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Why does the BIDA open band work well?

January 17th, 2012
contra, music, bida

Open bands have a reputation for being less enjoyable to dance to. I've heard dancers say they avoid open band nights, or that while they understand the role of the open band in fostering musicians they wish they weren't needed. Now that I'm helping organize them with BIDA, however, I'm not seeing this. In fact our attendance is higher, people have a great time, and I don't hear complaints. Afterwards a dancer wrote that they had "never seen that much positive engagement between the band and the dancers."


(on youtube)

I see two explanations: (1) open bands are not actually unpopular and I was just listening to the small number of people who don't like them or (2) BIDA is doing something right. I don't know which it is, but I figured I would describe what BIDA has been doing in case it's (2).

(BIDA has had four open band nights. I've only been involved with the most recent three, so what I have below is about these three.)

In scheduling the open band we first find a band leader. We've had Peter Barnes twice and Debby Knight once, both have been great. They both primarily played piano, but also can play other instruments if someone else wants to take a turn on piano. This is the only paid role; everyone else playing pays admission on a $0-$10 sliding scale.

We have two rows, sorting people by experience. We mic everyone in the front row and most of the people in the back, though there are often some who don't want to be mic'd or who need to take turns with limited mics. It's helpful that we have a large stage. Everyone plays at once. At our most recent dance we had: (front row) caller, piano, 6x fiddle (back row) double bass, whistle, recorder, fiddle, octave mandolin.

Reading through this, nothing sounds very different from other open bands I've been to. Which makes me think it's not actually about how we run the band and instead about the musicians who decide to come. Maybe what's going on is that we're drawing from a different group? I wonder if there's an effect where when an open band has been around longer many of the best musicians move on and you have mostly people who aren't interested in or aren't able to get booked for other dances? If this were happening I would expect that in general open bands that were newer would be better; are they?

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