Pandemic Panaceas:

The Portland Megaband 2021 Virtual Concert

By Sue Songer

Portland Megaband

The annual Portland (OR) Megaband contra dance on the second Saturday of March is a much-anticipated occasion for band members and dancers alike. It is a festive affair in a beautiful hall with 75 musicians and up to 600 dancers. In 2020, just one week in advance of the event and after the band had been rehearsing for two months, we made the difficult decision to cancel the dance. By October 2020, with the prospect of missing another Megaband “season,” the Portland Country Dance Community board allocated funds for a new idea: The Portland Megaband 2021 Virtual Concert Video.

So, with 67 musicians signed on, seven tunes selected for three separate videos (jigs, reels, waltz), arrangements decided with roadmaps through the music outlined, five guide tracks for each of the three videos laid down (some specialized for horns and percussion, some with voice directions), instructions written for each set, four rehearsals Zoomed, 207 videos uploaded, each video reviewed by the organizers, technical glitches removed, videographer magic completed—149 days from when the project was first proposed to the band (with conceptualization another month or two prior to the band start date), the Portland Megaband released its concert video in March 2021.

Knowing that the technical aspects of recording would present a challenge for many band members, we organizers chose tunes from the Megaband repertoire that were both accessible and recently played. The various arrangements (sections coming in and out, drones, harmonies, trading phrases) were all familiar patterns from our live dances. Band members did have to become accustomed to responding to voice or written directions rather than the conductor hand signals used at live dances, though. We used the Zoom rehearsals to practice playing along with the guide tracks and to learn when and when not to play and how to switch tunes without the benefit of a conductor. (The conductors on the video were added after the fact.)

Following the release, the three separate video compilations were merged into one, converted to HD, and the final version was placed in its permanent home on YouTube. As you watch, think not only of the technical details outlined above but also about each band member working in isolation during the heart of the pandemic and the dreary winter days. They faced and overcame the challenges of learning new technologies, patiently recording multiple takes (often amidst tangles of cords and gear) until they were satisfied with the results. Each band member contributed their piece of musical heart to the connected whole. It held us together during the 2021 season and now gives us something to look back on with pride.

The all-volunteer Portland Megaband is open to any musician on any acoustic instrument at any level of experience, and skills range from expert to beginning. It plays a benefit dance once a year for PCDC. This tune, “The Banks of the Inverness,” is the first tune of the set of reels.

Sue Songer is founder and director of the Portland Megaband. Drawing from the Megaband experience, Sue travels to other dance communities to work with local musicians in an open band format. Sue is well known for her contributions to the larger dance community, including publishing the Portland Collection tune books and companion CDs.

Watch the Megaband and play along!

The Banks of the Inverness sheet music

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