What is a Ceilidh (or Barn Dance)?
If you are about to hire or book a ceilidh band for your wedding reception or birthday party, then it is useful to know what a ceilidh (or barn dance, which is the American and English name for much the same thing), is. A ceilidh (the pronunciation and spelling of this causes lots of problems, but it is pronounced 'Kay-lee') is an informal event of dancing and music using the traditional dances. Ceilidh, being the Celtic name for such dancers, would have either Irish, Scottish or sometimes Welsh (Twmpath) music played for the dancers. If you want English and American music, then you would term the same thing a barn dance. There are very popular with weddings and birthday parties, and generate a place in the evening but can be at any time of the day.
The music is lively, and the dances are easy enough to pick up quickly but interesting enough to make you want to keep going all night. Ceilidhs can range in size from a few dozen people in a village hall to hundreds in a University Students' Union. The excitement of the night is built on the link that is developed between the performers on the stage and the dancers in the hall. The band plays music to excite the dancers and the energy of their dancing 'lifts' the band. It's the energy that makes for a really good ceilidh band for general dancing, although for those who take dancing very seriously in the old-fashioned traditional method, it can be something of a more staid and precise affair, especially if it is Scottish dancing where some Scottish dance clubs are about learning to dance complex dances in a absolutely perfect manner, and the music has to be played with the position of Mozart with staid and controlled emotions. But this is not what is generally wanted for the entertainment in the evening at wedding, or for somebody's birthday party, graduation celebration or whatever. So if you intend to hire a ceilidh band, you should be very clear about what kind of event wishing to have, and be sure to let people know if it is a very precise dance club kind of event, where they would play the music quite differently and do very different answers.
Throughout the country people of all ages and backgrounds are discovering just how much fun ceilidhs can be, and this is why they're so popular at weddings and parties, and there are literally hundreds of bands out playing for ceilidhs and barn dances every weekend. Of course, of the although there are hundreds of bands, some extremely good and others less good, that is why at Midsummer Music we give you a wide choice of excellent ceilidh bands, with music and sometimes videos a hear and see them and choose a style of playing that appeals to you. So if you want to book a ceilidh band, our website is probably the simplest way for you to do so.
A growing number of schools and youth groups have started ceilidh bands, and the search for lively tunes that are not too difficult to play. This is one great thing about traditional folk music, but you can find tunes that are as easy or as difficult as you may wish. Many traditional folk tunes in their basic form are really quite simple, but it's the speed, emphasis and ornamentation variation on the theme that makes them complex. If you want to go to a real extreme, try some of the American competition tunes, which are in difficulty of performance rather like Bach unaccompanied sonatas played at double speed.
If you look at a printed score of a typical folk tune, it looks very simple, important thing is to know how it should sound. (It's rather like looking at the basic tune of the peace of jazz, it looks very straightforward, but the playing of it is somewhat different from how it is written. If you dare look at any attempts to transcribe jazz as it is played, into formal notation, then it looks impossibly complex. One of the secrets of traditional music is that the musicians must inject life into the music -just playing the' dots' is rarely enough. Hence this pack consists of a book and a tape. The tape is an absolutely essential part of the pack. This is where you find the difference between an experienced ceilidh band, and perhaps a group of very skilled classical musicians who are trying to play folk music. Unless those classical musicians have a feel for the folk idiom, it can sound very strange, Square and wooden.
Finally, one thing that all ceilidh band musicians should do is to DANCE. Find out what happens on the other side of the footlights. Find out what it is you are providing music for. It's a lot of fun and will improve your understanding of the rhythms of the music in a way that no written explanation could. However, is very difficult for most ceilidh musicians to actually get to dance, because when they get to a gig in they have to work. If they stop playing to dance, then there's no music dance to. If it's a big band, and sometimes one of the musicians will have a rest from playing and join in the dance for a while, but if a small band, and there's no chance of doing that. If the band is not too busy doing gigs every weekend, that the musician can attend a ceilidh as a dancer, but if the band is very popular and is out at every opportunity playing for a birthday ceilidh or a wedding ceilidh or whatever, then there is no chance. This is a problem that I've suffered from, even from the early days of playing in a folk band, where my wife would end up dancing with the vicar while I played, I got relatively little chance to dance with her.
PLAYING BY 'EAR'/READING MUSIC
Playing by ear and reading musical notation are two different skills - both are very useful and both should be practised. Nearly all the musicians who only read music wish they could play by ear, and most of the ear players wish they could read. The two skills are different but complementary. However, because of the ways of teaching music in this country, those who have learnt to play formally, normally starting with music lessons at school, have really had the chance to develop the skill of playing by ear. Those who have never had lessons just picked up an instrument by playing it at home or having a go with friends, really have the patience to learn to read music of their own bat. For someone who's only played from written music, it is a challenge to attempt to playing by ear -especially when all the here playing musicians are saying it's not as hard as you think, and it does improve your listening skills generally (listening is a vital part of playing any type of music, but even those who play from the dots listen just as hard. It's really a matter of how the feedback loops between input either from music or the imagination, and muscular motions of fingers and arms and lungs, depending on with your playing a wind instrument or string instrument).
