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Thread: Tune talk for Contra dances

  1. #76
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    What you mean by full time is not clear to me. (Long night, and I perhaps have not had enough coffee.) I know what one would mean by a full time musician. But a band is a bit more complicated. A band could be playing a dance twice a month, touring within a two hours driving distance, and even giving performances at coffeehouses and selling CDs, and not be making enough money to support the band members, who are doing it more for love than money anyway. Would that be "full time"? A band could be making the Festival circuit, the regular and beloved "house band" at many a venue, and still be more of an avocation than a vocation for its members.

    As I said, if you mean by full time that the band members are full time musicians, and do not have to have "day jobs" to support themselves, I would say very very few. Is playing in a contra dance band any musician's full time gig? Perhaps, but only a few, not many. Would you consider a gigging band playing dances in the summer, made up of school teachers and folks retired from other jobs, none of whom need the money, a full time contra dance band?

    If you mean something even more restrictive than that, then even fewer. Maybe just one or two.

    Contradance bands out there, full time or not, primarily playing dances, (i.e. getting together only to play dances, rehurse for dances, or host a dance workshop) well I would guess at least one thousand anyway. There are so many many regularly meeting contra dance venues around the country, going through a different band each time, or having a beloved house band, and perhaps a small minority of them regularly use a pick up band. Still I would guess around 1000.
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  2. #77
    Notary Sojac Paul Kotapish's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post
    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.
    Twenty years ago there were quite a few independent musicians and probably a few dozen bands around the country whose members made their living primarily from playing contra dances, but I don't think anyone made it solely on the income from dances. Even playing five or six nights a week--which would be almost impossible to book these days--would make for a fairly paltry existence. Most contradance musicians also teach or have some sort of side line--computer consulting, writing/editing, instrument building, working in a music store, etc. And most also have a few other musical outlets, too--different kinds of dance bands, concert ensembles, coffeehouse duets, etc.

    Most communities try to keep the door prices very affordable, so even at a really big dance or dance weekend or camp, the income isn't all that much. Wedding gigs can plump the bottom line, but there are only so many of those to go around. And CD sales--which used to be a significant part of the gross--especially on tour--are way down.

    I still know a few musicians on the east coast and NW who depend on contradance gigs for the bulk of their livelihood, but it's a tough way to scrape the coppers together. The arc of contradance popularity definitely seems on the downswing at the moment, at least in California, and I don't know any full-time dance players around here any more. The old-time squaredance scene, on the other hand, seems to be flourishing. Not sure you could make a real living at that, either, but it definitely seems a little more energized and a lot less gray than the longways dances.

    On the other hand, it's a great way to travel around and meet folks if you are young and foolish. I was able to cobble together a so-called living together playing primarily contradances back in the late '80s and through the '90s, but it was slim pickings even in my best years when I was also touring at a higher level on the festival circuits, and I certainly couldn't have relied on what any one band was earning. But I got to play dances in every state except Mississippi and Arkansas as well as Canada, Europe and even Costa Rica, met thousands of great folks, swapped tunes with a lot of fine players, and generally had a large time. I even met my wife at a contradance weekend in the wilds of Chena Hot Springs in Alaska. I had a great run, but when it came time to provide for a family, I hit the salt mines.
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  3. #78
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Thanks Paul. I can especially relate to your mention of how much easier it is to play full time "if young and foolish". And yes, of course, weddings are virtual treasure chests when compared to the usual gigs.

    It seems to me that several folks up here in the far Pacific Northwest corner are now making a concerted effort to heat up the local contra dance scene. A few devotees recently traveled hundreds of miles to attend a workshop with Wild Asparagus.

    North of Seattle, it seems that the 8 or 10 callers all seem to know one other. At a recent dance our own band played, four callers showed up, and took turns over the 2 1/2 hours we played. I can't say how the dancer's responded to this tossed salad, but I viewed it as a rare treat to compare varying styles. It was especially educational to notice that one of the callers was rigidly precise, but confused some of the beginning dancers, while another caller was over-the-top downhome and constantly interjected asides, but he taught the dancers some great moves quite quickly.

