Directing an SCA Pickup Band -- or Ten Soprano Recorders, a Doumbek and You

[ This article appeared in volume 4 of the Letter of Dance. ]

By Lord Alaric MacConnal

Have you ever been to dancing at Pennsic and noticed the group of musicians playing? Have you wondered how they managed to learn the music and what parts to play? Are you interested in getting involved? If so, this article may be of interest to you!

Directing a Dance Band

Contrary to popular belief, one doesn't have to know how to play an instrument in order to direct a group of musicians, although it is helpful. It is useful to be able to organize and think quickly on your feet. Most musicians are willing to play (and some are quite eager), but they sometimes need a bit of direction (even those who are quite adept). One of the positives (and negatives) of directing a dance band like that at Pennsic is the ability to have people of all skill levels participate at whatever level they wish to. Many people get to be involved and feel that they are contributing. One of the results of this, as indicated by the title of this article, is the possibility of having many musicians who play only melody lines.

Communicating with the Dance Master

It is very important to find out who the dance master is, and to consult frequently about what dances will be coming next. It is frustrating for both the dancers and musicians to have to wait around while the next dance is selected. There are some important pieces of information that need to be conveyed:

Organizing the Musicians

Probably the most difficult aspect of directing a dance band is organizing the musicians. Like the dancers on the dance floor, musicians may come and go between dances, sometimes with little or no warning that they are leaving. As a result, the director has to think quickly in order to keep things moving. Some helpful hints:

Selecting the Music

At times it is possible to know what dances will be played before the dancing begins. In these cases the music can be selected beforehand and copies made available to the musicians as they arrive to play. Most of the time, however, the dances are not known until just before they are danced.

Realizing that not everyone will want or be able to play every piece, it is helpful to try and select arrangements that more musicians are familiar with, or for which more copies of the music are available. While it is possible for several musicians to read from a single piece of music, it is better to have multiple copies.

If the playlist is known in advance, try to select arrangements that have both easy and not-so-easy parts. Thus the more experienced musicians can be assigned to play the more challenging parts while the less experienced can be called upon to play the easier parts. Also, try to select arrangements that have been used in the past and are familiar. It is very frustrating (from a musician's point of view) to have to learn new arrangements on the fly when existing ones are already known.

Other Helpful Hints

Familiarize yourself with the music being used as early as possible, so you'll have an idea what parts are needed for each piece. Sometimes there will be several arrangements available and you may have to consult/negotiate with the musicians on which ones to use.

Likewise, try to learn some of the dances that will be danced so you will be familiar with the dances and will know how many repeats, etc. will be needed.

There may be some pieces that the dance master wants to do but for which there is no music. In these cases there might be a musician who knows the piece and is willing to play. If so, adding some percussion can usually be effective enough for dancing. In other cases the dance master may have taped music -- give the musicians a break at this point and ask them to return after the dance is done.


Now that you've read this article and understand what's involved you too can lead a dance band (even one such as diverse as occurs at Pennsic)! Like some musicians said when I walked into the barn one evening - "He knows what he's doing - he can lead us!" - you too will be able to help.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (