For the 2nd time in 2 years, the residents of a quiet Wirral village may have caught a waft of mysterious music on the breeze as their Church hall echoed to the sound of melodeons, violins and a recorder playing odd but wonderful lumpy tunes with quite a lot of Oomph. Yes, it was Mersey Morris Men’s Musicians’ 2nd Music Workshop Day, a challenge in apostrophe-placing and chance for our large group of Musicians to get together and focus on how we play.
Jon, Emma & Toby Melville – skilled Morris musicians & dancers with a wealth of experience between them – put Mersey musicians through their paces with a variety of discussions, group and solo playing.
Group playing is a challenge for Morris, as the more usual situation of only one or two Musicians allows great flexibility and manoeuverability between musicians and dancers. Without a lot of thought and practice, a group of Morris musicians can be stodgy, muddy and not together.
Working with the tutors, the musicians practised playing staccato, getting melodeon bass patterns to match the feet of the dancers, plus using ‘oomph’ to encourage the dancers to get airborne. Then there was a chance to practice leading the dance, with the leader setting the pace and following the dancers while everyone else follows the leader closely. Sounds simple, but in practice, leading a large group of musicians which may contain those who’ve done it a million times before and think they know exactly what speed old Joe will do his slows at and therefore think they don’t need to watch the leader, can be a tad tricky!
Group playing can, however, also provide an opportunity for adding spice to a performance by improvising counter melodies around a tune. With the proviso of not interfering with the underlying tune and disconcerting the dancers, this can add great interest and enjoyment to both musicians and audience. The dancers may even notice sometimes too! With Emma leading on piano accordion, the musicians were encouraged to improvise around ‘Speed the Plough’ – being allowed to play anything except the tune – with pretty pleasing results.
The tutors also challenged all the musicians to play solo or duo for a jig – a nerve-wracking experience, especially being critically assessed by other musicians. Impressively, everyone stepped up to the mark and played for either Jon or Toby to dance ‘Nutting Girl’. Considering this father/son combination of Musician/Dancer won the solo jig competition at Sidmouth a few weeks ago, this stirred up some considerable nervous excitement within the ranks. There was a 2nd chance later in the day to play the same jig for a Mersey dancer, and a plan to include some solo/duo jig practice in the winter practice sessions.
After a tasty and all home-made lunch of soup, bread, cakes and some fruit to balance it all out, afternoon sessions concentrated on ways of varying the large group performance to provide light, shade and interest, whilst mirroring the shape of the dance. Using the ‘break it down then build it up again’ technique, figures were accompanied by strings & recorder, then adding box right hands and then the chords again in the choruses. Silent choruses were also used. When a bevy of hungry Mersey dancers arrived for the final hour, and once extricated from the cake table, the musicians then got to try this out to a set of dancers, whilst also rotating the leadership.
After a triumphant final dance, musicians and tutors retired to The Harp – a rather lovely old-fashioned pub on the edge of The Dee estuary, for a well-earned pint! All in all, an excellent and enjoyable day, with much to take back to Music rehearsals over the winter.
And a final take-home message from the tutors:
The leader plays to the dancers, others accompany – if you don’t know who’s leading, don’t play – if you can’t hear the leader, you’re too loud – and remember – not everyone needs to play all the time!