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Who Follows Whom?

Part II
In Part II of this article on morris music and its relation to the dance, I will explore those aspects of the musician's job which, as a practitioner, I consider most important in working with dancers. In addition, I'll delve into some ideas about team communication regarding musical issues. As I write, my husband (Tim Radford) and I are recovering from a two-week visit to England, during which we both danced and I played in a variety of situations. I'm pleased to have the opportunity to write while these memories are fresh!

I will begin with a reminder of the general features of good music/dance relations outlined in Part I (these are mainly from the musician's point of view):

1. Confidence and trust between dancers and musician
2. An appropriate - or better yet, ideal - tempo.
3. Rhythmic flexibility, appropriate to the elements of the dance.
4. Inspired and inspiring melodic performance, with particular attention to articulation and dynamics.
5. Percussion, harmony, and counter-melody where applicable.
6. Awareness by both musician and dancers of elements unique to the situation at hand.

Since the issue of mutual trust ran like a thread through Part I, and considering both the limits of this article and the fact that elements #5 and 6 are highly individual, this second (and final) installment will focus in detail on matters of tempo, rhythm and melody.


To me, tempo is the crux of the matter, logistically speaking. It is probably the most important single aspect of what the musician supplies for the dancers. Great performances can only happen, I believe, when the speed is perfect. Get that right, and everything else is icing on the cake.

Just before our trip to England, I called a radio talk show whose guest of the day was choreographer Mark Morris. He offered the apt reminder that, while a dancer cannot injure a musician by movement (under ordinary circumstances, anyway!), a musician can not only derail a performance but can even cause physical damage to dancers through poor playing. I agree: in particular, muscle strains from coping with music which is too fast, too slow or too irregular are a real concern in morris. Jumping and leaping repetitively on hard pavement (let alone gravel or grass) is hard enough on the body without having to struggle against an inappropriate tempo. To help avoid such situations, I offer some suggestions that have worked for myself or other musicians.

Finding the right speed

The issue of "who follows whom" becomes immediately relevant when, as a musician, you find yourself at the head of a set of dancers, ready to play the Once to Yourself (OY). You may be in the habit of imagining yourself dancing, asking for a signal from the set leader, or just "feeling" the tempo of the tune you've played so many times before. Nonetheless, when the dancers begin, immediate re-evaluation of the tempo is necessary, particularly for a team that dances in an athletic, airborne style. And meanwhile, the dancers probably think they're following you!

When I play the OY, I don't worry too much about getting the tempo perfect - I like to just get it in the right range. One of the musicians I interviewed starts slowly and kind of "winds it up" till it feels right, but always hits his stride well before the opening movement. [Wass, cited in Elliott 1993:138]. As mentioned in Part I, most dances begin with some kind of introductory movement, such as a pair of backsteps, which leads to a large gesture like a jump, step & jump, or caper. As soon as the dancers start moving, I check the set with particular attention to #1 or another strong dancer. Pairs of backsteps, along with sidesteps and double steps, can be performed in a wider range of tempos than capers and jumps because of the way they fit the music: there are four elements per bar, that is, you touch the ground four times. In a jump or caper, there are only two - you launch yourself up in the air and that's it for a while. The music has to "come down" with the dancer or it will be out of synch. I'm sure most of us have seen dancers who land jumps early or spend ages on the ground awaiting the moment when they can safely jump and land with the beat. Music should release, not stifle, the dancers at these crucial moments.

So once the dancers have taken the risk of that big move, that's the moment I evaluate a tempo adjustment: while they're in the air. I don't mean a big change - ideally no one should even notice. But the effect should be one of landing together. I like to say that in general, I guide the dancers into air and follow them as they come down. Musicians I've interviewed have made other related points. For example: a) dancers can't really adjust the timing of their landing once they've taken off; b) handkerchiefs, if given an upward motion, should reach their peak at the peak of the jump; c) the bells ring sharply on the landing, so the effect is very audible. Given these factors, the musician should to be able to find the optimal moment to play that landing.

