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Thread: Tune talk for Contra dances

  1. #1
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Tune talk for Contra dances

    I'm noticing that my favorite thread on the Cafe "New fiddle tune" is looking a bit haggard lately. It's become two threads. One is about sharing new material. The other is about what to play at contra dances.

    i thought it might be worthwhile to start a new thread focused on contra dances. Let's see if it flies.

    Some subjects that seem worthy of discussion:

    1. what's a slow tune, what's a fast tune. what too fast. Too slow
    2. How do you go about merging tunes into sets? Does that include reels with jigs and marches, or do you keep them separate? Do some tunes absolutely not work when strung together?
    3. Are you playing all Celtic, Appalachian, and Cajun tunes? Anyone playing Russian? Turkish? Tunes you composed yourself?
    4. Do you think the audience even hears your inspired playing on mandolin? Or does nothing get heard but the one beat?
    5. etc, etc so forth.

    At the moment, I am especially interested in adding a few slower tunes to my repertoire. One caveat. We all know that "slow" is a relative term here, right? Swinging on a gate is a perfect example. I can play it fast (116) or slow (-108), but far prefer the latter entirely for musical aesthetic reasons:: I think it loses an essential lilt when pushed. Other slow tunes I'm thinking about are Winder Slide (makes me wonder how you musically define a "lament" or a "cakewalk"), Rights of Man (basically a hornpipe, except it's rich melody makes me not want to play it with the usual wobble of Sailor's hornpipe).

    As we all know, there's also lots of tunes that exist beyond the edges of the conventional 16 bar precision. Who can imagine a dance being called to Wild Rose of the Mountain? Or Evening Prayer Blues?

    So let's talk contra dances.
    Last edited by Jim Nollman; May-13-2011 at 12:01pm.
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    Registered User DrEugeneStrickland's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Fantastic idea as the wonderfully diverse world of fiddle music played on the mandolin need not be limited by discussions of tunes in the contra dance repertoire which must adhere to a defined amount of beats.
    It would be most wonderful to have separate conversations about tunes which have ragtime and minstrel origins ,many of these have too few or too many beats to be appropriate in a contra dance setting.

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    Registered User Mike Snyder's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Unfortunately, I don't play dances. I live in a dead area for contra and only have bluegrassy-type jams to play at. The players I sit with infrequently do play dances. Hopefully they will weigh in. I love fiddle tunes or the playing of them and started the "What's your new..." thread for sharing tunes by name (and video - thanks woodwizard) to stretch the repertoire a little. I like to try a bunch and see what fits my fancy. I do know that the dancers seem to like fast tempos for the most part, with a slower tune thrown in for a breather. Never two in a row. They come to move. The session folks tend toward up-tempo, also, even on tunes that sound better played slowly, to my ears. They'll play "Crested Hens" much faster than I ever would. They even push "Winder Slide" up in tempo 'til it looses some charm. Looking foreward to the development of this thread. Thanks, Jim.
    Mike Snyder

  4. #4

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Hi Jim, Mike, Doc,

    Great idea! I just played a contra dance tonight at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center on 13th St. in Manhattan. A lively crowd as always. Ridge Kennedy was the caller and the band was Squeezology. Unique to this band, almost all the tunes we play are composed by me. We've been playing since '97 with the same musicians, fiddle, Anglo concertina, piano and bass.

    Something very interesting happened tonight. Ridge said for the next dance he wanted something slow, slinky, bluesy and sexy. I picked a set of smooth jigs we've been playing for years. The piano player started us off with 4 potatoes and at the third one Ridge stopped us and said "Wait... I want it slow and sexy" So that's what he got. Real slow, somewhere around 90 or so. What fun, bluesing it up, and playing at that relaxed speed gave us room for all kinds of improv. that we had never done with that set. The dancers had a fun time of it too. After about ten times through, Ridge asked us to speed it up a bit but we kept the slinky character. This was the dance right before the last one of the evening so as an antidote we played the last dance super fast. The crowd loved the contrast and were very appreciative.

