Question about starting a private session…

Question about starting a private session…

Yep, yet another thread about sessions. I really don’t want to start a war so I’ll go straight to my question: to those of you who have experience running a private irish music session, what would be your suggestions?

I know that many cities have their own private or half private sessions. Those sessions that are disliked and hated by many as being so "snobbish" or "elitist". I am contemplating starting a session in my city with a few friends and would like it to be private. There are many beginner or intermediate sessions here. Beginners have a place to play, they can enjoy their favourite polkas and no one will criticize them if they’re out of tune or their rhythm is erratic. The problem is, there is no real session where more advanced players can keep a quality to their liking… most of the most experienced musicians left the city so there’s really no one with strong leadership to keep a hold on sessioners’ behaviour.

I was thinking of contacting a pub owner and telling him/her I’d like to run a "private Irish music performance" as a private session with 2-3 friends. I’d like to make clear with the owner that this is not an open session. If she/he accepts, the real challenge is to deal with other musicians in the city. Let’s assume the "session" is never publicized as an open session, and the owners know about it. How do you handle people who show up randomly and don’t fit your criteria. I don’t mind having a bad reputation in my city, to be the "snobbish evil ba$tard", but I’m not sure how to manage people who are not respectful of the "session rules".

I heard of many tricks from different session leaders. Sometimes, when there’s a person who starts a set of tunes and plays them in a very bad way, most musicians will get up and go for a pint… the musician will be left alone playing his tunes. Sometimes, the session leader will go sit close to the musician and talk to him/her honestly. But these tricks are for open sessions with stricter rules. Since my session would be private, could I simply tell the newcomer that he’s/she’s welcome to sit but has to follow some rules if he/she wants to join?

There’s a session in New York city which has a specific set of rules, and those rules go as far as to specify that if a specific musician shows up, the person next to the leader has to give his/her place to the friend of the leader. I’d rather have a totally private session than have to have such rules. I can understand the idea, but for me, having something half open with such rules seems harsher than simply closing the session.

This subject is a real can of worms and as I said, I’m not trying to start a fight. I’d like to hear from people who have experience with such sessions. I’d like to set it up in September so it will give me plenty of time to come up with a strategy. Thanks!

Re: Question about starting a private session…

Don’t hold it in a public place.

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Call it a band.

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Why not get in a few cans of Harp and Strongbow and invite your chosen friends to your place?

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In my area it isn’t a problem. People who like to "jam" (blues/country/whatever) don’t know any Irish music and never interfere (even show up) whenever/whereever we’re having an impromptu session. And we don’t go to their place. The chance (risk?) that a random visitor is carrying an instrument to the pub is minimal. The main problem (if we at all manage to get together) is avoiding the usual questions like "Do you play other kinds of music?", "Do you know the song….?" (if the listener has some clue) etc.

To avoid all of this, do a house session, just like a friend and I used to do. We played in his kitchen for hours with the four walls as the only audience.

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Gam and fiddler3 have the right ideas. No pub landlord is going to give you the time of day if they think you are going to turn away potential customers just because their playing isn’t up to your standard.

Remember that the relationship between pub and session is a two way thing - in return for the space to play you need to be giving something back to the pub - either drawing in musicians who all buy beer regardless of how good they are, or drawing in punters who come to hear the music. Your private session isn’t going to draw in hoards of thirsty bodhranists, so you need to put on a performance that will pull in non-playing punters. I.E. you’re a band.

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#1 Don’t list it here, or knowingly let anyone list it here.

#2 Round up a gang of sympathetic and capable participants.

#3 Definitely publicize it as a presentation of "live Irish Music," but not a session. You can even go so far as to make up a band name and use it if you want, but it shouldn’t be necessary and it might discourage as-yet unknown but capable musicians from joining in. Your little gathering can be a session in all but name, open to any capable, experienced musician of good will and good manners.

I know I will be called elitist and worse, but…I’m really happiest playing in smaller group settings with like-minded players, and this is a way to achieve that end.

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How do you know there is not already a private session and you are not invited?

