Skip to content Skip to navigation

Thracian Ornamentation

So far, I have encountered eight or nine standard ornaments used in Thracian kaval playing. I say “eight or nine” because one of them, форшлаг (vorschlag or grace note), serves two distinct purposes depending on context. To better understand the ornaments, I have developed a classification system over the past couple of weeks that divides them into three general categories: pitch, color, and articulation. The ornaments are used individually or in various combinations to give Thracian kaval playing its distinct sound.

For a more in depth look at ornamentation, check out the book Mastering Thracian Kaval Ornamentation by my teacher, Lyuben Dossev. I haven’t actually had a chance to read it myself yet because the English version is currently out of print, but I have been told there is an e-book coming soon!


Those ornaments that fall under the “pitch” classification are those for which the pitch or pitches that make up the ornament are themselves important. This is significant in distinguishing these ornaments from vibrato, in which the slight variation in pitch is more about changing the quality of sound, and from any of the articulations described below, in which intervening notes are inserted into a line for the purpose of crisply separating or ending other notes.


Мордент - Mordent

A longer note within a melodic line is often decorated with a mordent. This is sometimes notated in a score with a little squiggle above the note, but more often it is up to the performer to know when it should be used. Like in Baroque music, mordents on Thracian kaval start on the diatonic pitch immediately above the melodic note. In quick succession, this note is played, followed by the melodic note and a second iteration of the higher note, before finally landing on the melodic note and holding it (potentially with vibrato or hlopka for coloring) for the remainder of its length.


Форшлаг - Grace Note

A grace note is usually a half or whole step below the note it precedes. Like with mordents, the decorated note has a relatively long note value. In fact, sometimes a grace note leads directly into a mordent, skipping over the melodic note and only landing on it after the second ornament. Unlike mordents, grace notes do tend to be notated in a score (at least from what I’ve seen).


Глисандо - Glissando

Thanks to kaval’s lack of keys, a continuous upward bend from one pitch to another can be achieved by sliding the fingers that would normally be lifted for the second note off of their holes. Depending on which notes are involved, an alternate fingering is often used for at least one of the notes to make the glissando possible. For example, a glissando from second-register A to B is done by sliding only the thumb without closing any of the other fingers that would be a part of a more basic B fingering.


“Color” ornamentation relies on changing the quality of the sound in such a way as to create a particular effect.


Вибрато - Vibrato

On kaval, unlike transverse flute or quena, vibrato is not produced with one’s breath. Rather, a slight bending and straightening the lowest closed finger makes the slight variation in pitch and color that is recognizable as vibrato. This same technique is used on gaida, the Balkan bagpipe, for which (I would guess) breath vibrato would be impossible. This makes me wonder whether the technique was passed from gaida to kaval. One of the reasons the note holes on both instruments are closed with flat fingers rather than fingertips is to allow for this vibrato technique.


Хлопка - Hlopka

Who knew harmonic fingerings could be so cool! Like with most flutes, on kaval there are usually several options for fingering a particular note. There is a standard fingering that has the cleanest sound and the most accurate pitch, and that fingering is the default for most playing. Hlopki (literally “bells”) make use of the fact that these related fingerings exist. A sustained or repeated note can be decorated by cleanly alternating between two fingerings of the same note. This has the effect both of changing the color and the pitch ever so slightly, as well as creating a crisp click (I can’t think of a better word for this) during the switch. I have heard an extended technique that is similar to a hlopka being used on transverse flute in 20th/21st-Century music, but it does not have that same click, perhaps because of key noise. Hlopki are used in slow, arrhythmic songs, as well as to create a rhythmic impulse in dance music.


Каба - Kaba

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet learned how to play kaba, so I can’t say too much about it. From my understanding, when kaval is played in its lowest register, the performer usually emphasizes upper harmonics to the point of creating multiphonics. This creates the really coarse, signature sound of the instrument.


Articulation is the manner in which notes are started, ended, and separated from one another. Different regions have different approaches to articulation. The Thracian style, like in a lot of (if not all?) Irish flute playing, does not make much use of the tongue to separate notes; rather, air is blown almost continuously through the instrument. The Shopski style, by contrast, does use tonguing as a form of articulation.


Аксент - Accent

What is called an “accent” on kaval is slightly different than the hard attack of an “accent” in classical music. Instead, аксент refers to the separation of notes within a melodic line by opening a finger hole somewhere on the instrument immediately before the second note. When done correctly, this creates a really beautiful clicking sound that separates the notes. The extra emphasis this creates at the start of a given note explains the ornament’s name, but it should be noted that it is used much more frequently than classical accents and does not risk breaking the line or creating a sense of heaviness. For transitions between a pair of notes that each use only the left hand, the thumb is the hole that is opened, so I have also heard this called a “thumb ornament” (by Valeri Georgiev, my teacher last summer).


Еко - Eko

An eko is like an accent except, rather than separating a pair of notes, the finger lift occurs at the end of a note, often before some kind of musical silence. I have only recently begun to use this technique, so unfortunately there isn’t much more I can say about it right now.


Форплаг - Grace Note

Grace notes can be used to separate repeated notes by quickly inserting a lower neighbor between iterations. Like the grace notes in the “pitch” category, grace notes as articulation are either a half or a whole step below the repeated note. The whole step version – even when not diatonic – is preferred by many players because, according to Professor Dossev, it creates a greater sense of separation between the notes.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will try to decorate this post with diagrams and audio examples to help make sense of what right now probably seems like a bunch of boring, technical garble. Let me know if anything I have written here is unclear!


Are you fluent in Bulgarian? If not how did you communicate with the teachers? I don't have the time to go to Bulgaria yet (so I could have kaval lessons), and I am not fluent in Bulgarian yet either, but I know a lot of the professors speak Serbo-Croatian so I might be able to communicate with them

I am not fluent in Bulgarian, but I did take several months of language courses before going to Bulgaria. My teacher in Plovdiv taught me in English, and by the time I traveled elsewhere to study with other teachers, I had a good enough grasp of the language to get by. Hand gestures and a portable dictionary are also useful!