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English Country Dance tunes - WHY oh WHY???

Monday, June 26, 2017

I have not gone to the dark side!! About 5 years ago, way back in 2012, I was invited to play for an English Country dance - my first. I am still doing it and enjoying it! But, why on earth would someone who is interested in OT fiddling even consider playing English country dance tunes? Here is my reply:

1. English Country dance music IS dance music. The fiddling is DANCE fiddling. This is the genesis of OT fiddling. If you have any doubt, listen to this clip:

The first piece is Bransle des Chevaux (Horse's Bransle), the second piece is Staines Morris (the Maypole song).

Here's a early recording of English fiddling.

And one of a more more current English fiddler. Yes, some familiar ornamentation! But, I like the description of the style even more - "lumpy"

Here's an article about English fiddling.

2. Many of the tunes are not 32 bar AABB structure tunes and many are not 2/2,2/4,4/4, or 3/4 time. There are 3/2, 6/8, 9/8, 6/4 and more - each have a different feel. So, figuring out bowings so that the phrasing is right and that the music drives the dance is critical.

3. OT music has it's roots in the traditions of  Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, France. Early immigrants in the late 1600s and 1700s were listening to and playing Baroque music. The ornamentation in Baroque music is imbedded and preserved in OT music. So, current classical musicians who are focusing on "historically informed performances", are listening to Emmitt Lundy and Eddon Hammons since they retained much of this style in their playing (so say musicologists who study this stuff.) Additionally, the phrasing and many passages are also retained. So, playing English tunes informs my approach to OT. 

Here's an article about the Baroque fiddling and its relationship to OT fiddling.

4. Not much is known about English Country dancing. The tradition nearly died out had it not been for the efforts of Cecil Sharp who interviewed a few elderly folks in the early 1900 who recounted their experiences. He recreated dances and the style from these interviews. So, my understanding is that much of what we know today about English country dancing is from Cecil Sharp. The music, on the other hand, was collected (transcribed) by many, most notably John Playford. Because of the scant early field recordings of English fiddlers, there is some hint at ornamentation and phrasing for a few tunes. Today, the influence of the celtic traditions (Irish and Scots mostly) is present in many tunes.

5. The band uses sheet music - dots, danged dots. With 10-12 new tunes for each dance, it is impossible to memorize them. So, playing for the English dances is a way of improving my sight-reading skills, something that 11 years of piano lessons as a kids did not do. After 5 years, I am still crappy at it, but better. My struggle now is with phrasing and timing, especially with 3/2 tunes.

6. Improving intonation  - English music is a bit more refined than OT. Since a keyboard or fixed reed instrument (concertina) is frequently in the band, fiddles need to be played with good intonation. For me, playing this music has forced me to focus on this - something I should have done long, long ago!  And, let's not forget about those tunes in flatted keys!  - F, Bb, Gm, Dm, etc. - Still a stuggle with intonation on these, but they no longer scare me!!

7. Improving technique - many of the tunes require getting out of first position! Yes, it is possible to do it. After struggling for a while, it fell into place for me. Now, I'm working on finding the notes in the shifted positions -- and it is fun! Included in this is bowing and making the tunes expressive. As I play the tune, I ask myself "how does it make me feel?" I try to convey that when I play. I also note the dance figure that goes with the phrase. How can I drive the music so that the dancers have no choice but to move into the figure. Much of this has to do with bowing.

So, if you have read this far, thank you. If you have not tried English Country dance tunes, give it a shot - even if it is not what you want to play. Also, listen to Baroque music. Much of it music is dance music! You will hear OT fiddle tunes, of phrases of tunes, as well as cross-tuning. How cool is that?

You can also snicker at the tune names like Mr. Belvedere's Maggot or The Astonish Archeologist or The Physical Snob.

And, where else can you have a band with such a cool name as Mad Robin?



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Playing Since: 1977
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Occupation: chemist/professor

Gender: Male
Age: 65

My Instruments:
JBSchweitzer, GTL-Barnabetti, 1900's era German guild Strad copies.

Favorite Bands/Musicians:
Skillet Lickers, Tommy Jarrel, Clark Kessinger, Buddy Thomas, Lonnie Robertson, Earl Collins, Uncle Dave Hutchison, Art Galbraith, etc. My strongest influences have been the wonderful fiddlers of the Southern Ozarks/Northern Arkansas region. Additionally, playing for contra dances over the past many years provided exposure to New England style and repertoir.

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Starting out playing mountain dulcimer and fiddle at the same time after attending the Ozark Folk Festival in Mtn.View, Arkansas in 1977. A few years later I was a regional finalist on MD. As much as I liked MD, the fiddle kept calling me. My decsion to play fiddle was essentially for two reasons - a) it was not heavy and b) I traveled frequently and it would fit in the overhead compartment on the plane. I learned much from old-timers in northern Arkansas, but I was also nutured by a strong OT music community in Austin, Texas. During my "career" I've played for uncountable square&contra dances and co-founded, with my wife, the North Texas Traditional Dance Society in Dallas. So, my repertoire and interest ranges from OT to New England to Celtic, but my style is decidedly of the Ozarks and midWest. In real life I teach chemistry/chemical technology, but it hasn't hurt my fiddling.

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