Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

I Am the Lord of the Dance

I too often deprecate my contributions to the instrumental ensembles for which I play, noting for example that I'm not a "real" percussionist or that playing the bass drum (which is what I'm doing exclusively for next week's concert -- there aren't enough of us for me to play mallets) doesn't take the same amount of skill that playing a "real" instrument does. But actually I do know what it is that I bring to the percussion table, and back when I was playing a lot with different conductors around the country as part of the national gay/lesbian band organization I had something of a reputation -- conductors explicitly wanted me on bass drum for their pieces. In fact, even the local gay/lesbian orchestra has been very kind about the contribution I make when I have played with them. So I wanted to talk a little bit about what it is that I do from the back of the band. Oh, and I want to connect this to Morris dancing ha ha.

I was thinking about this earlier this week because I was playing for two different conductors who do not know me, and it was important to me that I make a good impression, that I leave the conductors feeling confident that they can rely on me in concert next week. If a conductor feels -- even subconsciously -- that he or she can depend on the bass drum player it can free the conductor a bit. So I was doing more stand-to-the-side analysis than I might normally do.

And this is what I do: I dance with conductors.

Every conductor, without exception, dances. I don't mean that every conductor gives a beat and cues entrances and provides expressive indicators of dynamics and musical feel -- that's simply the definition of conducting. What I mean is that every conductor feels the music with his or her body, the way a dancer does. For some conductors you see this in something as small as an eyebrow move, for some conductors you see this in sweeping dramatic balletic gestures, but all conductors dance. If you can dance in synch with the conductor, you can feel the tempo and the rhythm with the conductor -- which is something a little bit more than merely following the conductor's tempo. Sometimes when a band is getting away from a conductor or -- more commonly -- not keeping up with a conductor's drive -- I have to work with the conductor to bring the band back. I often find myself moving and yes dancing with my body, as if I can physically force the entire ensemble to the conductor's will. I don't really see professional percussionists do this, but it works and it sometimes works well. (Actually, professional musical groups tend not to need the drummer to do this as much as community bands and orchestras.)

I lock my eyes on the conductor, I move my head, I move my body, I feel the movement of the rhythm with the conductor as best as my ability allows. Hitting the drum with the actual beats in the rhythms and dynamics as written goes on top of that, but the dancing is the core and the foundation.

Which brings me to Ramsey's Braggarts Morris Men. Ramsey's Braggarts Morris Men -- in the ideal if not always the execution -- look at each other and feel the music and dance the way I try to look at the conductor and feel the music and the dance. We begin every single dance without exception by looking at each other, all of us at all the others, and the person heading up the dance checks in to be sure we're all there and focused. And then we, and the musician, try to feel everything together. And when we succeed -- well, that's why I dance the Morris.

Is this even worth mentioning? Isn't this what all Morris teams do? I'd been dancing for a while before I realized that this isn't necessarily so. And then a couple of years ago I discovered that there are many, many clips on YouTube of Morris dancing. Some of the teams are great and admirable and worthy of emulation. And some of the teams? Well, something I saw a lot were dances where two dancers, in partnering, would each do their step -- correctly and to the music, but not with the other dancer. They were not doing the conductor-bassdrummer rhythm-meld I'm talking about.

I play the bass drum because I dance Morris because I play the bass drum.
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