Hello! I’m Sarah and hopefully I can now call myself a Mersey Morris Musician. I started playing the violin aged 7, had a classical training and played in youth orchestras until my early 20’s. Life intervened and I barely took it out of its case – which went mouldy – until a few years ago when I stumbled into folk music. In early 2013 I took the plunge and decided to try playing for a Morris side; this is what happened next……
My latest notes will appear at the top so just keep reading to head back in time!!
- Part 3: Morris Musicians’ Weekend
Morris Musicians’ Weekend January 2015
A freezing weekend at the end of January saw 28 raw recruits arrive at a Church Hall in Nottinghamshire to attend the Morris Ring’s Musicians’ weekend, packed full of useful information, performing tips, lots of music and of course beer.
We started on Friday night with the chance to meet our tutors and fellow musicians, a good supper and a music session in the pub. I was the only representative from Mersey but there was a large contingent present from the Wirral’s Northwest side Mockbeggar Morris, 19 others from Cotswold sides around the country and 3 people who were interested in joining Morris sides. The majority played melodeons but there were a couple of piano accordions, 2 concertinas, 4 fiddles, a flute and a couple of those instruments you hold sideways and strum!
Saturday morning was devoted to lectures on what makes a good Morris musician – not only being competent in the notes/versions of the tunes but listening to and working with other musicians and communicating with the dancers. Clive Du Mont (Mendip) covered the basics of phrasing – using emphasis, accents, tempo adjustments and techniques such as ‘slurring’ (ie 2 notes on one bow on the fiddle ie running 2 notes smoothly together) and using short ‘spikier’ notes to phrase to the dance. He emphasised the importance of leaving space in the music and producing ‘lift’. He introduced the concept of the Anacrusis – the lead up to heavy downbeat – eg the notes preceding the beginning of the tune. These notes are especially important in giving the ‘signal to move’ and can be used to reset tempo during the dance.
Clive also covered the basic characteristics of some of the Cotswold traditions, though noting that there was some flexibility within the traditions for some interpretation by individual sides. Speeds were therefore expressed as zones rather than being fixed in stone.
Eric Foxley (Forresters Morris Men) expanded on these themes and talked further about performance, the synergy between dancers and musicians and entertaining an audience. He stressed that the music should be varied and interesting (for the audience as well as the dancers) but never to go so far as to distract from the dancing. He used examples on his Piano accordion plus organiser and Ripley Morris Man Malcolm Frier on Concertina.
The rest of Saturday morning consisted of us individually recording a dance tune in order to compare it to a later version on the Sunday to see what we’d learned – this felt a bit like being back at Saturday morning music school and meant having to overcome a few nerves…!
Saturday afternoon consisted of lectures on performing in small and large bands of players. Playing solo for a dance gives you freedom to play as you wish within the constraints of the tune/tradition/dance but the usual situation in most sides is several instruments playing together. The importance of having a leader and of always watching that person (rather than the dancers) is paramount, as is a consensus about the tune and following what the leader plays without drowning out your neighbours! If possible, vary the instruments playing and use different combinations of instruments during the dance to make it more interesting. Introduce some different harmony and countermelodies for some phrases as the dance progresses.
Playing for massed bands, as is common at Ring meetings, is a different challenge and one fraught with difficulty, with a real danger of the music only being heard as ‘mush’ if not carefully controlled. There needs to be one leader who takes full control with others following their chosen version of the tune/speed at all times – including if they think it’s wrong! The massed instruments should stick to the tune only and boxes should either not play basses or play them extremely lightly. As the number in the band grows, the importance of shortening notes (playing more staccato) grows, in order to keep the music ‘clean’ and to enable the dancers to hear the tune clearly.
At the end of the Saturday session we split into 4 groups with a tutor to rehearse a tune to play on the Sunday, including some variation, light & shade, following a leader and making it suitable to dance to as well as entertaining. We were 2 melodeons, a piano accordion, flute & fiddle & played Jenny Lind.
Saturday night was Ripley’s Ale Feast – the only occasion I’ve eaten dinner with a unicorn and where the fools were literally banished to the corner of the room. A speech from Adam Garland, various toasts, plenty of food, beer on tap and the chance to play for a room full of mix and match Morris sides until late into the night!
Sunday morning was kicked off by us playing individually for Ripley Morris to dance to – they were very generous in their praise to us all, but I was unable to hold them back in their sticking in Constant Billy and we ended up a fair bit faster than we started.
