Musings on playing for song

So I’ve had a few absolutely manic weeks and things are looking to get even worse, so don’t be surprised if I don’t update this blog much over the next week or two. But I thought that I would take this opportunity (it being 3am) to provide you with some musings on something that I started doing very recently.

The last “Musings” post that I did was on something that I have done for years, namely playing for dance. I still have a long way to go in that sphere, but feel that I at least know what I am aiming for. Last Friday though, I did something that I had never done before – accompanied song in public. I am going to tell you about it.

A few months ago, Marianne Neary, a friend of mine who used to play with the Cambridge University Ceilidh Band, got in touch enquiring whether I would be interested in playing box with her group. She is a fine singer who got to the final of the New Roots folk competition the year before I did. Her band, with whom she appears under the name of “Marianne Neary and friends”, consists of her, Patrick Beldon (Guitarist, another CUCBer), Rebecca Burrell (Flute and vocals) and now me. Our first gig as a quartet was last Friday at the Maltings Arts Theatre for the First Friday concerts organised by St Albans Folk Music (the first of which I played in back in January, supporting na-mara).

We were supporting Malcolm Hobbs, who did a fantastic set, nice and varied on voice and various stummy things. He sang some wonderful songs from many different sources and was a joy to listen to. His opening line was also superb, it being “This is a concert of contrasts: you’ve had the young, talented, singer/songwriter with friends…”. Also, amusingly, it turns out that I knew him from years back, he was the teacher in charge of the library at my secondary school around 10 years ago. I hadn’t seen him in that time, yet he recognised me as someone from that school… astonishing. That’s a teacher’s memory for you!

We were playing a mix of traditional and contemporary songs, mostly in keys unfamiliar to me (i.e. F, on my trusty Super-Preciosa in D/Em), all on minimal practise. Despite that, it went well, fairly solid. I enjoyed myself a lot, but then I always do when performing.

I did find the whole experience quite strange though, just because of the unfamiliarity. When performing for dance, the connection between the dancers and your playing is of the greatest import and as a band you work towards that aim. Playing solo for concert is all about the connection between the listeners and the player and the same goes for playing with There and Back Again. Playing for song though is rather different. You aren’t just focussed on the listeners, you are also focussed on the singer. What you are doing is to a certain extent subservient to what they are doing. The connection here is not just to the audience, it is to the singer and to the song itself.

The purpose of accompanying a singer, I suppose, is to frame the song. The music should not obscure the melody or the words, should reflect the style and content of the song and provide a base against which the song may be placed. And it should be interesting musically to listen to and to play. It is quite difficult to do all of those and it is all too easy to play something unimaginative that fits and frames rather than pushing the boat out musically. Your music should be telling a story, as well as the song, but telling it in music not in words. You won’t be playing the same melodic line as the song, but the story should be identical. Just as it is difficult to play for a dance that you’ve never danced, it is difficult to accompany a song that you don’t know the story to.

I found it all quite difficult, I must confess, but I think that I did a reasonable job overall. I still have a lot to learn but it’s an exciting learning curve to be on. I love doing different things with my music and with my instrument, reasoning that any experience is good experience. And playing for song has the distinct advantage in that people tend to sing along, which is a fantastic feeling, as I’ve remarked before.

This is an open post, I’d like to have a dialogue with my hypothetical readers on this. What do you think makes a good song accompanist and who do you think epitomises it? I’d be very interested to find out your views. For those interested, videos of our performance will periodically appear on this page. The one up there at the moment isn’t a good example of my attempt at playing for song, as it’s one which we agreed should have a minimalist melodeon part, consisting of a single bass line.

I’ll let this blog know when I’m next playing with Marianne. The others are going to Shepley but I will probably have to stay behind to finish my IIB Project Report. But if you are lucky enough to get to the festival then do go and see them, with or without me.

To finish off, here is a track of a melodeon being played for song in fine style. From the legendary Nic Jones’ album Penguin Eggs, this track features the frankly astonishing Tony Hall on box. I’m going to see him on Thursday at Islington Folk Club, can’t wait. I’ll do a floor spot if I get there early enough to sign up. Hope to see some of you there!

EDIT: For another example of sensitive song accompaniment, you can listen to my friend Tom Furnival play for Simon Robinson here.

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5 thoughts on “Musings on playing for song

  1. I think you’ve managed to describe most of what I’ve found when playing for song, but I’d pick up on the interactions around the audience/song – I’d say that part of what you are doing is a four way relationship: The audience, the singer, the other musicians (in my case fiddler and sometimes bass player), and of course, the Song.
    Drop any one of this juggling act and your audience is likely to notice:- congruence is the watchword here!
    I would be very careful of deliberately trying to be musically challenging in any group where you are likely to be gigging repeatedly – if you are playing on the edge of ability, some days you just won’t be able to do it and maintain all of the above awareness. I’d say the trick is to know when you’ve got the wind behind you, and in a good band when everyone is maintaining those four connections, don’t be afraid to risk something occasionally. But only when all four of those connections are being made by all the band – there is potential for train wreck!

    Practice: don’t over practice a new song before trying it on an audience. Whatever you may have envisaged for the song, be prepared for it to change the moment it’s on a stage – and enjoy it – it’s exhillerating, and you are likely to find new ways to address the song in the process.

    In terms of the Song: the basics are the same as any other instrument in the band: complement it, follow it in detail in your mind, but *give it space* in the music. The melodeon part is almost certainly not what the majority of an audience will remember in any detail at the end of the night (or album), the focus is almost always on the song and singer. Texture and shape, sweep and congruence are primary, during the song proper: with any luck, the song will have space for a change of roles – the melodeon or other instruments can then come to the fore, to gently shape the feel of the entire piece, remembering the four connections above ;-)

    It’s all different – especially as the melodeon has a very wide frequency range which does overlap male and female vocals …. That means your separators are tone, and rhythm…

    I’m still learning, and I suspect I will never stop, every singer and band you find will be different :-)

  2. An interesting read. I’ve accompanied song a little on stage, but most of my experience has been in the studio, which is completely different. It makes focussing on the singer a lot easier, although it brings the new challenge of having to respond to something that has already been recorded – I find it far easier when I can see the person I’m playing with!

  3. I’ve only ever accompanied song in sessions, such as the one at Kimpton last night. Nothing arranged beforehand, but the various instruments start to pick up the threads of the song and go with it, hopefully without obscuring what the original singer was doing. Interesting in that situation because you have no idea who might decide to join in. Magical feeling when it works!

  4. Pingback: Musings on playing for Theatre | Music and Melodeons

  5. Pingback: A tribute to Tony Hall | Music and Melodeons

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