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Seriously though, several ways to go about it, all of which i attend regularly
Take over a session and tell people they cannot play like that (sorry for the offence)
Start a new session out of town and only invite people you want to play with
Start a fight with people you do not like in the session
Go to sessions with people not frightened to tell other players "do you know this tune"

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At the sessions I’ve been involved with hosting, part of the agreement with the management is that we provide some reasonable level of quality of music for the patrons, and we have the authority to ask anyone to refrain from playing if required, with the full backing of the pub owner.

If your session is like ours, you may only have to play the enforcer once a year, but it’s important to have the option and the authority.

We’ve been very successfully running our Tuesday night session at The Ould Sod here in San Diego this way since 2000. I think we have found a workable balance between an open and closed session structure. We’ll let pretty much anyone who has respect for the music and the other players play, even if they only know a few tunes, and do our best to help those serious about the music to help them get started, or to learn more of the tunes commonly played around here.

I could list out some specifics, but really, the rules pretty much come down to respect the music and be kind to each other.

I shouldn’t have to tell you to tune your instrument, or not speed up the set that the beginner started, or not to noodle loudly on the tunes you clearly don’t know. You should already know that.

If you don’t, well then your mother didn’t raise you properly. 🙂

Without a doubt, there are those in the local scene who don’t agree with out we run things. That’s fine, there’s other sessions they can play in, or they can start their own. Our barn, our rules.

Willy Baldly, do what you think is right and don’t try to make everyone happy, it’s a waste of energy. Get the backing of your pub owner to enforce some reasonable rules of conduct and build your session community with other like-minded musicians.

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I agree with Jeff Lindquist - hold it in private. You may have to provide the beer, possibly crash pads for those who over-indulge and can’r get home.
If you want to do it in public, as also said, then you have to call yourselves a band, "Flogging Gretchen and the WhipCrackers" or whatever. Then see if the landlord really wants you there ( always the big problem ) AND if you get an audience.
Personally, I always try to make people welcome in the circle of musicians, encourage the beginners, buy a round. Only once did I take an incompetent bodhran player aside and say "This is how they play them in Irish music" NOT "Bog off and don’t come back". He didn’t come back but maybe he’s practising…..
Yes, you are being snobbish.
How would you have felt as a novice if you had been treated as you plan to do to other people ? Would you still be playing now ?

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Thanks everyone!

@gam and others: Yes some of my friends and I have our weekly kitchen sessions, in an actual kitchen! But I’d like to have ONE session, if it’s only a session a month, in a pub. I love the pub setting for playing music.

@skreech: I’d like to have the session in a really quiet time for a pub, like Sundays afternoon, so that we’re not taking space that would normally belong to patrons. They’d have free quality irish music, I think it’s a good deal for the owner(s), at least for the ones who agree with me 🙂

@tlittlewazzock: <sarcasm> Impossible! No one on the planet would not want to play with me! </sarcasm>

@Michael Eskin: Thanks, I know/heard about your session and it makes sense to me. As you said, the key is to have the backing of the pub owner. That’s one of the things I have to work on.

@Eulic Mac Aoidh: We are like minded on this. Thanks for the suggestions.

I actually don’t care about what people think, but I still need to make it work. If I end up with a musician screaming at me for half an hour and complaining to the pub owner, I’ll get in trouble, maybe.

@Guernsey Pete: I’m not sure if you read my whole post but… there are MANY beginners sessions in my city. There is room for everyone. When I started, I was going to beginner/intermediate sessions. I did this for years. I was NOT playing on tunes I did not know. I was NOT noodling. When someone made a comment, I was VERY open minded about it and try to make necessary corrections. I’m not against beginners and often go to beginners sessions to support them. I help them play Out on the Ocean, The Kesh jig, your usual polkas, etc. I’m very respectful of their sessions. I expect the same from them but sadly it’s not the way it goes.

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I second (third? fourth?) the band idea. I’ve been a part of groups like this, where one or two people had a regular gig at a pub, and they essentially invited their friends along. Every once and a while someone who can really play comes along and joins in, but for the most part, it’s a semi-formal gig with a rotating cast of players. You get your high standard, the pub gets good music, and without the "session" label, no one gets the wrong idea about who is or is not welcome.

