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Bill N

Tips & Tricks for Contra

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Since the demise of my Long-Sword Side I have been sitting in with a band that plays for New England style contra dancing.  They play a lot of stuff from the Portland collection, a little bit of Old Time stuff, and quite a bit from contemporary dance tune composers.  It's a fiddle driven band, and they don't like to be confined to G and D Major.  They like the concertina in the mix, and have been pushing me up to the front.  I've been getting the new tunes and fast tempo under my fingers, but have been mostly playing melody or really basic harmonies.  On nights when we don't have a piano, or it's just me and the fiddles, I would like to function more as a rhythm instrument, and am looking for ideas on how to tackle it.  I don't read music.  I have 30 button C/G & G/D boxes, a 20 button Bb/F, and a big baritone double reeded 20 button D/A.  I've been making up chord charts, listening hard to the piano player, and wearing out my Jody Kruskal CDs and making some progress, but would welcome any advice.

 

 

Edited by Bill N
typo

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24 minutes ago, Bill N said:

Since the demise of my Long-Sword Side I have been sitting in with a band that plays for New England style contra dancing.  They play a lot of stuff from the Portland collection, a little bit of Old Time stuff, and quite a bit from contemporary dance tune composers.  It's a fiddle driven band, and they don't like to be confined to G and D Major.  They like the concertina in the mix, and have been pushing me up to the front.  I've been getting the new tunes and fast tempo under my fingers, but have been mostly playing melody or really basic harmonies.  On nights when we don't have a piano, or its just me and the fiddles, I would like to function more as a rhythm instrument, and am looking for ideas on how to tackle it.  I don't read music.  I have 30 button C/G & G/D boxes, a 20 button Bb/F, and a big baritone double reeded 20 button D/A.  I've been making up chord charts, listening hard to the piano player, and wearing out my Jody Kruskal CDs and making some progress, but would welcome any advice.

Welcome to contra dancing!  Here's my advice; 

 

-Play for the dancers.  You're not center stage but part of a delightful whole.  To this effect, pay attention to the caller/prompter and refrain from excessive chat and /or exercising your instrument while they're giving instructions.  

-Even when playing lead you need to drive the rhythm.  Aspire to being able to play the dance all by yourself.  Join the dance with your upper body while playing!

- As you have mentioned,  contra music is a hodgepodge and each dance desires a unique approach:  marches, reels, polkas, hornpipes, jigs, rags etc. for the longways sets and maybe a hombo or Schottish before the brake, and of course a waltz.  

-Oom-pa is sometimes appropriate, especially with a sparse band but try to fill empty spaces ( and leave some).  A chug on the back beat really works as does a counter melody in the lower register.  For a waltz, a Swedish beat : 1,2'-1,2'-  works well.

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12 hours ago, Bill N said:

On nights when we don't have a piano, or it's just me and the fiddles, I would like to function more as a rhythm instrument, and am looking for ideas on how to tackle it.  I don't read music.

I've accompanied my fiddler on the Anglo quite often. It's not difficult, if you know the music well enough. I don't read the dots either - there's no need to, because all you need is "chord shapes" analogous to those that rhythm guitarists use. You say you've been making up chord charts - that's the way to go, but you can also google chords for the Anglo. I'm not familiar with the genre you're playing, but surely there are printed tunes or arrangements with chord symbols, or you can ask your pianist to write down what chords he plays when for each tune.

 

When you've internalised the chord shapes on the Anglo, and written down the chord symbols for the tune, all you have to do is to get the rhythmic groove going - and @wunks has given a few hints on doing that. 

 

BTW it's well known that the Anglo gets rapidly more difficult as you move away from its home keys. However, this is most noticeable when you're trying to play melody and accompaniment together. When you're playing melody only, or harmony only, the range of accessible keys (on the 30-or-more-button Anglo) widens considerably. 

 

Cheers,

John

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Hello Bill:  Sort of on topic, jeff bigler (jeff bigler.org) has a great article on playing for morris that has some good application to contra as well.  If you cannot find it, I have a copy.  It's from 2009 and a classic.  Maybe you have already seen it.

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On 1/6/2019 at 8:56 PM, wunks said:

Play for the dancers.

 

BE the dancers. I have found that experience on the contradance floor is enormously helpful to informing my playing of contradance tunes. I play in a large contradance band (we played a dance last night) and many of the musicians are not dancers. You can hear it in their playing.

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26 minutes ago, David Barnert said:

 

BE the dancers. I have found that experience on the contradance floor is enormously helpful to informing my playing of contradance tunes. I play in a large contradance band (we played a dance last night) and many of the musicians are not dancers. You can hear it in their playing.

 

Yes, indeed!  A good stomping Balance needs a different feel than a Gypsy or a Hay for Four and if the head couple is waiting out, you should be playing the "B" part.

 

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On 1/6/2019 at 5:20 PM, Bill N said:

Since the demise of my Long-Sword Side I have been sitting in with a band that plays for New England style contra dancing.  They play a lot of stuff from the Portland collection, a little bit of Old Time stuff, and quite a bit from contemporary dance tune composers.  It's a fiddle driven band, and they don't like to be confined to G and D Major.  They like the concertina in the mix, and have been pushing me up to the front.  I've been getting the new tunes and fast tempo under my fingers, but have been mostly playing melody or really basic harmonies.  On nights when we don't have a piano, or it's just me and the fiddles, I would like to function more as a rhythm instrument, and am looking for ideas on how to tackle it.  I don't read music.  I have 30 button C/G & G/D boxes, a 20 button Bb/F, and a big baritone double reeded 20 button D/A.  I've been making up chord charts, listening hard to the piano player, and wearing out my Jody Kruskal CDs and making some progress, but would welcome any advice.

 

 

 

Well, if it's just you on rhythm, my suggestion is keep it simple.  Basic boom-chucks.  Rhythmic pounding on the chords.

 

Jody is a master of playing rhythm on concertina, but he's almost always playing with a very strong pianist, which leaves him free to do a lot of rhythmic punctuation, adding enormously to the drive of the music.  Without a piano ( and without Jody's extraordinary skills) , it seems to me,  you'd be better off keeping it simple and forceful.

 

I once had to do a contra with just a fiddle and concertina. Mostly, I pretended I was playing guitar, doing a lot of bass-chord stuff, occasional bass runs, etc.  When playing with bigger groups  I sometimes like to pretend I'm a string bass and do strong bass lines, with occasional chords thrown in.  That should work nicely on your D/A bari.

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Thanks everyone.  You've given me some good ideas to work with.

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I'd suggest taking a look at the book by Peter Barnes -"Interview with a Vamper: Piano Accompaniment Techniques for Traditional Dance Music"

 

While this book is clearly written with piano in mind, he is brilliant at both making sure the music keeps the dancers on the beat and suiting the dance, and also offering stylistic variety.  Written with the assumption that other instruments are carrying the melody, so you would be playing rhythm and harmony, but not the melody, even though piano is obviously just as capable of playing melody+ as is the concertina.  (When you want to play melody, you already know how to do that, and then the rest of the band plays the rhythm and harmonies.)

 

Available from him directly at canispublishing.com

 

I also see it in stock at Elderly music, and Amazon

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On 1/15/2019 at 6:12 PM, Tradewinds Ted said:

I'd suggest taking a look at the book by Peter Barnes -"Interview with a Vamper: Piano Accompaniment Techniques for Traditional Dance Music"

 

 

Ted - in what sense in "vamper" used in the title of this book? I recently used the word "vamping" to mean playing "oom-pah" style - or what Jim Besser above calls "boom-chuck" - but was pulled up for incorrect usage. It seems the generally accepted definition of vamping is something like this one I found:

 

"A vamp is a passage of instrumental music of fixed length -- usually pretty short -- which can be played as many times as needed to create time for some purpose. In musical theatre or cabaret, vamps are often used to allow singers to deliver dialog or carry out stage directions within a song; since the time this takes can vary, it's useful to have a short snippet of music that can be repeated as needed to allow for the time."

 

This definition doesn't really seem to fit with the idea of dance music (except for the obvious fact that you repeat the tune as often a necessary) so I just wondered whether I wasn't alone in using "vamping" to mean "oom-pah" which is, after all, a common technique and so fits more naturally with the the book's subject.