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    Registered User Mike Snyder's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    So many wonderful things can happen when you're able to back off the tempo a little on some tunes. The schottiskes and polkas don't necessarily go as fast as the jigs and reels. Must be nice playing orig material. You won't have anybody that it "should" be played at a given speed except the caller. Sounds like you have an innovative one.
    Mike Snyder

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    plectrist
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Great idea for a thread! Thank you! What i would truly appreciate hearing are metronome numbers. I'm in an almost constant "fight" with bandmates over tempo. I don't think anything we do is played slowly enough. It's as if the notes were all piece work.

    Thanks,
    Ryk
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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Indulge responsibly!

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  8. #8
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Metronome numbers can be deceiving. One person's 120, is another person's 240. If you can wrap your mind around why that might be so, (is it 2/4 or 4/4?) then let's all agree with 120 as a practical benchmark. I learned to play fiddle tunes on mandolin from a guy who insisted that we always try to play faster than we were already playing. Consequently, the 4 members of our current quartet can keep it together for brief sprints at 124 or if its just a "riff tune" (think modal) occasionally at 128. Whether we keep it together above 120, really depends on the song. Perhaps ironically, the two tunes we always rip, have lots of notes: Reel San Antoine and Whisky Before Breakfast". Maybe it's because both tunes have such strong melodies and they both work off of linear patterns. That's just a hunch. A tune that changes scale or uses odd intervals causes me big problems at excessive speed. My fingers stop working when I'm playing a semi-chromatic jig like "Little Burnt Potato". In that case, I play double stops in harmony with the fiddler. She can rip it because fiddles don't have frets and she gets to "cheat" I mean slide across those big intervals.

    We can sustain at 120 for an hour-long set, but by that time my fretting forearm is stiff. If we're un-amplified (not very often) I find myself constantly shaking it out and extending my hand to the ceiling after every tune. If we're amplified (more often) I just play less vigorously.

    Our current caller prefers 116 as her "speedy" limit. She even likes us to start a medley at 112, and then work up to 116. We like working with her, because after 2 years playing lots of tunes at 120, 116 seems like a breeze, and lets us explore nuance, improvisation, harmony, counter-rhythms, etc.

    What I was expressing in this thread's initial post, is that right now, I'm in a conversation with our caller about whether she knows any dances at about 108-110, which is about perfect tempo for some of my favorite tunes that I've never gotten to play at a contra dance, because they have a special lilt, or a push, or a syncopation, (whatever you want to call it) that makes the tune sound right. At usual contra dance speeds, these songs seem to lose their focus, their delight.

    Which makes me want to ask, Jody, what tunes were you playing so slowly? You kind of imply that it could have been ANY tune, rather than a tune that sounded especially good when slow.

    Have any of you heard the Mike Marshall/Chris Thile version of Fisher's Hornpipe? That's seems a good example of two virtuosos pushing the tempo to its physical limits. I suppose they did it because they could. I know I'll never get there. BUT...As a guy who plays contra dances once or twice a week, I listen to a recording like that one only once, because when the whizziest speed is the main motive, it seems a rather one-dimensional reason to arrange a tune for recording. I admit, I have no interest in racing whether its horses, cars, or hornpipes. So some of you may see it a bit differently than me.
    Last edited by Jim Nollman; May-15-2011 at 4:07pm.
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  9. #9

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post
    Metronome numbers can be deceiving. One person's 120, is another person's 240. If you can wrap your mind around why that might be so, (is it 2/4 or 4/4?) then let's all agree with 120 as a practical benchmark.

    Which makes me want to ask, Jody, what tunes were you playing so slowly? You kind of imply that it could have been ANY tune, rather than a tune that sounded especially good when slow.
    Hi Jim,

    Yes, speed is relative. I agree that 120 is a normal "fast tempo" and though my bands generally play reels there it gets wearing for us and the dancers and so we like to vary things. 110 is a normal "relaxed tempo" and 115 is a good medium tempo. We might get up to 126 and at 130 it's really too frantic, though I think we have probably gotten that fast on occasion but probably only the last time through the last dance of the evening.