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@willy

Hi willy. I have just set up this account to reply to your interesting discussion. Its never easy to get nice tunes, especially when you just want to play with a few friends, however I find your attitude slightly worrying, especially when you quote,

"I’m not against beginners and often go to beginners sessions to support them. I help them play Out on the Ocean, The Kesh jig, your usual polkas, etc. I’m very respectful of their sessions"

I think this is shocking. For one, those tunes listed ARE popular amongst beginners…but what makes it a bad tune? And why should you have to be ‘respectful’ to those playing it? I’ve been very privileged to have won numerous All-Ireland titles on a variety of instruments, and I still love playing the Kesh Jig as part of a set if it works and I feel like it. (not that I feel anyone needs competition recognition to have an opinion or be seen as a good player, but that’s for a different thread)

Beginners are what keeps Irish music alive and well. We need people of all ages taking up the tradition and practicing. If you feel you are too good to play along with these "beginners" then you need to take a step back and ask why you are playing music?

I completely understand you want ‘nice’ tunes with your friends, and possibly tunes of a higher degree of difficulty. Easy way to solve this? Go to the session with your friends….watch the beginners, play with them, and start up your own set of tunes with your own friends. If the beginners don’t know the tunes, whats the issue?

Enjoy the tunes lads, and play until your hearts content.

Tuneman

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on the band idea, jazz combos operate like that a lot. The only trouble is you have to act like a band to a degree and go book the gig and start on time and whatnot. But there is something to be said for playing with a small group of friends that know each other well enough to read each others minds.

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@tuneman: I understand what you’re saying and I think your attitude is noteworthy but I don’t think I expressed my thoughts thoroughly. I’ve got nothing against Out on the Ocean or The Kesh Jig. But I’ll tell you one thing. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of tunes and it really drives me crazy to hear the SAME tunes week after week from the same people. I don’t consider myself an amazing player but I am serious enough about the music to practice every day and learn new tunes here and there. I love hearing new tunes as much as I love learning new tunes. So yeah, I don’t feel like having a crowd of 2-3 people in the session who will play the same 5-6 tunes every week at a sluggish tempo or any tempo whatsoever. I’m trying to learn tunes from Paddy O’Brien, Charlie Lennon, Reavy’s, Junior Crehan, Vincent Brodewick, etc etc… I recently learned a few tunes from Patrick/Paddy Kelly and my friends and I were passionate about discussing the origin of the tunes and the phrasing.

Also, have you ever played with noodlers? You know, people who play on tunes they don’t know? It ends up being chaotic, especially with whistle players. It’s not as simple as "start your tunes and they’ll start theirs". I *never* play on tunes I don’t know. I leave my instrument on the table. But many think they *need* to have their instrument in their hands and cover holes or push buttons to have fun. It’s really not the way I see things.

I’m guessing because I was not born in Ireland and have not been playing since I was 5 years old, the time I manage to have available to play music is very precious to me and I don’t have the luxury of "just taking it easy and going with the flow".

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@bigsciota: Yep thanks, the band thing looks like a very good idea.

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Love that video, Gam. The twice pipes and bouzouki really do it for me. They’re all great.

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One of the main drawbacks with playing in a pub is finding a quiet period when the musicians are available. It’s no good trying to arrange a tune, say Tuesday lunchtime when the pub is deserted, if all your mates are at work; and you are wasting your time trying to book a Friday night when all your mates are available.
Sunday lunchtime used to be great; but now it often clashes with sport on the television and/or Sunday lunches.
Ask your friends when they could make themselves available for a couple of hours — discounting weekends. You will probably lose one or two due to other commitments; but that’s just the way it works. Make a list of some likely pubs, and arrange for two or three volunteers (take your instruments) to scout out a couple of them during a likely quiet spell.
Have a beer and a chat to the staff and suss the place out. If you like the place and it’s quiet, ask the landlord (except he’ll most likely be upstairs, or shopping, or in somebody else’s pub) or whoever is behind the bar if you can have a tune ‘over there in that deserted corner’. If the answer is no, you don’t want to be there anyway. Have a few tunes and spend some money.
If nobody complains, as you are leaving ask if there is a particularly quiet time in the week when you might come in regularly for a tune. Let the landlord choose — he knows when he is quiet and when he is busy, and if he thinks he can fill in a slack period he will probably jump at the chance of a dozen paying (!) customers and free entertainment. If the time seems suitable for the majority give it a try, and maybe later, if the landlord is amenable, you can come to a better arrangement.
You might have to try lots and lots of pubs before you come to a satisfactory arrangement; but what the heck — it’s a hard life.

