Making Right and Wrong Turns

Making Right and Wrong Turns

What is it about ornaments that result in near-fist fights as opinions fill the air? Perhaps because they are the last vestiges of improvisation for most classically-trained musicians - but I cannot say for sure. Sometimes the tirades take on the air of “I know better” and march into an esoteric cerebral landscape territory which, in the end, does no one any good when trying to communicate Music (with a capital “M”) to an audience.

Taking turns as an example, one can start on the upper (and invisible) note or on the main (and visible) note. One can play it fast or slowly. One can start in a number of places within the rhythmic texture. All of this becomes layered in thoughts of performance practices of centuries past, whether a turn should hinge more on a rhythmic or melodic treatment, and what a composer wrote or taught. Almost always, more than one “correct” answer is available, but teachers fret over whether an adjudicator might be upset by ornaments played “incorrectly”.

Yes, myriad wrong answers populate the sphere of the possible, but so do proper ones. Knowing the rules is crucial, and one must actually know them thoroughly before stepping into the world of the ornament anomalies. Crowdsourcing answers on social media is not a reliable crutch; one simply must do the brainwork to understand how ornaments work in order to get through the long haul of a lifetime of repertoire successfully.

Look at the following turn and visually rely on your instincts to tell you what to do.

Questions to ponder: What notes should the turn encompass? Where should the turn start rhythmically? Should the turn start on the upper note or main note? Here are some possibilities based on what the eye sees:

A confession now. I altered several elements like the time and key signature, and left out several more details like the composer, left hand, tempo marking. Could these make a difference? Here is the original, the opening bars from the Rondo in C Major, op. 51 no. 1, by Beethoven:

Why, yes, it makes a huge difference! Knowing that it is 1797 Beethoven rather than Chopin narrows our options (I will leave it to you to learn why if you do not know). Seeing the “character” descriptors of dolce and grazioso becomes relevant as does the dynamic of piano. Our choice should be based on all of these factors. Then the issue becomes one of “too many notes” in a short time span to make musical sense. Could the placement of the turn throw us off? Might it be possible to play the it earlier?

Trying a number of solutions, my ear draws me to this:

beethoven 5

Playing the turn earlier divides the beats up more evenly – meaning that the quarter note no longer holds court – and one can play this melodically and rhythmically in this context. The turn sign actually shows up exactly where it would be musically awkward to play it. Later composers would have written this passage completely differently, placing the turn somewhere after the fifth note (C).

I invite you to listen to Sviatoslav Richter play this. Do I teach my students to do the ornamentation the way he did? Actually, no, because he has “broken one of the rules” but we can disagree and still both be “right”.

Beethoven, Rondo in C Major, op. 51 no. 1


The lesson then is - continue learning, follow the rules until they do not work, and make joyful music always.


Ornaments for thought:

With this in mind, how would YOU tackle these turns that appear later in the piece?

beethoven 5
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Deborah Rambo Sinn

Deborah Rambo Sinn