    I don't bring a metronome to the dance so this is what I'm figuring out at home and it's really only my best guess. Watching the dancers is key. If they are struggling then we know to play slower and we don't wait for the caller to tell us. On the other hand, if the dancers are young and experienced we will tend to play faster because fast is exciting and we are out there to give everyone a good time.

    My little story about playing very slow at 90 could work for any tune I suppose, but we picked smooth jigs, (also called double jigs?) with long lines. Also saying 90 is misleading because we were playing in 6/8 time. Really it would be more accurate to say that dotted quarter notes were at 45 bpm. Since the caller wanted slinky, that slow tempo allowed us to add lots of slink. Fun! I don't remember what the dance was like but the dancers were having a great time and that's what counts.

    The tunes we played were by me, Song of the Hobby Horse in G, Pumpkin Moon in Em and Rugby Road in D all published in my latest tune book titled "Cool Tunes for Hot Dances" available from me or the Button Box.

    For reels, a regular "slinky tempo" really should not go too far below about 100 or swinging gets difficult.

    What tunes? Try anything that lends itself to blue notes like Abe's Retreat, Sandy Boys, Waynesboro might work well. Not slinky at all, but Oyster River works well slow.

    For slow or slinky jigs try Mug of Brown Ale, Tar Road to Sligo, Star above the Garter, Cowboy's.
    Last edited by Jody Kruskal; May-16-2011 at 10:02pm.

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    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Jody's post has me thinking about the proper nomenclature of traditional tunes. What's the difference between a double jig and a jig? Is it the speed, or the length of the melodic lines? So where would Tobin's Jig (for just one example) fit in that scheme. I can't tell if the lines are very long or very short. We play it at a furious speed, where an uneducated ear might think we were playing something by Bach.

    I also get confused listening to what I think must be a rag (because the phrasing clearly reminds me of Scott Joplin), but then be told it is a hornpipe. So is a hornpipe a rag with a specific wobble to the rhythm? Or perhaps a better example. One of the waltzes I play is The Rosebud of Allenvale. I recently looked it up on a celtic site, where it was described as "an air". Can someone please tell me what an "air" is? I mean, is it a mood, or a speed, because it seems to defy rhythm? That suggests to me, that another category, the "laments",must also be a mood.

    Clarification of these terms, and any others, is much appreciated.
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    Notary Sojac Paul Kotapish's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Jim, these dance rhythms are actually fairly well codified, but there is some slop in how people apply the terms.

    Here's a quick response--completely open to additions, corrections, and arguments.

    In general, an air is a slow melody--most typically a song--and sung or played freely and not intended specifically for dancing. Some airs are in waltz time (3/4), but others almost defy time signatures. Many--perhaps most--traditional Irish airs began as Gaelic songs sung in the unaccompanied sean-nós style.

    However, over the years the term "air" has been used to refer to all manner of tunes, so interpret with a grain of salt.

    Lament does not typically refer to any specific rhythm--it can be a free air, a waltz, or a march. It's music to commemorate a death or tragedy. The term refers to its application, not its rhythm.

    Hornpipes mean different things in different places. In many parts of the U.S., a hornpipe is played pretty much the same as a hoedown or reel in 2/4 or 4/4 time. In Ireland, Scotland, and England, a hornpipe is typically a slower 2/4 piece with a pronounced dotted rhythm. "Boys of Bluehill" is a common hornpipe that sounds pretty "hornpipey" no matter who is playing it.

    A strathspey is a Scottish tune type with a dotted rythmn--kind of an inverted hornpipe.

    It would be unusual to play a true hornpipe or strathspey at traditional tempo at a typical contradance unless the caller specifically requested it for a particular dance.

    That said, plenty of tunes with "hornpipe" in the name ("Fisher's Hornpipe" is a classic example of a nonhornpipe "hornpipe) are often played in flat-out reel time and work perfectly well for most contras.