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Yes, we’ve found the best time for a session is Sunday afternoon, starting when the Sunday lunches go home and playing until the evening rush starts. The staff are being paid but the pub would be empty without us. But if you do it on that basis, if word gets out that there is a session and the bodhrans and djembis start turning up, I doubt if the landlord will be happy at you turning them away, because they’ll buy just as much beer as you do.

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I agree with all those who’ve said you’re talking about a band. You want to make it look like a session, but you’ve also got to make it clear that it isn’t one. Even sitting in a semicircle, - performance-wise might do that. You might need a mic and battery amp to announce sets.

If that’s not to your taste, hold it in private.

I don’t see anything elitist or snobbish in what you want to do, but it’s functionally a band, not a session.

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I don’t necessarily agree that it’s a band unless you have an agreed repertoire which you have planned to play or, perhaps, even a set list.

It’s quite possible for a select group of friends to get together and play very informally with no set repertoire.

There are sessions such as this already in which only a regular group(s) play.
Some may be completely "closed" while at others it is usually clear enough if you are welcome or not.
For instance, the session may be restricted to just one or two tables which will make it difficult for "Drop in" musicians to join in the proceedings. However, there’s nothing to stop the regulars inviting a known or good player to join them.

If it’s a busy pub anyway, the management may not want too many musicians (Who may not drink quite as much or, at least, not pay for too much) in a pub at one time when they could have "drinking" punters. So, they may be quite accommodating in allowing just one or two tables ONLY to be "Reserved For Musicians"

In some Edinburgh pubs and(probably elsewhere) it is often like this. Although most of the sessions are officially "Open", many of them do end up being fairly restrictive on a "de facto" basis. So, it will be generally the same group of players who will frequent them unless they say otherwise.

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What difference does it make to the audience/non-players whether there’s a set list or not?

Mind you, I think Michael Rooney who plays harp with Micheal O’Raghallaigh said something like "we always have a set list worked out in advance. One day we may play something that’s on it!"

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Yes in here the musicians are usually frowned upon by waitresses, because they’re usually broke and don’t drink much anyway.

I know that in Boston and New York there are quite a few semi private sessions that’s been going for years. The playing level there is very high (at those sessions) but I’ve often heard how "snobbish" the musicians were "over there". If I were to go at one of those sessions, I’d bring my instrument and I’d introduce myself nicely, asking them if I can join while promising not to screw up their session. I would not start any set and would do my best not to annoy them. The thing is, I’d be willing to accept that they might not want me there, I’d still get a pint and sit close listening.

The other thing I have to deal with in my city is the "session culture". I’m not sure exactly why but it seems many musicians here don’t know how to behave in a session. Well, they don’t know how to behave based on the standards I’ve seen around Ireland or other places in North America. You’ll have people who start a discussion in the middle of a set even though they’re sitting right next to a musician who’s playing. I very rarely see this elsewhere. That’s just an example but I’m pretty sure I would not need a private pub session if the "session culture" was different.

Thanks for all advices. Next challenge is to find a pub owner who agrees 100% with what I want to do 🙂 If not, I’ll probably stay inside house kitchens!

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the one thing that’s true is that if you are a "band" there are certain expectations people will have. People expect that you are there to entertain THEM for starters, that’s what you’re allegedly being paid for. I liked what someone said earlier about billing it as "Live Irish Music". That could mean almost anything and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are seeing a band and doesn’t make an open invite either.

