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Flutopedia Symposium

Ornaments    Intermediate

Ornamentation is a core part of playing the Native American flute. Some say that ornamentation is what playing the Native American flute is all about! Ornaments add a character to the music that (in addition to the pure sound of the Native American flute) gives the instrument its characteristic sound. They also bring the instrument closer to emulating the sounds of nature.

This page provides a roster of ornaments and techniques you can use, along with descriptions and sound samples of each. The easiest ornaments are listed first, moving on to more challenging ones, and finally a demonstration of combinations of ornaments.

The playing examples on this page are all done on an F# minor flute crafted by Colyn Petersen. For information on how to play these examples, see Using the Flutopedia Sound Player.

Grace Notes

Sheet Music example of a Grace NoteA grace note is a very short note played immediately before a main note. Grace notes are not typically part of the melody of the song … they just accent the main notes.

Here are some examples of playing a single grace note before the main note:

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In modern music notation, grace notes are smaller than main melodic notes and single grace notes have a small slash through them. On written sheet music, they carry no time value and are not counted in the meter of the song. If finger diagrams are shown for the grace notes, they are shown smaller than the finger diagrams for the main notes.

Note that grace notes are often shown with a tie from the grace note to the main note, such as this:Grace note with a tie indicating that there is no break between the two notes. Although this tie is not always shown on sheet music, it is assumed.

How to play grace notes: All the variants on grace notes (mordents, trills, turns, and runs) are done with rapid finger movements. Developing speed, precision, and lightness with these movements calls for finger dexterity. To help develop finger dexterity, check out the Finger Dexterity Exercises page.

You can get creative and use any combination of multiple grace notes before the main melodic note.

Here are some specific combinations of grace notes that have their own name:

Mordent

Sheet Music example of a MordentA mordent involves playing two grace notes before the main note. The main note is played briefly as a grace note, then the next lower note as a grace note, then back up to the full main note.

Here are some examples of mordents on various notes on the F# minor scale:

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In modern music notation, a mordent has two small grace notes preceding the main note. A mordent is played without any articulation or separation between the notes. The example at the left shows a single mordent in Nakai Tablature with finger diagrams. Another way to represent a mordent in modern music notation is: Alternate representation of a Mordent ([Nakai 1996], page 31).

This type of ornament is often called the lower mordent, because the middle note is lower than the main note. It also helps to distinguish it from the next ornament …

Upper Mordent

Sheet Music example of an Upper MordentAn upper mordent substitutes the middle note of the trio of notes by moving up to the next higher note in the scale. Nakai tablature, as layed out in [Nakai 1996], does not mention this ornament, but it is described in detail in the expansive web site Dolmetsch Online ([Blood 2011]).

In addition to the individual grace notes as shown on the left, an upper mordent can be written like this: Alternate representation of an Upper Mordent (Dolmetsch Online – [Blood 2011]).

Extended Mordents

Sheet Music example of a Extended MordentsIf you play four grace notes rather than two before the main note, it's called an extended mordent. There are extended lower mordents and extended upper mordents, both shown on the sheet music on the left.

Again, these ornaments are not mentioned in [Nakai 1996] but are described in Dolmetsch Online ([Blood 2011]), along with an alternate notation that can be used on sheet music: Alternate representation of an Extended Lower Mordent for the extended lower mordent and Alternate representation of an Extended Upper Mordent for the extended upper mordent.

Turn

Sheet Music example of a TurnIf you put an upper mordent and a lower mordent together, you get a turn. A turn is a sequence of four grace notes before the main note, in a particular pattern.

Here are some examples of turns on various notes on an F# minor flute:

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In modern music notation, a turn has a sequence of four small grace notes preceding the main note. Turns are played with no articulation or separation between the notes. The example at the left shows a single turn in Nakai Tablature with finger diagrams. Another way to represent a turn on modern music notation is: Alternate representation of a Turn ([Nakai 1996], page 31). The turn is also described in Dolmetsch Online ([Blood 2011]), with some alternate ways to play the sequence of notes.