Dancers, for their part, should take off for a unison jump or caper in such a way as to land with others in the set, even if - e.g. when tired - it means taking off "late." If the upper body is kept light and the arms move with the set, the smaller, later jump will blend right in. But to you super-strong dancers out there: please don't take off late just so you can come down after the beat. If you have energy to spare, do more jigs and corner dances (see below). Landing late in a unison movement looks just as awkward as landing early, in my opinion.

This refers back yet again to the main theme in Part I: trust and mutual confidence. If the dancers trust the musician (and one another), they will strive for unity and maximum effect without worrying about strictly following the beat at that moment. If the musician trusts the dancers to do this, there's no need to hit the perfect tempo at the beginning of the OY. It's ideal if you do, but I believe the effect of a spectacularly unified jump outweighs the need to maintain an exact OY tempo. Once this is achieved, however, the next upbeat provides the impetus for the first figure. So get back to the OY tempo or very quickly set a better one, and stick to it while the dancers get settled into the figure.

Rhythmic flexibility

Once you've all gotten going and settled the tempo of the dance, more or less, the question of rhythmic flexibility comes into play. In fact, elasticicity is what's going on in that first big jump, but it can also occur subtly throughout the dance. I am not a big fan of large rhythmic adjustments for individual steps; I prefer musicality in the tune and flow in the movement, both of which require some rhythmic stability. Nonetheless, you can get great improvements in stylistic unity from slight rhythmic adjustments throughout a dance. This brings back the question of who follows whom. If the musician is constantly trying to follow the dancers, there's a danger of getting bogged down in what I call "the waiting game", when the tempo slows down because both dancer and musician are waiting for each other. Doug Creighton reminded me of this recently when describing his first efforts at playing for the Marlboro Morris Men (MA). "They were deliberately dancing behind the beat but I didn't know this, so I kept trying to slow down to match them until eventually they were moving like lead - and someone finally gasped "Speed up!!"

There is no good way to outline the innumerable subtleties of rhythmic flexibility on paper, but here are just five examples:

1. Transitions between figures often require extra time, particularly when preparing to start off in a new direction. The music can "breathe" with the dancers here. Note that in general, dancers are completing a figure with a jump or caper as discussed above, then switching to double or single steps with twice as many elements per bar. The upbeat to the new phrase is of paramount importance, as it sets the readjusted tempo and gives impetus to the direction of the figure.

2. Sticking has a tendency to speed up. The music can fight it or go with it, but I prefer to go with it and draw back the speed in the transition to the next figure (usually a half-hey). Stick clashing in unison isn't easy, and it sounds so awful when not together that fighting with the dancers to keep a steady tempo can mar the effect even further. Practice is the place to work on stick clashing, not performance.

3. Corner dances allow two individuals to work off of one another, each striving to match or even outdo the other. A musician should be sensitive to each pair of corners, adjusting the tempo and/or drawing back on capers etc. Similarly, when playing for jigs, the musician can follow an individual dancer's movements to a much greater degree than when playing for a set. The reverse is also true; when one or both corners (or even jig dancers) are struggling, the musician would do well to provide an "anchor" to keep things under control. Don't go too far into rhythmically risky territory unless the dancers look confident and ready for the challenge.

4. Slow capers have several unique musical attributes besides the obvious change in tempo:

Firstly, whether a dance tune is in 4/4 or 6/8, slows will generally be in 4/4 (In the Bacon handbook, slows in 6/8 are generally written in "duplets"). The dancers thus need preparation for the change in tempo and potentially in meter as well, so many musicians play the introductory beat (or even bar) with an internal division in the impending slow rhythm. Similarly, the last beat of the last slow caper can be given an internal rhythmic "punch" indicating the returning tempo and meter.

