Musical Director's Ramblings


RAMBLE 1         RAMBLE 2  

This means that anyone who can play or nearly play gets to join in.

We have always relied, mostly successfully, on the judgment of the musician as to whether he or she is ready to take a significant part in the proceedings. Beginners are expected to listen and judge their own performance - and to play at an appropriate volume. This has worked very well, and rare problems can be dealt with by asking players to play more quietly as a normal part of balancing the band.

An open band engenders enthusiasm and creativity. We also benefit from flexibility and diversity. Why have one squeezer when you can have three?

The Flagcrackers band takes an active part in the running of the side, and although most musicians are specialists they have equal rights and obligations within the side. We feel equally responsible for the presentation and will often take a constructive part in the arrangement of dances.

Although the side nominates a musical director it encourages individual and corporate creativity.

Musicians actually tend to make melodic and rhythmic suggestions to each other during a number. These may get taken up by popular consent or they may not. We try to maintain a culture in which any musician can get to the end of a piece and say , “Hey wouldn’t it be great if.....”

There is always a lead squeezer who is responsible for setting the tempo in the intro (all tunes are introduced solo on the squeeze box) and conducting the timing of the end chord. All tunes are finished off with a “Jimmy Shand” chord which is signalled by the lead squeezer. Another person may act as conductor during the rest of the piece - to cue key changes and so on.

The lead squeezer has the absolute right to choose any (appropriate) tune for the dance off.

The main drummer, who plays the mandatory big drum, has a lot of responsibility. While the lead squeezer starts the tempo off, the drummer has to maintain it. Our philosophy is that the big drum is the rigid framework which we and the dancers work around. We have had tempo problems in the past, and I think these were caused by the tendency of the drummer to try to follow the dancers. This is very bad practice - the dancers will speed up on the sticking unless they are given reliable cues from the band. The psychology is interesting, because the band need to be able to trust the drummer. If they don’t, they won’t be able to work within the frame work she or he provides without wandering. Then the drummer will try to follow the band (or the dancers). That’s wrong. So you need a steady reliable drummer with absolute concentration. This gets neglected - we’ve done it ourselves - and the result is chaos. The easiest way to destroy a tune is to have the drummer a millisecond behind the beat. Our latest number puts extra responsibility on the drummer, as we shall see.

We would like to think that we could put on a show however many or few musicians we had, and so we try to build versatility into the band. This isn’t entirely successful - there’s a great temptation to specialise and produce a band that only works when everyone is there. This sounds great, of course, but it’s dangerous. The biggest problem would be if we had no squeezers. I think it’s practically a point of principle that no squeezers means no band.

Border dancing has a heavy, on the beat 4/4 style which dictates the choice of music. Tempo has to be quite slow, at about 120 bpm. This can make mincemeat of a lot of tunes, and we have to be prepared to abandon a cherished tune if it doesn’t work out. Mostly we use un-dotted hornpipes, slowed down rants or polkas. The distinction becomes blurred because of the restriction on tempo. Also a tune that is actually far too slow at 120 bpm tends to get decorated with doubled up notes - as in Bobby Shafto, which its own mother wouldn’t recognise.

There is a tendency to rock things up to leaven the slow beat - this leads us into syncopation and rhythmic breaks and fills. Rhythmically rock and roll is OK, but my personal preference, which I inflict rigidly, is that we should not wander into rock and roll melodic twists. These can poison an entire performance.

We will always be on the lookout for opportunities to make the music more interesting...this can involve rehearsed rhythm breaks or stops, changes of tune and most of all, key changes. We even do one tune where all the B parts are drummed off beat, and this also involves changing to a heavily dotted rhythm at the same time. This is a real test for the drummer, and only a few people will volunteer for this job. The answer to that, of course, is to teach more people to do it.

While we make the tunes more interesting by variations, harmonies, fills, stops, key changes and so on, we try to fit these features to the content of the dance. In the Craven Stomp we have to repeat an A part at one point, so it’s there that we change key. This covers up the repetitive nature of the manoeuvre. In the Green Man the key changes are timed to coincide with the Green Man’s movements as he enters and leaves the set. In Noah’s Ark the instrumentation waxes and wanes according to the number of dancers on set. We wanted to use the stops somewhere in the tune, and they worked best to emphasis the big band/two dancers contrast at the end. In the Grasswood Stump we move up a tone for just one move - and then back again. This reflects the unusual crossways orientation of the set during a move known as the perversion. It also seemed slick to us to bother to learn the tune in a different key just for one move.

Striving to add interest at every turn is not just to provide good entertainment value - it also sustains us through the long winter years of practice nights. when a practice dance has broken up for the fifth time we can often be heard to apologise to the dancers......”sorry, we just seem to keep getting it right”.

We’d like to be seen as street band, but are careful not to wander into Latin/Afro/Vaudeville areas that don’t belong to us. We are a British street band, and like all street bands we thrive on a dangerous blend of enthusiasm, near accuracy and anarchy. This is tempered by a strict understanding of the needs of the job and a wish to show that however awful it may sound, it has at least been rehearsed.

