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Thread: Tune talk for Contra dances

  1. #51

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    oops

  2. #52

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Paul, Jeff, Jim and the rest,

    I think you guys have your heads in the right place and would be happy to play any time with you based on your words alone. I absolutely agree that solid rhythm (groove, bounce or whatever you call it) trumps all and everything else is just the icing on the cake, sweet and colorful as it may be, without the foundation, there is no there there.

    To make that happen in a band is the trick. Great grove requires everyone agreeing on the rhythm and I'm not just meaning the tempo (though that's important too) but rather the internal rhythms in the groove.

    What are they, you may ask... I think that the important thing is to listen to each other and tune in. When you all do that then everyone matches and gets in sync with the swing factor. This is the amount of dottedness you put in your sound. Straight eighths at one end of the spectrum and hornpipe or even Scottish snap rhythm at the other end and everything else in the middle. If everyone is doing the same thing with the swing, regardless what it is, then the band sounds together.

    Me, I like to listen to the lead fiddler and play it the way they are playing it. They always notice and appreciate my attention and we get a thing going on where we play with these subtle nuances of phrasing that all revolve around how the swing factor is presented. Tunes are much more than a bunch of notes, though they are that at the basic level... when you and your band mates are in agreement about the rhythm and swing of those notes then the dancers will howl with pleasure... right?

  3. #53
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Good ideas, Jody.

    It makes me want to comment on the special strength of a mandolin in a contra dance band. This is nothing like a bluegrass band where the mandolin's role is either barking the rhythm or playing a wild "lead solo" off the melody.

    And its nothing like playing traditional fiddle tunes in a unison session. Whereas there's been many threads on the Cafe discussing the purist disdain for vamping or barking a mandolin while playing Celtic music, I do it all the time, to great effectiveness, at contra dances. We're certainly not Irish, nor are we traditionalists. We are a contra dance band, with all the players, except the fiddler, coming to this music after years of playing other kinds of music. I'm the only lifelong professional musician in the group.

    Our quartet is comprised of an electric piano player who loves to focus both on the "one", and on the bass end of the spectrum. She's rock steady. As Jeff as commented here, her steadiness is what the dancers need the most. Our guitar player focuses more on the general swing of each tune's rhythm. He has worked out 6 or 8 different swing rhythms, and he sticks to one of these through an entire tune. He's also steady. And never played onstage before he started playing with us. He's the husband of the fiddle player. The piano player is my wife. We call ourselves Hands Four.

    The fiddler is entirely a melody player. She's been playing this music since she was a kid, because her mother is famous contra dance fiddler, whom i believe Paul has played with. She knows far more tunes than the rest of us. And because the melodic burden is on her, she gets first choice on the tune list we perform at a dance, in discussion with the caller.

    My mandolin playing role is three fold, and the most diverse. I have to (1) know the chords, (2) the melody, and (3) enough harmony theory to improvise off the fiddler, especially during a waltz. 2 and 3 are easy to understand.

    It is my chordal rhythm playing that really gets pumped up during a contra dance. It's hard to explain music in words, but I'm basically building counter-rhythms off the piano and guitar. This counter-rhythm accentuates the bounces within each individual tune. I have no idea if this way of playing can be regarded as "traditional", although maybe not because I find my best analogy in the vamping guitar lines of James Brown, or African High Life. If you know those two examples, then you can imagine that I work up a sweat at a dance flailing my right hand, while my left hand's fingers never stop moving. However, as a mandolin player, I am only occasionally playing genuine "chords". What i am actually playing is a mixture of double stops, dampened vamping, and chords without open strings. The total effect is of a chord melody. But not so subdued as you might hear it in jazz. I play ferociously, and when I really get into it, my right arm will be stiff enough that I have to shake it out after some especially spirited tune. The dancers love it.