    A schottish is in roughly the same ballpark in terms of the dotted rhythm, and there are specific tunes that go with specific dance figures. Some callers like to include a schottish as a couple dance in the course of an evening of contras.

    Marches are pretty much what you'd expect, and can be used at contradances in place of reels for a more stately dance. Barn dances and flings can be similarly adapted.

    The term "rag" can mean many things . . .

    Ragtime is a specific classical American piano idiom featuring a variety syncopations that can sound a bit hornpipish at times. The most familiar versions were composed by Scott Joplin, who intended them as serious recital repertoire, not popular dance music. Most ragtime follows a structure along the lines of AABBCCA (also AABBACCC, AABBACCDD), also common in French musettes and Brazilian choros.

    Rags in modern parlance, on the other hand, can be derived or adapted from ragtime compositions, but are usually played in strict tempo and are appropriate for dancing. Many rags follow the typical ragtime structure(s), but can also be more straightforward blues. These work great for free couple dances and many squares or contras.

    The term "jig" had a different meaning in 19C. American usage, but in contemporary usuage it typically referes to one of the major types of Irish jigs--single, double, or slip. Most tunes commonly called jigs are double-jigs in 6/8, where the phrases fill the full measure, and the pulses are on the first and fourth beats. "Tobin's Favorite" is a standard double jig. Single jigs typically have three-note phrases--typically a half note followed by a quarter note--and can feel a bit more syncopated. Think "Humpty Dumpty." "Smash the Windows" or "Off She Goes" are common single jigs. Both double jigs and single jigs work for most contras, with the double jig being the most common form.

    Slip jigs are in 9/8 and are the most tricky for the novice, but once you get the three-pulse feel, they are quite natural. "Kid on the Mountain," "The Butterfly," and "An Pis Fliuch" are all common slip jigs, but it would be unusual for a caller to request one unless they are doing a specific dance such as "Strip the Willow" that requires a slip jig.

    There are a bunch of other jig terms--light, treble, etc.--that are references for competitive dance styles in Irish feis settings that don't necessarily apply to the music itself.

    You can also play slides--12/8 Kerry tunes--for contradancing, and it's pretty common to just play them a bit slower and pulsed to emulate double jigs.

    Irish polkas--played much slower than in a trad Irish setting--also work for some dances in place of reels.

    If you have more specific questions, maybe we can ferret out more specific answers.

    Hope this helps.
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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    This might be of use. Taken from the recommendations of Donegal whistle player Packie Manus Byrne
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    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Many thanks, Paul. You help give this 4-year-long traditional music obsession of mine a much needed set of definitions.

    I learn tunes by ear, and had recently downloaded Kid on the Mountain, as something new for my jig repertoire. It didn't seem too difficult to figure out the lines, but every time i tried playing it without the recording in my ear, I could tell I was leaving something essential out, but couldn't figure out what it was. It was the unique unfolding of those three extra beats. I just listened to it again, and now it's obvious.

    Also thanks for providing much needed context for a "hornpipe". I suppose that everything called a hornpipe these days was once truly syncopated. But so many recordings of hornpipes just have me scratching my head, because they have lost the "wobble". I was also confused , because some of my favorite hornpipes really seem to share the melodic lines of ragtime piano pieces more than the much simpler melodies of reels. Garfield's Hornpipe seems straight out of the Scott Joplin songbook.

    I think more of these odd-timed (and syncopated) tunes are in my future, although i can't imagine ever having a venue to play them.

    I hesitate to ask more questions, for fear of hogging this thread. I really hope more performers of contra dance tunes will also chime in.
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Contra Categories

    Thanks Paul for your great and inclusive description of dance tune meters and rhythms. Well said. So when do you play what?

    When I play for a dance the caller often asks for some kind of tune.

    There is a sort of low level request like slow or fast, jig or reel or perhaps anything you like. That last one is easy.

    Sometimes the requests might be stylistic like old-time, Quebecois, New England, Irish.

    Sometimes they are rhythmic suggestions like marchy, well phrased, slinky, smooth or bouncy, jig, reel, polka, rag, hornpipe, that kind of thing.

    Sometimes the caller asks us to play tunes that sound like “Reel de Montreal” or some other specific tune.

    What I like best is to see the dance card or have the caller tell me what and when are the distinctive figures of the dance. That is the most helpful. Some tunes support balances on the top of the A or B. Heys and gypsies often indicate a smooth tune. Down the hall in a line of 4 is good for marchy jigs or marches. Petronella turns shout out for short 2 measure phrases at that point in the dance.

    As the caller teaches the dance we watch and sometimes have an Ah Ha! moment where one of us says “Donkey Riding” would be perfect for this.

    That is how we pick tunes, often on the fly but sometimes with lists that we have worked out ahead of time to match these structural dance elements to the tunes we want to play. When we do a good job of matching the tunes to the dance, then the dancers have more fun, and so do we.

    How do you do pick your tunes at a dance?

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    Registered User stevenmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Cool music and i love the idea of a concertina
    Last edited by stevenmando; May-19-2011 at 12:03pm.
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    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Jody, it sounds like you are a bit more advanced than our band is, in your personal knowledge of the linkage between tunes and dances.

    When we rehearse, (or play informal unamplified dances) we usually spend some time working on a new tune. Last night, it was Sally in the Garden. We spend more time trying out new medleys. As we do more dances (and as the dances get bigger), we seem to have developed a better focus on what songs will work together for what kinds of dances. Right now, we're struggling with "Liberty". We've tried it in several different sets, but it doesn't quite feel right in any of them yet. Anyone have a good idea of a "Liberty" medley?

    In general, right now we're working on medleys that go from G to D to A. In general that lets the tune tonality develop from dark to bright. We used to join jigs with reels, but lately, we seem to be making our sets to have one or the other. In the odd case, if there is a jig, we'll put it last in order.

    We also do tunes that have their own dances. Childgrove, Petronella, Gallopede, Haste to the Wedding. I like to merge Petronella with La Bastringue, but that's another story.

    We do at least 2 waltzes at a dance. We like to do 2 different waltzes at every major dance, just to prod us to keep learning. For our next dance, this saturday, we're performing Swannanoa and Josephin's. as different as two waltzes could possibly be.

    Before a dance, we send a list of our sets to the caller, and we simply let her choose the set order. I noticed that our last list included about 15 sets and several single tunes, or about 50 songs total. 50 tunes held in finger memory, played at rip-roaring speed, and yet, I absolutely regard myself to be a contra dance neophyte.

    I'm also producing a CD project that deconstructs some of these same tunes, leaning on jazz and techno styles. That's much more about composition than speed or bounce.
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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Good communication between the band and the caller, before and during the gig is essential.

    Its really cool if one of the band members is a caller, but the tradition more often than not is to book the caller and the band separately. (And there are dancers that follow a particular caller, others who follow a particular band.) So close communications and (hopefully) shared taste are important.
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Hi Jim,

    Our approach to picking tunes and working with the caller has been developed over 25 years of playing for dances. It's not the only way to go. Just having good communication with the caller and paying attention to the dancers will lead you to your own way of figuring things out for yourselves.

    That said, here is an example of how I would think about tune selection. Liberty would work well for a dance with lots of balances or petronella turns at the top of the A sections and something smoother in the B sections like heys, swings, circles or hands around. Liberty is in D. Following it with other tunes that have short phrases in the A and smoother in the B would be my choice, so... how about Glise de Sherbooke in G as the second tune and then last, Kitchen Girl in A. That last switch from G to A is quite dramatic and should make 'em yell!

    Sending a list of medleys and tunes to the caller... there's a thought. Never tried that. My concern is that the caller would not know the tunes on my list well enough to make the best choice. Most of the callers I work with for contra dances want to just show up and see what happens with the crowd. When I play English Country dances, that is very different. For EC, the caller selects the dances and tunes before hand and I try to get that list at least a week before the dance so I can do my homework.

