Slow/Learning Session ~ Where do we go from here? ~ Orwell’s Animal Farm?! 🙁
I’ll warn you ahead of time, that as this is forefront at the moment in my mind, trying to secure a venue to restart an old passion, a slow/learning session and community ceili(dh) band, I’m likely to suffer a certain weakness to ‘ramble’, to walkabout in my curiously wired brain. But now you’ve been warned, let’s kick off with another title for this ~
Animal Farm - When the slow session escapes into that greater ‘reel’ world.
What happens when an ‘ideal’, such as a slow or learning session, misses certain important points with regards to the full context of ‘tradition’. It is too easy to merely focus on the mechanics and the acquisition of too usually raw and lifeless renditions of the music and miss some even more important points than following the dots. We all know, or those of us with it deep inside, that ears and listening are important, and more so than playing when it comes down to it. I believe the greater number of us also have a huge respect for it that includes a respect for its history and for those that have managed to accomplish that understanding and skill. I have no problem just sitting down and listening, and when amongst the talented, or the passionate, it’s so easy for me to follow, and to learn as my ears lead me forward. I don’t feel any driving need to interject a tune set in the moments of pause, or for me to play for every damn set offered up by others. I love the music, I love listening closely to what others do with it, and letting it soak over me and in to echo the bones. I don’t mind giving up myself to it.
While I have a generally positive impression of most folks caught up in this shared passion, I’m not blind to the jerks, having had a few step on my toes in the past or treat me with worse than mere disrespect. I’ve known my share of arseholes, including on site here, and wind-up artists, and w*nkers. There are even some severly disturbed folk that wander through this ‘scene’, some seeming to curiously seek therapy, some just wanting to cause trouble for others. But there are always strange folk, and under ‘character’ that can be good and bad. However, where we’re taking about the want to share and pass on the torch of this passion to others, as in teaching, one-to-one & the likes of slow/learning sessions ~ we need to also address issues other than what note follows what or which version to promote, teach, play.
I once got myself into trouble doing a poor imitation of George Orwell and writing my take on his “Animal Farm” but applied to traditions, and trying to show how we can and do miss some of the other less technical aspects of tradition when sharing it with others, like ‘heart’ and ‘respect’ and where the greater focus and emphasis should be going. There’s also that feeling that when missing the wider context of tradition, we might end up with something akin to the ending suffered by the farm, an unwelcomed revolution.
I doubt there’s many that would disagree that ‘ears’ and ‘listening’ are paramount. But let’s use a few examples of where either I’ve failed or where there’s been failure that I’ve personally experienced ~
1.) Attitudes ~ and how easily they can pass over in the process of sharing tradition. I had to teach something to several hundred people, in this case a bit of dancing. I’d not slept well the night before, and someone had wound me up a little by being an arrogant shight at the session the night before, cutting off the only set one young girl had been offered to start, basically stomping on her set and doubling the speed, leaving her in the lurch, with putting her bow and fiddle away. And, she was quite capable, a decent player. So, all that, and a few other things, I was not in the best of moods. I wasn’t keeping track of it but I was teaching in a very impatient way, not giving it the attention it deserved or the dancers enough time and clarity. Fortunately I caught myself being mirrored on the floor with the dancers getting impatient with themselves and each other - and, this time, I was able to catch it, point it out, apologize, and laugh at myself, and then move on. Sometimes we’re not just teaching a step, a move, a twiddle or a tune, sometimes we’re handing over much more, and we should be aware of this and take care, as well as learning to laugh at ourselves, our stumblings.
2.) Respect ~ and how we can forget to even mention or discuss this subject. A respected fellow musician had started up a little community ceili(dh) band, a sizeable group. He was teaching them tunes. Unfortunately they were all tied to the sheetmusic, so the ears were not getting any just exercise, and it was obvious in their playing, which was stilted. They weren’t listening to each other and consequently weren’t ‘together’. I offered to let them come and play for a dance class once a month, to get some experience there, and so they did. I also got them down for at least one dance in an evening, most of them, and I worked to try to free them up from the sheetmusic, even if it was just one tune at a time. When they loosened up you could hear the difference, as they heard each other, without the suffocating influence of a sheet of music in the way.
