This article first appeared as Fiddle Corner 25 in FiddleOn magazine
Much of the fiddle music we play consists of dance tunes, justly prized on the concert platform today, of course, for their aesthetic qualities, but equally capable of serving as functional dance music. So what are the requirements of dance fiddling?
Playing for dancing has always been the main traditional occupation of the fiddle player. When the modern violin first appeared across Europe, including here, in the 1600s it was dance musicians who initially adopted it, lutes and viols still holding sway in the worlds of church and court music. The itinerant dancing masters of eighteenth century England and Ireland often played fiddle, while in Scotland the last of the old fiddler-dancing masters was John ‘Dancie’ Reid (1869-1942). Teaching country, Highland and social dances, along with deportment and etiquette, John Reid was still travelling around the Vale of Angus and parts of Perthshire until he died in October 1942 shortly after collapsing, fiddle in hand, at an assembly ball in Kirriemuir. According to Peter Cooke of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies, ‘not only could he fiddle and dance simultaneously to demonstrate intricate Highland dance cuts, but could switch to a mirror form of his stepping according to whether he faced his class or turned his back to lead it.’
The pairing of a single dancer and a solo fiddler is very widespread in folk tradition. I remember Old Time musician John Herrmann in 1978 playing fiddle late one night at a festival in Shade Gap, Pennsylvania with a member of the Green Grass Cloggers. The latter danced on a resonating wooden board known as a ‘step-a-tune’ - a bit like the one Jon Boden uses on gigs. I was astonished by the precision and complexity of their interlocking rhythms, although it wasn’t a rehearsed routine. A similar degree of mutual understanding and empathy is evident in the performance of the halling, a Norwegian solo men’s dance, slowish in tempo, which culminates in the athletic dancer kicking a hat off the end of a broomstick held aloft by a girl standing on a chair. At its best, it’s not a matter of a fiddler accompanying the dance, or a dancer interpreting the tune, but the sense of a telepathic link between the two. Anyone who’s witnessed Bampton fiddler Mat Green playing ‘Bacca Pipes’ for the two-man Morris jig of the same name will know what a strange intensity of feeling this can generate - while Mat’s astonishing solo performance of ‘Princess Royal’, as fiddler and dancer simultaneously, is a wonder to behold.
As a matter of tradition, it seems, in many cultures and over three centuries or more, the fiddler has also served as band leader, be it of a village ensemble in Dorset, a Klezmer kapelye in Poland or Russia, or an Old Time stringband in North Carolina. In the classical sphere the fiddler’s leadership role was eventually ceded to a non-playing conductor, though the ‘leader of the orchestra’ still takes a separate bow at the end of a performance and is acknowledged by the applause of an audience. The emergence in twentieth-century folk revivals of a dance ‘caller’ to explain the figures and yell out instructions during the dance perhaps represents a parallel division of labour, although the very idea of callers ‘would have been anathema to polite nineteenth-century society,’ according to George Deacon. In Jane Austen’s or John Clare’s day country dances were published in annual collections, and were ‘learned and performed as a social grace by the leisured classes. An ability to perform the latest dance and the social position to teach it to one’s peers and social inferiors were important constituents of the hierarchical society then prevailing.’ (George Deacon, John Clare & The Folk Tradition, Francis Boutle 2002)
Even with a caller, though, a fiddler’s working knowledge of the dances remains vital. Figures such as an ‘allemand left’, ‘swing your partner’, ‘basket’ or ‘promenade’ will correspond to a particular 8-bar section of the tune, and if you notice a set of inexpert dancers falling behind you may decide to throw in an extra A-part or B-part to let them catch up. (Then again you may choose to ignore the fact and just carry on.) It’s often the band leader’s job to provide a two- or four-bar introduction to the dance, so you must know what tempo to establish at the outset. Ideally, an experienced caller should be able to give you advance notice of what dances he or she intends to call in the course of the evening, and what sort of tunes (jigs, hornpipes etc) will be required for each, so that you can decide - and let the rest of the band know - what to play. Even so, be prepared to think on your feet as things change. They usually do. Also agree signals for playing faster or slower, and for finishing.
An appropriate repertoire of tunes is of obvious importance, and you’ll need to be able to play them by heart, of course, if you’re to keep an eye on the progress of the dance. For a Klezmer ceilidh you’ll need plenty of freylekhs, horas etc. For English country dancing a good selection of 32-bar (and some 48-bar) jigs, as well as hornpipes, reels and polkas will be required. Waltzes can be useful at some point in the evening. In the case of Scottish dancing you’ll also need sets of strathspeys and marches, while for Irish set-dancing, Kerry sets in particular, a good repertoire of slides and polkas is essential. It was a great pleasure for me to join fiddler Jill Elliot and some of her associates a couple of years ago to play for set-dancing at Bristol’s Hibernia Club - and quite a challenge. Once the dancers get started, not being able to remember how a particular tune goes, or muffing up the change from one to another, is just not an option. In my experience it’s impossible to think of the ‘next’ tune while still playing the previous one, so if you plan to play a medley of different tunes, practice the changes until they’re fluent and automatic. Many musicians, notably accordion maestro John Kirkpatrick, prefer to stick to one tune throughout a dance, a practice also generally followed in Old Time square-dancing, especially if it involves ‘patter calling’ to a particular melody. A dance at a folk festival, or for an established dance group, will generally require more material than ‘community’ or wedding dances, as folkies are likely to know what they’re doing and get through dances at a rate of knots.
