A few thoughts on Ornaments

The subject of Ornaments, embellishments or musical flourishes, has cropped up several times over the past few weeks, both in my student’s lessons and whilst writing the Piano Notes for the ABRSM 2015/6 piano syllabus published by Rhinegold. I’ve been contributing to the Piano Notes Series for many of the Grade 1 – 3 pieces, and several A list works contain ornaments of some kind. They decorate a melodic line, colouring it, usually by the addition of quick notes around a ‘central’ note, adding beauty and variation.

There are a myriad of ways to interpret these ornaments, (trills, mordents, turns and the like) depending on the period of the work, the composer and character of the piece. The actual interpretation doesn’t normally pose many issues, as pupils will generally be advised how to play them by a teacher, if not, the internet provides an excellent source of information and there are plenty of publications dealing with this subject too. It’s the physical aspect of incorporating them which seems to cause the grief, and for some students, Ornaments can become a real nemesis, instigating stumbles and hesitations. A good plan is to learn to assimilate and feel comfortable playing ornaments as soon as possible, because they appear from the very beginning of a pianist’s journey.

So how to practice embellishments with secure, reliable results? Here are a few ideas which have recently helped my students to overcome potential issues.

  1. Many don’t like excluding ornaments when first learning a piece, but this can be helpful in order to get a sense of the outline, structure and more importantly, grasp the pulse firmly. The last point is a crucial one because adding ‘extra’ notes really can destabilise the rhythm for many pupils, particularly inexperienced players.
  2. Once the pulse has been grasped, write the ornament clearly into the music. This shows exactly how it must be played, and will help to eradicate any uncertainties, illustrating just how the extra notes will easily ‘fit in’. Many aspects of piano playing are physiological, and it seems once the notes are in the score, they become part of it rather than a scary added ‘extra’.

A small section of a Baroque work with a trill such as this:

Baroque trill 1

Might be written out and interpreted like this, which is definitely easier and clearer to play and comprehend:

Baroque trill 2

3.  Some find it useful to sing the melody with the ornament/s – this facilitates good rhythm and an awareness of the musical line. Try doing this away from the piano too, but be sure to set a strict pulse and adhere to it. ‘Speaking’ the ornament out loud seems to clarify rhythmically ‘even’ playing.

4.  When it comes to practising, fingering will be paramount. Most teachers will have good suggestions, however, one facet which can become problematic is evenness, not just rhythmically, but tonal clarity too. To help with this, start by isolating the ornament. Mentally embed the fingering by using active, strong fingers, repeating the pattern a few times. I’ve written about employing physical flexibility, particularly in faster passage work, copiously on this blog! In ornaments, however, it is essential. Allowing the wrist to move rotationally between every note, each finger thus sinking into the key producing a heavy, rich (and necessarily loud tone), can be a fruitful way to work (practice the ornament this way both slowly and up to speed). Make sure your upper body feels relaxed between every note. No tension at all! Now lighten the trill (or whatever ornament is being worked on), using less movement and sound, to reveal a clear, even, rhythmical and hopefully, expressive ornament.

5.  Other viable practice methods include working in dotted rhythms and reverse dotted rhythms (just on the ornament). Using staccato or detached touches seems to work effectively too. This also builds on the idea of using a ‘heavy’ touch, but the fact that the notes are shorter, emphasises articulation and a crisp rhythm.

6.  Once the trill in question has been learnt thoroughly, try to visualize playing it in one motion or movement, this shouldn’t be too challenging once point number 4 has been fully digested.

7.  Now incorporate the ornament into the phrase; watch out for dynamic markings, the embellishment should add to the melody, so expressive colour and musical shape will be important.

8.  Finally, add the left or right hand (depending on which contains the trill), balancing the sound and listening carefully because the ornament must be part of the texture rather than a feature.

There are many other ways of practising these sumptuous  decorations, and with a little thought and work, they will become a beautiful part of the melodic line, and a positive addition to any performance.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. pianolearner says:

    a really intersting post. thank you.

    1. Thank you. Glad you liked it and thanks for reading….

  2. Efrat says:

    A great post! I really liked the topic and the tips. Also i’m glad to discover that i practise ornaments in the right way (i haven’t thought that playing stoccato helps with ornaments, i usually practise difficult passages that way) .
    I do have a question-many times when i play passages and use the thumb, it disturbes the eveness and the thumb comes out emphasized (if you understand what i mean) . How do i lighten the touch of the thumb ?

    1. Hi Efrat, So glad you liked the article and find it helpful. The thumb can cause problems can’t it? Especially when playing Alberti Bass passages. If the other 4 fingers are strong and active, then lightening the thumb should be easier, so try building the strength in the other fingers first. Also make sure the fingering for passages chosen allows for a lighter thumb. Careful listening can help too….and a free upper body, especially the wrist, contributes to a more balanced hand.

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