The next bit of Sunday was trial by recording – playing again our individual tunes and comparing them to the previous day’s recordings to see if we’d improved, with the judges lined up in X factor style! I think I managed a bit more lift, though maybe it was the shaky bow hand…
The final event of the day was playing our group tunes, which I think our group made a pretty good stab at. Then we were packed off home with a good lunch. The other tutor I haven’t mentioned was Tim Barber (Claro Sword & Great Yorkshire Morris) who plays a monster piano accordion with great dexterity and added many individual words of wisdom to us as we went along.
It was a really useful and fun weekend and it was good to meet, talk to and play alongside musicians from other sides. I’d thoroughly recommend others to go on it.
Some Musicians’ Tips from the weekend:
- Know the tunes and be prepared to lead, even if only for a couple of dances, or even for part of a dance at rehearsals
- Think about speed, accent, phrasing, attack and space
- Watch and follow the lead musician, rather than the dancers
- Consider the tradition for each dance
- The larger the group the more lightly/staccato you play
- Be mindful of your fellow musicians – blend!
- Try out different instrument combinations during the dance, for variation
- Use harmonies & ornamentation for short phrases and sympathetically with your fellow musicians but don’t try and be too clever!
- In massed bands stick to the tune only, watch the leader and play staccato
- Part 2: Morris tunes, algebra & melodeons at dawn
The thing I love about Morris tunes – as well as their wonderful names like ‘Trunkles’ and ‘Webley Twizzle’ – is their great ‘earthiness’; stomping downbeats and tunes punctuated by the ‘lift’ which often corresponds to the dancers as they hop and jump. Much of this seems to come from the natural style of the melodeons and concertinas which are the mainstay of the Morris band and it was the sheer joy of these tunes – in my case of hearing them played by the amazing duo Spiers & Boden – which excited me so much and made me want to play for dancing.
On the musical page the tunes appear deceptively simple, but it’s the trick of getting the style right and of knowing how the tune fits to the dance which is the challenge, as well as learning them all off by heart and being able to summon them at a moment’s notice! One of the first problems of playing for actual dancing was to decipher the strange algebra written at the top of each tune:
Not, in fact, something from Maths GCSE but a musical geography of the dance, where the parts of the tune – A, B and sometimes C are played in the order shown, with numbers to show where you play them twice or more. So fairly simple then, just have to remember which bit you’re playing and how many times you’ve played it!
But in rehearsals, obviously individual bits of dances were practised separately, which proved a bit more tricky. Being a bit slow on the uptake, it took me a while to realise that the ABC’s corresponded to what appeared to be ‘verses’ and ‘choruses’ of each dance, with the C parts later in the dances for the slower bits, so for quite a number of weeks (and sometimes still) I’d be heard asking my fellow musicians “Erm… which bit’s this?” as they went over a specific part of the dance. Added to which there’s that peculiarity of brain function which wipes it completely clean of any tune I ever knew when Richard the Foreman turns around and asks for a “run in to the sticking” …… leaving you standing like an idiot as you ‘tum-tee-tum’ in your head desperately trying to find the bit of the tune you need!
Luckily my fellow musicians – Eve on fiddle, Richard, Nev, Andy, Peter, Ron & Spike on melodeons and Phil on guitar were there to help me out and practice sessions in the ‘Seven Stars’ pub afterwards helped too.
Dark practice nights gradually got lighter and after only 9 rehearsals suddenly the summer ‘Dance-out’ season started and Monday nights became ‘doing it for real outside a pub’ in front of the public and with no safety net. Plus official appearances at shows, fetes and other events throughout the summer. Scary stuff, especially, as I discovered on the first night out, as there were many dances they hadn’t done in rehearsals but which I needed to learn PDQ. Argh! Practice needed!
I didn’t realise it beforehand but only my second outing with Mersey Morris Men would turn out to be one of the most memorable of the whole year – the centuries-old tradition of welcoming the spring by dancing at dawn on 1st May. It sounded exciting, but at 4am on a chilly spring morning I did wonder.
Parking the car at the bottom of Bidston hill, along with members of Mockbeggar Morris, we began to make our way up past the old windmill just as the sun started to tinge the horizon with pink and well, it could just have been the cold of course as it was a bit nippy, but I felt a definite tingle down the spine moment at the thought of how many others had done this before over hundreds of years. And probably with a long trek in the dark to get to their particular high spot without the luxury of cars!
Once at the top, and just as the sun emerged, Mersey’s traditional first dance for May 1st ‘Signposts’ was performed, with 6 men and a single musician. For many years the musician who played for the dance was John Stapledon, a founder member and Life President of Mersey Morris Men who was also a very talented composer and English Concertina player. Very sadly he had recently died, so it was especially moving to see his son Richard play for the dance, which has some lovely moments of stillness seeming so suited to the occasion.
As the sun began to rise the dancing continued until the famous Liverpool skyline emerged and after posing for a team photo we made our way back down the hill for a well-deserved bacon sandwich. It was my first proper step in performing with the Morris Men and I had loved every minute!
In the next instalment – Wild Boar, Duck’s Delight and some excellent beer!
- Part 1 – Getting off the sofa on a Monday night
Part 1 – Getting off the sofa on a Monday night
A miserable January evening in 2013 – watching TV in my pyjamas – I caught sight of my violin case sitting sullenly in the corner of the room unopened since Christmas when my niece, newly enthused with joining her University Morris side got me to play some tunes for her to dance to. I knew a few Morris tunes from listening to folk bands, but playing for a niece with bells on was a novelty. Since Christmas the violin had sat in the corner for a month, unloved and unplayed. Something had to be done. I needed an incentive to practise or it would still be sitting there next Christmas.
Were there any local Morris sides around Liverpool? A quick google of ‘Liverpool Morris dancing’ and up popped the ‘Liverpool Morris Dancing Association’ – sounded promising. Another few clicks and. . . . . . . . . . Little girls dancing with pom poms looking like drum majorettes?? Not quite the image I was expecting of white shirts, flowery hats and bells. Turns out ‘Fluffy Morris’ is big with teenage girls in the Northwest but they certainly weren’t looking for a fiddler. So back to Google and further down the list was ‘Mersey Morris Men’, who danced in the Cotswold tradition. The website had an encouraging invitation for new musicians so I emailed somebody calling himself the bagman and sat back and waited.
A bit like buses, nothing arrived for about a week and then suddenly 2 emails at once, one from ‘The Foreman’ and one from the mysterious Bagman, inviting me to a rehearsal night. And so it was I found myself sitting outside Thornton Hough Village Hall on a dark, wet and windy February evening, wondering what on earth I was doing. Luckily before I had the chance to change my mind, a miniature Father Christmas look-alike arrived bearing long sticks, wished me a cheery ‘hello’ and let myself and other assembled chaps plus another lady fiddler into the hall.
A few introductions – turns out Father Christmas was the mysterious ‘Bagman’ – and it was straight into the dancing. I’d brought the Morris ‘little black book’ – handbook of tunes & dances with me, and luckily the first tune was in there, but it was a complete mystery as to which bits of the tune went with which bit of the dance and even which bit of the dance was which! The terms being shouted out weren’t much help either – whatever were ‘figures’ or ‘heys’ and how do I know which part of the tune accompanies them?
Just as I was getting the hang of it they suddenly started playing at half speed and the dancers were doing all sorts of elaborate jumps. Help! Then a new tune and a dance with sticks where at least they could tell me which bit of the tune went with the hitting of the sticks, but this one had a different sequence and I kept playing the wrong bit. Still, they were very encouraging and after some restorative tea and biscuits and a warm welcome from Squire Tony and the Foreman Richard the next new tune didn’t seem as bad. So that was 3 tunes I’d learnt in one evening, but… oh no! How did the first one go again? Argh! I’d always had the music in front of me when playing or singing and learning it all by heart was going to be a challenge.
And how to remember all their names – easy with the lovely Eve on violin but there seemed to be endless chaps who dipped in and out of the dancing and came and played squeezy boxes (melodeons) but who were they all again?
A few days later a PDF file arrived in my inbox with the music for all their commonly-played dances. Phew! At least I’d now be able to practise them at home. But hang on ……..EIGHTY-TWO TUNES? How was I ever going to learn that lot?
I couldn’t make the next two rehearsals. They probably thought I’d give up, but like the proverbial penny I was back again three weeks later and despite the restraining order I’ve been going back ever since. Find out in the next thrilling episode if I learned to solve the riddles of Morris tune algebra and summon up Constant Billy or Webley Twizzle!