What I didn’t know is that in his ‘slow/learning sessions’ with them they never talked about ‘tradition’, nothing about ‘sessions’, or anything about respect or etiquette. This proved to be quite destructive. For their first session they all arrived early, before anyone else, set up in their little circle, put their music stand up, their sheets out, and played from them with every opportunity, in a sense, with such presence, taking over the session. Understandably someone eventually went over to them and said something to the effect of “F’k off!’ They packed up and left and we never saw more of that lovely little group of hopefuls. Yeah, I admit it, I was wounded. I wish I’d known and could have warned them, prepared them somehow, so they could have avoided that verbal slap.
BUT, it wasn’t ‘their’ session. They were guests. They were the RUDE ones, not the person who’d been pushed to his limits and ended up telling them to shove off. That’s one of the important points I always drive home with anyone that comes under my influence, and I even go so far as to say ~ JUST LISTEN ~ the first time you go anywhere. Get a feel of the place. the people. Hell, in the end it might just not be for you. Give yourself and your ears time to suss that out. There are quite often other sessions to choose from, or you and some friends can start one up that suits your needs, rather than imposing those needs on a pre-existing situation. If you take heart and go out to experience a session, go to listen, to find out what they play and how they play it. Learn from them. Forget the damned books and dots and commercial recordigns. Go local!
AND, for the first few times, unless asked, and you can say no to that the first time, DO NOT START ANY TUNE SETS. And for your first foray into contributing, choose things you know you won’t be left alone with, things others can join in with, old favourites, especially local old favourites. As a ‘guest’, remember that the session you’re visiting has been there before you, often times long established, with rules, even if those norms are not obvious or are taken for granted. Any session has its own history, its own traditions. Learn these, be observant, ask. If you do get asked to start a set and go for it, a chance to make your contribution, be happy that you’ve had the one. That’s really enough for starters. Follow the established group’s lead, not your own. Listen, listen, listen, and listen some more, there’s never too much of that…
WORSE CASE ~ Just one example from many, one I’ve used in ‘teaching’ and session leading ~ a piano accordion player who in their mind had nothing to learn from anyone, knew it all, was determined to be in the centre of it all. I did try to warn them, to try to get this person to respect others when they were a guest at someone else’s session, to respect those established traditions and ways with things ~ but that just irritated them. Who was I to tell them these things, trying to be diplomatic ~ to temper their volume, ease up on the badly chosen and executed chords and bass, to just focus on one set of reeds and the melody for awhile, and to do more listening than playing, and to not feel every pause was an opportunity to start up another set of tunes. And, that as a guest, they should NOT sit in the middle of it all but join outside the core group, maybe even show late so that the old timers had time to find their seats and way first, out of RESPECT!
This PA squeezer was impatient, sure of themselves, and despite any warning ignored all and in the end gave up on our little slow session. Instead they graduated themselves to the local session scene ~ ALL reeds blaring, as LOUD as they could, BASS & CHORDS stumbling along, and almost EVERY pause that gave them enough time to gather their wits and squeeze they’d try to fill with their choice of tunes, tunes they couldn’t actually hold together, even slowed down, which at times was ploddingly awful, nothing steady, lacking any feeling, as the struggled through it, while, credit to the locals, some others were kind enough to try to help them with their joining in, even if unsure of what exactly was being played… But, their attempts to help it along never really worked. As I hope was already made clear, any help fell on DEAF ears, as this person just didn’t have the tools or sense to listen or even realize they had something left to learn, other than just tunes and twiddles…
I think that in the end they have come less and less to sessions, having made it miserable for themselves, often being left on their own to struggle through to some kind of stumbling end, while never managing to realize the faults were their own, no one elses… I can’t help but feel I failed them in some way, possibly not quite understanding them enough to break through their thick skull and let in a little light of understanding, and ‘respect’ for the music, the tradition, the others that share that passion with them, and that listening is divine, oh so very, very important.
So, to try to sum that ramble up, in teaching or leading, one-to-one or in slow/learning sessions, we have added responsibilities that are in some ways more important than tunes and twiddles, that are the greater body of ‘tradition’, including the heart of it…