I’ve once or twice played dances as a solo fiddler - i.e. just me and a caller - but it’s very demanding work. Usually it’s a three-piece, or four-piece band, plus caller, but can be larger for a big event. The line-up depends on the style of the music - and the client’s budget. For Old Time music the other instruments will usually be 5-string banjo, guitar, maybe mandolin, and double bass. An English band is likely to include melodeon, possibly rhythm guitar, possibly an electric keyboard, maybe percussion, and bass. Scottish bands I’ve played in tend to include piano accordion or keyboards, with the characteristic ‘strict tempo’ feel given by side-drum with snares. Clarinet, accordion and bass are typically found in Eastern European bands. It all depends. The advantage of having more than one lead instrument are that you have the choice of playing lead together, making for a stronger sound, or of one person taking the lead while the other plays rhythm or harmony. If the band has a fixed line-up life is easier, but often there’s a ‘pick-up’ element, and it’s useful to be able to provide chord charts for bass, keyboard or guitar players. Dance playing can be arduous, especially if you’re leading the band, and does not generally involve much ego satisfaction, since the caller ‘fronts’ it. Then there are logistics - getting everybody and their instruments and the PA system to the venue, allowing time to set up and sound-check, sorting out contracts and payment. Will food be provided for the band? What about over-runs? (No dance at a wedding starts on time - ever.) Are ‘cabaret’ spots required? There’s a lot to think about. Some love it, others not. But every fiddler should give it a try at least once because, when a dance is going well and the music’s cooking, you know that this really is what dance tunes were built for. Dance provides the functional yang to the yin of ‘art’ fiddling, and gives a deep insight into the nature of the music we love.
Pete Cooper © 2008
Rhythm, Chords & Back-Up - the Art of 2nd Fiddle
This article first appeared as Fiddle Corner 15 in FiddleOn magazine
When you play in a ‘concert’ band, or to accompany a singer, you may need to create a fiddle ‘part’ that is something other than the tune itself. It could be a harmony line, for example, or sustained chords, or a rhythm pattern based on the chords. But how do you go about constructing it?
Let’s start with some chord basics. Chords are made up of the notes of an arpeggio played together at the same time. An arpeggio consists of the first, third and fifth notes of the relevant scale, the key-note itself counting as the first. Thus, the chord of D consists of the arpeggio notes, D, F# and A (also referred to as the ‘triad’ of D). In the case of the fiddle, a ‘chord’ will consist, for practical purposes, of just two of these notes played on adjacent strings. The two lower strings are particularly suitable, since the tune itself tends to occupy the higher range of the instrument. My own standard two-note chord of D consists of the open D-string, together with a first-finger A on the G-string below it. Bow the two strings with long, even strokes, and listen to the interval. Playing two notes at once will expose any dubious intonation. To ensure that the A note is really in tune, you could practice sliding the first finger up to pitch from a semi-tone below, while also playing the open D, and listen for the exact point where it sounds true. (A finger slide like this, as well as being a helpful intonation guide, can sound quite appropriate in many folk styles).
You may have heard of the ‘three-chord trick.’ Thousands of songs and tunes in major keys can be played with only three chords, known to folk and jazz players as the 1-chord, 4-chord and 5-chord, and to classical musicians as the tonic, subdominant and dominant. For example, in the key of D, our 1-chord is D itself, our 4-chord (counting up from D, E, F#...) is G, and our 5-chord is A. To play these chords on the fiddle, remember that each is based on the notes of the relevant arpeggio, so for G we select any two notes from the triad, G, B and D. By playing a two-octave arpeggio you’ll enter ‘the house of G’ and realise how many combinations of these notes are available across the four strings. The easiest, and often best-sounding, G chord is simply the open G and D-strings. In the same way, for a chord of A, play the arpeggio and select your two notes from the triad A, C# and E. My personal default setting for an easy, effective A-chord is first finger across the bottom two strings. All of the chords I’ve described omit the ‘third,’ the note that makes them sound either major or minor, so they can work equally well for either. If you want to emphasise the ‘major’ quality of D, include an F#; for D minor, include an F natural.
