There is an accompanying video for this posting, here.
Ornaments are like spices in cookery. Even though they are small, they add a lot of flavour. The right ones are essential, for that authentic taste. But the wrong ones, or the right ones used badly, can spoil the whole dish, even when the main ingredients are good. Some you need to add from the start and bake slowly, others you can sprinkle on at the last minute.
The best way to get confident with ornaments is to learn one at a time. So at Scoil na gCláirseach, the summer school of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland, we came up with the idea of an Ornament of the Month. If you practise an ornament 2 or 3 times a week, by the end of a month you’ll be ready to move on to the next one. And by next summer, you will have a good collection of ornaments that you know how to play, and (even more important) that you know where to use.
The ornaments in this series (and especially their fingerings) are specific to Irish harp. European ornaments are sometimes different. Historical fingerings on other harps (in particular, French single-action harp of the same period) are different.
But these fingerings are suitable for neo-Irish (i.e. modern, ‘Celtic’ or ‘lever’) harps as well as Historical (wire-strung) Irish harps.
I focus on the 18th century: the music of O’Carolan, the harp-playing of Denis Hempson, the first printed publications of Irish music, the style of the last itinerant players as collected by Bunting and others around 1800.
Bunting’s table of ornaments with fingerings for Irish harp is the principal source for technical details. His transcriptions, and those by Ford, show how players of the time applied the ornaments to particular tunes.
From the end of the 17th century, we have tables of ornaments (from Playford & Purcell in England, D’Anglebert in France, and many others) which show strong correlations with what Bunting noted down a hundred years later, supporting the hypothesis that Irish 18th-century playing preserved features of earlier French style. Georg Muffat’s detailed analysis of how to apply French ornaments is also consistent with what we see in Irish sources. There are certain differences of course, and Bunting points these out: where relevant, I will repeat his warnings.
How to practise
As for any other technical skill, practise your ornaments at first very slowly. So slowly, that you get them absolutely correct, with no possibility of error. Once your fingers have learnt what to do, try a fast one: just launch yourself into it, and see how it flies.
Avoid practising at medium tempo, stumbling & correcting: if you repeat a mistake again and again, it will become permanent!
Practise slowly enough to be perfect … and then play fluently, without stopping.
The Long Shake
So, after all that preamble, here is the first Ornament of the Month, the Long Shake. It’s a good one to start with, because it teaches the fine control and finger-substitution that are needed for many other ornaments too. And there are many chances to use it in Irish tunes. Here it is:
If you are checking against your own copy of Bunting (and you should always check against original sources, if you possibly can!), you’ll notice that I have modernised the fingering notation to thumb=1, index=2, middle=3, ring=4, little finger=5.
Rest your treble hand on the harp, as seen in period images. This will steady your hand, so that your fingers can move lightly on the strings. Arrange fingers 3 and 4 to strike the same (main note) string. The index finger 2 strikes the upper note.
Use small finger motions for the fast notes of the Shake. Use a greater range of finger movement, and a slower movement, for a long note.
Once you have the basic action of the long shake going nicely, you can take just a few iterations to make a Shake that will fit into the rhythm of your tune.
Bunting does not specify any damping, but I suggest that at the end of this Shake, you let your index finger stop its (upper note) string, leaving the main note to sound alone. I show this with the small, crossed-out notehead on the upper note, the damping finger  in square brackets, and the main note that sounds on in red.
Notice that this Irish Shake (unlike its English and European cousins) begins on the main note, not the upper note. Also, there is no turn through the lower note at the end of the shake, it just stops.
Begin the Shake on the beat, not ahead of time. This is sometimes difficult for modern players, who have been taught to place ornaments ahead of the beat. Synchronise the first note of the ornament with your bass note, or with your tapping foot.
Bunting doesn’t say anything about this, but other 18th-century sources emphasise the importance of making the ornament start with a strong note, and end softly.
In general, on the beat, and loud-soft are good general guidelines for many ornaments.
That’s it: now it’s up to you to practise. Shake slow and perfect, or Shake speedily, flying fluently. Time spent now practising very slow and very perfect is an investment that will reward you handsomely later.
And in my next post, I’ll show you how you can take a tune and apply your well-practised Shake.
Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com . Further details of original sources are on the website, click on “New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance”
Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.