Secondly, there is generally one peak movement in each slow caper. It is up to the musician to understand and respond to this change in energy, adjusting for the dancer's time in the air on this movement. Know the caper: does that big movement come on the second or third beat? As in jumps, play the dancer up into the air and follow on the landing. If this means delaying the landing, do it: it allows a strong dancer maximum airtime.

A slight diversion here: on the subject of slows, I wish to make a case for general understanding of the musical pattern.

Most slow sequences fall into one of two musical categories: a long introductory beat and a shorter final beat - as in Bledington - or a straightforward introduction and a full final slow beat - as in Fieldtown. [See Fig. 1. Note that the two caper sequences are identical; it is the musical phrase which appears to be "offset" by one beat.] I advocate calling these two situations "Bledington style" and "Fieldtown style" as they are so clear. This is especially important when a musician plays for an unfamiliar team or jig dancer. While in England last month, for example, I was asked to fill in for a team whose musician was late. When a dancer hummed the slows to me beforehand and they didn't seem to fit either category, I went ahead and played them as instructed. Of course it turned out to be wrong, and if the dancer had merely said "like Bledington" it would have made perfect sense.

Having said that dancers often cannot speak in musical terms, I nonetheless advocate that foremen and jig dancers, at least, understand these two patterns. For example, while most slow caper sequences follow one model or the other, some teams ignore the traditional format. Ha'penny, for instance, deliberately changed the Oddington caper music to the Fieldtown model, while most sides use the Bledington-style pattern as given in Bacon. Which does your team follow?

5. Finally, if a dance finishes with plain capers, these can be greatly improved by a slight increase in tempo. The dancers are tired here, and plain capers are extremely difficult to do a) well and b) in unison. This is the last thing the audience sees, and supportive music gives the appearance of strong, unified dancers. Help them out, musicians!

Melodic articulation

As if these detailed rhythmic descriptions were not enough, the articulation of the melody can also greatly enhance a team's dancing. As Stephen Wass said, "I know many people think the tune doesn't matter, it's the rhythm that matters. But I feel that a good tune can really lift you" [Wass, cited in Elliott 1993:135]. Few would disagree that good tunes inspire good dancing. Nonetheless, most morris tunes can be "good tunes" if played with articulation appropriate to the movement. Edie Leicester (then Edie Connor), another respondent for my thesis, first insisted that it was the melodies themselves which made for good dances, but then discovered that there was more to it: "I just realized this. It's more of how the musician does it than anything else. . . it's not actually how the notes go, it's the execution" [Connor, cited in Elliott 1993:174]. There are numerous elements of melodic articulation which enhance and improve movement, whereas their opposites can drag movement down or detract from it.

The most important element to me - perhaps obvious by now - is what I call "air time," the part of a movement when the dancers are in the air. I believe in giving some "heft" to the takeoff note, swelling into it from the upbeat and cutting it at its peak, when the feet leave the ground. Enjoy that momentary silence before the landing. As Laurie Andres said in AMN, "You phrase the tune so that you drive them into the movement. And you drive them into the air. If I play [the downbeat] heavy, it's just going to drive the dancers into the ground. . . so I try to hit the note hard and kind of release it and let it suspend, like the dancers are suspending in the air." [Andres 1990]

A musician may even prefer to remove or shift the notes which occur during that air time. In "Trunkles," for example, a downward scale passage occurs when the dancers are in the air for an end-of-phrase jump or caper. I personally would give the upbeat a kind of crescendo, which cuts off as the dancers jump, and heavily dot the scale passage to cover for any rhythmic re-adjustment at the landing. It's as if all those internal notes are crushed towards the landing to allow for the air time which precedes it [See Fig. 2]. This effect can be more or less marked, of course, depending on the tradition, speed and style of the dancing - more extreme in slow, highly airborne dancing and less so in faster, bouncier styles.

Similarly, for capers - especially plain capers - I tend to lighten the articulation so as to allow the dancer maximum freedom in the air. As Ivor Allop advocated in a Morris Ring music guide, "Play with a light staccato touch. . . [the] music should have plenty of 'holes' in it" [Allsop 1983:9].

