Subscribe in a reader

Dance Musicians’ Week at the John C. Campbell Folk School

by Emolyn Liden, Writer, Student & Instructor on May 31, 2012

in Music! Dancing!

Dance Musicians’ Week is for the musician who is comfortable playing a few tunes on his or her instrument and wants to play for traditional contra, square, and couple dancing. It is a week of breaking out of shells, letting the “inner-musician” flourish, improving techniques of playing and arranging music, and being part of a band. It comes around once a year, in July, and I can say from experience that the larger the class, the more the fun.

Emolyn Liden and the "Mothership Band" Play On the Dining Hall Porch (2007).

In addition to the music, there are up to one hundred students at the school in fifteen other art mediums. It is a special time when music and art coincide. According to Dance Musicians’ instructor Peter Siegel, “[The week] is fed by more than music and dance but also by visual arts and crafts and it creates an atmosphere that you may not find in a setting that is solely for music.”

There are many reasons to be a part of this week. In my case, I struggled with being a quiet musician, one who had learned numerous tunes, but didn’t have enough confidence. My experience gave me the nudge I needed and by Wednesday, my new band mates and I were playing for one of the nightly dances. “5, 6, 7, 8!”

Dancers Cut a Rug at a Dance Musicians' Week Nightly Dance (2007).

Sunday, I arrived early to tour campus before the sun went down. The trees stood heavy with bright green leaves, flowers bloomed everywhere I looked, and the sky shone crimson and yellow over the freshly cut hay fields. Finally one week I didn’t have to worry about cell phones or emails! That night we met for orientation in the Keith House and I was filled in about meals, morning song – a Folk School tradition of singing and storytelling, instructor demos, and other activities on campus.

My class was held in Davidson Hall Music Studio and it soon became my home away from home. It is a large, well-lit, open room with a smooth wooden floor and windows on all sides. Each morning, the class and our four instructors played a warm-up tune and then we devoted the next hour to dance – from the musician’s perspective. The friendly and talented instructors David Kaynor, Naomi Morse, Peter Siegel, and Sue Songer serenaded us with contra dance tunes. While I danced and listened to their beautiful music, I longed for that kind of sound to come from my instrument. I had come to the right place.

After dancing, we separated into sections – a group of fiddlers with Kaynor and Morse, stringed accompaniment with Siegel, and piano and bass players with Songer. If you are interested in coming to this week with a lap dulcimer, hammer dulcimer, harp, harmonica, and accordion, even kazoo – don’t worry! There is a spot for you. In Kaynor’s fiddle class we learned jigs, reels, waltzes, and some of his original compositions.

Class Time in Davidson Hall (2007).

Then we broke for lunch – but don’t jump to the conclusion that lunch just meant eating. Mealtime was a chance for everyone to lift their heads above the stream of new, exciting information and to get to know people from the other classes. The musicians were hard to miss because every day our “Mothership Band,” a.k.a our entire class played in procession to the dining hall and then performed for the hungry students while they filed inside.

David Kaynor leads "The Mothership Band" for the Daily Dining Porch Lunch Ritual (2010).

After lunch we reconvened and played warm-up, or in this case wake-up, tunes. Then we discussed topics like how to effectively play for dances, how to choose tunes and tempos, arrange music, work with a caller, use a sound system, and enhance a community dance. And throughout the afternoon each student had one-on-one lessons to address individual needs.

Then the instructors formed us into bands. The fun-meter went up a notch as the entity known as “The Band” with all its up’s and down’s came into being. The first practice felt like what I imagine being in a teen garage band would be like, but without a nagging parent telling us to keep it down. Kaynor, Siegle, Songer, and Morse were wonderful enablers instead! If my band rehearsals were any indication, then I am sure as they went from band to band they were met with enthusiasm. There are three practice rooms in Davidson Hall, the spacious dance room and the wrap-around porch. There are also fields spanning in three directions, a timber frame arbor in the herb garden, a gazebo in the vegetable garden, and the Open House with a large dance floor and four “open” walls to the outside. Bands rehearsed in all these spaces and what followed was beautiful – music could be heard everywhere.

"Princess Leah and the Stormtroopers" Serenades the Quilting Class (2011).

At the nightly dances, each one of the bands got to try out what we worked on during the day. Three or four bands divided up the three-hour dance. Some bands played medleys with all animal titles. Some wore costumes. Others included singing and foot stomping and one added a kazoo – see, they do come in handy. Every night was creative, fun and silly.

We loved those students who are taking photography, pottery, quilting, woodturning and woodcarving because they were our accomplices. They were our “trial-run” dancers. If there were a few glitches in the music, they kept dancing and we kept playing. If a band ran off the tracks, then so be it because it was a safe learning environment. After my group played, I took a break on the back porch and listened to the melodies coming from the dance hall and the chirps and ribbits from the starry evening. It had been a day that couldn’t be beat.

Charlotte Calls a Dance with a Newly Formed Band at a Nightly Dance (2007).

Having such a good time at the dances usually lent itself to jamming afterwards. The cool nights were best spent on the porch at Davidson Hall. People played or just listened – but whatever they chose, there were rocking chairs and benches and stories to tell and songs to share.

As the week progressed, we played morning tunes more boldly, infiltrated the mid-morning instructor band, played medleys and changed keys during group lessons, talked louder during forums, and hooted with laughter at band rehearsals. At lunch, during the band procession students from other classes danced jigs and started saving seats for us musicians, when in the beginning we were left to pack up our instruments and get in the end of the line.

David Kaynor Calls a Dance

Music adds an element of fun to everything. Add to that the other students, the great instructors, and the beauty of a mountain summer and you have an unforgettable experience.

** Instruction is oriented toward students who can play at least some tunes (or accompany some tunes) on their instruments and who are familiar with some of the styles of music played at contra dances. Levels 3 & 4-Intermediate (can play 10 or more tunes, not quite up to tempo) and Advanced (you feel comfortable with the instrument.)

Register for the 2012 Dance Musicians’ Week Class

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment