As dance musicians, we live and die for the whoops.
This piece is about how to play the piano to feed those whoops. There's plenty of literature about playing piano to accompany fiddle tunes, about fiddling styles and harmonic interaction and regional variations and many other topics. This piece is about contra dancing, and what you do to get those whoops.
Below there's a paragraph or two on how contra dances work. The mechanics are simple enough. But the only way to get a real sense of the emotional draw -- to feel those whoops in your gut -- is to get up and dance. The most fun homework assignment imaginable.
Rhythm is the key to making any music "danceable", that foot-tapping feeling. Play the first exercise (simple boom-chucks) by yourself, aiming to make your rhythm alone so compelling that you feel like dancing. (Not an artificial exercise: your four potatoes must establish this danceable feeling every time you launch a tune.) Lightness and punch, especially with the right hand.
Two common technical issues can detract from your rhythm: hesitations when you try something complex; and speeding up when you get excited. The cure for both is simply to be aware that it happens. Of course, you must get excited to make this music fun. Your musical challenge is to keep up the emotional enthusiasm without stretching the tempo. Holding back with intensity can be even more dramatic than speeding up.
The key to contra dance playing is phrasing; and the first key to phrasing is varying the emphasis (attack and length) on individual downbeats. Traditionally, the first beat of any phrase is the strongest, and the midpoint the second-strongest. Don't let Southern old-time fiddlers talk you into playing evenly and lightly -- the dancers need that phrasing. You have to play loud. Get used to it!
The other half of phrasing is anticipation, the sense of buildup and drama. The simplest buildup is the upbeat right before the major downbeat. Think "and....Now!" We talk about some longer buildups under "Turnarounds".
It's harder than it seems, especially at dance tempo. You have to plan ahead to see the balance coming, then you have to hit these counts in good rhythm, then you have to "play it with feeling". The dancers will get a huge thrill if they think you're playing with them; and the best, simplest, most dramatic way to say that is to pound on those balances. Thump, Thwam! thump, THWAM!
And where are those balances? Try this the next time you play: instead of a chord chart, try putting the caller's dance card on your music stand. That way you'll follow along with the dance, and you'll never ever get lost -- you can always look out and see where the dancers are!
You don't really have to make the big bold statement all the time. Later on in a dance, the dancers will feel the balance coming; and it can be very satisfying if you play right through the balance, making the feet provide your downbeat. By then, the dancers know you're with them and that makes all the difference.
Contra dance moves come in eight-bar phrases. The moves don't begin on "one" and end on "eight" -- they don't end until they blend into the next move, at "one" of the next phrase. Don't stop until you get to the top! One easy way to "not stop" is to hang on the five chord (an A in the key of D, for example, or a Bm or B7 in the key of Em) all thr way through counts seven and eight, going back to the one chord (a D in the key of D, etc.).only at the top of the phrase. Done consistently, this simple trick will do as much to propel the dancers forward as anything else you do.
This may drive your fiddlers crazy at first. Fiddle tunes often end a phrase with a full stop, a "dum-dum-dum." You're not going to stop, though, you're going to keep playing through it, with chords that may even clash with the tune. Get used to it! Pretty soon your fiddler will join you; and when the dancers whoop, you'll both be happy.
A particularly effective turnaround in a minor key uses eight chords, starting on the "one", descending to the four chord, and turning around to climb back up. This turnaround is so strong that you can slow it down, taking four counts on each chord change, without losing momentum. In this case the whole turnaround takes up B1 and B2. The Strawstack example uses this device repeatedly.
Twenty times through means you'll play the same tune perhaps ten times before switching. The dancers learn to associate individual dance figures with particular parts of your tune. For the dancers, the excitement of meeting new people each time compensates in some measure for the repetition of the tune. At the outset, the dancers are focused on learning the moves; by the end of the dance, the caller has dropped out and the music alone provides the phrasing.
The basic moves are mostly flowing -- circle, star, do-si-do, allemande, hey. Punctuating these flowing moves are four-beat balances, with a characteristic thump-Thwam-thump-THWAM rhythm.
You have to realize above all that the dancers are busy. They'll only hear big bold ideas. When you have an idea -- a particular phrasing, or chord, or mood -- stretch it out throughout the entire tune, repeat it consistently all the way through, then go on to something else. Played once, it seems busy; played consistently, it gets through. (If you revisit an idea, though, it can seem trite.) Once through the tune is the natural unit of ideas.