Inverted Turn

Sheet Music example of an Inverted TurnAn inverted turn reverses the middle notes of the ornament, moving first to the lower note of the trio. Nakai tablature, as layed out in [Nakai 1996], does not mention this ornament, but it is described in Dolmetsch Online ([Blood 2011]).

In addition to the individual grace notes as shown on the left, an inverted turn can be written like this: Alternate representation of an Inverted Turn (Dolmetsch Online – [Blood 2011]).

Vertical Turns

Sheet Music example of Vertical TurnsSo far, we have seen ornaments that end on the same note on which they begin (except for the first ornament, the grace note). A vertical turn lets you move down or up one note in the scale in the process of the ornament. The two versions on the left are a descending vertical turn and an ascending vertical turn. [Nakai 1996] does not discuss this ornament, but it is described in Dolmetsch Online ([Blood 2011]).

In addition to the individual grace notes as shown on the left, an ascending vertical turn can be written like this: Alternate representation of an Vertical Turn (Dolmetsch Online – [Blood 2011]). However, I have seen no shorthand for a descending vertical turn.

Extended Vertical Turns

Sheet Music example of Extended Vertical TurnsIf you want to travel more than one note in the scale from the first note of the ornament to the main note, try using an extended vertical turn. For me, these sound particularly nice on the Native American flute, but I have never seen them discussed in any reference, and the name is entirely my invention. There is also no shorthand that I know of for this ornament.


Run

Sheet Music example of a RunA run is a sequence of grace notes that ascend or descend a ladder of notes in a scale, before landing on the main note.

Here are some examples of runs:

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In modern music notation, runs are scored showing the small grace notes preceding the main note. Runs are played without any articulation or separation between the notes. The example above/left shows a single run in Nakai Tablature with finger diagrams.

The second sound sample above is a short excerpt from the Overture (Track 1) from How the West was Lost by Peter Kater and R. Carlos Nakai. It has a complex run at the very beginning of the piece. A runs like this is sometimes called a flourish. Here is a precise transcription of that particular flourish:

Sheet Music example of a Flourish

Trill

Sheet Music example of a TrillA trill is an alternating pair of notes repeated many times. Trills can be played as grace notes leading into main melodic note, or as their own separate stand-alone part of the melody.

Here are various examples of trills:

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... with the last portion of the example being a phrase that you might use in a song, loaded with different kinds of trills.

In modern music notation, trills are scored using 16th or 32nd notes, and are played without any articulation or separation between the notes. The example above/left shows a trill in Nakai Tablature with finger diagrams.

There are several ways to represent a trill in modern music notation. [Nakai 1996], page 31 shows this notation: Alternate representation of a Trill , but this is the same notation used in many situations for an upper mordent. The most common way of indicating a trill is simply: Alternate representation of a Trill (Dolmetsch Online – [Blood 2011]).

Pitch Bends

Because the Native American flute has open finger holes, it is possible to “bend” the pitch smoothly from one note to another. This opens up a whole set of ornaments and techniques for playing them.

First, here's a sample of a variety of these pitch bend techniques, intentionally overused in these melodic phrases:

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There is something subtle going on in the second sound sample. Listen carefully to the last pitch bend, the one that ends on the last note of the phrase. This last note is the lowest note on the flute, the fundamental note of the instrument. There is a difficulty of bending pitch down to this bottom note on the Native American flute. The jump between this bottom note and the next higher notes is larger than between most other notes, and trying to bend pitch produces some sound artifacts you might or might not like.

The sound sample of pitch bends above uses several types of pitch bends - we'll look at each below.

How to play pitch bends: All of the flavors of pitch bends described below are done with the fingers. For a pitch bend from a lower to a higher note, you uncover a finger hole at a much slower rate than you would normally. If you simply try to raise your finger straight up, it is usually difficult to get the sound you'd like. Experiment with these techniques to see what works best for you:

  • “Pry” your finger off of the hole, creating an increasing angle with the body of the flute while keeping your finger straight.
  • Roll your finger up or down the body of the flute. Often works best for me when trying a pitch bend up while uncovering hole 2.
  • Slide your finger up or down the body of the flute.

