Thursday, October 17, 2013

English Jam ~ Part 2

(note: if you have not yet read Part 1 of this series, please do so before continuing.)

The evening of Thursday, September 12th found Mom and Conner and I on our way to the very first English Jam! We arrived a bit before the starting time of seven, and thus were at leisure to drive around the neighborhood a bit in an attempt to shake off the uncomfortable nervous feeling that was quickly growing on Conner and me. It was a lovely neighborhood... winding roads, tall leafy trees, and pleasant looking houses... very nice for meandering through even at ordinary times!

We made our way to Mrs. Edwards’ house, and were pleased to see the attractive edible landscaping she had done: the walkway was lined with cherry tomatoes, and the flower bed contained yellow chard along with the cheerful marigolds. Upon reaching the door, we were greeted warmly by Mrs. Edwards, who immediately welcomed us in and put us at ease. As we happened to be the first ones there, we were able to visit with Mrs. Edwards, have first pick in seating, and look about the house a bit. In the living room where we would all be playing that evening, two things in particular caught my attention. The first was a shelf of eight or more unique hand drums; the second was a tall bookshelf quite filled with three-ring binders, each labeled as containing a certain grouping of sheet music. I was especially drawn to the binder titled “Stringdancer Medleys”, which I have since been privileged to look into – it truly does contain the lead sheet used by the Stringdancer band for the recording of the Scottish!

Truth to tell, I do not remember many particulars of that first evening, except that Conner and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and that upon leaving we were already in anticipation of the next session! Drawing from the collective experiences of the past five weeks, I will attempt to share something of the atmosphere and activities of the English Jams thus far.

First off, the people! Each week there has been between seven and fourteen participants, each bringing their own instrument, skill level, experience, personality, and ideas on how to play the music. Since the group of people changes a bit each week, every time there is a slightly different flavor to the jam. Quite a few of the participants are truly musicians – that is, people with skill and experience, people who pay attention to the sounds they are producing, and who are willing to make the effort to play music in such a way that people will enjoy it and really feel like dancing! It has been an incredible experience to be able to play with musicians such as these.

And then there are the instruments! I myself am partial to the violin/fiddle, and am thoroughly delighted to get to hear anywhere between two and five of them each week! On several evenings we have been joined by Mr. Tim Hirzel, a flute player and member of the Tu’Penny Players (another of Mrs. Edwards’ bands – I just discovered that the Tu’Penny Players are in fact the ones who made many of the other dance recordings I’ve known and loved for years!). The Jams have also been attended by two pianists and a harpist; and one evening there was even a five-string banjo player!

Though the specifics of what we do at the Jams changes from week to week, the general routine is as follows. When people arrive around seven, they visit with each other while setting up in the living room: getting out their instruments, flipping through the music books, and playing snatches of tunes to themselves. When all the expected participants have arrived, Mrs. Edwards gets everyone’s attention for tuning. This is done by ear, using the piano as the standard – for of course the piano cannot easily be tuned to anything else. Once everybody has attained the perfect pitch, we begin playing! We usually begin with any new tunes, and from there often work through a list of specific pieces we’re preparing for a dance event. Other times we merely select favorites from previous weeks and play around with them some more!

When trying a tune for the first time, we usually play it once through and then stop to analyze it. Keeping in mind that we are playing for dancing, we consider questions such as these: What is the mood of this piece? How can we play it to give the most interest to the players and enjoyment to the dancers? Where is the “point of arrival” in each section of the music, and how can variations in volume or other effects be used to emphasize that point in the tune? Mrs. Edwards asks questions such as these to the group as a whole, allowing anyone wishing to share their ideas to present their perspective on possibilities for playing. We play parts of the piece a few times to compare the results of the suggested interpretations, often coming to the conclusion that they could each be used to good effect over the course of the dance! When we play the piece again, Mrs. Edwards and any other adventurous people often improvise a harmony line, which results in a beautiful depth and richness of sound. In some places the technique of shadowing the melody at a certain interval does not work, and so we all go through the piece, find those places, and determine what note would fit well there. Finally, keeping all our notes to self in mind, we play the piece two or three times through – and it sounds simply beautiful! After a moment of exclaiming over how wonderful that was, the process is repeated for the next tune!

We often take a short break around eight, or whenever some people need to be leaving and others begin arriving. Most people make their way to the kitchen, where the table is filled with bottles of sparkling berry juices and handmade pottery containing snacks and treats of various kinds. Food in hand, we stand about visiting for a bit, occasionally getting so involved in a conversation that we actually take a seat in the family room to continue the discussion!

Following the break, assuming it has not gone on too long, we gather in the living room once more for another round of music making! Mr. Bob Green, Mrs. Edwards’ husband, is sometimes available to join in at this point, providing an excellent rhythm on one of his hand drums. Incidentally, meeting Mr. Green was another neat experience, as he is not only a dancer and musician, but is also a dance caller and dance writer! It was not until meeting him for the second time that I learned that he happens to be the one who wrote the dance “Little Ramsay Divey” – a fun dance I first learned two full years ago, never expecting to have the opportunity of meeting its writer!

The Jam usually wraps up somewhere around nine, at which point we begin packing up our banjos and music book, often getting drawn in to a pleasant conversation or two along the way. Goodbyes are said to everyone, we heartily thank Mrs. Edwards for having us there again, and then – it is time to go home, filled with pleasant thoughts and with eagerness for the next Thursday to come!

There is only one thing that Conner and I have found lacking in these lovely evenings: the presence of our instrument-playing, English Country Dancing homeschool friends! My main reason for writing this lengthy post is simply to invite any and all of my dear dancing musicians to come join us in the English Jam – we would love to see you there!
This link will take you to a webpage with directions to the English Jam; along the left-hand side there are downloadable files of the sheet music we've been using thus far. We will be playing some of these pieces at the Yuletide Ball on December 20th (check the Childgrove website for details); we will also be playing for the homeschool Winter Dance Series called by Mr. John Ramsay held in Saint Charles this coming January and February.

If you have any questions, you may email me (provided you already know my email address; I do not wish to post it online), or you may leave a comment below.

Hope to see you at the Jam!

No comments: