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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
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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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