Slide

A Slide is a pitch bend up to, or down to a main melodic note. Here are some examples of some big slides:

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The sound sample is certainly not typical Native American flute music … it's an excerpt from Native Blues - a fast blues tracks from the SpiritGrass CD that I recorded with Eric Miller. This excerpt is from the first flute entrance, a major slide up to the top note.

The second sound sample is the opening of Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. The clarinet has a highly ornamented solo with a huge slide up to a high note. It opens with a trill, moves into a portamento and then a glissando up to the high note (see these terms below). It later uses mordents, pitch bends, more trills, slides and a lot of playfulness … WOW!

In modern music notation, slides are indicated as Slide Up for slides up to a note, and Slide Down for slides and down to a note ([Nakai 1996], page 30).

Fall Off

A Fall Off (sometimes just called a “fall”) is a drop in pitch at the end of a note. Unlike a slide, it is typically not done with the fingers, but with reducing breath pressure gradually to let the pitch (and volume) fall. This can be tricky to master … see the page on Ending Notes for more description and sound samples.

In modern music notation, a fall off is indicated as Fall Off ([Nakai 1996], page 30).

Glissando

A glissando [glis-ahn-doh] (sometimes called a “gliss” for short) connects two main melodic notes with a smooth pitch bend. The bend is often done fairly slowly to emphasize the effect.

Glissandos done from one note to the next higher note in the scale tend to be the easiest, because they typically involve only one finger. A glissando down to the next lower note is a bit harder, because your finger has to locate the hole. Glissandos between widely separated notes take quite a bit more practice to master, because they involve multiple fingers.

Another common term for this type of ornament is portamento. When trying to distinguish between instruments without the ability to do smooth pitch bends, such as a piano or a harp, and instruments that can bend pitch smootly, such as a cello or trombone, the term glissando is sometimes used for “discrete pitch bend” and portamento is used for “smooth pitch bend” (Dolmetsch Online – [Blood 2011]). However, [Nakai 1996] established the term glissando as the preferred term for this type of pitch bend in the context of Native American flutes.

In modern music notation, glissandos in the context of the Native American flute are indicated as Glissando - Nakai style based on [Nakai 1996], page 30. However, in a more general music context, they are often shown as Glissando - common usage in modern musical notation (Dolmetsch Online – [Blood 2011]).

Tonguing Techniques

These techniques are all done with the tongue. They include some advanced and esoteric articulations.

Double Tongue

Sheet Music example of Double TonguingThe double tongue attack at the start of a note is a single grace note that precedes the main melodic note. Unlike a typical grace note, which is done with fingering, the double tongue grace note is done with articulation.

Here are various examples of double tonguing:

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Of course, the two notes don't need to be the same pitch. The fingering for the main note could be different from the grace note.

How to double tongue: Say “ta Kahhh”. Practice it a few times. Now play it. That's it!

Triple Tongue

Sheet Music example of Triple TonguingThe triple tongue attack at the start of a note includes two grace notes before the main note.

Here are some examples:

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Of course, the three notes don't need to be the same pitch. The fingering for the main note could be different from the grace notes.

How to triple tongue: Say “ta ka Tahhh”. Practice it a few times. Now play it. That's it!

Continuous Double Tongue

There is another variant of these tonguing techniques called “continuous double tonguing” where the effect is carries through the note rather than just at the beginning. This can be used as a texture effect.

Here are some examples:

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How to do continuous double tonguing: Say “ta ka ta ka ta ka ta ka ...”. Practice it slowly at first, keeping an even, relaxed rhythm. Then work on building speed while keeping an even rhythm. You don't even need to have a flute around to practice this! Now play it into the flute. You can do it on a single note, or play a melodic line while continuously double tonguing.

In modern music notation, continuous double tonguing can be indicated as Continuous Double Tonguing ([Nakai 1996], page 32). Note that [Nakai 1996] calls this technique simply “double tongue”.

Rhythmic Double Tongue

Yet another variant of tonguing techniques is called “rhythmic double tonguing”, which can be used to set up a rhythm within the song.

