Fiddling for a contradance

Friday night my classmates and I played for a contradance in South Strafford, VT, and it was an absolute blast!  It was the culmination of a series of music classes given by an accordionist named Jeremiah McLane, and the dance followed a public dinner given by the active locavore food group.  Dinner consisted of all New England ingredients, and consisted of shepard’s pie, roasted vegetables, Waldorf salad, fresh rolls, sweet cider, and bread pudding with custard and berry sauce.  The downstairs room of Barrett Hall was packed, and the food was really good. It felt old fashioned and modern all at once – it seems as if at least that part of Vermont has attained a sufficient critical mass of crunchy people to rediscover the sort of social structure that dominated in a pre-TV era.

Afterward the dance started upstairs.  The band was nine people: three fiddles, two accordions, a flute, a hammered dulcimer, a guitar, and a keyboard.  Having never played for such an event before (besides sitting in as a minor contributor to Flagstaff’s “Just Desserts” dance band and chocolate appreciation society), I was a bit nervous, but had brought some bottles of this fall’s cider and passed it around to help settle the nerves.  There was a lot of fiddling around with the sound system – Jeremiah who plays in several bands once remarked that a musician is fated to spend a third of his time messing around with the sound system, and another third playing with crummy sound.  It was the first time I’d dealt with monitors, which make for a strange experience – you hear yourself playing and it sounds sort of like it’s coming from your instrument, only much louder.  The sound guy tries to put an appropriate combination of all the instruments into the monitor mix; what I heard was mostly the three fiddles and the rhythm (guitar and keyboard) without much flute or accordion, but it was perfectly sufficient – there have been times in practices where I was sandwiched between accordions, and had the strange experience of playing loudly and hearing my fiddle make accordion sounds.

Anyway, the sound guys did a great job, and we started in to play.  We had a few sets of reels, a couple sets of jigs, an a set each of polkas and marches, as well as a couple of waltzes to end the first and second halves of the dance.  Playing contradance music is challenging, at least for an amateur of modest ability such as myself – the nature of the dancing is that the tunes must be played up to a certain tempo to be enjoyable, and especially for the notey-er reels it sometimes feels like hanging on for dear life.  But one we got a few sets into the dance and I realized I wasn’t going to crash completely, I relaxed a bit and found that I was having a lot of fun.  It seemed the perfect number of instruments and ability balance for my level of skill – there were times when the others carying the melody seemed to get in trouble and I could hear myself coming through clearly from out in the hall, giving me the thrilling-but-nerve-wracking feeling that I was carrying the melody torch over Sue and Rob’s reliable rhythm; other times I lost the thread of the tune or wasn’t sure we whether we were going to A or B, and was comforted to hear my companions carrying the melody staunchly forward.  Overall there were a couple thin spots but we never had a train wreck as a band, and my correspondants in the audience (Alexis, our friends Joshua and Kelsey, and well-wishers from our Thursday night music get-togethers) reported that the music was solidly danceable.  My fingers though tired never cramped to the point where I couldn’t carry some reasonable approximation of the tune.  Jeremiah was directing and would call out various melody instruments to be featured with the rest dropped out; I got a turn through one of my favorites, an infectiously manic French-Canadian reel that opens with a two-measure syncopated broadside and contrasts nicely in the beginning of the B part with three nice long descending notes useful for catching ones’ breath.  In the heat of the moment I had the impression that I pulled off a satisfactory if workmanlike rendition and kept more or less to the beat; I’m looking forward to hearing the disk that the sound guys cut to see how a more objective memory fares.

Anyway, it was a blast, and I want to do it some more.  As I understand it there is no shortage of minor dance events that are looking for a band that won’t charge much (or anything), and that the greater challenge is keeping the members of a large band focused and practicing.   For journeymen musicians such as ourselves there is strength in numbers and a 9-member band is none too many; the holy grail would be to attain a sufficient level of skill that 3-5 people could reliably carry a dance; obviously it would also be easier to find times when everyone could get together for practice.

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