A Barn Dance Repertoire

by Thomas Green

Music for one-off barn dances

I have been approached quite a few times for advice about music by people getting an ad hoc band together for a particular event. On several occasions  they have told me that they've collected a group of willing players but none of those players has ever played for dancing before, and they want to know what to play and how to play it. This page is specifically aimed at such brave souls, who are undertaking something like a fund-raiser or a celebration and are creating a band just for that one occasion.

First things

Use live music if you can. The recorded CD is a poor substitute. At least, that’s what I think, but then I’m a player, so I would think that, wouldn’t I?

Start by reading ‘So you want to play for ceilidhs’, which is excellent;  it's really aimed at players wanting to form a long-term band, not a scratch band for a one-off event, but it still has good advice. (See the Resources page.) Listen to some English barndance bands – get some CDs or MP3s of good bands if possible; the "webfeet" site has a list of bands, many of which will have audio samples on their websites. (You can try YouTube, but be aware that searching YouTube for ‘ceilidh’ will bring up lots of Scottish-style ceilidhs, which are bit different, and ‘barndance’ can produce dances in US ‘country/Western’ style, which are also a bit different.) Even better would be to go to a musicians’ weekend organised for potential barndance/ceildh players.

Players

In our scenario of a one-off social event, you will probably have to work with whoever you can find, and that’s fine; you can dance to most instruments as long as they can produce a clear beat and a recognisable tune.

For what it’s worth, typical bands use a fiddle (with a pickup if possible) or a melodeon or an accordion to hold the tune. Clarinets and saxes work but they have to able to hold the tune – not always easy, since they will have to transpose – and they need to find places to breathe. Flutes are less effective because they are quieter and have less attack on the note, except in very skilled hands; all the same, if there’s a strong fiddle or accordion, a flute can add  variation in tone, especially if the player can put in twiddly bits now and again. Descant recorders are surprisingly effective, and I’ve used both piccolo and wind-synthesizer. A guitar or a keyboard is good for holding the rhythm, and of course a good melodeon player or accordionist can hold the rhythm too. Drum kit is sometimes used but not to everyone’s taste. Bass guitars often make an appearance, but other deep instruments can do the same job – I’ve heard tubas, cellos, a bassoon, and even a bass viola da gamba.

Better to use unexpected instruments played dancily, even if inexpertly, than conventional instruments played with no life, even if expertly. If you’re choosing between a not-so-good sax who’s not afraid to make the tune bounce versus an orchestral violinist who plays all the notes perfectly in tune but all in the same way, the sax probably wins. (NB no prejudice intended – plenty of orchestral violinists are also superb dance musicians!) Don’t have lots of players, though, because it gets hard to keep the rhythm crisp. And remember that each extra person in the band makes it harder to find a rehearsal date.

Finding Tunes

There are lots of tune books out there, and I've listed some on the Resources page, plus a personal list of tunes. With so many tunes to choose from the choice can be a bit overwhelming for players new to all this. I’d suggest using tunes that are tuneful and are really easy for you to play, and if possible, tunes that you have heard before or that you can find on a recording. (Beware of YouTube recordings, some are excellent but there’s a lot of vanity publishing too.) Nothing wrong with using well-known songs, like Waltzing Matilda, or even contemporary hits, although you will need to think about copyright issues.

Whatever you pick, go for tunes that are well-marked into strong 4-bar phrases, which helps both the dancer and the caller. Until you’re experienced, avoid tunes that are nothing but long strings of quavers (eighth-notes), because the rhythm can easily get blurred;  go for tunes with occasional crotchets (quarter-notes) or minims (half-notes), helping to structure the tune so that the dancers can feel its shape, and giving players a chance to collect themselves (and breathe, if they’re playing winds).

Most of the tunes you use will be 32 bars, but do make sure you’ve got enough 3-part jigs (i.e. 48-bars) for at least two dances with 3 parts, such as Waves of Tory. You'll probably want to organise your tunes into sets of two or three tunes, so that you can change tunes during a dance.

Jigs, reels, polkas, or hornpipes? The caller is expected to tell the band what kind of tune he/she wants for the next dance. If you’re all working from scratch, a possible rule of thumb is to use jigs by default, polkas or reels as a change from jigs, hornpipes for anything that is to be stepped, and reels where a smooth walk is wanted.

