Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Newbie poster and nascent musician here… I recently stumbled across a group that wants to start a beginner’s session. Primarily Scottish music, although some Irish tunes are allowed. (Surely that’s close enough to beg some advice from Irish trad musicians?)

The problem is that there are no established Scottish sessions -- or Scottish session musicians -- anywhere nearby. So we can’t ask an experienced musician in to anchor the session/teach a few tunes, nor can we visit another session to listen to and absorb tunes.

Okay, there are some other problems too: We don’t have a clear leader to set the tone, I don’t think we all have the same idea of what a session is in the first place, and the aforementioned problems are compounded because we all have our noses buried in sheet music.

When I first joined up I imagined that if we each learned a tune well enough to lead it, everyone else could then pick it up by ear (or not)… which could launch us on our way to building a common vocabulary of tunes and give us practice learning by ear, too. Nobody else seems to be on board with that, though, or perhaps at this point they’re just tuning out my squawking about putting the music away.

With all that in mind, I’m looking for advice as to how the logistics of a functional ALL-newbie session could possibly work, especially as regards reducing our dependence on sheet music. (I’m also beginning to suspect that since I’m the only one who seems to have an issue with the way things are, maybe I’m the problem and should just show myself the door. But I figured I’d ask before throwing in the towel.)

Sorry this is so long, and thank you for any advice.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Maybe a slow session is something that could suit the group?

If I interpret your post correctly, nobody has the skills nor enough tunes, so it will take some time to build up a decent repertoire, to be able to play the tunes at a decent tempo, preferably without sheet music, but nobody’s stopping you from meeting in private.

Good luck! (and Have fun!)

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

A session is a group of people who get together to play tunes. That may be all that sessions have in common, as there are so many different types of session. I knows that’s not answering the question, but sometimes it gets forgotten.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Where do you intend to meet up? At a pub? At each others’ homes? At a local hall? Student Union? Unless you know the pub governor well and s/he is sympathetic to your cause, maybe leave out the pub as s/he and the regulars may get bored quickly by your musical efforts (I’m not trying to be mean when I say this - we all had to start somewhere - someWHERE, literally.) Establishing where you meet is the very first thing you want to consider - after who you want to meet with, but sounds like you’ve done that bit already.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Or unless the pub has a little used upstairs room maybe …

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

We did this a few years ago and I collected the tunes that everyone suggested into a single collection that allowed people to say “let’s play the reels on page 23…” and off everyone could go. Learning tunes by ear is a good thing but at this stage you will struggle to find any common repertoire that everyone can play by ear. Here you need to work on things like playing the same tunes as each other, in time and in tune and trying to make it sound musical. Individually you should all work on your own repertoire based on lots of listening and learning what you like to hear. If you like a tune then add it to the group’s repertoire.

Someone needs to manage the collection and this person will of necessity have a certain influence on where the session goes, though they are not a leader as such. Try to keep sets together on one page and start playing full sets fairly early. Don’t add new tunes faster than the group learns to play the existing ones.

Also, note, very quickly the group will no longer need to look at page 23 to be able to play those reels as a set… Even if everyone still religiously opens the right page before starting…

Note, as soon as you start distributing paper copies of tunes you have to at least be aware of copyright issues… I had the collection as a single set of files on my computer which allowed me to run off a new copy of the whole set easily.

And find somewhere to play which does not involve innocent members of the public.

And individually, sooner or later this group will split and go its own way - this is a good thing. I still play regularly with several members of our original group in the regular sessions around here. But the group itself no longer exists.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Yea-ea-eah…but you still would need to be on good terms with the governor, or rent it…or buy sufficient quantities of libation…
(in answer to Ben’s post)

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

I can’t see how an all-newbie session could possibly achieve anything. Who is going to teach what to whom? Somebody has to be able to play something, at least to a reasonable standard, otherwise you’re just whistling in the dark, so to speak. Imagine a group of people getting together to teach themselves, say, traditional Chinese music. How could you possibly do it? Maybe I’ve misunderstood the situation, in which case please elucidate.

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Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

My initial experience of getting together with people “to work on things like playing the same tunes as each other, in time and in tune and trying to make it sound musical” (Crackpot above) was in a group of people many of whom hadn’t spent a lot time listening to the sort of music we were trying to play.

Even though there were couple of experienced ‘leaders’ I wonder if I would have been better off with a group of like-minded newbies who had a shared enthusiasm for that music and who, say, lent each other commercial recordings of versions of tune that they liked.

I guess people getting together to teach themselves Chinese music might be like people in China getting together to teach themselves Irish or Scottish music. We don’t have to image that - we have youtube.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

…don’t have to imagine that…

(reference to gam’s post)

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

It depends on whether this is supposed to be the sole source of information about (I/S)TM or not. If the people involved have all got an interest in the music and listen to it and talk to other people and go to other sessions (albeit to listen) and… Then it can work well as a start on getting into playing together with other people - and lets be honest; that’s where the fun is!

And if the members of the group never ever come into contact with “real” tradheads then who cares as long as they have fun…

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

And it should be possible to find the odd non-newbie or two who can maybe occasionally come by - or perhaps you could visit workshops, or… The pointers to the right way are out there for those who seek them. (As a last resort, youTube)

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

“When I first joined up I imagined that if we each learned a tune well enough to lead it, everyone else could then pick it up by ear (or not)… which could launch us on our way to building a common vocabulary of tunes and give us practice learning by ear, too.”

On the face of it, this seems as good an idea as any BUT for some time you might be playing the tune(s) on your own with others listening (and vice versa) until everyone eventually picks up them up.

This may upset a few people here but, in your circumstances, where there are not that many highly experienced musicians or a clear leader it might be an idea to start off with more of a “round the room or company” type format. Not necessarily with singers although it might not be a bad idea to welcome some of those too if you don’t feel confident enough to play tunes all night. So, as you suggest, each of you could lead a set of tunes in turn and the other musicians would join in as and when…

As for using books, that’s probably OK if you are leading the tune and know exactly when and where it is but don’t expect the other musicians to go hunting through them for the tunes or waste time yourself doing this if it’s someone else who is starting the tune. I always take the approach that if I don’t know the tune it’s too bad. There’ll be another one along in a minute!

As Danny suggests, it’s probably not a good idea to hold the session in a pub with lots of punters. They can get grumpy at the best of times and can accuse even good experienced players of just “practising”! However, many establishments have back rooms and lounges which are often unused during the week and you can usually buy your drink at the main bar and take it through.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Yes, an all newbie session can work, but you need to approach it in an organized way. If you think you can just get together and play some tunes, like a regular session, then it will quickly descend into chaos.

1. Leadership. The group does need a leader - not for the the playing but for the organizational side of things - liaising with the venue, setting the date of the next session, making sure everyone has the resources they need, keeping the meeting moving, etc etc.

2. Repertoire. Get everyone in the group to to bring along a tune or two that they want the group to learn. They should bring along a commercial recording of their tunes, and sheet music if you are going to use it. Inevitably you will need to weed out the awful dance-band kitsch, tunes that are way too hard for the group or in impossible keys, this should be done democratically, so that the whole group decides on the repertoire. Once you have decided on your first few tunes, someone needs to collate the recordings onto a single playlist or burn a CD so that everyone in the group has a copy. ( it might be worth using slowdown software and including a slowed version of the tunes on the CD, so that people have something to practice with at home)

3. Playing. Every tune needs a leader, but it doesn’t have to be the same person the whole time. I would suggest that each person acts as leader for the tunes they brought to the group. The leader should know the tune and be able to play it through before bringing it to the group. For each tune play the recording through two or three times so that everyone can hear how it is supposed to go, then have the leader play it at a reasonable tempo while the rest try to join in.

4. Don’t try to do too much too quickly. Don’t introduce more than one or two new tunes each week. After the first couple of weeks, once you have a few tunes under your belts, spent the first part of the session going back over tunes from previous weeks, then introduce a new tune or two in the second half.

5. Have fun. Keep things as light and informal as possible, remember that the social aspect of a session is just as important as the music. It is a group activity, and the better players should be helping the slower ones, not getting frustrated by them.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Good suggestions there, Screech. Anybody who knows a tune well enough could share it. That’s what we’re doing around here, in Irish sessions and other situations where musicians get together. The times we meet in public, there’s no “teaching” involved (and nobody uses sheet music anyway, everyone learn by ear).

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Lisa, from your post you are obviously very intelligent and practical, and given that, I’m confident that your group will do well. (Unless nobody can agree on anything and it descends into bickering… but somehow I don’t think it will.)

Crackpot’s suggestions appear to be a good way to go. If you get everyone playing together well on a number of tunes you’ve certainly accomplished quite a bit.

