Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dance music

Last night, I played the cello at an English country dance. One of my friends has described English country dancing as "contra dancing on Quaaludes"; it's definitely not as brisk as contra. If you've ever seen one of those Jane Austen movies, you've seen English country dancing. It's couples dancing, but the couples form lines, circles, or squares, and they follow sometimes intricate patterns as couples move down the line or around the circle or square. The music is from a vast inheritance of tunes from England, Ireland, Scotland, and elsewhere, many of them gorgeous.

I've been playing this type of music for about six years.
It started when our street had a block party one fall. One of our neighbors had a friend over who played the accordion; she plays the recorder, and another neighbor plays the violin, and they brought their instruments outside to play. My husband nudged me and said, "You should go get your cello." I duly fetched the cello, and we started playing out of a huge notebook stuffed with photocopied tunes. The written music consisted of a melody in treble clef and chords indicated by letters. I was able to construct a bass line based on the chords: basically, if I saw a "D," I could play the note D and it would sound good, so not difficult. 

Everyone was impressed, and the musicians invited me to come and play with a regular group they were in. This group was started about 30 years ago and has had a changing cast of characters, the playing level fluctuating depending on the expertise of the members at any given time. It was a low-pressure experience for me. I could play my nice bass lines, and no one expected anything more. In short order, I was given a copy of the overstuffed notebook of photocopies, and I've been playing with them on and off ever since.

A loose core of the group puts on an English country dance once a month, on second Saturdays, at a local middle school. Attendance has dwindled to a stalwart few, and most months, the number of dancers is not any greater than the number of musicians playing.

One of the callers for this dance put me in touch with the woman who organizes the music for the English country dances at Glen Echo, and I'm now on the roster for that and play there occasionally, as I did last night. She is very demanding and only hires good musicians, so the groups are always a pleasure to play with. There is usually piano (the hall has a surprisingly good-sounding Acrosonic console piano), and then two other instruments (could be recorder, flute, fiddle, concertina, bassoon, bass, viola, cello . . .).

The dances at Glen Echo, in contrast to the dances at the middle school, are well attended, and the age range of the dancers is wider. They are held in the beautiful little Glen Echo Town Hall on the second floor, which has the best acoustics of almost any place I've played. My cello booms out effortlessly.

I've developed a little more finesse in this type of playing over the past few years, and when playing with piano (as I did last night) or even guitar, I can play the melody or improvise a bit, though I'm not a whiz at it. It has freed up my classical playing -- I think both because it's given me more of an understanding of typical chord progressions, so my fingers fall into them naturally without my expending a lot of conscious thought, and because I know I can improvise, so am not tied irrevocably to notes that someone has written down. The music is so simple, yet strong, that it has given me a better sense of the patterns, moods, and rhythms that all Western music is based on.

In any case, I always get so much positive feedback at one of these dances that it builds up my self-esteem for at least a day or so.

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