But if I was in this positon, I’d just invite the fellas over to my house. Once you start dealing with the general public, you start having to be an entertainer. There’s alot more to doing gigs than just the playing

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Sorry, that wasn’t quite what I meant, Tom.

There is a difference though between having "worked out" sets of tunes or sets which get played on a regular basis.. "ad nauseum" in exactly the same manner as opposed to a more spontaneous or random choice of tunes.
So, if it was the latter scenario, it would still be a regular group of musicians but you wouldn’t(and neither would they) necessarily know what was coming next. Therefore, I’d suggest that this was a slightly different thing from a band situation.

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Fair points Johnny Jay.

Mind you, the pub band I play in, I never know what’s coming next, and I’m not sure anyone else does!

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How do you know there is not already a private session and you are not invited?

That’s fine with me. My ego is not bound up in others’ approval.

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I think you just have to go for it . In my experiance its very important have a good relationship with the bar . If a Djembee turns up or other not Irish traditional type player turns up at our session they are politely told to bugger off. If someone is a bad player we advise them who they can get lessons from this usually works round here .

David

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I ran a similar session for a while. Instead of calling it "private", I called it "invite only", and this was mainly because we had limited space. We worked to keep the level of music pretty high, but we didn’t forbid beginners from being there (but they all knew that the level of music was going to be higher than their ability, so many of them didn’t come because of that, and others did come just to listen, or occasionally join in…)

The "invite only" thing made it so that, other than the few standing invites, people would contact me to see if I had room. And nobody was offended if I said no. But it also made it so that I could have variety, and invite different players regularly. And after running this way for several years, it was pretty much taking care of itself. I very rarely had to turn people away that wanted to play, as long as I was able to keep the strong players coming…

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A very sane and helpful post Reverend. How did you deal with new arrivals in the pub, ie people who didn’t necessarily know it was invite only.

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Well, TomB-R, that’s a good question. One of the things about this session was that it wasn’t in a regular pub. It was in a restaurant that had nothing to do with Irish music. And I never advertised it to players (by posting it here, or anything). So it was really never an issue. We never had players blindly wandering in wanting to join. We would occasionally have someone who would ask about it, and we would tell them what it was (and what it wasn’t…) And we would often invite them to come play some time. But it wasn’t really an issue.

I could see it being a different thing if it’s an Irish Pub where people know that sessions happen, and expect to be able to join.

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Thanks for your insight Reverend. The thing is, for some reason I really want my private session to be in a pub. I guess I’m so used to have sessions in pubs that it’s part of the experience. I’d rather play home than play in a restaurant, somehow what would be the point? I guess I want many things but some of them are not possible. I’d still like to advertise the session for proficient out of town players or those who share my philosophy about sessions (can be anyone but needs to behave well)… but this is asking for trouble. I’ve seen a couple of semi open sessions with list of rules on a website. If you go to that session, you need to follow the official session rules there or you’ll be nicely asked to hit the road. Seems like another possibility but requires more dictatorship.

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One other piece of advice, and some of you won’t like it:

Take money out of the equation. Negotiate a few drinks and, if the place serves food, dinner for you and 1-2 friends. It takes a ton of pressure off of you to deliver a crowd and to perform to punters’ expectations. I would rather not get paid and be able to play what I want with whom I want and not have to put up with singing and doing song arrangements…yuck. And I will do it in a bar, and if it means that some professional ballad warbling hack loses a gig, so much the better, because I’m doing my bit to educate an audience instead of feeding negative Irish stereotypes AGAIN.

In the right conditions, it gives you room to grow technically and artistically while having a nice night out. You might even get good enough as a unit to do festival gigs as a band and begin touring together, if you’re young, ambitious, and without a lot of ties.

It also helps to have a sympathetic and somewhat knowledgeable publican.

