The Dancer and the Live Musician

by Mistress Ginevra Da Sanfidelio, OL

[ This article appeared in volume 1 of the Letter of Dance. ]

Why Live Music? (or, Recorders: Sony or Dolmetsch?)

Imagine a festive, high-ceilinged hall, hung with tapestries and banners, lit by many candles. It is crowded with people in their glittering court garb, eager to dance. And then someone crouches down beside the boombox and starts pushing buttons...

There are the gentle little anachronisms that amuse (or at least don't intrude), and then there are the glaring, mood-shattering anachronisms. To me, canned dance music falls in the latter category. Live musicians, on the other hand, are just like the dancers -- SCA people, in persona, wearing garb, and giving as close to an authentic performance as they can manage. So, one main reason for live music is for authenticity's sake and to maintain the medieval atmosphere.

Another reason is the added versatility dancers have when the musicians are in the same hall and can adapt to their needs. If the number of dancers present sugests that a tune be played through 8 times but your tape insists on 6, there is very little you can do about it, but live musicians will cheerfully add two more repetitions. If you want a dance played slower at first for teaching purposes, don't bother trying to convince your tape -- but all it takes is a word to your dance band. If you wish to learn a variation of a dance requiring repetition of a section that your boombox doesn't choose to repeat, you're out of luck -- but your musicians will do it. Suppose things get hopelessly screwed up and you want to start again at a specific point, but not all the way back to the beginning -- your live musicians are probably easier to cue up than the tape.

Another reason for live musicians, by the way, is that music people often find it rather galling to be at an event with their instruments and music in tow and still have dancing to taped music. The SCA affords relatively few performance opportunities to instrumentalists (you all know how instrumental music tends to go over at a feast), but then that's another article.

Disadvantages of Live Music

Realistically, you are going to run into some limitations with live musicians -- limitations on technical skill ("But we can't play it that fast!"), on instruments ("It's a four-part arrangement and nobody brought a bass"), on numbers ("There are only two of us here tonight"), or on available music ("Hum a few bars and we'll fake it"). There is also the issue of availability. What if there's a demo and no musicians show up? (Boomboxes do have their place as a backup.)

But even allowing for the vagaries that occasionally plague any volunteer organization, it's simply more work to work with live musicians. You need a system of signals (do you give the dancers a percussion lead-in? how much? how will the musicians know when it's the last time through?), you need enough time for them to find the right music and have the right instrument in hand, and you need to make sure the musicians know when the dancers are ready to begin. Still, these things come more easily with practice, and the results can be well worth the extra work.

What Do You Need in Order to Provide Live Dance Music?

Not much. One pipe-and-tabor player used to be able to do it alone. (Arbeau says,

"In our fathers' time, the tabor, accompanied by its long flute among other instruments, was used because a single musician could play them both together in symphony without necessitating the additional expense of other players...") 1

SCA musicians come cheap, though, so that needn't be a problem. If you have a music guild, fine; but if you don't, you can still have live dance music with one person playing a $5 plastic soprano recorder and somebody else banging on a table for percussion. Dance music is very flexible. You can use as many or as few people as you have available. In most cases, we are working from an existing melody line and nothing else, and arrangements can be written (or found) with five or more parts, a simple drone, or anything in between. Musicians should not hesitate to experiment, or to be pragmatic and creative in using the personnel they have available. No arrangement is inviolable, and such an approach is perfectly authentic.

Sometimes having too many musicians can make life complicated. Once at an early music workshop I attended, the dance band must have numbered 30 or so -- almost as many musicians as dancers. They needed a conductor to keep together.

The Music

You don't need much in the way of equipment, but you do need the music. If you obtain a paperback copy of Arbeau's Orchesography and one of Playford's English Dancing Master, plus checking your library for a copy of the FitzWilliam Virginal Book, you will have the raw material for most of the dances done in the SCA.

There are SCA dance manuals (including the Nordskogen Dance Manual) that contain some of the music in arrangements. Many recorder collections (and library volumes of Gervaise, Attaignant, Praetorius, Susato, etc.) will provide you with a wide choice of bransles, pavanes, and galliards. To obtain arrangements of specific dances, your best bet may be to ask around in the SCA. If someone in your group has skill at arranging music, then all the better. I know of no single source for all of it, however, and some research will be necessary to build up a repertoire.

Once the musicians have the music, there are certain conventions appropriate to playing for dancing that it would be will for them to learn. One is the reverence, which in most cases consists solely of repeating the last note on the final repetition and holding it out. Another is that the tempo must not vary (except where a dance deliberately changes tempo, as in "Jenny Pluck Pears"). Rubato can drive the dancers crazy, as can the ritard that people trained in later music tend to add toward the end of a tune. Another thing to remember is that however much the musicians may wish to ornament the melody line to forestall boredom, the dancers still need to be able to find the tune in it. It may, in fact, be a good policy to play it through completely unornamented the first time.

How Do You Make the Music and Dance Work Together?

The key is communication. One of the most valuable people your group can have is a person (or persons) who knows both music and dance. Cherish such a one; he/she can often serve as translator. (Is a "beat" equal to a "step", and what is a "measure", anyway?) When the dance leader says, "Let's start at the part where the couple in front is doing a setting step and the next couple splits off and executes the maneuver around the third couple..." it's the music/dance liaison who can tell the musicians, "Start at B." This is useful.

Also, you do need starting and ending signals. Don't assume you'll "just know" -- the musicians may have to be watching their music and not the dancers, and not all of them will know the dances anyway. A number if repetitions agreed upon in advance is ideal, but if it's a matter of "play till we're ready to drop", have someone prepared to give a sign. The percussionist is then the logical one to convey that message ("last time through") to the musicians. He/she can do tambourine rolls, kick their chairs, sidle up behind them and stage whisper -- whatever works. This is worth practicing. (Our group used to signal each other by sticking one foot out during the last time through, but there were enough of us that we started to look like the Rockettes.)

If at all possible, musicians should have their music on the stand, know what instrument and part they're going to play, and have at least a rough idea of how many times through will be needed before the dancers are ready to begin. A 30-second huddle after the dance is announced and while the dancers are assembling can accomplish a lot.

Realistic Expectations

In one of the many Henry VIII movies, I recall a scene where Henry, in a spirit of revelry, claps his hands and calls, "Musicians! The galliard!" and on the down beat, there they are -- melodious, in tune, all playing the same piece, and right on the beat. It was wonderful.

It also isn't going to happen at an SCA event unless you have carefully set up your signals ahead of time. If your goal is to have a smooth recreation of a medieval or Renaissance dancing revel, with no interruptions for purposes of working out logistics, your only chance is to make sure the musicians are thoroughly informed in advance.

If you do all of this, your SCA musicians will add immeasurably to the pageantry and authenticity of a dance revel. In the words of Arbeau,

"Without this [the music] dancing would be dull and confused inasmuch as the movement of the limbs must follow the rhythm of the music, for the foot must not tell of one thing and the music of another." 2

If the dancers and musicians work together, music and feet will tell the same story, and it will be a worthy one.


1. Thoinot Arbeau, Orchesography, transl. Mary Stewart Evans, New York: Dover, 1967, p. 51.

2. Arbeau, op. cit., p. 16.