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Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About...
CROSS STRING ORNAMENTATION
© 1999 Stanley Yates

What Are They?
A Modern Technique?
Practicing Them

 

What Are They?

For those of you who may not know what these things are, a cross-string ornament is simply a trill (or other ornament) that is plucked between two strings, instead of being played with the more traditional method of slurring on a single string with the left hand. The resulting sound is brilliant, articulate, and incisive, in contrast to the smooth legato effect of slurred ornaments. Here are three basic types I've used in my Mel Bay arrangements [figure 1]:


Although there are many possibilities for the right-hand fingering of these figures, these are the fingerings I use myself (more on this later).

 


A Modern Technique? [Top]

Although it is only relatively recently that modern guitarists have embraced the technique, cross-string ornamentation itself is not a recent phenomenon. Though earlier plucked instrumentalists usually employed slurred ornaments (as shown by the left-hand finger dispositions indicated in tablatures, fingerings in notated scores and descriptions in historical treatise and method books), it turns out that a number of early "pluckers" did in fact use the cross-string technique as well.

The Spanish guitarist Santiago de Murcia wrote the following ornament in his tablature collection of music for the five-course guitar, the Resumen (1714):

[Murcia  probably used octave stringing on the lower course (hence the different sized noteheads in the transcription). The passage appears in mm. 11-12 of the Allemande on pages 263-4 of Murcia's collection.]


The Scottish guitarist Robert Bremmer, in his Instructions for playing the wire-string "guittar" (1758), described the Shake as follows:

"performed by the Thumb and Fore-finger of the Right-Hand, sounding that [trilled] note alternately with the open String above."

[Thanks to my good friend Rob MacKillop for pointing out this example to me. For more, see his edition, Scottish Traditional Music for Guitar in DADGAD and Open G Tunings (The Hardie Press, 1999. US distribution by Mel Bay Publications). Or visit his website at http://www.sol.co.uk/r/rennimackillop]

 

Here's an interesting annotation that appears in the first edition of the Grand Sonata op. 7 of the well-known early nineteenth-century Viennese guitarist Simon Molitor:

"It would be desirable to abandon entirely the method of trilling on one string employed up to now, and instead of that to take up trilling on two strings, as on the harp. In this way the trill can not only be sustained for a long time, but also can be produced more clearly and powerfully."

Molitor provides the following possibilities for right hand fingering:

Here's a passage from the Grande Sonate, op. 83 (c. 1814) of the Italian/Parisian guitarist Ferdinando Carulli (similar passages occur in the music of Mauro Giuliani):

So, those who complain that the cross-string method of ornamentation isn't authentic might want to think about that one again!

To be fair however, the modern usage does differ from that of the earlier players, the principal application today being one of short, quick trills and mordents, in contrast to long, drawn-out figures.

Who reintroduced the technique in recent times? Alexander Lagoya did make a claim with his performance of the Bach Fugue, bwv 1000. But who knows?

 


Practicing Them [Top]

If you've been to one of my concerts or seen my Mel Bay editions you'll probably have noticed my fondness for cross-string ornamentation. "How do you play those ornaments?" is a question I hear often. Well, to make up for the times I've been unable to give a detailed answer, I'll give some ideas here about how to perform and practice them.

Although many other right-hand fingerings are possible, including "raking" or "dragging" a finger across two strings at a time and various combinations that include the thumb, for the following reasons I prefer the fingerings given below: 1) they are relatively easy to play with precise rhythm and articulation; 2) once understood they are very quick (see below); and 3) the thumb is left completely free to play bass notes and inner voices underneath the ornament.

You may already be thinking that my suggested fingerings for the trill and grace-note appear impossible at fast tempos. Well, there's a trick to it. The combination a-m is not played as two strokes, but as one compound stroke: am. The two fingers pluck together, as a single unit, but are allowed to arpeggiate or "roll" across the two strings (from the higher string to the lower).

Here's an effective way to practice this. Begin each stroke with am resting (prepared) on strings 1 and 2 and play as shown below (arpeggiate from the higher string to the lower and be sure to alternate block chords with arpeggiated ones). Following each gesture, both fingers should be in toward the palm of the hand. [figure 2]:

Vary the degree of arpeggiation until you are able to reproduce the sixteenth-note groupings shown above.

Next, practice with the a finger prepared on the first string while the m finger is prepared close to, but not actually touching, the second string; the relative positioning of each finger, relative to the strings, can help the timing of the ornament. Above all, make sure the two fingers pluck as a single "arpeggiated" unit.

Now add the i finger to produce the grace-note figure shown earlier. Prepare the i and a fingers on their strings together. Again, after each gesture the fingers should be in toward the palm of hand.  [figure 3]:

 

The goal is for the i-am grouping to feel like a single, rapid gesture. When this feels comfortable you can abandon preparing fingers on the string. If you find this difficult, alternate between prepared and non-prepared versions of the gesture.

The fingering for the trill is produced by adding the m finger to the beginning of the grace-note figure just practiced. Prepare a on the string as i plays [figure 4]:

 

Again, the goal is for the m-i-am grouping to feel like a single rapid gesture.

Finally, to finish the trill, damp the dissonant sound of the higher note by placing the a finger back on its string [figure 4b]:

Again, when this becomes comfortable practice without preparing the fingers on the strings. Remember that the positioning of the a and m fingers (relative to their strings) can have a marked effect on the timing of the gesture.

The thumb can now be added to the above exercises, playing with the first of each group of notes, for example [figure 5]:

 

The thumb can also be used to play an inner voice at the end of an ornament [figure 6]:

 

Although there are additional aspects and more extended techniques of cross-string ornamentation (longer ornaments, combinations with slurs, trilling with full-voiced chords, etc.), the techniques given here should nevertheless be sufficient to deal with the majority of situations in which a cross-string ornament might be used.

To finish, here are a few passages taken from my Mel Bay editions that you can use to practice your cross-string ornaments.
 
 J. S. Bach, Sarabande, Cello Suite 3.

 

J. S. Bach, Courante, Cello Suite 1.

 

Isaac Albéniz, Tango, op. 164, no. 2.

 

Isaac Albéniz, Preludio (Asturias-leyenda), op. 232, no. 1.

Once the trill is gone...

From the Stanley Yates Series:

J. S. Bach, Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites Arranged for Guitar MB96743
Isaac Albeniz, 26 Pieces Arranged for Guitar MB 97344


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