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My plan is to ask for "staff priced" pints for the main session leaders, and nothing else. On a Sunday afternoon, when there’s no soccer/football, it won’t cost them anything and they’ll be able to say they’ve got live music. Most sessions I’ve seen disappear is when money was involved. Yes, some people won’t like it, those who play music professionally and not as a hobby.

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Where in the world are you Willy, roughly speaking? Some things you say make me think the US, other things make me think UK.

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Marvis,

Willy’s profile states that he drinks Harp lager and Strongbow cider, that should give you a very big clue.

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Yeah, I saw that Scutcher, but he also talks about America in this thread, in a way that makes me think he is there, hence my question…

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if he’s in America, then he’s not a sports fan. Our professional football mostly plays on Sunday afternoons.

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Well, my favourite sport to watch is Hockey, this should give you an idea 😉 By the way you can drink Harp and Strongbow pretty much anywhere in the world!

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Canadian, eh?

Thanks for sending Iggy over to our Pens, BTW.

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Sshhhhh… I’m delighted by Ottawa’s loss by the way, exactly what they deserved!

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All’s right with the world down here in PA after that one. Been alot of grumbling in the press lately but you’d hardly know it this morning. Oh yea, fill your fridge with beer. Needed to give some advice about a house session to balance out the hockey talk, and we’ll just see what the Sens are all about tommorrow night

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‘By the way you can drink Harp and Strongbow pretty much anywhere in the world!’

But why on earth would you considering the multitude of better beers around?

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i don’t know. get microphones? that seems to scare most people off. i say that you run it as a closed session. you don’t tell anyone about it besides the pub owner, and just start playing. then, as people find out about it and show up asking to play, you say, "oh, why don’t you sit out the first half and join in on the second?" that way, you are being both exclusionary and inclusive at the same time. in fact, you can do that without microphones, too. by the way, if YOU have a microphone, you can allow others to play with you that do not. this means that there is less of a chance that the music will be trampled by poor players, while good players can still play. i did a ceili once this way.

there was also once a session like this in my hometown, with microphones and a semi-closed nature. a well-known, irish fiddler happened to be playing every sunday and hosting a session for several years in this medium sized town in the midwest. various, world-famous luminaries (you have their CD’s, i’m sure) would pop in or co-host with this fiddler. when they weren’t there, sometimes the stand-ins would be more famous than the others!

funnily enough, the first time i went to this session i had no idea who these people were. i asked if it was an open session (the microphones said otherwise), and i was told to wait out the first half. after i politely waited until the intermission, i joined on stage for the last hour or so. after a few minutes, i realized that the guitarist next to me was wearing a backwards cap, which points to only one irish guitarist—the one that habitually wears caps backwards on stage (yes, it was him). needless to say, the combination of influences made me reconsider whether i should play again the next week! over time, i would tend to join in the second half, and after a few years a seat was saved for me to play from the beginning of the session. many others, however, joined in once or twice (they were very welcome) but stopped playing over time because they could not keep up. overall, there were many players such as myself that came in, played along, and had a great time.

i tell this story for two reasons. the first is that it shows the nice way of excluding people, which is by actually including them—just not for the whole duration. allowing people to play the second half establishes that the session is very gig like (or closed), while simultaneously setting the standard of playing that the musician will have to meet in the second half. it also establishes that you are in charge and that the guest has to play by your rules. this way, you will likely not have to enforce any rules as the guest will just defer to you.

the second reason i post this story is to show that you have to consider very carefully how you treat people. if world-class players will allow someone like me to play with them (sight unheard) at a gig-session, then you have to wonder if you really should be so exclusive. over the years, at this session i sat next to and played with countless players that are world-famous professionals. never once did i feel excluded or judged by any of them. by the same token, i was not always allowed to play with them for the duration. even once i had earned this right, there were weeks when they were practicing for a gig or trying out new ideas, and i was asked to sit out for most of the session. the takeaway is that you consider their example when dealing with guests that approach your session, asking to play. as i said, i’m sure you have some of these musicians’ CDs, so listen to your collection and ask yourself how you’d like these people to treat you.

overall, i think a semi-closed session can be done in a nice way that both establishes boundaries while including those who would like to play anyways.

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