  19. #19
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    I've worked with callers several ways. Sometimes, they show up at a dance and work more with the crowd than with the band, and make their choices based mostly on fitting dances to the dancers' overall experience. That's OK with us. Some callers just ask us to play "SOMETHING", then choose a dance after hearing our choice. That also works OK.

    Either way, when caller and band don't communicate well, it can lead to false starts. Another problem is that the caller can sometimes forget to end the dance after a goodly length of time. If its way too long and too fast, the band can get tired too early in the evening. That is definitely not OK with the band.

    I believe it is the band's primary job to play the tunes as well as possible, and at speed. The lack of communication by the caller can sometimes make a dance seem unprofessional, and I can get annoyed, because people are paying money to have a good time.

    I also worked with a caller once who chose a dance that the band wasn't able to match with a fitting tune. Rather than working within our repertoire, (which is hardly scant) he called his chosen dance anyway, and we ended up playing a tune that we all knew didn't match. The dancers got confused by it. That was not a fun experience for the band.

    The caller we're working with right now, has as much knowledge about tunes as the band members do. She learned to be a caller after having been in her own band for some years. I very much enjoy that clear level of working together to create a fun experience for all.
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  20. #20
    Notary Sojac Paul Kotapish's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Getting a strong sense of what tune to play for which dance figures is a long-term commitment, and one that can be eased along by spending some rehearsal time with an experienced caller.

    Depending on your local scene and on your caller's willingness to help the local musicians get better, you might coax him or her into coming to a rehearsal or two specifically to work through a program of dances and match up the planned dances with your band's repertoire. Most caller's I've met over nearly forty years of playing for dances are more than willing to spend some time with the musicians. The more experienced callers will know how to guide your choices and make specific tune suggestions, and the less experienced ones can simply try out the various dances matched up with various tunes to find the best parings.

    You'll also find that callers vary wildly in terms of what they consider appropriate for specific dances. Some callers are happy to call to jigs most of the night, while other prefer nothing but reels.

    Also, some of the old chestnuts are set to specific tunes, and most callers will expect a band to know some standards--"Lady of the Lake," "Hull's Victory," "Chorus Jig" (actually a reel), and so forth. The chestnuts have fallen out of favor in some regions, but a well-versed band would do well to learn the roots as well as the branches.

    All of that said, most modern contradances are--in general--very adaptable to a wide variety of tunes, rhythms, and tempos, and most callers can tailor things on the fly. Square dances, on the other hand, tend to work much better with specific kinds of tunes at specific tempos, and the callers can be pretty persnickety about what works for their particular regional idiom.

    When I first started playing for dances, I found it helpful to learn to call an evening's worth of squares and contras, and that provided a very personal sense of what would work and what wouldn't. We also used to host dance parties in our house--sometimes with one square or line in the living room--another in the dining room--and the band in the hallway. That way we were able to test out dances and tunes with actual people and see what worked. If you don't have a private place to host such a party, try to get into the hall a little early with some volunteers and work some things out ahead of the official start time.

    I just stumbled on this research page with some good articles for contradance bands written by a bunch of experienced musicians and callers. Worth checking out:
    http://biteyourownelbow.com/contramu.htm
    Just one guy's opinion
    www.guitarfish.net

  21. #21
    Notary Sojac Paul Kotapish's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    One last comment.

    As the dance itself you can spin your wheels and go crazy trying to match up the perfect tunes for each dance. Unless you are really up to the task, don't let the caller overload you with a lot of detailed info about "there's a hay-for-four in the first A and a balance a the top of the second B" or any of that stuff.

    Unless they have specific tune suggestions, just get them to tell you whether they'd prefer a jig or reel and to give you some sense of the tempo they want. Also, callers sometime use terms like "bouncy," "dreamy," "flirty," and so on to describe the kind of tune they want, but those are completely objective and mean different things to different callers and musicians.