So much of what puts life into the the music is almost impossible to notate. Notes are very often not exactly the length as written; for example a jig consisting of two groups of three quavers per bar will rarely be played with all six quavers the same length. Furthermore, musicians from different areas will give them slightly different values, as indeed will individuals within an area. There is nothing to compare to hearing other good musicians playing live, and as with any musical form, whether it's a string quartet, jazz band or a ceilidh band, it is important for the musician to listen to other good musical performances in order to develop their own particular style and excellence.
ORNAMENTATION AND PHRASING
I said earlier that ornamentation is an important part of folk music and the kind of music that gets people up on their feet dancing in a ceilidh, just as it is with jazz when playing in a jazz band. Some soloists take ornamentation to great lengths just to show how fast they can twiddle their fingers - nothing wrong with that if you can do it. Band musicians, however, need to be aware that when they are playing for an actual dance, they are providing a rhythmic framework for people to dance to. Ornamentation is still important, but its use is allied strongly to the use of accents. Together they must help drive the rhythm of the music. Typically, at a ceilidh, especially at a wedding where people have already spent the better part of the day attending the wedding ceremony, going to the drinks reception and the wedding breakfast, they can be fairly tired come the evening, so are not likely to dance continuously. The caller will give the dancers arrest, and during that rest period the band will play some music just listen to. This is the time for the band to show off its talents and skills and musicianship, and play more complicated ceilidh tunes, typically with much more ornamentation and likely to pace that is not suitable for dancing – either much faster or much slower. The accents and ornaments are not usually written down in full; there are just too many of them and they vary so greatly with each performance.
THE CEILIDH BAND LINE UP
when people are considering what a ceilidh band to book, we often get questions about what is the best line up for a ceilidh band? One is tempted to answer -just about anything. Essentially a band needs melody, rhythm and bass, but there are certainly are innumerable combinations of instruments currently playing for ceilidhs. Traditionally bands tended to be centred round fiddles, flutes, whistles, accordion, melodeon, concertina for the tune, with accompaniment provided by piano, guitar, bass and percussion. But ceilidh bands, especially those private schools where all the enthusiastic pupils should be given a chance to play in the band, then oboe, clarinet, recorder, various bagpipes, hammered dulcimer and cello common, and clarinets, brass and electric instruments are all now found in bands. Course, the clarinet has always been an important part of clips manned Eastern European folk music, which is the Eastern European version of ceilidh dancing, and very good it is! And the oboe and recorder has been a part of the English Playford country dance band, which is the English precursor to the modern day English barn dance band. So Just about anything will work provided that you remember you need to get the rhythm of the music across well enough for people to dance and the melodies over clearly enough to keep the musical interest. Huge bands, which were the norm for electronic amplification was developed, can be fun to play in but often, unless they have a couple of very strong musicians to hold them together, the results can be chaotic. Any large group of musicians can be a problem keep together, that's why a classical Symphony Orchestra as conductor. A classical chamber Orchestra of up to 15 people can play well without a conductor, and there are chamber ensembles that specialise in performing without a conductor. In many ways it produces a better performance, but everybody has to focus very hard on the ensemble. But beyond about 15 people, the time delays between different parts of the group, and the inability to hear what is going on in such a large band whilst playing one's own instrument, means that it just doesn't work without a conductor. Have you ever seen a ceilidh band with a conductor? I never have. It's a rather amusing thought. Certainly, at weddings and parties when people have had a few drinks down them, someone has occasionally come up to conduct us, and they can be quite a laugh, but of course we ignore them completely in terms of what we are playing.
WHAT DOES A MUSICAL SET CONSIST OF
a musical set, be it for a natural ceilidh dance of the music to listen to between the dancing, normally comprises a medley of tunes, often with a change of key from tune to tune to help lift the music. Each tune is played once, twice, when traditional Irish music three times through before moving on to the next; for a dance the band may play through the medley more than once depending on how long the dance lasts. This system of playing several tunes for each dance is the tradition in the North of England, Scotland and Ireland, but it is by no means the only way to play for dancing. In the South of England bands often playjust one tune per dance, maintaining musical interest by developing the accompaniment or improvising round the basic tune as the dance progresses. I personally dislike this sort of thing, as I find it boring, but other bands and dancers find it improves the focus of the dance, and they like it.
Your band can decide for itself how it wants to structure the music for the dances - how many tunes per dance - how many times through before a change etc etc . Some ceilidh bands will do some dances with just one tune and another with lots of tunes. It's all a matter of personal taste
CALLING AND ORGANISING THE STRUCTURE OF A CEILIDH DANCE.