I've said little so far about the various instruments used for morris. This is a compex subject and difficult to address comprehensively in the alloted space, so I will simply say that various instruments have obvious assets and drawbacks as far as morris music goes. Diatonic button boxes are both loud and inherently "punchy": the best compliment I can receive when playing for morris is to be told that my English concertina sounds like an Anglo. On the other hand, piano accordions and their kin must fight the tendency toward smoothness. Fiddle can be hugely inspiring because of the incredible versatility of the instrument, but it is often hard to hear in today's environment unless attacked with heavy bowing and double stops. It is no wonder that pipe and tabor, long the favorite of dancers, is making a comeback. The pipe can be as staccato or smooth as the player wishes (given the ability to overblow accurately), its shrillness cuts through any noise, and the drum can provide a thrilling and variety-filled beat. As Dick Bagwell states in his pipe and tabor tutor, you can "dance on the tabor and sing on the pipe" [Bagwell 1988:22].


Speaking of pipe and tabor, Andra Herzbrun Horton (then Andra Barrand), another of my thesis respondents, suggested that it is the pipe which shows where the body should go, i.e. the dance figures, and the drum which indicates the steps. She matches her playing to the steps to such an extent that she has been known to experiment musically in practice. For example, she will play a phrase of music and have team members guess at the steps she had in mind; or they will dance a stepping sequence while she matches her musical impulses to a different one, and they must explain what didn't work and why [Herzbrun Barrand, cited in Elliott 1993:104].

Experiments such as these offer a way for dancers to understand the role of music in the dance without explicitly having to learn a musical vocabulary. Another way to help dancers, Andy says, is to have each dancer play drum for a dance - whether they think of themselves as musically capable or not. The experience of watching a set and matching drumbeats to footfalls while ostensibly keeping a steady tempo is a wonderful tool for learning about how musicians and dancers communicate non-verbally. Again, it may not teach dancers musical vocabulary, but they will gain a better understanding of the stresses and accents, as well as the subtle push and pull on the rhythm which occurs throughout the dance.

On Tour

As I said in Part I, musicians should experiment in practice, especially if doing so encourages mutual feedback. However, on tour is where you want a team to look its best. How do you do this?

Again, helpful hints have come from interviewees. Watching and being flexible are the keys. Where to watch is such an interesting topic: many musicians say they watch dancers' feet, but in my experience not that many really do. Similarly, many say they will watch #1 in the set, but in fact there are variety of techniques for ascertaining the optimum tempo for that set at that moment. Usually the team forman is the strongest dancers, which means that ideally everyone should dance like him or her - but this is not an ideal world. Two options enhance the ability for the musician to help create a unified set: watching someone closer to the team median than the strongest dancer; and taking in the whole set, as Andy said, "by sort of blurring your eyes." I realize that I myself do this kind of blurring, or visual backing off, regularly. This allows me to see whether there are any difficulties which would prevent a set being unified.

My own rule of thumb is to find the strongest dancer in the set, then play just a little faster or more crisply than may be ideal for that dancer. But each team can experiment until everyone agrees on an ideal tempo. As Tom Kruskal of the Pinewoods Morris Men said, "I figure I've got the right tempo when half the dancers say it's too slow and half say it's too fast " [Kruskal 1992, cited in Elliott 1993:170]. In morris music, as in most things, you can't expect to please everyone.

Well, here we are at the end of this article, with so much left unsaid. For example: harmony and counter-melody; embellishments; choosing, adapting or composing tunes for new dances (and choreographing to non-morris tunes); dealing with massed dances; multiple musicians for a team; etc. etc. It is for this reason that I have provided a bibliography of a few relevant books and articles on morris music. They are worth reading (and re-reading, as I have just done). And if much in this article sounds familiar or even over-obvious, I'll remind readers of a statement by John Roberts in the music issue of AMN: "Remember that even the best dancer can always do some work on his double step."

Best of luck!

1997 Jan Elliott

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