Get familiar with these chord ‘shapes,’ so that you can go to them instantly, as a guitarist does, and move fluently from one to another. Over time, add further chords to your repertoire, using the arpeggio construction method. In a fiddle music context, the most useful chords to know are Bb, F, C, G, D, A and E, and their so-called ‘relative minors,’ G minor (Gm), Dm, Am, Em, Bm, F#m and C#m. The ‘root’ of the relative minor chord (also called the Minor Sixth) can be found six notes up the major scale: the relative minor of D, for example, is (D, E, F#, G, A...) B minor. At a later stage, as you gain confidence, you can explore a wider range of harmonic colours by substituting the occasional relative minor for a major chord.
Learning to think harmonically, as well as in terms of ‘the tune,’ is not as common as perhaps it should be when learning a ‘melody’ instrument like the violin, though fiddlers who’ve followed the classical route will probably have learned at least some rudimentary music theory. To progress beyond Grade 5 in the Associated Board practical exams, for example, students must pass Grade 5 theory. When I learned violin as a youngster I found harmonic theory bafflingly abstract, and just got through the exam by rote. Learning the piano, guitar or some other ‘chord’ instrument - and the mandolin, of course, recommends itself as having the same fingering as the fiddle - certainly makes it easier to feel, as well as understand, the musical effect of a particular chord progression.
So how do you know when to change from one chord to another? In practice, most people have a reasonably good sense of when a chord sounds ‘wrong,’ even if they can’t immediately tell you what would sound ‘right.’ You can always try the chord suggestions given in song and tune books. Alternatively, find your own solution by trial-and-error. For tunes in major keys, the three-chord trick narrows the search. If the tune’s in G, expect to encounter the chords of G, C and D. If it’s in A, check out A, D and E. My own apprenticeship in this stuff was playing fiddle in American-style country bands, where the ‘changes’ soon become fairly predictable, especially if you can ‘read’ the guitarist’s left hand. When the guitar goes from, say, C to C7 (the triad of C plus Bb, ie the seventh note of the C scale flattened a semitone), the effect is one of tension and imminent change, and the next chord will be the fourth above (C, D, E...) F. Every genre has its own distinctive style of chord changes. Scott Skinner, in his major-key tunes, often gets to the 5-chord by way of a 2-chord, while countless ragtime tunes employ a 1-6-2-5-1 progression.
Composing a harmony is not so hard once you’ve sorted out the chord pattern. Generally a harmony line follows the contours of the melody, but lower in pitch so as not to obscure the tune itself. It may have exactly as many notes as the tune, or shadow it more skeletally. The most commonly used interval, for example in Northumbrian or Swedish fiddling, is a third below, or sometimes a fourth or fifth. When the chord changes, make sure that the harmony note is either the root, third or fifth of that chord. Writing ‘vertical’ harmony like this is most easily done on paper until you get the hang of it, and the whole process can be quite mechanical. Obviously the harmony needs to sound good, as well as following the rules, so if the fiddle part you chanced upon while noodling about sounds great, even if you can’t explain why, go with it anyway. For performance, you’ll need to memorise your harmony line (and indeed the chord sequence you’ve decided on, if you’re playing chords) in the same way as you would learn the tune. So ideally it should be memorable and pleasing in its own right.
What about tunes in minor keys? What chords do we use there? Well, it depends. A variant of the 1-4-5 sequence will sometimes work, in which the 1 and 4 become minor chords, while the 5 stays major. For a tune in D minor, for example, you’ll encounter D minor, G minor and A major. It’s a very classical-sounding harmonic framework, however, based on the diatonic musical system, and usually sits ill with English, Irish or Scottish ‘minor’ traditional tunes. Strictly speaking, these tunes are often ‘modal’ in character, usually in the Dorian (minor third, major sixth) or Aeolian (minor third, minor sixth) mode. Modal scales are originally based on a constant drone, as in much bagpipes repertoire, and need a different harmonic approach. In many Scottish and Irish minor tunes, for example, you get a bar or two of Am, say, alternating with a bar or two of G major, and returning ‘home’ to Am. This progression from the minor, then down one step to the major, and back, is very common. For a tune in Em, the ‘other’ chord will likely as not be D. If you’re after a third chord as well, take one further step down, to C. The C-D-Em progression has been a harmonic cliché of celtic music since the 1970s.
Back-up playing should reflect the style of the piece. To accompany, say, a lyrical, free-flowing English folk song, a few well-chosen, understated drones, or even a unison melody line, will probably provide better support than, let’s say, choppy, bluegrass-style, off-beat chonks! Similarly, for an Irish ballad, fit your playing style to the song, and use the same kinds of ornamentation and bowing as you would for an air. Traditional singers may vary the melody or rhythm slightly from verse to verse, for the sake of the words, so be prepared to follow. As a musician you should also defer to the singer when it comes to deciding on the key of the song, as even trained singers don’t have a physically unlimited vocal range. (What do you mean, you can’t play in Eb? Practice more!)
Pete Cooper © 2004