Session Scandal! [LONG]
What follows is an email exchange between me and the fellow who "leads" (he’s a guitar player) the only regular local session anywhere near the place where I have moved to. Enjoy.
I realized at the session a couple of weeks ago that I never had a chance to send you the e-mail that I sent everyone else way back in December when the idea of revitalizing the Sometownorother session was first hatched. And although I don’t have a copy of it at hand, I’ll try to recreate it from memory.
“This is a session. It’s open to any and all who wish to play and/or listen. It’s not a band practice. It’s not a performance. It’s not an invitation only affair. It’s a session. I do not want it controlled by one instrument or faction. I want people to sing songs and tune players to jump in and accompany them. Most importantly I want us to welcome beginner and novice players as I was welcomed when I first came to the session at Some Other Pub years ago.”
Chrishty, you’re a good player, and you know it. And I am glad that you raised the bar at our little ole session here in Sometownorother. But we’re not in [City Chrishty moved from] anymore. And time and time again over the past month I’ve counted a dozen people sitting in a circle with ten of them with their hands in their laps. I fear you have already run some people off, and I am even noticing our good players wearying of your domination.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be exposed to new tunes. Heck, I’d love to hear you play a slow aire sometime. But when someone of less experience introduces a tune or song, I would ask you to respect his/her tempo and choice of material…with a minimum of snide comment. You too were once a beginner. I just hope that when you suggested a standard tune, such as the Butterfly, someone else didn’t say “No,” as you did a week ago.
Remember, it’s a session. It’s not a competitive sport. It’s supposed to be fun.
Mr. Nice Guy
Mr. Nice Guy -
Let’s get a couple of things straight. First of all, I don’t know in what sense I "dominate" the session. Yesterday, for example, I started a small number of tunes. A and B, the other strong players, started more than I did, and I played along with the tunes that they chose to play. It may seem like I’m taking over when in fact I am playing along most of the time. Since I know a lot of tunes, this means that I am playing all the time. In fact, the young man playing the flute sitting across from me started more tunes than anyone else did.
On a session being "fun": I have to tell you that it really pisses me off when someone tells me what a session is supposed to be. I learned how to play in Ireland, where I lived for several years. I went to at least one session every day for a good two years of that time when I lived there. In the 20 years I’ve been playing Irish music I’ve been to plenty of sessions — certainly enough for me to know what a session is. Now you can say "this isn’t [City Chrishty moved from]," but what is that supposed to mean? Let me tell you what I think a session is. A session is a gathering together of people who enjoy Irish music and each other. What happens at a session? People play Irish tunes and chat, maybe someone sings a song or two. (Hopefully not Danny Boy though. It’s an awful song that is offensive to me in that it embodies everything wrong about people who think they have some idea what Irish music is when they haven’t got a clue.) In between sets of tunes people chat with each other. This aspect (good conversation) is, to me and all of the people that I have spent the last twenty years playing with, just as important as the music. And this is what beginner type American musicians don’t seem to get. A "session" where people look at the floor in between sets of tunes or where there is hardly a break at all between sets of tunes is a crap session, in my opinion. In [list of places], or any other number of places that I have been in sessions there is often a five minute or more pause between sets of tunes while the musicians, who are also people, chat about music, life, jokes, past sessions, old friends, etc. At this so called session at [current session location], no one seems to have much to say. You may have noticed that I try to make conversation and joke around with people, including you — I’m trying to get a little social interaction going. You might try to do the same. When the session becomes a social experience as well as a musical one, people don’t feel slighted if they only know a fraction of the tunes played on any given night. Everyone has a role, both socially and musically. And honestly, Mr. Nice Guy, the better players should dominate. If they didn’t, Irish music would have fizzled out a long time ago. (And pay attention next time to what people are REALLY starting the most tunes.)