Sometimes we see sides where the music and musicians seem to have been an afterthought. We see ourselves as an integral part of the Flagcrackers.

How do we gather musicians? Why can’t some sides seem to find any? We attract musicians of course - not necessarily the best, but better than that, people who naturally want to have fun with music. It has to be fun; we don’t do grades although we have several professionally trained musicians among us. It has to be fun, or it wouldn’t be called playing. And those that don’t come ready made we teach on the job. That’s why we call it an open band.

There aren’t many rules.....apart from play only as loudly as you feel confident to do .....

Don’t get frustrated if you aren’t in the front line - when you’re ready you’ll know, and take your place.



George Speller Presented to Morris Federation 1996

Notes on tempos revised 1998 - we estimated them very low, and also our average tempo has increased considerably since we started.

RAMBLE 2         RAMBLE 1

You Can Take the Band Out of the Street but You Can't Get the Street Out of the Band!

Squeeze boxes, as everybody knows, are the mainstay of the morris band. The chances are that if you hear a squeeze box in the street there's a morris side not far away. What is a squeeze box? It's the derogatory but loving term for a family of instruments including piano accordions, melodeons and concertinas. They can vary in power and health from the stentorian red box at one time an unmissable feature of the Flagcrackers, to the tiny and fabulously expensive concertina played by the late and much lamented Allen Laing in the intro to Noah's Ark. There have been sturdy airtight monsters.... and tubercular leaky toys. All have played their part in the development of the Flagcrackers Band.

We have always tried to maintain at least two reliable squeezers in the band in the hope that if one catches pneumonia the other will be able to carry on this vital role. Essential? Well, opinions vary, but I believe that no other single instrument can provide as much rhythm melody chords and bass as a well played box. So again, if all the other players are dead drunk... at least we have a band!

After the squeeze boxes the Flagcrackers Band starts to diverge from convention. Yes, it's true that we have a very large drum. We won't perform without it. But how many players of large drums can dance at the same time? Not in the set, I hasten to add, but around it. Laurie O'Farrer - whose front teeth have flown more air miles than Phileas Fogg - can do just this. And does. If it's off beat drumming you need, an essential feature of the band's arrangement of Waterddy Lane, then Captain Ken Simpson's yer man. And he comes with his own beater. Naturally a fiddle or two are common features in morris bands, but how many play arranged parts? Dave Banks and Brenda Baldwin play pretty obligatos in the string section. And how many fiddle players double on saxophone, whistle and surprised chicken (rough translation of Chinese word for a banjo-mandoline)? Allen Perrow can do this. A key stage in the history of the band was the introduction of one, two and then three battery portable amplifiers: rugged American street blasters made by Peavey, powered by lead acid batteries. The number of amplifiers has now dwindled and band personnel has changed, but power mandoline and Lucy Speller's reinforced flute are still a regular feature of the band. A recent recruit who also toots on the flute is Kate Hudson, welcome to our youngest performer. The trombone appears about to make a come-back... the rest of the band are patiently waiting for its operator to learn to play it. The guitar, currently played by Dave Hillery, has been a regular feature from time to time, with a major contribution by Andrew Turner, who doubled on the legendary red box along with Kevin Allack. Tributes must be paid to our current squeezers, the insubstantial but incredibly loud Jenni Simpson who hides behind an accordion called Arrietta and the erudite Paul (how does he manage with so few notes) Hudson on melodeon.

There are times when the band is so big that to name all the players would read like a directory of . . well a directory of musicians. In fact if all the musicians who had ever taken part were laid end to end . . . they'd be a lot more comfortable. Space and memory forbids the mention of every mover and shaker in the FCB but - we know who you are, and we'll get you!

All the members of the Flagcrackers Band, past and present, up the learning curve, over the hill or marching inexorably up the foothills....we salute you.

Instrumentation is not the only iconoclastic feature of the bad boys and girls of street music. Many of the musicians are used to playing in other fields, and should probably stay there. The result is a noticeable tendency to introduce musical irrelevancies such as the odd hymn tune, popular classics, nursery rhymes, Irish music, and occasionally thinly disguised rock and roll. The latter, however, is frowned upon as being not  traditional enough.

The main thing is to have fun and in the street to provide a decent beat for the dancers. They can't follow a tune, the poor dears, and it's all they can do to count their legs never mind sixteen steps, so the band can get away with being flexible with the musical truth. During the steamier apres morris sessions bits and pieces of the band can be found in various bars playing various measures, often at the same time. Some of them have been reportedly observed singing at times. This is also frowned upon.

We're not the Amadeus string quartet, and, gosh, it's hard to stay in tune when the rain's pouring down your neck But if we can put into the Flagcrackers half of what we get out . . . it'll sound pretty good. And please, if you're out on the street and you hear us playing, join in. We'll make you welcome.

George Speller 1996

Sadly Ken Simpson passed away in 1997. He and his expertise are sadly missed.