they take time from the music and must be accounted for.

Paul, good point.

Edited: July 21, 2017, 9:36 AM · I agree with Geoff that a good slowdowner software is
indispensable to get the "feel" of fiddle music. Some times this ornamentation can't be written out, or if it is notated, will change with the whim of the performer, in the moment. A good fiddler will play the way they feel and never the same way twice, apart from a basic structure. Often people who learn from sheet music play the same piece, in the same way because they didn't learn the music by ear.
Edited: July 22, 2017, 5:13 AM · @Timothy, the "rule" in Irish traditional music is that each tune has at least 6 different names; a (very) slight exaggeration of course, but a general principle, and a quick browse through the tunes section of supports it. To make life even more interesting, sometimes you learn a tune by a particular name, and when you go another session a few miles away you discover that that name is used for an entirely different tune. I've long given up trying to keep track of the names of the tunes I know!

Referring to the Sally Gardens reel, it is actually a much faster dance version of a beautiful old song of the same name, "Down By The Sally Gardens", ("song" as in "sung by a singer", of course).

Edited: July 22, 2017, 6:18 PM · @Trevor.Yes I'm finding this out. Sometimes I wonder what I've gotten myself into.
I like the slower version you mentioned and I've been playing it . I can play the other one , just not to my liking yet ;)
Listening to the recordings of that tune is nothing like the notation.
July 23, 2017, 7:21 AM · Many times, in all manner of Celtic music, the ornaments come for a reason, at the same melodic "signature". Often this is the result of adapting the tune from pipes (of some kind) to the fiddle.
Bag pipes, for example, can't play repeated notes, so every time they have repeated notes, they insert an ornament, a roll or cut or flick, etc , etc.
Peter Cooper does a good job of discussing fiddle ornaments in his "Complete Irish Fiddler" book and CD.

The "double" or birl, or whatever you want to call it, is always found (placed) in a particular rhythmic and melodic place.

There are a few conventions like this to "discover". Listen, try, imitate, experiment, listen some more.

You will notice that all of this is done in solo fiddling. In ensemble work, not everyone likes it when all the fiddlers add their own ornaments as and when they choose.

July 23, 2017, 7:30 AM · If you can read music you should be able to write down notation for the ornamentations and then work from there. In my opinion there is no BASIC thing in music that cannot be written down and then worked into one's playing from there - other, perhaps, than some fine details that personalize it.
July 24, 2017, 11:25 AM · @Graeme I knew of adaptations from hornpipe tunes. Didn't know about the adaptations from bagpipes. Thank you for that. Also thanks for the other info.Peter Cooper seems like a good resource.

@Andrew Thank you!I agree. One of my Irish music books has ornament symbols. I need to look at what they mean. It would be a good place to start. Although actually playing them is the largest challenge.My teacher has written in suggested places to play them on some of my music.

Since I'm currently training myself to play without written music I didn't want to become too dependent on it. Would be a great way to begin to understand better though. Right now I'm looking at the written music, going to sessions and learning how they really play it :)

July 24, 2017, 4:48 PM · I guess it all starts with a pint of Guinness.
Edited: July 25, 2017, 4:04 AM · @Graeme I'm quite interested in your mention of the Pipes, I'm a Piper currently learning the violin and I've been looking at the ornaments on the violin and trying to correlate them to the embellishments we play on the pipes. About the only one that I think shares a common name is the birl. I've got no idea which ones would correspond to say a Taorluath or a Lemluath, let alone a Crunluath A Mach!

Has anyone published anything that looks at the similarities? I'd love to read more about it.

@Geoff, Your comment on standardisation within military piping is quite accurate, I'm a current piper in the military myself and you can see how the military in the Victorian era brought this around, especially in the Piobaireachd as opposed to Ceol Beag,

July 25, 2017, 5:27 AM · @Rocky If I were a 20-30 year player maybe I could get away with that. Being fairly new to it, I need all the help I can get, so I don't drink during sessions :)The beer is free too.

I'm probably not Irish because a half glass of red wine every now and then or the occasional beer are plenty for me.I have the occasional Guinness, but I prefer a nice pilsner.

I have considered starting a meetup group for Irish/scottish music held somewhere besides a bar.. No drinking just serious learning and playing.