The job of the caller is a rather exposed one; any individual musician has the rest of the band to support them, but the caller doesn't have that luxury. The pitfalls in calling are not always very apparent to the non-caller. Having learned all the figures and terminology, and how to communicate them all to the audience, and you caller will soon find that the audience has its own way of interpreting a caller's instructions, especially if they've been at the wine during the wedding breakfast or have had now also of drinking at a birthday party before the ceilidh get started. A good proportion of the people will, of course, they will do exactly as the caller tells them to do, but there will always be some dancers who won't cotton on and will cause chaos and mayhem. Sometimes everyone on the dance floor may find they don't understand, perhaps because the caller's instructions have been ambiguous rather than giving lucid and concise instruction. Of course, it is the task of a good caller to make their instructions clear, and the caller will speak differently to different groups of people, tailoring it to the way that they look at the world as much as possible. That's okay if you have for example a group of recently graduated medical students at their graduation weekend, where everyone will tend to look at the world in a similar way, or if your performing for the annual these up of an athletics club, where the same applies. But what when you are playing for a ceilidh at a wedding, where the band may have been hired by the mother of the bride, who is one generation, the grandparents will be there, another generation – the bride and groom will be a third generation, and there will be the children of fourth-generation. They are not going to all view the world in the same way, or even use the same language as the usage of English between the children of the grandparents can be surprisingly different. So sometimes the caller will have to describe things in a number of different ways to get everybody to understand, all the while remaining outwardly calm and friendly.
It is the caller's function also to control the band, to tell them what kind of tunes to play, how fast to play, and for how long. The leaders are band full of course be watching the dancers, and will be making their own decisions on the speed and energy of their playing to suit what is happening, but ultimately it is the caller who was in charge and who has in their head the plan of how they will progress the dance, perhaps keeping it calm because the can see that some of the dancers are getting rather tired, or have decided that they're going to speed it up tremendously as the dance progresses, because they know that their bunch of people who want to get really excited and into it. The bandleader's view on the caller's view can both be correct, but different and they can only be one version of events. So as I said, it is the caller who decides, they are the equivalent of the orchestral conductor.
Generally, a brisk marching pace is the mean around which you should operate, i.e. around 115 to 120 steps per minute. It is very important for bands to realise that they need not play too fast all of the time, there are some events where the dancers are in particularly high spirits, then they will want to go really fast and it's part of the fun. While the purist will always do dances at a speed that can be elegantly danced by the dances, that's not always appropriate. Sometimes dancers need to be taken at a speed that eventually goes beyond what the dances can manage, so that there is an element of chaos in the dance, and the fun for the audience is to try and cope with this and show off their athletic prowess. This would never do in an east coast Scottish country dance where everything has to be ', oh so proper', but it would be just the ticket for West Coast Scottish or island ceilidh, where lots of drink would be being consumed and the dancers would expect a thoroughly wild and crazy evening, without which they would be sorely disappointed. However, some dances work well at a slower pace and some work better if taken a little faster; there is no substitute for experience and, like musicians, callers should make this kind of decision from the dance floor rather than the stage. There will be quite noticeable regional differences in the speed dancers like.
One of the main stumbling blocks for callers is the length of time each figure lasts. Quite often in the instructions for dances you will find the sub-headings - Al, A2, B1 and B2. Al refers to the first part of the tune (usually eight bars), A2 refers to the repeat of the first part of the tune, B1 is the second part of the tune, and B2 its repeat. As far as the dancers are concerned there are two beats to each of these bars, and they will take one step on each beat. So if the caller asks them to circle left for 16, then this will take up the whole of one part of the tune - eight bars.
The great majority of dances last for 32 bars, as do the great majority of tunes, and can be broken down into the four parts mentioned above. Additionally, there are dances which last for 64 bars (one 32 bar tune played twice through) and also 48 bars (one tune with three parts). And some ceilidhs could be appropriate to do complex dances, of the sort that require experienced dancers, but most ceilidhs, especially at the average wedding or birthday party or corporate event, require easy to learn dancers. Easy for the dancers that is - it doesn't necessarily follow that they are easy to call; a Ladies Chain for instance is much easier to do than to describe. It may be that people would find it easier to hop down from the stage and demonstrate a Ladies Chain rather than describe it verbally. 'Dip and Dive' is another figure that may give problems - callers should be certain of their ability to demonstrate these types of figure as a back-up if their verbal instructions fail to have the desired effect.
When somebody books a ceilidh band for ourselves, we normally define and agree the structure of the evening, usually with a first set, a break for everybody, band and wedding guests alike, to get their breath back and stoke up their energy food, and the second set. You don't be faffing around on the evening trying to agree a schedule, this has to be set in advance, especially as the wedding venue will probably be providing food in the break and have to get the timing right, otherwise the whole evening can be destroyed. Other considerations are that there may only be one break to give everyone a rest, or there may be many things like meals, raffles, singers or soloists, throwing money at whisky bottles, jugglers etc etc. It is obviously important to keep the evening 'moving'; the main break is not a problem - people need it - but any other breaks should be kept short. Whatever is to happen during a break, it should start immediately a dance finishes, and the band and caller should be ready to start again immediately afterwards. Breaks must be agreed with the organiser at the start of the evening - a 20 minute raffle draw just as the evening is reaching its climax can ruin everything.
If what you have read has inspired you, you can follow the links below to see the bands that perform in your county. Enjoy!