    Now that we're playing regularly, and we have great monitors as well as a sound guy, I can play the same way but less ferociously, and lately I've started to add single-note melodic embellishments to the counter-rhythms, especially at the turnarounds. Great fun.
    Explore some of my published music here

    óJim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

  4. #54

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Hi Jim,

    So you are the oddball in the group, just like me. The player who glues all the elements together and sometimes takes it over the top. At least that is sort of how I think of it. In moving through all of those functions as you and I do, that gives us lots of freedom. As you describe, I play melody, harmony, rhythm, chords, horn section riffs and let the rest of the band take care of business. I must admit that though I do play mandolin, I never play it at dances and stick with Anglo concertina, the instrument I know best, but it seems from your description of your playing that we have something in common in our approach to the contra band.

    Where does Hands Four play?

  5. #55
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Unless your band is focused on sticking to conventional rhythm, and is content to follow the purist dictates of basic unison, I would expect that most mandolin players in a creative contra dance band would eventually experiment with enhancing the edges. Unless you're one of the world's few bona fide mandolin stars good enough to get paid well to invent your own music, I venture that playing mandolin in a contra dance band allows a devoted player to showcase more varied techniques than any other music. Not better, not more challenging, but more varied

    Our band is entirely local to an island county in Puget Sound. There's not much money in contra dances however you cut it, so remaining local (and avoiding a limited ferry boat schedule) seems realistic for us.
    Explore some of my published music here

    óJim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

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

    I recently had the experience of playing Harvest Home Hornpipe into Boys of Blue Hill at a dance. Somehow we got started wwaaaayyy too fast. We sounded like the chipmunks do contra. We accused our lead fiddler of drinking too much Red Bull. But we got through it.

    And the dancers absolutely loved it. They held together and got into the fling of the swing of things. It was way too fast to be "musical" in the strictest sense, but it most assuredly was dancible.
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    For interest, Scottish style ...

  8. #58
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    I'm very curious if any of the contra dance players reading this thread, ever employ dynamics to advantage during a dance.

    Our band is finding it tough to make any kind of dramatic changes DURING a tune, and retain the needed energy to drive the dancers. Subtracting energy is the biggest loser. By that i mean, one instrument drops out for 8 bars in an attempt to make the tune more interesting, and the dancers seem to feel like they've suddenly lost part of the floor.

    The only dynamic changes that seem to work consistently for us, is if the mandolin starts out doubling the fiddle melody, then at the second time around starts playing a harmony part, and finally on the third repeat starts vamping the chords in some counter-rhythm. When the mandolin starts vamping against the piano and guitar rhythm, it puts the tune into overdrive. The piano can do a bit of the same, by playing only left hand bass for part of a medley, then add right hand chords as the tunes segue.
    Explore some of my published music here

    óJim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

  9. #59

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post
    I'm very curious if any of the contra dance players reading this thread, ever employ dynamics to advantage during a dance.

    Our band is finding it tough to make any kind of dramatic changes DURING a tune, and retain the needed energy to drive the dancers. Subtracting energy is the biggest loser. By that i mean, one instrument drops out for 8 bars in an attempt to make the tune more interesting, and the dancers seem to feel like they've suddenly lost part of the floor.

    The only dynamic changes that seem to work consistently for us, is if the mandolin starts out doubling the fiddle melody, then at the second time around starts playing a harmony part, and finally on the third repeat starts vamping the chords in some counter-rhythm. When the mandolin starts vamping against the piano and guitar rhythm, it puts the tune into overdrive. The piano can do a bit of the same, by playing only left hand bass for part of a medley, then add right hand chords as the tunes segue.
    Hi Jim,

    You guys should work on that because we change dynamics all the time and sometimes by design. The dancers love it. As you say, you build and get to that overdrive place then where do you go from there? You are at max. energy so the only place to go is down, with the plan of building it up again.

    I'll offer you a few suggestions but remember, a lowered dynamic should not go hand in hand with a slower tempo. That would certainly be a let down, so keep the energy and tempo up and focus the energy when you get quieter.

    OK. Here are a few tricks that we employ.

    Shh! - Get everyone's eye and call this out, and everyone gets suddenly quieter in their own way at the top of the tune. The fiddler keeps playing strong but the guitar, piano and mando pull back. Remember, band dynamics equal the sum of the individual players so if the three or two rhythm players keep the same dynamic but play more sparsely with fewer notes, then the band gets quieter. Your piano player could simply play up two octaves. That would keep everything moving but your bass would drop out. Your guitar player could stop playing swing chords and become the bass with a walking bass line for instance. You on mando could join the melody or play diamonds.

