Grace Notes: Putting together a CoLab Ceilidh

Every year in Trinity Laban, there are two weeks where timetables are suspended and anything could happen… This fortnight is called CoLab. There are over 100 projects taking place over the two weeks ranging from a Ceilidh band, Bollywood Brass, Strictly Come Dancing and a project where anything and everything was allowed – except talking.

My project was the Ceilidh band. We first met last Monday. Once our mentor, Steve Blake, had arrived we talked through what we wanted out of the project. We were originally performing on the Thursday night Pub Crawl, with an impromptu Ceilidh in Greenwich Market, but due to a Hollywood blockbuster filming there we were moved to the Friday night showcase at Creekside. This was, in fact, far better for us. Not only did we have another day to rehearse but the performance space was bigger (it also wasn’t cobbled so there were no injuries should people got too carried away…..).

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The band in rehearsal.

We learnt all of our music by ear, very similar to what I do in my Jazz lessons, which meant the performance could be far freer as we weren’t tied to the page. Steve taught us a few of his sets, and we also shared our own tunes when he wasn’t there. We went about learning them with a ‘looping’ method. This involved the person teaching the tune slowly playing short passages over and over while everybody else listened and gradually joined in until we could all play it. This continued until the entire tune was learnt. I found it a great way to memorise things and I’m definitely going to use it again in the future (I know for a fact it worked because I’m still singing all the jig and reel sets and the performance was over 4 days ago!)

Rather than starting the tunes with a well-rehearsed and conducted introduction, the violinist (either myself or Steve) would just play a short solo introduction. In an actual Ceilidh this gets everyone’s attention (dancers and musicians) and prepares us for the movements to start. I found that doing the introduction was an art in itself as you need to play loudly enough to be heard, but also need to have a very clear perfect cadence (or clear ending) to show exactly when the dance will begin. One person in the group is also in charge of watching the dancers and deciding how many times we play each tune through (there are 2/3 per set) and calling out or making some sort of signal that it’s time to change the track.

My favourite dance was a jig set taught by Steve. There were only two tunes, but the first was played in two different keys (G and D major) before moving onto the second tune. The first tune was just called ‘Jigg’ and the second was called ‘Tom Jones’. Here is Steve playing it with one of his bands.

The performance was great fun. We crafted an introduction to grab everyone’s attention, starting with a slow introduction before jumping into a fast march. We then moved onto the first dance with Joe Townsend calling. He called two dances, and then a 4th year singer called the third because he wanted to dance ‘Strip the Willow’ (this involved lots of spinning your partners and was great to watch!). After playing these three dances and a few filler pieces to give the dancers a rest, our set was over and we were exhausted.

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During the Ceilidh at Creekside

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Playing for the dancers at Creekside

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The band, exhausted after our performance!

Overall it was a great week and I feel like I learnt lots about how to approach folk music and how to be a part of a Ceilidh band. After spending a week playing this sort of music, it’s increased my love of folk and made me determined to keep expanding my knowledge of this genre and finding people to play it with.

If you happen to be in the Greenwich area check out the CoLab events to see if there’s anything that takes your interest. All of the projects are exciting and different and you might discover something you never thought you were a fan of!

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