Contra Dance Music: A Working Musician's Guide

What makes a good contra dance band
Comments from musicians, dancers, and callers culled from Fiddle-L and on the newsgroup rec.folk-dancing in response to the question "What makes a good contra dance band?" and from the article Contra and square dance playing by Phil and Vivian Williams (their remarks used with permission) Some comments were very useful, some were obvious, and some were obviously in response to bad experiences. I have arranged them according to topic.

Playing together with style by The Last Gaspé
A workshop given by The Last Gaspé at the New England Folk Festival (NEFFA) in 1999. This essay was modified slightly and reprinted by M. Koth with the authors' approval.

Musicians and callers on the art of contra dance music and calling from Old Farmer's Ball. Instructive videos of several contra dance musicians and bands demonstrating how they select and play music for dances.

The minimum requirements for contra dance music by Jeff Kaufman: argues that dancers don't necessary rely on musicians to sound good, manage dynamics, or even be in tune, although dancers certainly enjoy it when these things happen. He says that dancers reply on the musicians to play music that lets them know when to take steps (through the tempo) as well as when to start figures and where they are in the dance (through the phrasing).
Music and the hall by Mary McNab Dart: makes the point that "musical phrasing and melody line with the phrasing and character of the dance figures can enhance or detract from the choreography of a particular dance, and the general mood and pace of the tune can also make a difference in how well the music fits the dance." The choice of tune(s), the tempo, the degree of arranging and improvising, and emphasis of features of a tune to mimic the choreography all contribute to the success of any given dance.
Musicians column--aspects of musicality by Martha Edwards: describes how to add rhythm, bounce, and shape to your music through phrasing.
Suggested basic criteria for band playing a contra dance from Tallahassee community friends of old-time dance. Perhaps the most important suggestion found in this document is "Have fun."

The squeal index: Can old-time bands make it on the contra-dance scene? by Joyce Cauthen, Susan Davis, and Scott Russell: discusses "some of the "tricks"—some essential, some optional—that old-time bands might want to consider if they wish to hold their own in the contra dance world."

Choosing tunes for contra dance medleys
Again, these are comments culled from postings to rec.folk-dancing and from Fiddle-L and from the article Contra and square dance playing by Phil and Vivian Williams (their remarks used with permission) regarding the issue of combining tunes into medleys for contra dances.
A barn dance repertoire by Thomas Green: discusses finding tunes and gives advice about starting, stopping, and changing tunes and variations, tune sets, and altering tunes.

Make 'em want to dance! : how to play for a dance by Phil Jamison
Some thoughts on playing for folk dancing by Eric Foxley
So you wanna play dance music? by Laura Lengnick

Here's a flier by Sarah Gowan about the true costs for contra dance musicians: Hiring a dance musician?

Composing dance tunes by Colin Hume
Ingredients of fiddle tunes by Dudley Laufman (Internet Archive version)
Creating fiddle tunes by Gary Reynolds (Internet Archive version)
Structure in Irish tunes (Internet Archive version) installment 1 of Traditional fiddle music by Mark Simos

Jon Weinberg has a handout for dulcimer players on how to play well with others. Some of the advice he gives can be used by any folk musician. Specifically: listen not just to yourself but to the others and the mix. Listen to how the tune is being played (bouncy, smooth, swingy, crisp) and what others are doing with the tune (drones, vamps, stops, harmonies).

Articles by Eric J. Anderson on playing piano for contra dances
Notes on playing for contras
How I play contra dance piano
Principles for playing piano for contra dances
Examples of two- and four-bar ideas (PDF) with explanatory notes to go with the examples

Accompaniment: the subtle energetics of accompaniment, from Mark Simos (Internet Archive version)
Vamping - the absolute basics (examples based on the first chapter of Peter Barnes' book Interview with a vamper.)

How to play contra dance percussion by Melissa Kacalanos. She expands on the basic "stupid jig rhythm" and "stupid reel rhythm."

Articles by by Phil and Vivian Williams:
Contra and square dance playing
Fiddling for old time contra, square, and couple dances (Internet Archive version)

Articles by Donna Hébert:
Contradance fiddling (Internet Archive version)
Ecstasy at the contradance
My life and times in contradance music (Internet Archive version)
On bowing (quoting from FIDDLE-L, Jan. 6, 2003):
We're getting into the three tangibles and the fourth intangible about bowing. The tangibles:
- WEIGHT (not pressure, but weight you ALLOW to fall on the bow from your upper arm)
- PLACE (where you play between the tip and the frog, and where you play between the bridge and the fingerboard)
- SPEED (how fast the bow moves determines loudness - accenting - among other things).
The fourth, and perhaps the most important:
- FOCUS - where's your mind while you're playing music?

Some definitions (found on the web and modified):

Keys/Modes
Modal scales in traditional Irish music by Grey Larson || A brief tutorial on musical modes by John Chambers || Modes (Internet Archive version) || Characteristics of musical keys

Sound systems and contra dance music:
All mixed up: a guide to sound production for folk and dance music: basics for beginners; exotica for the experienced by Bob Mills
PA mythology (Internet Archive version) by David Cottle: about the sound system at a contra dance


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