Which note should I start my trills on?


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trillJust imagine – you’ve spent countless hours practicing your lip trills, starting slowly and speeding up, and practicing “flips” so that you can begin a trill immediately – you are now ready to play these elegant, refined ornaments in Mozart’s concertos, Beethoven’s sonata, and other Classical era works.  But wait a minute, which note do you start on, the principal note, or the one above?

Unfortunately, many of the otherwise excellent exercises for practicing lip trills don’t really address the issue of performance practice.

There are volumes of material on 18th-century performance practice, including treatises by Quantz, C.P.E. Bach, and Leopold Mozart,  and at least a brief reading of these authors can help inform our phrasing, interpretation, and overall style.  Another excellent resource is Michael Hoeltzel‘s  Mastery of the French Horn: Technique and Musical Expression, published by Schott in 2006 and translated by William Melton.

Professor Hoeltzel has had a distinguished career as a performer and teacher at the highest level, and this text is in many ways a continuation of the concepts he presents in the first two volumes of his Method for French Horn.  This a great all-around text, with chapters on warm-up and daily exercises, practicing, tone, phrasing, equipment, history of musical style, cadenzas, competitions/juries/auditions, and managing your career.

Getting back to trill performance practice, Hoeltzel offers a concise distillation of the general conventions of 18th-century trills drawn from Quantz, C.P.E. Bach, and Leopold Mozart.  Regarding this subject, he notes the following.

“In principle, the trill of the Baroque and Classical periods was begun from above, the exception being if the previous note already approaches from above in a whole or half-step.” [page 71]  So, in the following example, also taken from page 71, a figure like this,

would be realized like this, with the appoggiatura coming on the beat.

And not, as is often done, like this.

Professor Hoeltzel goes on to describe one other situation involving the trill.

“If for some reason we are required to begin a trill from above after stepwise motion from above, we should subtly shorten the note before the trill, and begin the trill from above with an accent:” [page 71]  The included example from page 71 illustrates this concept.

So although this is by no means a complete explanation of the 18th-century trill, I think it does help clarify a few things.  For additional reading, try some of these 18th-century sources, all of which are available in translation.

Johann Joachim Quantz, Playing the Flute, Berlin, 1752

C.P.E. Bach, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, 2 vols., Berlin and Leipzig, 1762, 1787

Leopold Mozart, A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, Augsburg, 1756.

And finally, here are some other excellent contemporary writings on performance practice from a wide span of music history.

Edward Dannreuther, Musical Ornamentation, New York: Kalmus, 19??.

Thurston Dart, The Interpretation of Music, New York: Harper & Row, 1963.

Robert Donington, The Interpretation of Early Music, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1963.

Peter Lukas Graf, Interpretation: How to Shape a Melodic Line translated by Katharine Wake, Mainz & New York: Schott, 2001. [recommended by Professor Hoeltzel in his book]

By James Boldin

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