You suggest that some of the better players are tiring of my dominance. Well, that is simply not true. The better players (who coincidentally seem to be the ones with personalities) are the ones that I have become friendly with. I know these people, Mr. Nice Guy, and count them among my friends. And to a person they are very happy that I have been coming to the session. How would you know what these people are thinking, anyway? I’ve never seen you have a substantial conversation with any of them. Unless, of course, I misunderstand what you mean by "good player." I think you mean A, B, C, and D. That’s who I’m talking about, anyway. I will be sure to let them know what you told me they think of my "dominating" the session. The funny thing is, they don’t think that at all. They actually start more tunes than I do, the ones that leave people "sitting with their hands in their laps." Maybe you should send this email to A and B for that matter — they NEVER start tunes that the masses know. Did you notice that I usually try to put a tune that everyone knows at the end of a set? Like the Concertina Reel? I suppose you didn’t.
As for the Butterfly incident, that young lady said, "Does anyone want to play the Butterfly?" I answered honestly for myself. As for my snide comments in general, that’s just the way I am. Call me an asshole. It wouldn’t be the first time. You are certainly a nice guy, and your all-inclusive program is admirable in spirit. But there is a line that has to be drawn somewhere. Now, you are the one who is supposedly "running" this session, whatever that means to you, so that is your program and I won’t interfere. But seriously, Mr. Nice Guy, the everyone-should-participate thing has to have limits. For example, the guy sitting to my right last night banging on his drum for the first hour is absolutely awful. A drummer with no sense of time and less subtlety. Why should one gobshite be let to ruin nice music? I think it’s indefensible. If I were in charge I would ask him to stop. (By the way, if you ever need someone to do that and you don’t feel comfortable doing it yourself, just let me know.) And a bass? No place in Irish music. Never mind the fact that that guy didn’t know Irish music at all. He was clearly some kind of Old-Time or Bluegrass player who just assumed that he could play along with Irish music. Well, I find that attitude to be personally insulting. When I was learning, I would patiently sit at the edge of sessions, listen very closely to the tunes that I didn’t know and play along to the ones I did. I NEVER felt bad about sitting with my hands in my lap. I enjoyed every second of it. And my respect for the music was rewarded — the musicians who ran those sessions eventually took a liking to me, invited me to more sessions, and eventually, when I got good enough, did sessions with me where I was one of the paid leaders. There were plenty of other Americans and other learner types (even some Irish) who would barge in to sessions and insist on starting tunes (like the Butterfly) that no one wanted to hear or play. None of them ever gained the respect of the real musicians. Anyway, my point is this — while inclusiveness is nice, it doesn’t make sense to want to include people who actually don’t play Irish music. Surely that makes sense. And that eedjit bodhran player doesn’t play Irish music, nor does the bass player or five-string banjo player. Please agree with me, Mr. Nice Guy, that there should be a line somewhere. I know you were made welcome when you were a beginner, but you were playing an acceptable instrument and you weren’t marching into an Irish session for the first time with a cavalier "I can play along with this simple peasant music!" attitude. I know you didn’t because you’re too nice a guy to do that. So you don’t owe it to anybody, or to the tradition for that matter, to include people who have spent NO time learning Irish music. In fact, I would say that it is disrespectful of the tradition to let them think that their ignorant behavior is OK.
So where does that leave us? I think that over time you will get to like me and appreciate what I add to the session (in terms of craic, not music.) I know I have a bit of a strong personality — an acquired taste. And I honestly think that you are confusing my strong personality with me controlling what tunes get played. Well, I don’t hold grudges — never have. I plan to come to the session next week like nothing ever happened. I can’t and/or won’t change my behavior, though. If this is not acceptable to you, then we are at an impasse. I suppose as the session "leader" you could ask me not to come any more, but I might not respect your wishes, certainly not without consulting the other players. I don’t think it needs to come to that, though. I think everything will be just fine — you can be the nice guy and I can be the not-nice guy. Don’t we need both to keep the universe in balance?
See ya on Sunday -