    Last week I attended a dance just to hear a band that, I had been told, were masters of the form. I was very surprised at how quiet they played, and how much the fiddler was in charge, and how closely he stuck to classically accurate versions of each melody. It made me re-appraise my own band as nearly punk by comparison, with our boogaloo rhythms, mandolin chop melodies, and a fiddler who serves her double stops like gooey cheese from a pizza.
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    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Kotapish View Post
    met thousands of great folks, swapped tunes with a lot of fine players, and generally had a large time.
    Woo hoo! Well worth the opportunity cost of the career track not followed.
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  5. #80
    Notary Sojac Paul Kotapish's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Jim--which band did you hear? For my money, the real excitement is in the bands that are going back and playing in a very traditional format. Messing around with the music is great fun and sometime works, but nothing tops the sound of great players nailing the chestnuts like they were brand new.

    Jeff--I like to think that I took my retirement while I was young enough to enjoy it.
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  6. #81

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    I don’t know what other work the Wild Asparagus folks do but they are certainly professionals and earn fees well above the norm.

    * They bring their own sound system and know how to use it so they always sound good.

    * The caller plays in the band so the dances and the music always fit together.

    * They play all the time and so they are well rehearsed.

    * Their home dance in Western MA is very well attended by young and old, it’s a thriving scene.

    * They attract a large crowd of fans and set their own terms when booking a dance.

    * IMO, they are fun to dance to and have a unique sound. It’s based on traditional contra dance but they deviate from the norm in tempo, tunes, instrumentation and feel.

  7. #82
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Paul, I have been told the band was put together by the Seattle fiddler, JP Wittman. They played with great traditional precision, both melodically and rhythmically. I like to hear something else beyond traditional character. I suspect from Jody's post, that a unique approach to the music helps sustain the magnetism of Wild Asparagus. That idea of making the caller part of the band seems so obvious, yet you hardly ever see it out here. Not sure why.
    Explore some of my published music here

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    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
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  8. #83
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quite a lull on this thread. This got me thinking about what i have been learning by playing mandolin on lots of contra dances recently.

    We did a gig last weekend at a local Odd Fellows Hall, advertised as a "Harvest Dance". It's good size, with a nice wooden floor. In the back corner of the hall, they set up a cider press, grinding apples and pressing juice for anyone who wanted to take some home. They set up a table against one wall to serve up at least 30 apple pies for only about 120 people. The promoter paid us partially in pie. So much for being a "professional". Plus, the caller had to request the cider guy to refrain from turning gears while he was explaining the dances. Everyone in the hall heard the exchange, because the caller forgot to turn off his head mic. So it goes.

    I love to play for a full hall of people under 30, they dance so exuberantly, and can keep going way longer than i can play exuberantly. Sometimes the whole building seems to shake off its foundation, with dancers constantly whooping and hollering, and adding extra steps, sometimes dancing outside the lines as much as inside them.

    Our own quartet is starting to jell better after a year together. We are constantly learning new tunes, building new sets, and casting aside older tunes. The piano and guitar focus entirely on rhythm, except during a waltz, when the pianist is starting to take solos. The fiddler grew up learning this music from her famous fiddler Mom, and most of the time she's the one to bring a new tune into the group. Last week she brought in Hollow Poplar, Billy Wilson, and Morrison's Jig. After a year, it's become pretty easy for me, on mandolin, to pick up a new melody, and then deconstruct it just enough so I can complement the fiddler's own part, and provide a counter to the guitarist's on-the-beat playing. I find reels, especially, to be much easier to learn quickly.Let's face it, they are usually just a riff first done on the tonic, then up to 5, then on the four-five, and back to the one. The B part is often just a harmony to the A riff often done an octave higher. i realize I'm simplifying this learning task to the point where it doesn't explain much of anything, but those of you who are continually learning new fiddle tunes, will know what i mean.

    The other thing we're doing a lot of right now, is revisiting the segues between tunes. We started one set last weekend with Hunting the Buffalo, then segued into Shoofly. It was like going to overdrive. After playing the incredibly uplifting B part to Shoofly, we finally segued into Sandy Boys. What a letdown. Let's face it, Sandy Boys is little more than a blues riff in A mixolydian. It can sound great when played at medium speed by a fiddler able to ride the edges of the notes using odd double stops, but it just doesn't provide enough melodic calories for the dancers to lift off of. So at rehearsal the other day, we eliminated Sandy Boys, and added Possum on the Gum stump. Except we made it first in the set, since it starts off low (in G) on the scale. Buffalo is bit higher, and Shoofly higher still. You get the idea.

    I'd love to have some of you other contra dance players chime in on some of your own inspired sets of three tunes, and what specifically, makes them push well against one another.
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    óJim

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

  9. #84
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Let's see if i have any luck revitalizing this thread about playing mandolin for contra dances.

