The next few pages on the Menu Bar of this site deal with ornamentation in  detail, but it’s also worth considering its purpose and where and how it’s judicious to ornament.

The main ornaments which one uses on the Anglo concertina for trad Irish music are the cut, the roll and the drone ( or chord). Whilst they enrich one’s playing, they are not ends in themselves. They all are really part of the touchstone feature of good playing, which is rhythm. Cuts and rolls impart a lift or bounce to the ornamented note, and break up the sequence of continuous quavers or crotchets that this music ( mostly ) consists of.

However, a good player will have their rhythm/ timing established before ornaments are added. On the concertina ( and certain other instruments) ornamentation is a more latter-day feature, Unlike the uillean pipes or fiddle, many of the older players used a very steady and simple style. Yet their playing was effective and rhythmic. You can hear this sort of style in the playing of Fr Charlie Coen, Chris Droney and Mary Macmahon. Whether old Mrs Crotty and Kitty Hayes of the County Clare  were the same I don’t know.

Now, I’m not harking back to the ‘good old days’ and discouraging the use of ornamentation. I love it, use  it, and aspire to ever higher levels of it. But I guess I’m saying, don’t put the cart before the horse. Get your rhythm right first. We’ve all heard players in sessions who struggle ( usually with copious facial expressions) to push out that latest reel with all those ornaments they’ve been working so hard on at home. And so often the tune gets lost as s/he loses rhythm, rushes ahead, or drops behind a quaver-length or two, and we can’t play along. I know only too well because I’ve done the same.

Sometimes it’s just ‘session nerves’, but sometimes it’s because the player has not prioritised the keeping of a solid rhythm. If you are able to hold a steady rhythm your playing will be appreciated far more by your fellow sessioneers ( or band members) than impressive ornamentation. So, let it come in its own good time ( which I must admit can take years for some things like rolls).

Overall, the use of cuts is more important in imparting rhythm/ lift, than the inclusion of rolls, particularly in ensemble playing. Some rolls on concertina come much more readily than others. But you can stay rhythmic and avoid sounding inept by playing instead of a roll –

  • a crotchet then quaver on the note
  • play a 3-quaver figure based around the note.

As an example, here are the first 2 bars of the Kesh Jig –

–  and  those dotted crotchets,  G and A, are rolls. But what if they’re not working for you ?  You can play this instead –

Or this –

There are almost always ways to get around a difficult ornament. And the top players use these 2 alternatives to rolls above as well, to vary their playing. The over-use of rolls can really wear thin.

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