    Diamonds - This is where the rhythm players loudly play the down beat of each chord change as a single held note or chord. A few extra notes might be thrown in if the chords do not change fast enough. Often, this works best for say... four measures, then back to full playing but you have broken that over drive thing so when you all come back in you could have a fresh start for building the energy again. We often do this in the B section of a tune that has a new chord per measure and then when it comes around the second time, we play diamonds again.

    Pedal - like diamonds, but more dramatic. The piano plays a big chord with the pedal depressed, on the down beat and keeps the pedal down for a full two A sections. Every once in awhile they add another bass note or arpeggio to keep the drone going, or diddle around in the upper register but really it's just a drone. The guitar might play a rhythm on a single string at that drone pitch. You would join the melody. You might add more notes and bring the intensity up so that you are playing the B section at full tilt again.

    My regular bands do these (and many other) tricks regularly and find them effective. The piano player has to want to do them though, as they are largely in control. There is a piano player I sometimes work with who is very strong but he refuses to do any of this stuff. I like his playing but his lack of dynamics falls flat to my ear. After a few tunes I really start to miss the excitement of the ebb and flow of band dynamics.

    If you want to hear a great example of band dynamics, nifty tricks and cool arrangements, buy this CD by Grand Picnic. I know you will love it.
    https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/grandpicnic

    Good luck up there in Friday Harbor.

  10. #60
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    all good ideas, Jody. We'll try all three at our next dance and report back.
    Explore some of my published music here

    óJim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

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

    We have a huge pick up band every Monday, and have been goofin around with handing the melody around, fiddles, other strings (mandolins and guitars mostly), woodwinds (flutes, recorders, whistles), brass (a french horn or sometimes a euphonium) and then ensemble again.
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  12. #62
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    anybody here playing slip jigs at a dance? If so, which ones, and which dances go with it.
    Explore some of my published music here

    óJim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    I have found that slip jigs are not generally asked for by the caller. I suppose for some specific dance or specific setting, but certainly not spontaneously.
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Our pick up band has the bad habit of glueing tunes together in sets that are related thematically, but not musically. Farewell to Whiskey to Whiskey Before Breakfast, or Bearentanz to Dancing Bear. Huh? I call these gryphon sets, because they have put the head of one on the tail of another and hoped for the best. You always hold your breath at the transition.

    The best thematic set I have heard, though I would not recommend it for dancing, is:

    Behind the Bush in the Garden
    Haste to the Wedding
    You Married My Daughter but You Didn't
    Growling Old Man Grumbling Old Woman
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  15. #65
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    We do that sometimes, Jeff, although (like you) mostly for poetic fun, and not for practical effectiveness. The problem is, instrumental tune titles have nothing to do with inherent melody or rhythm. Plus, playing for dances, no one outside the band ever learns the names of these tunes.

    Nonetheless, our fiddle player has a Mom Sally and a Dad John. So of course she has joined together the two tunes, Sally in the Garden with Johnny Don't Get Drunk.
    Explore some of my published music here

    óJim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

  16. #66

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post
    anybody here playing slip jigs at a dance? If so, which ones, and which dances go with it.
    I love slip jigs but I've never played one at a contra dance. They are just wrong for that kind of dancing. I wrote a very nice slip waltz though. The dancers don't seem to mind changing right to left foot lead every measure. The tune is called "La Pente Glissant" and it is in my tune book "Cool Tunes for Hot Dances" http://www.cdss.org/product-details/...nces-book.html

  17. #67
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    If there are slip jigs, and slip waltzes, it implies that "slip" is a generic musical term, and not just a jig in 9/8 time. Is your waltz in 4.5/4 time?

    How do you define "slip"?
    Explore some of my published music here

    óJim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

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

    And I always thought a slip was Freud's intimate apparel.