    Over the summer, I've been enjoying playing a weekly dance without the band using any electricity. We were playing in a 150 year old hall. The band included piano, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin.

    Doing it this way has made me think a lot about the long tradition of these dances, and the fact that until no more than 60 or 70 years ago, no one playing these dances used power. I'm hardly a traditionalist, but I have to say that the feel and the mood of these all-acoustic dances is profound. That is, so long as the dancers can hear both the music and the caller.

    Our usual caller, 82 years old and still going strong, used a head mike driving a single speaker set up on a high pole in one corner. Another caller the band hired for a big outdoor wedding, possessed the rare vocal quality that makes me think of Aretha. Her natural voice has such an edge that it cuts through everything else without making her even raise her voice. Because she's also masterful at teaching a dance very quickly, she's definitely our future first call.

    One other thing I like about an acoustic dance. The dancers do pay better attention to the caller, and so they were much quieter while the dance was being taught.

    I was having the hardest time being heard while playing my BRW oval hole. Most people would call it a loud mandolin. But I finally figured out that it wasn't so much an issue of raw volume, but of a specific sound quality i hadn't paid enough attention to, and which bluegrass players refer to as "cutting power". I'd define it as the mysterious capability of one particular mandolin design to optimally focus and project the high harmonics through ff holes. In other words, i was ready to buy myself an F5.

    So I bought one. It's been a revelation, and has changed the way I play my own parts in these un-amplified dances. First of all, the instrument is a good one, (although emphatically not a famous one), but still on that level of those not-so-common F5s that make it easy to hear every note, high or low, without having to bang on strings. I now understand what "tubbiness" means, and why i don't want it when playing a dance in a band, without electricity. I can also hear the difference between the cutting power of a good F5 and just about any FF-hole A shape you want to put up against it. Maybe not on a recording, but definitely in a dance hall. The F5 capability to project high harmonics louder far across the room then in my own ear, definitely took some getting use to. Once i got used to it, i realized that it lets me be heard clearly by the dancers no matter how loud the band gets, how boomy the room is, or even how clear it sounds to me. Because i no longer have to dig in so much while playing all those 16th note melodies at the furious pace of a contra dance, my playing is more in control and I can be much more playful in my note choice and rhythm choice over the course of an entire evening.
    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

    Contra dance band success strategies vary. There is one local band that was getting booked all over the place, to the point where they were on the verge of burn out - and the reason they were so popular is, beyond being very good musicians and practicing alot, they had a fare amount of klezmer and eastern european tunes and influence in their sets. Really great stuff, and everyone loved them.

    And there are a few bands that have made a name for themselves by having unique instrumentation. Oboe or lower brass or something.

    Another band I know, decent musicians all, and they get lots of gigs because of the agressive networking and marketing abilities of one of their members. I don't know that their playing was especially memorable, but they have become a household name.

    Competent musicians that play well together and are smooth and practiced, that seems to be the easy part. Distinguishing yourself through some uniqueness in playing or instrumentation, or having an excellent caller on board, or flyers on every post within 50 miles of here, these seem to get you gigs.
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  11. #86
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    I have never heard a contra dance band with an oboe. It sounds wonderful.

    Burn out is an issue for any band. You put the time in, and occasionally something clicks within the music or the group chemistry. Then you want the whole world to hear your music. Maybe go on the road awhile. One day you realize that what you are doing is less then the dream. The road lifestyle is painful. Your mutual commitment has become an agreement to live in poverty. Or you hit you a musical ceiling. Someone demands something new, which the others can't do.

    Our band plays at least one dance a week. Sometimes two. You do that for years and you get both skillful and comfortable within the music. Getting more and more skillful on mandolin is bottom line for me. I also love it that 4 unplugged acoustic players can get a full house of dancers to levitate a building.

    I live in a county of islands in Puget Sound accessed by ferry. The 3 big islands have one contra dance band apiece. Each island band occasionally plays on one of the other islands. Only rarely does one of the bands play on the mainland. Each of our bands could probably hold its own anywhere in the country. I mention this, to describe the unique context of our island scene.
    Explore some of my published music here

    óJim

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

  12. #87

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Hi There Jim, Jeff and all.

