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Most contradance bands have a list of tunes and sets that they practice regularly in preparation for playing at a dance. These are tunes that can be played almost without thinking because they're so ingrained into the minds and fingers of the musicians. New tunes and new sets are almost always in the process of development... they'll get tried out a few times and if it 'works' it becomes a standard for that band. Have more tunes on your list than you actually plan to play for a dance. this will give you some flexibility in choosing a particular tune for a particular dance and it also gives your band a more interesting sound for those dancers who come to hear you play often.
Local jams are a great way to introduce and learn new tunes. Other ways to learn new tunes are to listen to what other bands are playing at contradances, listening to CD's of favorite musicians and bands, and sometimes to just sit and play through a tune book with attention to what feels and sounds good. Finding recordings of favorite tunes offers the possibilitiy of varying the way a standard tune is played, giving it more energy and interest when playing it through 10-15 times.
We like to find tunes that go together to form sets, or medleys. Some things to look for when selecting tunes for sets are: they're fun to play, they create energy, they have a common theme or sound, and the transitions works smoothly.
Fun to Play~ Enough said about this, find tunes that you enjoy playing. Make a list of them, organizing them into basic categories of reels, jigs, hornpipes etc. It's good to know what key each tune is played in too, so write that down as you make your list of favorites.
Create Energy~ You can create energy with a set of tunes by changing keys to build momentum. Listen to recordings for ideas, and then substitute some of what they do wth some of your favorite tunes.
Common Theme~ Choose tunes that are Irish, Old Time, or Cape Breton for example. This will give your set a nice sound overall. Mixing genres can work sometimes too, experiment and have fun!
Transitions~ Changing from one tune to another is tricky business, and when playing for a contradance you really don't want to miss a beat... or your dancers will miss a beat or two themselves. Practice the transitions over and over and over again. If your set transitions are difficult or just don't seem to work at all, consider re-arranging your tunes in a different order before discarding them altogether.
Tunes & Sets played at the Pownal jam session
Tune & Set List for the Norlands dance
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