    As with most aspects of live music, using your ears--and eyes--at the dance will tell you whether or not you are on the right track. If the dancers are engaged and moving to the music--it's working, regardless of the choice.
    Just one guy's opinion
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  22. #22

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Kotapish View Post
    One last comment.

    As the dance itself you can spin your wheels and go crazy trying to match up the perfect tunes for each dance. Unless you are really up to the task, don't let the caller overload you with a lot of detailed info about "there's a hay-for-four in the first A and a balance a the top of the second B" or any of that stuff.

    Unless they have specific tune suggestions, just get them to tell you whether they'd prefer a jig or reel and to give you some sense of the tempo they want. Also, callers sometime use terms like "bouncy," "dreamy," "flirty," and so on to describe the kind of tune they want, but those are completely objective and mean different things to different callers and musicians.

    As with most aspects of live music, using your ears--and eyes--at the dance will tell you whether or not you are on the right track. If the dancers are engaged and moving to the music--it's working, regardless of the choice.
    Hi Paul, I think you are right for the most part. Especially the part at the end about paying attention to the dancers.

    I also agree about not getting too worked up about finding the perfect match. Really, almost any tune will be fine for almost any dance. There are times when it's all we can do just to pick anything to play when the caller says "go." Still, we are all there to have fun and part of my idea of fun is the satisfaction of picking just the right medley of tunes that all work together musically and also support the dance.

    Over the years, I've noticed that when the structure of the tune is in agreement with the structure of the dance everyone has more fun. I like to pick contra tunes based on critical detailed info like... "there's a hay-for-four in the first A and a balance at the top of the second B" and all of that stuff. Sometimes other important considerations trump that level of detailed choice, but when the pick is a great match to the dance, then magic happens.

    It's not a mysterious art. The dance moves have rhythmic phrases with different durations and accents. So do the tunes. When the phrases align... bingo!

    I like to see the dance card the caller is using, written out in black and white, because not all the information is relevant. There are only a few moves that I really care about matching to the tune and the rest is just filler. A glance will tell me if there is anything distinctive about the dance to bother matching. Lots of dances (and tunes) are pretty generic and it really makes little difference what you play... they all work fine.

    Some callers are surprised and pleased that I want to see the card and know more about their dance choice. I guess not too many musicians want to know all that much detail, but generally I do.

    I would love to work with a caller in rehearsal as you describe, but in 30 years of contra dance playing I have never once done that. I wonder why?
    Last edited by Jody Kruskal; May-23-2011 at 1:54am.

  23. #23

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    OK, I see that I need an example to show what I'm talking about. Let's say that the dance has a full petronella in the A1. The dancers would balance and turn, balance and turn, balance and turn, balance and turn. A good choice would be Sandy Boys, Abe's Retreat, Jaybird, Puncheon Floor, (and many more) because the phrases of these tunes do what the dancers are doing. A not so great choice would be Ships Are Sailing, Swinging on a Gate, Yellow Barber, Barrow Burn, Don Tremain, Paddy on the RR. Not that these tunes in the second list wouldn't work for the dance or because they aren't as much fun to play but because they wouldn't be as much fun to dance to for the moves the dancers are doing.

    I would look at the dance card, see the A1 petronella and that's all I really need to know. The rest of the dance might affect my choice of tune but probably not. So if the caller asked for New England chestnuts or something like that, then my pool of tunes to match the dance would be much smaller and make it much harder to find the right ones. See what I'm saying?

    Then again, one fiddler I love playing with would say, "Jody, you're thinking too hard." He's right too. This is not the most important thing going on at the dance. It's just one of many details that need our attention.

    So what is the most important thing for the musicians to pay attention to, in your opinion? Flying skirts? I agree!

  24. #24
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    We played Petronella for its eponymous dance the other night at a Grange dance. After 5 repeats we switched to La Bastringue. It seemed to work really well for all involved.
    Explore some of my published music here

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  25. #25

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Excellent!

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