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