    A while back we were having an interesting conversation about contra dance tune medleys. I just came across this in depth discussion including many well known musicians and callers. All the quotes are from 1990 so this is a rather antique document. Things have changed in the past 23 years, but less than you might think. The book is called...

    Contra Dance Choreography
    A REFLECTION OF SOCIAL CHANGE
    by Mary McNab Dart
    http://www.cdss.org/elibrary/dart/co...ce_event_2.htm

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

    I think I have seen that book. I am not sure. Very interesting. Oh, I see. CDSS, yes that is where I have seen it.
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  14. #89
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Yes, I've seen it. Interesting stuff. Are you still playing dances, Jody?

    We have an unusual gig (for us) this Sunday. We're playing unamplified, onstage, in a pub, for an audience sitting in chairs, for St Paddy's day. The pub has requested that we forego their sound system to make it sound more "authentic". Go figure. We will play slightly slower than contra dance speed, and focus our hour set on jigs. We'll also play one or two old-time tunes since we all like stretching out on modal breakdowns ó starting slow, getting faster ó as much as the unison and note-y Irish tunes.
    Explore some of my published music here

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    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post
    We have an unusual gig (for us) this Sunday. We're playing unamplified, onstage, in a pub, for an audience sitting in chairs, for St Paddy's day..
    that sounds like a lot of fun.
    Indulge responsibly!

    The entire staff
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  16. #91
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    wish you could be there Jeff, to sit in.
    Explore some of my published music here

    óJim

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

  17. #92

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Hey Jim,

    Yes, I'm still playing dances right and left.

    I hope your gig went well. Did they all sit and listen silently? That would not be too authentic now would it?

    Last Sunday I had a St. Pat's / 40th birthday solo gig on concertina. The birthday boy, his wife and child and mother-in-law were all from Ireland. I think most of the other folks there were too, at least back a generation or two. What a scene.

    It was in a dark back room of a dive bar here in Brooklyn. There were about 30 folks there, 10 of them little girls under 5. No one could tell me why all the kids were girls. Open tab and some great draft at the bar up front. They all did quite a bit of dancing as well as nonstop talking and they clapped after every tune. Whenever they started in dancing, I would switch to polkas... which seemed to fit what they were doing. The mother-in-law made a point of coming over at the end to tell me that it would have been a waste not to dance to such good music. She grew up in Clare and hearing all those tunes made her nostalgic.

    It turns out that the birthday dad was a tattoo artist, which explained why most of the men had full tattoos up their arms. If the women had tattoos too, they were not showing, so I don't know.

  18. #93
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    My gig was just OK. I don't do well performing with lots of players with varying levels of proficiency. All in wobbly unison. Yes, I do understand that's the way the Irish promote it. But to do it more than once a year, I'll need to learn how to leave my ears at home.

    The only time anyone got up to dance is when I formed an impromptu trio with a talented 14 year old fiddler and a young 82 year old concertina player, to do Ashokan Farewell. Certainly not Irish, but it is a spirited waltz. Jay Unger is visiting next month, so it seemed an apt choice.

    One of our near locals, Clyde Curley, played a contra dance here last weekend on fiddle with piano and banjo. He adds a wonderful lilt to the canon.
    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'm enjoying learning lots of new (to me) tunes from the Portland Collection volumes 1 & 2 that Clyde Curley and Susan Songer published. They've also put out some accompanying CDs of them playing a selection of tunes from each book. Great stuff. I've never been to a contra dance but am tempted to check it out. I know there are dances almost every month here in SF Bay Area.

    It's interesting to hear how the mandolin fits in a contra dance band. Seems to be part rhythm playing, part melody playing and part rhythmic melody playing!

  20. #95

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quote Originally Posted by David Horovitz View Post
    I'm enjoying learning lots of new (to me) tunes from the Portland Collection volumes 1 & 2 that Clyde Curley and Susan Songer published. They've also put out some accompanying CDs of them playing a selection of tunes from each book. Great stuff. I've never been to a contra dance but am tempted to check it out. I know there are dances almost every month here in SF Bay Area.

    It's interesting to hear how the mandolin fits in a contra dance band. Seems to be part rhythm playing, part melody playing and part rhythmic melody playing!
    Hi David,

    You should go. Not only will dancing make you a better mandolin player, it's fun!

    My band Grand Picnic https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/grandpicnic is playing in NYC again this May 11 at http://cdny.org/ We are a two fiddle band and one of the fiddlers, Sam Zygmuntowicz often brings his mandolin for added color. While the mando is not essential to the contra sound it adds a great deal. Sam's playing certainly does the things you are talking about. Instead of the two fiddles blending, fiddle and mandolin create a layered texture that is had to beat and a sparkle that brightens up the room.