    After a contra dance I sometimes fall into a spontaneous jam with the remaining musicians. We did a "mess" of slip jigs the other day. I was such a relief from the four sqaure playing. Some of the still hanging around dancers were versed in Irish Step and started dancing along, bringing some cool energy to the after dance jam. Became sort of an after dance dance.
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  19. #69

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post
    If there are slip jigs, and slip waltzes, it implies that "slip" is a generic musical term, and not just a jig in 9/8 time. Is your waltz in 4.5/4 time?

    How do you define "slip"?
    The idea of a "slip waltz" came to me long after I wrote the tune and it is not generic as far as I know because I've never heard of another tune like La Pente Glissant. It's a 3/4 waltz for dancing though and nobody seems to mind that the phrases are consistently in multiples of 3 measures long at the dances where I've played it.

    I wrote... "The dancers don't seem to mind changing right to left foot lead every measure." but that was incorrect in that all waltzes do that. Sorry for the confusion. The dancers actually switch lead feet from left to right every 3 measures. Each section is 12 measures long, AABB. The feet do this -
    :RLR LRL RLR LRL RLR LRL:

    A regular waltz comes in 2, 4 and 8 measure phrases. This slip waltz of mine comes in 3, 6 and 12 measure phrases.

    Gosh... words do not suffice. Here it is... enjoy!


    Click image for larger version. 

Name:	54 La Pente Glissante.pdf 
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  20. #70

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post
    all good ideas, Jody. We'll try all three at our next dance and report back.
    So Jim, what happened with your band? Did you try the Shh, Diamonds and Pedal tricks I was telling you about on June 26? Perhaps you are all taking a break for these hot summer nights.

  21. #71
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    We did try your dynamic ideas at our last dance. Easy to do, and totally worthwhile. Many thanks. We seem to be on an unplanned break right now while half our quartet builds their own home. We'll start up our once-a-month contra dance again in September. I live in a county of islands in the Salish Sea, and the possibilities for performance are limited, to say the least. Having to get on a ferry boat to 'the mainland" for any paying activity, takes away all the profits.

    I have just been informed that my next CD has been pressed. The folks at the label tell me its now ready for mailing, promotion, and (hopefully) review writing. Want to review it? Meanwhile, the distributor has its own release date of early October.

    I'm learning new tunes all the time. Right now, rendering some rather challenging (I learn by ear) tunes to memory, including Minnie Foster's Hornpipe, and Coaties' strathspey. In the latter, the fiddle sounds like a bird. It's uncanny. I'm trying to figure out the best way to keep the melody sounding like a bird on mandolin, by using pull-offs in a manner I've never done before.

    I'm curious how often bands in other parts of the country play contra dances. I mean is there anyone in the USA doing this full-time and professionally?
    Explore some of my published music here

    óJim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

  22. #72

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post
    I'm curious how often bands in other parts of the country play contra dances. I mean is there anyone in the USA doing this full-time and professionally?
    There may be others, but the only band I know of is Wild Asparagus
    http://www.wildasparagus.com/about.html

    Look at their schedule and you will see how often they play.

  23. #73
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post
    I'm curious how often bands in other parts of the country play contra dances. I mean is there anyone in the USA doing this full-time and professionally?
    I don't understand the question. If you mean how many primarily or only contra dance bands are there, playing regularly and at a professional level and charging for their music, there must be thousands.

    If you mean bands where none of the band members need work at anything else because the band is making them enough money, I would guess hardly any.
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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    So that folks are aware: this is an excellent resource.
    Indulge responsibly!

    The entire staff
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  25. #75
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Surely, there are thousands of rock bands. Thousands of jazz bands too. Maybe a few other genres as well multiply into the thousands. So lets ask, what percentage among all those thousands of rock bands and jazz bands and bluegrass bands are working full time? Full time means full time. No rocket science or garbage collecting day jobs, and at least middle class finances to pay the credit card.

    But thousands of contra dance bands? Hmmmmm. My original question was: what percentage of those (thousands?!?) of contra bands are working full time? So far, I'm hearing there's only one, for certain. This subject would make an interesting chart.
    Explore some of my published music here

    óJim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

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