Playing ability changes with environment

Playing ability changes with environment

Okay, so this has been frustrating me for a while now. When I play at home, I reckon I’m getting on okay. In tune, in time, confident, and it’s not like I’m a beginner. I gig at least once a week and have done for ages. Sort of the same thing when I gig or session with people I really get on with. However, put me in a session with people that I am not comfortable with, or who I am very conscious are much better than me, and every note I play seems to be out of tune and out of time and I feel as though I’m just pissing everyone off! I suppose I’m just venting, as I’m sure (/hope) it’s all in my head; just wanted to get some reassurance that its not just me!

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It is not just you and its all in your head…

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Very much so and I’m sure it happens to everyone even the more experienced or professional players which is probably one of the reasons they are often reluctant to play under certain circumstances.

Some venues and pubs are just more relaxing than others, the acoustics may be better and, likewise, the audience or punters, general ambience etc.

It also depends a lot on the company and the combination of players. If there’s "a certain spark", then you will probably play better or feel more inclined to do so.

However, I’d say that it’s not just in sessions with players who are obviously better that this happens. On many occasions, my playing seems to improve there possibly because I have more confidence that I’m doing it right if I can manage to fit in OK.
Believe it or not, I’m more likely to fall apart when I’m in the company of more mediocre or even poor players or, at the very least, my efforts tend to be a little lacklustre.

Also, if one or more people in the session are having an "off night" or are "less bothered" than usual, then this can be very catching too.

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"… not comfortable with, or who I am very conscious…" The clue is there. Forget about those things, and concentrate on what you are playing. Never mind who is ‘better’ or whether or not you are ‘pissing them off’. Just put your heart into the music.

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"It’s all in the mind, you know." as the late Spike Milligna used to say.

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They’re not going to be homing in in you and thinking they’re much better than you. That’s the first thing. The three potential obstacles to pure happiness in an unfamiliar setting are that unfamiliar sounds from instruments and players you’re not accustomed to are assaulting your ears, that you might be feeling less secure in case "your versions" clash with "their versions", and that you don’t feel safe with tempos. Identify someone who you think is doing a good job and who you can hear, and latch on to their playing, especially with regard to tempo. "Playing along" secretly with a real person who’s reasonably accomplished is quite a good stepping stone to building full confidence in yourself. It’s all about listening and interacting skills really. If you get good at that you can stop worrying about not being a virtuoso.

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I find it much easier to play solo on stage to a large audience than to play for a small group of people of whom just one is not on my side, is not sympathetic to what I am doing, and is beaming critical vibes at me.

Now, they may actually be beaming critical vibes (and I’m sure that they are!). But it could be that I am imagining things and projecting the assumed negativity myself. No way to tell for sure, at least none that I know…

The important thing is to find ways of making yourself comfortable in whatever situation you are asked to play in. Taking one’s courage in both hands and struggling through is painful, but ultimately helpful. Concentrating hard on the music as suggested by gam good advice. If it’s a session with better players, a few words to express how you feel can defuse the situation and get people on your side.

However there is nothing wrong with politely declining to play when the vibes aren’t right.

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Its the same for everybody. I play 10 times better than normal when I’m playing with certain friends. that’s normal. Sometimes you can get in over your head, but the best way to play good is to play with good players, so until they tell you to shut up, just listen alot and keep at it. Besides, you didn’t carry your instrument all the way down there just to put your hands in your pockets

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Agree with first and most subsequent posts. Just to add, it just needs one, —- or two, never mind a whole session-table full of them, of people whom you are not happy with to put you off. And they don’t even have to be good players. Just a horrid grumpy face when the whistle squeaks a bit, or you miss a note or something equally negligible, they can’t help showing their distaste, despite the fact it’s just an informal session. It can occasionally do this me anyway, and I’m quite a battle-hardened old trooper. It can even put you off going to that session altogether.

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I close my eyes and play. or stare at the floor. It doesn’t always work, but 90% of the time I do better if I try to forget anyone’s there. It’s so hard to relax! I started a slow session just to help me and others get our feet wet on this issue. If you’re not afraid of mistakes you’re much less likely to make them. In the slow session we all make them so it’s not a bother to anyone.

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if you forget everyone’s there, don’t forget to listen, though. The more you put yourself in those tough playing situations, the better, really. You do get used to it. Play for your friends and family to get used to performing. If you live in town, play out at the park or the town square or something. The more often you are in a performance situation, the more comfortable you will get. It actually is something that you have to work at (unless you are a natural ham and always have to be the center of attention)

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Maybe its just me but I find a performance and a session very different so far as being ‘put off’ by the situation is concerned. There are different ‘responsibilities’.

What Steve suggested seem. to work for me. Much of the time I am " ‘Playing along’ secretly with a real person who’s reasonably accomplished". Not necessarily the same person for each tune, and I’m not sure how ‘secret’ it really is to a good player who is used to newbies at sessions.

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there really are differences between a performance and a session. I think the performance anxiety for new players can be pretty close to the same, though. That’s why I said to just plain get out and play. That’s my advice for everything, though. But you have a good point, there are different dynamics. For instance, you’re probably alot more likely to be around strangers at a session than a performance (unless you missed alot of rehearsals!) 🙂

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It’s not just me then.

There’s no better way to convince yourself of, "I suck at this!" than to play with a bunch of people who are much better than you and who you think are glowering across the table at your sorry, novicey attempts at a tune (they may or may not be glowering; the important bit is that you THINK they are).

The only way round it, I think, is to develop a zen-like attitude towards session playing and not worry too much about what people think of you’re playing. They’re probably not sitting there saying, "Well, HE’S not Frankie Gavin." As one friend of mine said, "We are small cogs in a very big wheel."

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it’s a real comfort to read these remarks, and thanks for opening this discussion. i sound pretty good sometimes, alone in my kitchen, and have sounded pretty damn fine when i was playing with good friends in a comfortable space. but put me in a room with my betters, who are also not personal friends, and my playing just lays down and dies. DrSpear’s ‘zen’ comment is true, i think, and i’ve been told much the same: ‘take your ego out of it and let the music flow!’, but find that easier said than done. but i don’t want to be frankie g. anyway.

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There aren’t any cogs in a wheel are there? If you put "cogs in a wheel" into Google Images, you get pictures of cogs meshing with cogs, with no wheels in sight. Cogs in a machine would make more sense. But if one cog isn’t working, then the machine may not work. I therefore propose that this metaphor should be banned.

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Not my metaphor! Simply quoting someone else. 🙂

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take your medicine Marvis

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I was 0nce a lighthousekeeper, and in the lighthouse there were some very big wheels with cogs on! Also, if the simile was intended as literal then it would be an analogy, not a metaphor,

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Gobby, there you are calling the teeth on the wheel "cogs", which is one way the word is used; but they were cogs on a wheel, not cogs in a wheel.

A metaphor is a type of analogy.

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Yes, Sorry Marvis, I now see your point. It’s like that one that peeves me when people talk of (say) an ‘empty can of coke’, when you can’t have an empty can of anything (like an empty sack of potatoes). The things I learn from these pages!

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I don’t think it is always because you are playing in the company of perceived better players, as I intimated above. At the risk of being accused of namedropping (though no names will be dropped), I, like many on this board, have occasionally played in sessions alongside well-known players. Often my "game" would be "raised" in that company (thus I almost achieve the dizzy heights of mediocrity), whereas in occasional sessions populated by "lesser mortals" I may be pulled down to the level corresponding to the status quo. Funny ole world innit.

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When is a session not a performance? 🙂

I play better when I’ve been away a while, or some dear old friends are back, or when I’ve been listening to an amazing album all week.

I play worse if I’ve been doing the same thing in and out every week and my heart isn’t in it, or if those around me aren’t listening and are ploughing on with tunes regardless.

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Mavis, I bet you are just being picky on purpose to illustrate how that type of negativity throws people off, aren’t you?
I have always had trouble in performances, especially with big crowds, although that has diminished over the years to the point where most people don’t notice its effect. I find bantering with the audience between tunes tends to relax both them and me.
I always do better in sessions, but a few months ago I played near a world-class player who I hadn’t seen in a long time, started worrying about how he might judge my playing, which has not improved all that much, and began ‘catching crabs,’ to use a rowing metaphor (or maybe it is an analogy, oh dear, did I spell metaphor right, see what you did to me, Mavis?). 😉

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No I am just being silly really.

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This is a depressing thread topic for me. But, I feel I should add something as I probably have some insight into this troublesome issue. My old friend, the hermit living underneath our city mall, who is an exceptionally gifted guitarist and songwriter and who came out of his cave for a year or so to play with me said this once and I’ll never forget it: "Never play with people beneath you." This needs lots of context taken into account, because he was imparting some wisdom into my life that I needed at the time, and sadly still do. His message, which carries the ring of Socratic wisdom (actually it’s Confucius who said: "Have no friends not equal to yourself") in my ears, opens up a lot for discussion and consideration. His words after the first sentence explained how mediocrity will suck all the verve and talent out of you and that I should move some where else fast where my abilities can thrive in the genre I love. So, at times I feel I have suffered for my art more than most will ever understand, having no players who even approach an intermediate level in traditional tunage in a very large radial distance from myself, and steeped in a culture of mediocrity and poor musical taste and ambition.
"Playing ability changes with environment"…yup, we have lots to fight against in the various milieus we find ourselves in. Hope everyone on this mustard board finds themselves in less insufferable environments when they commence with tunes. I appreciate all the above comments, and can relate.

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Someone at a session gave me advice similar to Steve’s: " "Playing along" secretly with a real person who’s reasonably accomplished is quite a good stepping stone to building full confidence in yourself. It’s all about listening and interacting skills really. If you get good at that you can stop worrying about not being a virtuoso."

This advice has helped me immensely. I call it "air" playing. I do try to take a Zen like approach to playing at sessions, as Dr. Spear suggests, but I’ve been told that "I’m not very Zen, but colorful". Not sure what that means. I’ll keep trying not to be so colorful I guess.

Those of us who have only been playing a few years seem to do well when we listen more and talk less~and to develop a thick skin when the insecure toss bad vibes about instead of trying to support those of us who are clearly trying to learn the tunes in a respectful way. Fortunately, I have encountered only a very few of these insecure types. Most people are kind and helpful. Everybody started at the beginning; they just might have forgotten.

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Mz WhiteBread, "colorful" sounds fun! Nothing bad about that.🙂 And that is good advice from Steve.
"learn the tunes in a respectful way"
If only more did that and were like that. Good on ya’.

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Surely you can contribute more to this discussion than picking apart a metaphor. If people can understand what the metaphor *means,* that’s what matters. It’s not meant to be a feckin’ schematic description.

I must admit that I am pants at being zen (I know — it comes as a shock) and practically have another PhD at getting wound up at and stressed by sessions. A couple years ago I decided that’s a rubbish way to be and am working on developing my zen outlook. I have to admit, however, that some of the zen outlook comes with feeling confident that I’m a good enough player to get by and fit within the sorts of sessions I’m playing at. If you think, "Well, I’m all right," then that, I think, is the secret to session happiness. To continue with the zen idea, you want balance. If you waltz in there thinking, "I’m a trad music God" and no one acknowledges your greatness, that can be very stressful and similarly, if you go in there thinking "I suck hairy balls at this" and cower in the corner, you won’t have a great experience, either. "All right," is the way to be.

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>"Never play with people beneath you." and "Have no friends not equal to yourself"…..but JJ, forgive me but, if everyone took those advices to their logical conclusions, it would end up that no-one played with anyone else. Because everyone has different levels and strengths & weaknesses within & beyond those levels. But yes, the cloud of mediocrity which can hang over many sessions does dumb down any nascent talent.

>"….when we listen more and talk less" - I couldn’t agree more. It’s also just simple good manners not to talk away when someone is trying to play out some tunes, on their own or as a little temporary splinter group from the main body of the session.

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Thanks for the picture of a wheel with the cogs inside it Gam, but that isn’t what people mean when they say "we are just cogs in a wheel". They mean "we are just small parts of a larger system".

Sorry about the mierenneuken Spear.

Do I have anything more useful to contribute? Well, I have got a lot better at not getting stressed at the session recently. I’d actually stopped going because I wasn’t enjoying it any more. After a few months off I realised that a lot of the problem had been that I was trying to get everything to go perfectly, and so I decided to just let things happen.

I don’t get stressed about other people being better than me. A long time ago I read an article somebody wrote about learning music, where he pointed out that almost all of us will spend our entire musical lives playing at a level that is below that of our ideal or model, and suggested that the thing to do is to enjoy playing at the level you are at now. But he said it much better than I can. I wish I could find the article to read it again.

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@Key Maniac Lad: I don’t mind other musicians talking if somebody is playing on their own or in a splinter group, I don’t think it’s bad manners as long as they talk reasonably quietly.

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Yeah OK, "quietly" is at least respectful. But that doesn’t always happen.

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@KeyManiacLad, exactly. This is a sort of conundrum of juxtaposed wisdoms; community/communal music and protecting/preserving music from the barbarians/punters/whatever…I’ve struggled a bit with this. "The session" is an interesting phenomenon-on many levels. I think in a healthy musical community where there are people at various levels of talent and ability, the problem of having "unequal" musical friendships is marginalized greatly. People have a bad experience or two and find the right mix next week, and so on. But, when those of us serious about playing good choons get stuck too long with punters, flamboyant bodhranistas, and hack-job hippies, we and the music suffer greatly.
That said, the aforementioned Confucian paradigm is what has kept me away from these "American Celtic Festivals" and some sessions and musicians. It’s just too much syrup for this meat-eater, and the hippies are everywhere playing Drowsy Maggie horribly and happily, and the attitude towards our beloved art is: "Kitsch rules! Shight is awesome- lets roll in it and be pretentious in the sun!" It does a number on my music and my soul to be in that kind of company for any length of time. But, that is not for a second dissing those beginners or newcomers who are respectfully trying to learn and play the tunes. There is an entirely different attitude there. They bring life and passion to the tradition. Whether it’s beginning players or advanced ‘experts’ the ruin of our playing seems to be in other people’s poor attitudes.

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Strangely when I first saw this thread I was reminded of my old summer days working in a warehouse and then JJShea put my thoughts into words.
There was a pool table in the lunchroom and every day people would play but some would sit and watch. One time I asked who was the best pool player and they pointed at a fella just sitting there. You never play I say to him and he replies "You play to the level of your competition." And I realized that when I played someone worse then me I would miss more shots but when I played someone better I would make better shots.
So that’s is my thought on playing environment.
Now, I feel the difference in "most" sessions is that you are not competing against each other (unless good-naturedly) and there is encouragement. Or maybe it’s a bit like building up those mental calluses to withstand the pressure.

( .. "Have no friends not equal to yourself") ^

& also this is attributed to Confucius;

8. The Master said, ‘A gentleman will not be looked up to unless he is staid, nor will his learning be sound. Put faithfulness and truth first; have no friends unlike thyself; be not ashamed to mend thy faults.’

The Sayings of Confucius ~ Book I

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Good post, Na éisc. Thanks.

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"have no friends unlike thyself" as in "if you don’t like it - start your own session" ?

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David if you’re asking what do I think Confucius would do, I have no idea. My guess is he would treat each session according to his own way of dealing with different social situations. Part of which stems from his views regarding classes of mankind (& his role in it) ~ "Those who are born with the possession of knowledge are the highest class of men. Those who learn, and so readily get possession of knowledge, are the next. Those who are dull and stupid, and yet compass the learning, are another class next to these. As to those who are dull and stupid and yet do not learn;-they are the lowest of the people."

Sounds like someone who spent time on garden duty.

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No, it was a suggestion as to what those who find solace in Confucius’ words might do.

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The more used phrase is "cog in a machine" rather than cog in a wheel, which I wonder if I have ever seen written. The pedant might demand "cogwheel in a machine" as a cog is a single tooth, but the common usage is cog for the whole wheel.

On the more cogent question of session nerves, a good technique is to say to yourself before the session, who is it I am thinking is going to be in the room in front of whom I will have trouble playing? Try and imagine who the worst person would be. The answer may well be; an authority figure from some other part of your life, maybe decades ago, perhaps a disapproving father or mother, someone who couldn’t possibly be there. When you get there look around the room and see that they are not there. Then do not allow anyone else at the session to take up their position in your mind. You could imagine a spare chair would have been for them had they come, and use it as a sign they are not there. Imagine the others in the session as people like yourself, not perfect but trying to do well, happy to be there, hoping for the best for you as well as for themselves.

The worst sort of thinking goes like this; these people are all better than me. They play really fast. I will have to play fast to pretend I am like them. I’ll start this tune fast and hope I get away with it, then I’ll sit in the background and play along while I learn to play like them.

It is better to start a tune at any speed at which you can put out a strong steady and attractive rhythm, this is your speed. Good fast players respect a steady rhythm at any speed.

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I don’t know if I play better with better people, but I
feel more relaxed and happy. I can find the tonal and
rhythmic centre and lock onto it. Otherwise I’m searching
for it - trying to find another player in the mess that
I can hook up to. Trying to create the centre myself
usually doesn’t work out. You have to be very loud
and you have to have at least 1 or 2 other people trying
also trying to lock onto something.

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And "cag" I think you’re right about the rhythm. Probably
the worst thing to do is trying to start something fast when you
don’t have the chops to pull it off. A lot of great players don’t
take any pride in playing fast.

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Hi All, My feeling is, I love to play (Irish flute). If I look at a session as an opportunity to play, I just relax and enjoy. If I look at it as an opportunity to perform, that is when the nerves/self-doubt sets in. 🙂
Cheers, Dianne

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All this talk of cogs reminds me of the story of the crate of gearbox components which were being flown over from a Datsun factory. The aircraft ran into engine trouble and they had to jettison the cargo. 20,000 feet below, someone was looking out of the window to see what the weather was like, and said, "It’s raining Datsun cogs".

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Laughing at that one, Mark. Nice.🙂

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genius Mark!

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Appreciate the perspective, Dianne. Cheers.;)

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Audience? Performance?? Who opened that door? Was it you, Johnny Jay? You know who will be arriving imminently, don’t you?

I used to play with friends who were my equal, but they have all improved.

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o.O

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"Whether it’s beginning players or advanced ‘experts’ the ruin of our playing seems to be in other people’s poor attitudes." Indeed, JJShea.

"It is better to start a tune at any speed at which you can put out a strong steady and attractive rhythm, this is your speed. Good fast players respect a steady rhythm at any speed." More good advice, Cag.

Frankly, I’ll feel happy when I can get past the "I suck hairy balls at this", as Dr. Spear noted. There seems to be no in between for me. I either am just happy that I don’t screw up a tune and get stressed that I suck. Getting to that steady pulse on the "middle" path might be where the Zen lives~someday. Don’t think I’d ever want to trade in that glow in the dark pink mustache on the Mona Lisa for a gray one tho’, Gam.

A couple of very kind and advanced folks, who saw me turning beet red when I buggered up a tune I usually know inside and out, said not to ever be ashamed of my music. Very kind folks indeed.

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"Whether it’s beginning players or advanced ‘experts’ the ruin of our playing seems to be in other people’s poor attitudes." Indeed, JJShea.

"It is better to start a tune at any speed at which you can put out a strong steady and attractive rhythm, this is your speed. Good fast players respect a steady rhythm at any speed." More good advice, Cag.

Frankly, I’ll feel happy when I can get past the "I suck hairy balls at this", as Dr. Spear noted. There seems to be no in between for me. I either am just happy that I don’t screw up a tune and get stressed that I suck. Getting to that steady pulse on the "middle" path might be where the Zen lives~someday. Don’t think I’d ever want to trade in that glow in the dark pink mustache on the Mona Lisa for a gray one tho’, Gam.

A couple of very kind and advanced folks, who saw me turning beet red when I buggered up a tune I usually know inside and out, said not to ever be ashamed of my music. Very kind folks indeed.

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It is good to play with friends…

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I also found that I had to be pretty smart about which sessions I went to. Around Central Scotland, there are plenty of high performance sessions where you will feel like a socially awkward waste of space if you go to them and fail to sound like a contender for the Young Traditional Musician of the Year award. Such sessions didn’t exist back where I’m from in the US (everyone is so NICE there), so there was a rather culture-shocked period of session hell when I first moved here and went to these and was not very happy. Luckily, after much faff, I did find some sessions that were a little more laid back and welcoming to the less talented.

So one aspect of it is being zen-like and accepting that for the most part, other people don’t care about your playing as much as you think they do. The other aspect is recognizing that in some cases, different sessions will have different expectations, and not all styles and abilities will fit into every session. You can make things worse for yourself by going to a session that, for whatever reasons, isn’t the right session for you. I for one have always found it really horrible, sitting in a session where no one even acknowledges your existence. Or worse, where you starting a tune is an opportunity for them to get up for a smoke break.

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Well played, Phantom Button!

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My playing ability definitely decreases with temperatures below 55 degrees. Hate playing in the cold. Be very wary of anyone who wants you to play outdoors in early spring/late fall!!

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Mark Harmer’s ‘Datsun cogs’ piece reminds me of the Ford Motor Company president, Bunkie Knudsen, who was fired by Henry Ford the Second, having been at daggers drawn with Lee Iacocca for some time. His dismissal prompted the succinct ‘Bunkie is history’ from one wag.
I know one particular player who starts a selection of rare and difficult reels just as mere mortals beamingly bow the last measure of The Silver Spear or some such. Used to bother me until I got Tullochgorum a la Natalie! Folly that. a mac. ( I do but jest re Tullochgorum).