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Thoughts on Contra Dance Fiddling

Friday, June 10, 2016 @3:50:09 PM

    I've been blessed to be busy playing for contra dances every month since being invited to play one last November, sometimes twice a month.  This month, as a consequence of a dance in April, I will soon be playing a contra for a 'pre convention' dance for the 65th National Square Dance Convention being held near me in Des Moines, Iowa.  The dance is the night before the convention officially starts.  I am very stoked and honored to be invited to play for this event.  Maybe next time they're around I'll get to play for square dances instead.

Now for some thoughts.  
    First, I have found that my extensive list contains many tunes that are just unsuitable for contras due to their length.  Many of my favorites (lots of them in A) have one or both parts that are short or are too many measures for example - Sail Away Ladies, Cluck old Hen, Wolves a'Howlin, Sheep Shell Corn, Great Big Taters in Sandyland, Hanged Man's Reel, Indian on a Stump, Late for the Dance, Cherokee Shuffle, Little Rabbit etc.  And I'm just not comfortable/confident enough to play some of them for an extended length of time. Then, I am finding that the callers seem to prefer it when there are medleys and request them, even though all of my research suggests that medleys are mostly about the musicians being bored than anything else (and I never get bored with a tune).  So I have to try and pair up tunes (to be more entertaining?) and then practice switching from one to the other.  I'm finding it a challenge with my diverse sounding, mostly Southern Appalachian tune list to make transitions that aren't too jarring while at the same time not too similar.  I like to play a tune for as long as it takes, you know?  Really get inside the tune. And my list is full of tunes that are not melodically similar because, well, I find it easier to remember them if they're not full of turns that remind me of another tune (think C tunes - man, they can really get twisted up in my head with their 'C tune licks')  Having to switch tunes causes me to think about the change instead of the tune being played.  This will probably get easier with time.

    Next, I need to have a band since most folks are used to much more of an ensemble sound than a single fiddle belting out tunes.  So I've been playing with a handful of players in another handful of iterations of guitar/banjo/fiddle combinations as the band Melon Farmer (also the name I use when I do listening gigs with my wife on uke).  There's the Merle on banjo, Jon on guitar version (both original members of The Barn Owl Band).  There's the Merle on Banjo, Rick on guitar vesion (both of The Porch Stompers).  There's Merle, Dan on guitar and Bettie also on fiddle version.  There's Paul on banjo, Ginny on guitar version (playing for the NSDC gig).  I think there was even a Paul and Jon version.  And finally, the Paul and Rick version that will play at the end of this month.  What is that, six different bands?  Oh, and once with Jon and a complete stranger who was hired by the caller - that one was a little less fun, but only a little.  

    I love playing with Merle, he is a very experienced fabulous player of some tasty clawhammer banjo.  A true dream to play with.  Jon is a creative guitar player who is well versed in the various chording tricks used in the contra milieu and the combination of Jon and Merle is and effortless band to be a part of.  I like the other folks too, or I wouldn't ask them to be a part of this. The thing is, I think I need to establish a regular band so we can become the one-mind unit that makes for a great contra dance band.  That is not easy in my neck of the woods as there are a limited number of players and most have other commitments.

    Here's the crazy part.  One of the callers likes to attempt a couple of 'techno' dances per evening.  The first time we did it, I plugged in and used some effects and we played "Sarah Armstrong's Reel."  I know that tune inside and out now and there is a fair amount of improvisation during the dance.  I think the second dance was to "Cold Frosty Morning".  Since that first night, I got a beats app for my phone and have mixed a 12 minute track to play along with, giving us space to drop out and let the beats do the work. The first time we used it, the track ran out before the dance.  It is super fun and I am still exploring how to make this better and recording some longer tracks.  Because of this aspect, when I build a more permanent band, they will need to understand and embrace this somewhat anachronistic aspect of the gig.  Jon seems to get it, but he's busy with the BOB.  So I'm thinking I'll need to find a younger bunch to play with.  Paul is younger and of the right mindset, everyone else is in their sixties or older and aren't really 'down' with much modern music.

    Learning new tunes has been kind of on the back burner due to all this gigging, but I've also been getting better at playing the tunes on my big list so I have more tunes to choose from.  One of this month's Virtual Fiddle Festival tunes is now in my rotation - "Old Beech Leaves" and there are a few jigs that are almost there.  Phrasing is so important for contra dances and I've had to adjust how I play some tunes while others have really blossomed due to having to the dancer/band interactions.  Mostly I've had to adjust tempos and recognize which tunes I usually play too fast for the dance.

Finally, if you get this kind of opportunity and it sounds like something you'd enjoy, jump at it.  I'm living a dream that grew from the day I learned my first tune.  

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