 

LJ

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  If someone could point out the etymology of the word it would be helpful.  All the varied "definitions" I'm seeing are too narrow.  It means different things to different musicians as they talk among themselves.  I certainly consider "oom pah", or "boom chuck", or "chugging" to be vamping, but also any rhythmic backup to the melody even if it's non-repetitive and/or non-chordal.  Some examples would be a simple bass line, a gypsy jazz backup chord run, or stride piano.  Heck, my most excellent piano player can "boom chuck"  her way through five or six rounds of a fiddle tune without repeating a phrase.  I'd even consider a washboard providing structure for an old time string band to be vamping!  But that's just me....😊

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Hi, LJ,

That's the definiton of "vamping" that I'm familiar with. "Vamp till ready," is an instruction to the accompanying pianist to wait for the soloist to start.

 

However , in the Banjo World, we have an additional meaning for "to vamp": there, it means to strum a chord (or chords) repeatedly, but lift the fingers of the left hand off the stopped strings immediately after each stroke of the right hand. This gives a rather percussive effect. It can be used during an actual accompaniment, if you wish.

I think, if I were to transfer vamping, in this sense, from the banjo to the concertina, I'd play oom-pah, or boom-chuck or bass-chord, whatever you like to call it.

 

BTW, IMHO, the most spectacular example of vamping in the dictionary sense was in the Johnny Cash biographical film "Walk the Line". He gave a concert in Folsom Prison, and in the film he sent his backing band out on stage, while he had a few words with his beloved June Carter. The band - guitars, bass, and possibly drums - vamped on one chord for what seemed like minutes, before Cash took the stage before the convicts and sang his song. The tension and suspense were unbelieveable!

 

Cheers,

John

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Another "dictionary"  definition which somewhat confuses the issue is "an improvised accompaniment or backup to a tune"  (paraphrase) and similar;  " to extemporize on the piano".

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On 2/1/2019 at 6:46 AM, Little John said:

in what sense in "vamper" used in the title of this book?

 

In the satirical sense. The title is a play on Anne Rice’s gothic horror novel, “Interview with the Vampire.” Any imprecision in the use of the word “vamper” is just the cost of a catchy pun.

 

5184RmyIgsL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

 

 

 

Edited by David Barnert

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On ‎2019‎-‎02‎-‎01 at 5:46 AM, Little John said:

 

Ted - in what sense in "vamper" used in the title of this book?

 

 

 

The film based on Anne Rice's book was relatively new at the time Peter first published, so Dave Barnett is correct.  But of course Peter is also referring to the style of piano accompaniment used in a contra dance band, not just coming up with a random name for his instruction book.

 

Apparently the broader definition of vamping is the repetition of a simple musical phrase or pattern.   That can mean either exact repetition as needed to fill time, such as during the staging of a show, OR it can mean the repetition of a rhythmic chord pattern while the melody varies against it, as Wunks has described.  As it happens "Boom-Chuck" is the basic rhythmic accompaniment style quite often used on the piano in a Contra-dance band.  Therefore this is the most basic style described Peter's book, although he expands upon it quite a bit, offering both interesting variations and many alternatives, along with some sound advice on playing rhythmic accompaniment in a band, specifically for dancers.  The main point of the book seems to be an exploration of ways to balance the dichotomy of the need for absolutely rock solid rhythm for the dancers vs. the excitement provided by variations from the basic pattern.

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25 minutes ago, Tradewinds Ted said:

 

... OR it can mean the repetition of a rhythmic chord pattern while the melody varies against it, as Wunks has described.  As it happens "Boom-Chuck" is the basic rhythmic accompaniment style quite often used on the piano in a Contra-dance band.  ...

 

Thanks Ted, and others who have contributed. So the use of "vamping" to mean "oom-pah" style accompaniment is acceptable; albeit not as widely recognised as the other use to mean time-filler.

 

LJ

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On 1/7/2019 at 12:25 PM, Devils' Dream said:

Hello Bill:  Sort of on topic, jeff bigler (jeff bigler.org) has a great article on playing for morris that has some good application to contra as well.  If you cannot find it, I have a copy.  It's from 2009 and a classic.  Maybe you have already seen it.

I am interested in Reading  Jeff' Bigler's article but can not open  the site in here the UK .Is their another way I can see it Thanks Bob

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