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Spela Bättre! #9

Playing for dancing

by Sheila Morris and Bart Brashers

Schottis Fest ’97

A while back, I mentioned to Bart that my schottises apparently weren’t “schottish-y” enough, at least according to some of the dancers I play for. After making a brief attempt to explain the correct styling in writing, he made me a tape, which I have attempted to transcribe here. Unfortunately, I can’t transcribe all the examples he recorded, and the flow and language patterns are pretty obviously spoken — it doesn’t sound like written text. If it doesn’t make sense or looks funny, try reading it out loud to yourself….

Bart said (heavily edited):

What makes a tune sound like a schottis? For me, there’s a standard schottis bowing: down-up-down-up down-up.

Bowing Patterns
There’s no slurs at all, and the second bow-stroke is ridiculously short, shorter than pure music notation suggests. I guess part of it is that besides stressing the beats, there’s two main, stressed bow-strokes in that pattern — the very first one and the very last one: “ONE-e-and-a Two-AND”. The “ONE” gets more stress than the “Two”, and the “AND” is stressed in a different way: an ‘accelerated connectedness’. In fact, the last one is really a sort of pick-up to the first one of the next measure, so if you wanted to start a schottis pattern, you might think “And ONE-e-and-a Two” — so that the pick-up – down-beat combination really accentuates the “woomph” feeling on the downbeat.

Bowing Patterns

The note on beat two doesn’t get as much emphasis, so you get a kind of ‘sub-rhythm’ going that’s two beats long — “Woomph… two, Woomph… two” under “WHOOMPH-e-and-a Two-AND, WHOOMPH-e-and-a Two-AND”. The downbeat is really a wave-like surge, rather than an impact or a klunk, like the sound of a book hitting the floor. It’s more the sound of a big down comforter hitting the floor. You get a sort of an acceleration through that surge, and that helps to push the music and the dancers along.

People often talk about the “backbeat” of schottis — “mm-CHUCK, mm-CHUCK, mm-CHUCK” as good as any Beatles tune or reggae tune (except that it’s a lot slower) where you’re squinching up your shoulders a little as you dance. The trick is that you don’t have to accentuate the “and” of EVERY beat. In fact, as a basic pattern, I only accentuate every other one: “one (-e-and-a two) AND one (-e-and-a two) AND one” not “one (-e-AND-a two) AND”. That helps add to the surge associated with the down-beat (the dashed slur above). I kind of see parallels with the polska-rhythm, where the heart of the polska is the pick-up to the down-beat: “And-one (two and three), And-one (two and three)”. The pick-up and down-beat together really make both the polska and the schottis what they are, for me. That’s the way I think about it, anyway.

There’s not really any jerkiness in the majority of Swedish music, but in a lot of the nyckelharpa music there is a lot of jerkiness. If you just listen to how most people play, I think you’ll notice that most nyckelharpa players play with a lot more jerkiness than fiddle players. But not all. One style, picked up on by Eric Sahlström and then followed by the younger generation like Olov Johansson and Johan Hedin and Ola Hertzberg and people like that, is to play this music with a whole lot of smoothness. I mean really immaculate, very smooth bowing, with still a lot of “attack” within the smoothness. A lot of nyckelharpa players just hear the “attack”, so they play the downbeat very short, lifting the bow off the strings. That makes the music come to stop for me, and since schottis is a very smooth, continuous dance it doesn’t feel right to me. I really like the way those younger red-hot players sound, so that’s the way I try to sound.

Well, if you do the same motion with your arm but don’t actually lift your bow, you get a very strong beginning of the note (the attack) almost like a pluck, but then it turns into this drawn-out end-of-the-stroke that connects smoothly with the next note or bow stroke. The bow stays on the string, so your bow is playing, physically, the same as a very legato passage, but psychologically you hear it as if it were a staccato passage. What you’re really playing is a combination between those two — the beginnings of the notes have all the power and “pluckedness” of staccato, but then have the continuity and smoothness of legato.

So you get a rhythm going, where (like in most Swedish folk-music, you’re doing two things at once, two contradictory things) you’re playing staccato and legato with the same bow-stroke. That’s almost an epiphany, right there — staccato and legato in the same bow-stroke — I’m gonna remember that one! And, while you’re doing these two things at once with your bow, there is also that “Whoomph-e-and-a Two-AND” surge to the music at the same time as that “mm-chuck, mm-CHUCK” back-beat. That’s a lot of seemingly contradictory details to think about at once: staccato yet legato bowing, a wave-like stress on beat one with a lesser stress on beat two, and the peppy backbeat with a push on the pick-up to the down-beat to add to the wave. Sort of a staccato / legato / Whoomph / mm-Chuck schottis.

One way to think about schottis is to play the “Whoomph… two, Whoomph… two” rhythm for their feet and the “mm-CHUCK, mm-CHUCK” rhythm for their shoulders. They squish up their shoulders when they lift onto the sole of their feet on the back-beats. At least in modern schottis. There’s another kind of schottis, the “retiree’s schottis” as they sometimes call it in Sweden, where they hop around a lot — they call it that because it’s good exercise. You can’t really dance like that all evening long. Go to a dance these days, and you’ll see very smooth schottises compared to that hoppy dance you’ll see at the old folk’s home or at an elementary school where the main point is to tire out the dancers.

Sheila adds:

Now, as to what use I am making of this information — I take whatever schottis I’m working on at the moment, and first I play it through once, just to make sure I’ve got the notes right. Then I play it a couple of times, concentrating on getting the Whoomph effect on beat one. Then I add the back-beat (or pick-up, whichever way you prefer to think of it). This is pretty hard — I find I have to really slow the tune down a lot to be able to get it. Then I forget all of that, and play the tune a couple of times with all staccato notes (great exercise for the wrist!), and then a couple of times completely legato, but without adding any slurs (I find that this takes more elbow than wrist.). Then I just play it a couple more times, trying not to think too much about anything. If I try to actually think about all that stuff at once, I can’t play at all! So I’m just trying to get my right arm into some of the habits it needs to learn, with the hope that it will eventually carry over into my playing.

On to the next article (#10)