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.

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.

So you wanna play dance music? by Laura Lengnick

Composing dance tunes by Colin Hume
Ingredients of fiddle tunes by Dudley Laufman (Internet Archive version)
Creating fiddle tunes by Gary Reynolds

Some thoughts on playing for folk dancing by Eric Foxley

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
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
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."

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."

Articles by by Phil and Vivian Williams:
Contra and square dance playing
Fiddling for old time contra, square, and couple dances

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


Structure in Irish tunes installment 1 of Traiditional fiddle music by Mark Simos


Sound systems and contra dance music:
All Mixed Up: (Internet Archive version) A Guide to Sound Production for Folk and Dance Music: Basics for Beginners; Exotica for the Experienced by Bob Mills
PA mythology by David Cottle: about the sound system at a contra dance


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