Since my last post I have received a huge amount of encouragement and support, both over the internet and in real life. I have been hugely touched by this, so thank you everyone. It wasn’t a terribly easy post to write, but I am glad that I did. It is always going to be difficult to admit that you have a problem, but I think that it is important to be honest with people, especially those that you care about. I have been particularly touched by those professional melodeon players who have offered encouragement and sympathies, especially John Spiers, Jon Loomes and Andy Cutting.
In my last post I talked about how much of what I was doing musically wasn’t appealing any more. I was bored with what was immediately available. I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit since and I think that the problem is that I am no longer out of my depth. This was brought home to me recently when I played for the Cambridge University Strathspey and Reel Club for their Summer Dance.
I have little experience of Royal Scottish Country Dancing. I have never danced it and before last Wednesday had only once played for Scottish Reeling and never for a Strathspey. In fact before that evening I had only knowingly seen a Strathspey a handful of times. So it was definitely a time where I needed a band to hide behind. Unfortunately such a band was not forthcoming, as I was playing solo.
I love playing for dance and I love playing solo. I have always played for Cotswold Morris on my own and it is an amazing feeling, to be so in synch with the dancers and to be able to react fluidly and instantly to what they are doing. So for a very long time I’ve wanted to play solo for other kinds of dance and this was my chance.
Most of it was fantastic fun in the end, but there were some interesting moments. It is very difficult to play for dance without looking at the dancers, yet I was playing from the music, since many of the tunes were new to me. This led to some unusual effects, as every time I looked up from the music I had to improvise the next bit of the tune until I looked back. There were a couple of times that upon trying to go into a new tune I went wrong and was forced to improvise whole tunes at a time. This mostly went surprisingly well and led to the discovery that it is possible (although not recommended) to play the Morris tune “Monk’s March” as a Strathspey.
By far the most uncomfortable thing that happened was when playing for the Eightsome Reel. I am not particularly fond of playing for this dance, as it requires playing one 40 bar tune followed by 8 48 bar tunes and one further 40 bar tune. Given that most tunes are either 32 bar or 48 bar, the beginning and end can pose a problem! What definitely causes a problem is when intending to go into Soldier’s Joy you instead start playing a crooked Quebecois tune with 7 bars in the A section and 3 bars in the B section with two 3/2 bars. Converting that to a square 48 bar tune in real time without missing a beat might be my finest musical accomplishment to date!
Despite these problems, I got through the evening without major mishap and I was pleased with how it went. I think that the big hit for me was realising how much I relish being out of my depth. Being out of your depth pushes you, punishes you and forces you to play your best. When you have no idea what is going on and what you are required to do, that is when you find out how good you are. Running before you can walk is exhilarating.
It also expands horizons, as if you take any musical opportunity that comes your way (as I try to do) then you end up doing all sorts of interesting things! Conversely, if you resolve never to be out of your depth then you will never do anything. And when it comes down to it, there isn’t much point in doing anything if it doesn’t challenge you at least a little bit.
So my task now is to find ways of challenging myself musically. Finding the opportunities that will allow me to do this will be tricky but worth it.
As it turns out, most of my most treasured musical memories have come when I have been out of my depth. Many have been with my long-time musical comrade James MacNamara. My only previous experience of playing for Reeling was with James and bodran-master Colm Sheppard and was similarly simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating . We also collaborated (together with Yarden Brody, Davy Evans, Tom Furnival, Ollie Jones and Tim Sparrow) on Silent Cannonfire, my first attempt at playing for theatre, about which I have touched on before.
The experience which I remember most vividly though is when we were asked by some ex-Cannonfire compatriots to play in a comedy sketch at the final Footlights Smoker of the last academic year. We were the last act on and everybody found it very funny. Judge it for yourself! Apologies for the appalling quality of the picture.