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Fiddle Trek

3-day course, Playing Music For Dancing, at Halsway Manor in Somerset.

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John & I thought the 3-day Playing Music for Dancing Course at Halsway Manor was excellent. It was run by Linda Game and Gareth Kiddier of the English Contra Dance Band. Linda is a fine fiddler who can improvise on the melody and rhythms of English, American and Scottish tunes and Gareth provides skilled and empathetic keyboard backing.

The first evening, we sat in the bar - eleven of us on the course - and played the tunes that we’d chosen, plus the odd solo or group contribution. Gareth took stock of us, and the next day split us into two bands. John was in the Halsway Hussars, with a fiddler, a melodeonist, a guitarist, a ukelele player and a lady who played bass clarinet.

I was in ‘To the Manor Born’, with a versatile lady who played both sax and double bass in the band, and in sessions a piano accordion or melodeon; also a wonderfully steady pianist, a cellist, and Steve, who played melodeon. The sound we produced was good, if I say it myself, and I liked and learned a lot from everyone, but especially from Steve. I sat next to him and copied his every move - he was a seasoned ceilidh bandsman - and I learned dynamics, pace, timing, expression and flair from him. He ‘looked after me’ and was very helpful when I asked questions and on the night itself. He’d also brought in a lot of extra sheet music that he used in his band, and so we had more material to use, and each band was able to choose five sets for the final ceilidh.

The structure of the day was that after breakfast, we held a discussion about the organisation, finer details and pitfalls of ceilidh bands until coffee time. Some useful points were made, but I confess I found this a little boring as most of the people on the course had lots of experiences and anecdotes to share. However, one can’t play morning noon and night, and it did help me to get to know people - they were all very nice - and take it easy a bit before the real work got going. In the late morning of the first day, we played the shared tunes together with Linda showing us how to vary rhythm and impact. Then after lunch, we were put into our bands and left to get on with it, though Linda and Gareth kept dropping in so we could ask for advice etc.
I loved those afternoons of rehearsal. Everyone in my band was so easy to get on with, and punching through the tunes together was such fun.

On the evening of the second day, we played some Playford tunes together, which was lovely. At breakfast the next morning, Linda made my day by commenting that ‘I made a good sound’.

On Tuesday we had another ‘talk session’ till coffee - I was very interested in Gareth’s pithy list of ‘things he wanted to see in a caller at Sidmouth’ (he’s responsible for picking the callers).

Then the rest of the morning and the afternoon was spent in our bands, organising the details of the evening performance. John’s band had more difficulty than mine, particularly in playing fast, but they got there in the end and I enjoyed dancing to their music. However, with hindsight, perhaps Gareth had organised it too unevenly. He had various problems to solve, though - such as the fact that there was only one keyboard player and only two fiddlers, and that he’d decided to split up the three married couples on the course. I can see why - you don’t want cliques within the band and spouses have to learn to work with other people. But the limitations on choice of band members did have repercussions.

On the last night of the course, Tuesday, we held a mock barn dance. Each band played its five sets - 2 and 2, 2 and 2, 1 and 1, alternating - and when you weren’t playing, you were dancing, to see how it worked. They had a few extra dancers coming, so we had about eight couples, enough for two sets if needed.

Before the ceilidh, each band met with the caller to iron out the details of the music and dances and what he wanted from us. This was very useful.

The dance itself was brilliant. We ended up on a high. I sat on stage when it was my turn, and felt like a real ceilidh-band fiddler and enjoyed every moment. Of course, I was apparently inaudible, even though I was playing louder and with more panache than I ever have in my life before - but a lone fiddler finds it hard to rise above not only a punchy melodeonist but also a stylish saxophone. So John couldn’t pick out my sound, but I could and had the satisfaction of knowing that I played fluently and accurately and succeeded, I think, in bringing out the flavour of the jigs, reels and hornpipes that our band played.

And John was amazed to find himself coping in a band after only one year of learning the concertina - his favourites were the waltzes, especially Merch Megan, and also the polkas La Russe and John Ryan’s.

Afterwards we all sat in the bar, flushed with triumph, and swapped jokes and anecdotes. Then off for another sleep-deprived night in the Married Musos Double Battleground.

We’re thinking of going next year, but it will have to be single rooms, as after three bad nights and a long journey home in the dark, we were wrecked and are still shattered today.

However, the Manor is beautiful, the people friendly, and the food is first-class - yum!
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