  21. #96
    Notary Sojac Paul Kotapish's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quote Originally Posted by David Horovitz View Post
    I'm enjoying learning lots of new (to me) tunes from the Portland Collection volumes 1 & 2 that Clyde Curley and Susan Songer published. They've also put out some accompanying CDs of them playing a selection of tunes from each book. Great stuff. I've never been to a contra dance but am tempted to check it out. I know there are dances almost every month here in SF Bay Area.
    Hey David,

    There are dances every week--often several per week--in the greater Bay Area. I don't play for them much anymore, but I played hundreds of them over the past three decades. Playing for dances is fun, challenging, physically demanding, and sometimes frustrating, but it's a great way to build your chops and stamina, and the tunes are great.

    It's a bit of a schlep from San Jose, but the Berkeley dances on alternate Wednesdays have an open band with a generally welcoming policy to all comers. Basic session courtesy applies--play if you know the tune, listen carefully and play softly if you are just learning it, stay quiet and just listen if you have no idea what's going on.

    http://www.bacds.org/series/contra/berkeley_wed/

    Here is a roster of all the BACDS dances: http://www.bacds.org/series/contra/

    The Palo Alto dance is probably the nearest one, but the other dances generally do not have an open-band policy.

    There are also dances happening in Hayward: http://www.haywardcontradance.org/

    And there's a fun dance scene down in Felton and in Santa Cruz: http://santacruzdance.org/calendar.php

    And further afield, there's a very lively scene in Marin and Sonoma: http://www.nbcds.org/
    Just one guy's opinion
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  22. #97
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Paul Says:

    Playing for dances is fun, challenging, physically demanding, and sometimes frustrating, but it's a great way to build your chops and stamina, and the tunes are great.

    Yes i agree wholeheartedly with all of those adjectives. One thing that has always struck me while playing the contra dance scene, is how little respect this music gets from the so-called serious musicians in my neck of the woods. Certainly these are not the most harmonically challenging tunes on the block. But there's no other music I have ever played that drives at such a speed, and for such a length of time. Getting to that speed takes practice, and I find i quickly lose it if i don't perform for even a few months.,

    The open sessions are often frustrating to me. I stopped attending a popular session where i live, because as the population of players grew and grew, I found myself less and less able to hear what i was doing. As the band hit a critical mass, the sound system disappeared. I opted out with the excuse that: "I'm mainly in it for the music. When I can't hear myself play the music, what's the point".

    Despite my excuse, I am well aware of the point for all those folks who are so much deeper into the aesthetic than me. The expression of community is what it is all about.

    I had no interest in raining on this local event that continues to make both players and dancers so happy. I show up at this weekly dance about once every six weeks. And always relish the incredible rush playing great tunes like Reel St Antoine and Green Willis at 115 bpm.
    Explore some of my published music here

    óJim

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

  23. #98

    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Ugh Sunday morning.. Here in England the caller will request - 32 bar jigs - or 48 bar ... hpipes etc etc. so its up to the band to have the required reportoire to hand - normally with the dots. A lot of stuff will be traditional to the area - in England this is very varied - we're fortunate enough in the n'east to have huge local collections - James Hill for one.. who wrote some cracking good hornpipes, reels etc. there is a very strong Northumbrian pipers society that has pushed out various collections . One thing that will vary with your local is the speed .Newcastle way its fast the midlands a little less racy - Southern speed is sort of slow..coupled with the fact that a few years ago there was a fashion for hopstep bands with sometimes a trombone giving a nice bottom end- almost New Orelans feel to a dance. On the other hand we had Robin Dun to the dance club the other week( Newcastle ish) and he really wasn't taking any prisoners.. a case of dance two sit one out for me lolol

  24. #99
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tune talk for Contra dances

    Quote Originally Posted by homejame View Post
    A lot of stuff will be traditional to the area - in England this is very varied - we're fortunate enough in the n'east to have huge local collections - James Hill for one.. who wrote some cracking good hornpipes, reels etc.
    Some cracking good hornpipes indeed. I picked up a copy of Pete Loud's Collection and he has over 25 James Hill tunes in there. Most everyone is wonderful.
    Indulge responsibly!

    The entire staff
    funny....

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