Here is an example:

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How to do rhythmic double tonguing: Once you are comfortable doing double tonguing indefinitely, keep it up at a steady rhythm. Then start accenting random pulses in the rhythm. Find a rhythm that works for you, and then work on building a melody above it.

Flutter Tongue

The flutter tongue technique is often called the “rolled tongue” technique, because it is done by “rolling your R's” while breathing into the flute. This technique changes the texture of the sound of the flute.

Here is an example of flutter tonguing, a very short excerpt from Mark Holland's Winged Messenger track on the Born Out of Silence album:

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In modern music notation, flutter tonguing can be indicated as Flutter Tongue ([Nakai 1996], page 32).

How to flutter tongue: Roll your R's while playing the flute. Note that some people cannot do this because they've never tried, and for other people it may be physically impossible - people who have certain “tied tongue” conditions (like me!) cannot physically make this motion with their tongue.

Combined Techniques

Now we look at techniques that combine breath pressure with finger technique.

Bark

Sheet Music example of a BarkThis is a classic ornament for the Native American flute, probably because it emulates animals barking.

Here are various examples of barks:

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The second sound sample is an extract from the first track of Mary Youngblood's Beneath the Raven Moon album. She uses many many barks in the first minute of this song.

The sheet music above/left shows a very common pair of notes to use for a bark. They are scored using accented grace notes. The accents indicate that they are louder than the other notes. Notice that the slur over the notes indicates that they are played without any articulation or separation between the notes.

How to play barks: First, hold the bottom note normally, and then introduce a grace note repeatedly above the bottom note. The grace note has to be a note that gets a clean sound and will not cause an overblow. Now try accenting the grace notes with added breath pressure. It might sound like “hhhhhhhhhHHAAAhhhhhh” if you were to say it. The combination of the grace note and the substantial increase in breath pressure produces this ornament. That's it!

Pop

Sheet Music example of a PopThis is another classic ornament for the Native American flute, and a great way to end a song or a musical phrase.

Here are various examples of pops:

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The sheet music above/left shows a very common pair of notes to use for a pop. The pop is scored using an accented grace note. The accent indicates that the short grace note is louder than the main note. Notice that the slur over the notes indicates that they are played without any articulation or separation between the notes.

How to play a pop: Say “what”. Now say it with gusto: quickly and sharply, with a lot of breath pressure. Notice what happens to your stream of breath when you say it. The ending is cut off sharply. Try that in the flute while holding the bottom note on the flute steady. Now try it while timing the sharp “what” with a higher note … It is the combination of the grace note and the substantial increase in breath pressure that gets this ornament. That's it!

Clamp

Sheet Music example of a ClampA clamp is roughly the inverse of a pop.

Here are various examples of clamps:

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The sheet music above/left shows a very common pair of notes to use for a clamp. The clamp is scored using an accented grace note. The accent indicates that the short grace note is louder than the main note. Notice that the slur over the notes indicates that they are played without any articulation or separation between the notes.

How to play a clamp: Say “Ta”. Now say it with gusto: quickly and sharply, with a lot of breath pressure. Notice what happens to your stream of breath when you say it: The beginning is very sharp and then ends smoothly. Try that in the flute while holding the bottom note on the flute steady. Now try it while timing the sharp “Ta” with a higher note … It is the combination of the grace note and the substantial increase in breath pressure that gets this ornament. That's it!

Warble

The warble is a classic and distinctive sound of traditional Native American flutes. Only a small portion of present-day Native American flutes are designed to warble — it's more of a “technique” or and “effect” than an ornament.

For lots of information on the warble, see The Warble.

Combining Ornaments to Create Your Sound

Once you practice any of the techniques above for a while, they grow to be part of your sonic palate. They start popping up in your playing without even thinking about them. And the more ornaments you learn, the more they start combining together to create your unique sound and style of playing.

Here are a few tracks that demonstrate this … Homework exercise: how many ornaments can you identify?

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  1. The first track demonstrates various combinations of the ornaments on this page, on the same flute as they were demonstrated above.
  2. The second track is by Jeff Ball - a live recording of his solo at the INAFA Convention in 2006 in Taos, NM. Listen all the way through - the complex ornamentation at the end is amazing!

 

 
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