I've seen veteran players play complicated runs while yawning and nodding off after numerous beers. Probably can't walk but they can still play ;)

July 25, 2017, 8:50 AM · @Brent - there's a tendency in Scotland these days for pipers to loosen up outside of bands and competition - especially when playing Border Pipes or Small Pipes. There are lots of creative things going on.

You see this in fiddling too - ornamentation is becoming more eclectic, with a mix of Scottish, Irish and Cape Breton influences. Though I suspect that it was ever thus. For example in Shetland they used to pick up Irish radio more easily than Scottish radio, which must have influenced the style.

On the one hand you get traditionalists like Paul Anderson who stay close to a particular regional style, and on the other you have musicians like Alasdair Fraser who use everything from the Baroque to Bluegrass. Both have their place, I think, as the music evolves.

July 25, 2017, 4:26 PM · Geoff, I absolutely agree that everything has its place. Have a go, I say, and if its fun to listen to and fun to play, work on.

The fiddle hit the Shetland islands in about 1750, and grew in numbers until, (as Peter Cooke reports in The Fiddle Traditions of The Shetland Isles, CUP 1986) that as many as one fiddle for every ten people could be found in the islands. As fiddling was a male thing, in that period on the Shetland Islands, the ratio would be even higher among "potential players". Now, when the first community halls were built on the Islands in about 1860, the fiddle wasn't loud enough for their dancing, and the accordion and piano became the norm for dance music. Playing the fiddle waned. And this was long before radio.

Shetlanders, like all fiddlers, took their tunes from anywhere they liked, and much of their influence came south, from the Scandinavian cultures, via whaling crews, herring crews, etc.

Scottish (and so also Irish) influences probably came from the seasonal workers who to the Islands (many of these workers were girls).

As for learning "everything" by ear, one of the reasons fiddling has been of a fairly low standard is that too many people thought it was the only way to go (even though hundreds of tune collections have been published in UK since 1600). Learn to read fiddle tune, as well as learning them by ear.

Edited: July 25, 2017, 7:27 PM · .. then it continues with a good-looking Irish lady smiling at you every time you do an ornament or two...
July 26, 2017, 5:31 AM · @Geoff, Aye I've definitely seen that, we do make it up to Scotland to play fairly regularly, in fact I'm up there again this weekend for a parade. We somehow always manage to find ourselves in a convivial musical pub setting after our gig!

I also play the bellows blown Scottish Smallpipes and we've had the odd impromptu ceilidh in the Mess which is certainly a lot more relaxed than the bulk of what we do!

Do you think any Pipers such as the late Gordon Duncan have had an influence back towards the violin oevre? I know he was quite influenced by what was going on in Brittany, (I've played in the stadium at Lorient myself at the Interceltique Festival and there's certainly a lot going on during that week) and I wonder if some of his session tunes have found favour on the violin.

July 26, 2017, 8:47 AM · @Graeme - you're certainly right about the Shetland tradition being complex. I used to live a few yards from the School of Scottish Studies and would drop in from time to time to use the archive. There were a huge range of styles being played on the islands.

I suspect that the fiddle style become more standardised through Tom Anderson's work to revive the instrument, but it's still evolving. Aly Bain has recorded a number of tunes more than once over the years, and you can hear how his playing has absorbed various influences, especially from Scandinavia, in his recent work.

A couple of years back I had dinner with the guy who runs the community arts programme in Shetland, and the fiddle has never been healthier. Every kid is given the opportunity to learn, and the standard of the youngsters they are producing is simply thrilling.

@Brent - as for pipe influence, I suspect there has always been interchange, especially on the West Coast. Johnson devotes a whole chapter to the topic in his book on 18th century Scottish fiddle music, and Scott Skinner used pipe-influenced ornamentation in his Highland airs such as Dargai: I know that fiddlers have picked up a few of Gordon Duncan's tunes, but what sort of influence are you thinking of specifically?

July 27, 2017, 2:24 AM · @Geoff, well exactly that really. I'd wondered if any of Gordons tunes had been picked up by fiddlers. I suspected they most likely had but didn't know for sure. Coming from the piping world there is so much to learn and find out about the fiddle!

I've only just picked up a copy of the Harp and Claymore book by Skinner and I'm having a wonderful time finding old familiar friends in it!

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