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Matching Tunes To Dances

May 1st, 2014
contra, music

Playing live music for dances I think about what we can bring that recorded music can't, what are we adding? The main thing is that we watch the dancers, feel the energy in the room, and really fit the music to the dancing. Now you can play a tune many different ways to better suit a dance, but it's a lot easier if you start with a tune that seems to suggest a feel you think would work well.

At NEFFA the Free Raisins played for a contra medley: six dances in a row, each six times through. I thought it might be interesting to look over those dances, see what tunes we chose to play with them, and talk a bit about why.

  1. Mundane Chain -- Gene Hubert (var)

  A1   (6)  Neighbor Box the Gnat, Gents Pull by Left
      (10)  Partner Swing
  A2   (8)  Right and Left Through
       (8)  Ladies Chain
  B1   (8)  Ladies Dosido
       (8)  Neighbor Swing
  B2   (8)  Long Lines
       (8)  Star Left

The dance is quite smooth, with only the Long Lines as the only percussive figure. We'd like to play both jigs and reels, and it tends to work better to go from jig to reel than the reverse. It's also easier to bring the energy level up than down so we considered various tunes we think of as "pretty jigs". Tunes like Le Tourment, Toothfairy Jig, or Amy's tune Flannel Dreams. We ended up picking Toothfairy, in G. (The first tune of this set from a year and a half ago.)

  2. Rock the Cradle Joe -- Ridge Kennedy

  A1   (4)  Balance Wave
       (4)  Slide Right
       (4)  Balance Wave
       (4)  Slide Left
  A2  (16)  Neighbor Balance and Swing
  B1   (8)  Give and Take (to Gents Side)
       (8)  Partner Swing
  B2   (8)  Circle Left
       (4)  Balance Ring
       (4)  Pass Through

This is a much more energetic dance, especially in the A part. Balance, move, balance, move. We wanted to play something that would really let people hit those balances. The second half of the dance is relatively generic and could go with lots of feelings. This could have an up/down feel, distinguishing the A and B parts, but we decided to go fully up with Sandy Boys, in A, an old time reel. This let us go from jig to reel and also from G to A, which is a bit of a cheap trick but people love it. (This one is on our CD, and it's the second tune in this set.)

  3. Made Up For This Medley -- Lynn Ackerson

  A1  (16)  Neighbor Dosido and Swing
  A2   (8)  Ladies Aleman Right 1.5
       (8)  Partner Swing
  B1   (8)  Gents Aleman Left 1.5
       (8)  Scoop Up Partner, Star Promenade
  B2   (8)  Ladies Dosido 1.5
       (8)  Neighbor Aleman 1.75

This dance is much smoother. We could have kept the energy level high with a driving tune, something like Rainy Night in Montague, but the dance after this one looked like a better fit for a higher energy dance so we decided to bring this one down with smooth marches. We picked Highland Laddie (D), and we decided to go for a sudden transition where everything dropped away except for the mandolin playing the melody very simply and a little piano backup. [1]

  4. Blue Haired Girl -- Chuck Roth

  A1   (4)  Balance Ring
       (4)  Petronella Twirl
       (4)  Balance Ring
       (4)  Petronella Twirl
  A2  (16)  Neighbor Balance and Swing
  B1   (6)  Circle Left 3/4
      (10)  Swing Partner
  B2   (8)  Ladies Chain
       (8)  Half Hey

Continuing with variety, we wanted to bring the energy back up with this one. The A part is another balance-move-balance-move, with spaces where people are going to clap, while the B part is much smoother and includes a Hey. We decided to start driving, and build to something a bit more chunky. We played Wallace's Cross (Am/G), which is originally a Polka, but is a pretty flexible tunes. (You can hear something like this on our CD, the first tune in this set.)

  5.  Catch Them On The Fly -- Al Olson (var)

  A1   (8)  Ladies Swing
       (8)  Partner Swing
  A2   (8)  Half Hey
       (8)  Partner Aleman Left
  B1   (8)  Gents Swing
       (8)  Neighbor Swing
  B2   (8)  Long Lines
       (8)  Star Left
This dance is fun and a bit silly, with so many swings. It has a hey, and aside from the Long Lines there's nothing that has much percussion to it. We also wanted the last dance to be very energetic, so we wanted to play something here that would give us room to move up. We considered playing something a bit goofy but instead chose to be more serious with a driving reel, Rainy Night in Montague (Dm). We normally start this with Amy playing melody on accordion (like this) but for this medley we only had 10 minutes of setup time following another band (whee NEFFA!) so sticking with only one instrumentation made more sense.

  6.  Airpants -- Lisa Greenleaf

  A1  (16)  Neighbor Balance and Swing
  A2   (8)  Long Lines
       (8)  Ladies Aleman Right 1.5
  B1  (16)  Partner Balance and Swing
  B2   (6)  Circle Left 3/4
       (2)  Pass Through
       (8)  New Neighbor Dosido

A nice straightforward dance that could go with many feels, but for this slot we wanted something very up. We decided to go with Road to Erogie, playing it in A and then bringing it up to B for the last couple times through. (The last tune in this set.)

Overall we were pretty happy with this choreography, giving us fun things to play with, and also pretty happy with how our tune choices worked with the dances.


[1] This was a good effect, except the A string on my mandolin was out of tune. It probably got out of tune earlier but there was so much noise on stage I couldn't hear that before.

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