Stepped dances might very well go at about 90 beats per minute, while walking dances might go at about 110 bpm. American contra dancing is usually at about 120 bpm, which feels too fast for an English dance. Remember: it’s easy to play too fast for the dancers. The caller should be keeping an eye out: be ready to follow his/her directions to go faster or slower (see below).

The feel of the dance

General advice: keep the rhythm. Tune players – if you fall off, don’t panic – play some notes that more or less fit the pattern until you can get back aboard somewhere. Rhythm players – if you play the wrong chord, don’t worry; it’s much more important to play the right rhythm than the right chord. Pianists especially, keep in mind that you’re really playing a percussion instrument, as far as dancing is concerned. As already said, tune players who are not used to playing for dance would do well to listen to recordings.

Tips for strong rhythm – listen out for these in the recordings:

Starting and stopping and changing

Start with some kind of introduction to set the speed and tell the dancers when to start. Some tunes, like La Russe, have a standard intro; otherwise, playing the last two bars of the A or the B usually works. Or you can use two chords, like Scottish bands, or four chords (‘four potatoes’) like contra dance bands.

It is usual to change tunes from time to time during any one dance, to give variety. Different bands change at different times; some bands play each tune twice, which means they need a lot of tunes, other bands play each tune until the leader decides it’s time to move on and calls ‘Change’. If you do it that way, the leader has to make the call in good time for everyone to be ready for the next tune. Stop when the caller wants you to, and not before.

Callers, agree with the band on how to signal. One way is to hold up one finger so that the leader can see it, to mean “after this time through the tune,   play it once more and then stop”, a method that I find works very well as long as the caller does it at the right time, such as at the start of the second half of the tune, when it’s unambiguous. Waving a finger right at the end of the tune can leave the band uncertain about whether to stop right then, or to play one more.

Callers will also need signals for “go a bit faster”, “go a bit slower”, and “stop right now!” – the last being used for those occasions one dreads when the dance has collapsed irretrievably, and also for dances where the band has to stop abruptly and unexpectedly while dancers scramble for new partners. This is what I use – but be prepared to use different signals: all that matters is that the band and the caller agree:

Variations, tune sets and altering tunes

If you can, try to vary the tune a bit from time to time by changing details, such as playing a third higher for a few notes, replacing a burst of quavers by a longer note (or the other way round), or inverting a phrase so it goes down instead of up. It perks the dancers up and stops you getting bored. Because you’ll want to change tunes frequently, it’s useful to work from sources where the tunes are already setted.

In general the tunes in a set are fairly similar and are in related keys – switching from D to G and back is quite conventional, as is switching from D or G to E minor or A minor, but it takes a strong constitution to switch from a tune in D to a tune in F. Still, if that takes your fancy, go for it. Some players like a shift from a tune in G to a tune in A, and in fact that has become almost traditional on the Dorset Four-Hand Reel; not to my personal taste (reminds me of weak pop songs), but people claim it gives the dancers a lift.

When there’s more than one melody instrument, it’s a waste of resources if you both play the tune all the time. Sometimes one, and sometimes the other; or one plays the tune and the other plays something different, whether improvised or worked out beforehand. Players should *avoid drowning each other*. Accordionists and other naturally loud instruments take especial note. (Accordionists – consider not using the master coupler to turn on all your reeds: it thickens the sound and will obscure anybody trying to do variations above or below you.) ‘So you want to play for ceilidhs …’ explains all this very well. (See Resources page.)

Rehearsing and performing

Follow all the advice in ‘So you want to …’: appoint a leader, not necessarily the best player. Work hard on starts and stops and tune changes. Don’t feel you need to play the dancers on to the floor, as recommended in ‘So you want …’; some bands do, especially Scottish ones, but many bands don’t.

Amplification

What a minefield. I shan’t even try. If you’re an ad hoc band without experience, you should start by playing acoustically for quite small events where amplification is less crucial. If you all play firmly, you’ll be heard. The exception is the caller, who will be grateful not to have to shout over the band all evening. A small guitar combo is quite cheap; you’ll need a cable and a cheap mic to go with it. A home karaoke kit might work – I’ve never used one, though. If you get to borrow some PA kit, make sure to borrow some advice to go with it, or else hire some suitable PA gear and get the shop to give you advice.