You may have to face the fact that some people can’t ever be weaned away from sheet music. You’re not going to win that battle with some people… sometimes you have to ‘pick your fights’ and you may find it’s better to be more inclusive and have sightreaders in your group. Perhaps an ‘ear only’ subgroup will develop later?

Good luck!

“One For All & All For One!!!”

My blessings on you Mary and your venture. Keep strong, your heart and hopes are in the right place.

Just for starters, already kind of asked here, but where are you and where do you meet up, and how often? Have you added it to the ‘Sessions’ database here yet?

There are also a few others I know here who help coordinate similar activities, if not ‘ALL beginners’, at least not in the absolute sense of ‘beginner’, which some are lifelong, of varying degrees and definitions. I’ll be knocking on their digital doors and sending them the link to here.

Consider using support media, at least for say a part of the evening, possibly an opening where you learn a part of a tune slowly, possibly even attempting that without the dots? By support media I mean things like those produced by Matt Cranitch and others, for example:

“Seamus Creagh: Tunes For Practice”

Or for something whistle specific ~ Geraldine Cotter’s works? And, you could always use one of the slow down software options to do that and break it up into parts to help teach? My experience is that such things work ~ solo, one to one, and in groups…

Rushing out now for some needed fresh air, if wet, but I’ll send those emails and will chase up some other things that you might find useful. There are lots of good people on site here with this kind of experience that will no doubt continue to offer guidance and support.

It really is that much more fun when the sheets are abandoned and the attention is more on the music and listening. There’s been some interesting research recently on how the ears and the brain advance in ways audio when sight is barred, like with blindfolding, and this also true with old brains, disproving an old wives‘ tale that could be reduced to “You Can’t Teach an Old Dog/Brain New Tricks”. They’ve proved in this research you can, and that the brain continues to make and reorganize connections. The improvements in hearing were still there after the blindfold was removed, or however it was they cut of sight. Making ’connections’ in this music is also about listening to one another, and getting into the same groove. It is part of that joy of sharing, being at one in the music, and sheet music gets in the way of that, distracts from it, making a full connection to the music and to one another, in a Three Musketeers sort of way…

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Hi, Lisa M. You say, “I recently stumbled across a group that wants to start a beginner’s session. Primarily Scottish music, although some Irish tunes are allowed.”

That leaves me with a lot of questions (apologies if I missed answers to them, in the discussion so far): How big a group? Are they all close friends, or random acquaintances? How did they happen to settle on “Scottish, with some Irish tunes allowed”? What’s the general ability level, on their instruments--are they beginners at playing music, or just at playing trad music? Are they primarily interested in playing tunes in somebody’s kitchen, or does it have to be a crowded pub?

Maybe--if things are not really coalescing as you’d like, with the larger group--you might consider learning a good number of tunes with just one or two people first. Then the two or three of you could start up a session with an established direction.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

p.s. There’s no substitute for in-person lessons with an expert, but the Web does provide a wealth of options for learning about traditional music--YouTube clips, online canned lessons, online live lessons with Skype, organizations for Scottish and Irish music…. Seek, and ye shall find. 🙂

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Good luck, will be interesting to see how the session developes. I too am curious how you guys decided on “scottish with some irish tunes allowed”

Nigel Gatherer

Who first came to mind reading your intro, and who is also an active and positive contributing member of this site. I’ll drop him a line as well. No doubt he can add some constructive guidance here, as too the second person that came to mind, Kenny, if he’s about and in the mood.

Both of these two gems have put a lot of time into supporting music in their locale, in particular Scottish traditional music, and Irish too…

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Ditto the additional questions Rick May asks ~ any and all history is welcome, such as how long you’ve been going, what’s your repertoire to date, and have you set any rules and expectations, or at least discussed structure? How does one of your evenings unfold, what happens???

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On media support, here are a few YouTube recommendations:

The Online Academy of Irish Music
Beginner Irish Tin Whistle | Free Lesson No.1 of 6: Hand and Finger positioning - D Major Scale

She starts it out right, from the top down, and nicely done, and a relaxed hold… Never over extend/arch, fingers or thumbs, all should be relaxed. You support the whistle, you don’t grab it or grasp it. The hold should be light. The description of the hold here is one of the best I’ve seen, in print or online.

Brother Ryan G. Duns
Beginner TIn Whistle Lesson #1: Roddy McCorley

A Jesuit’s Tin Whistle Lesson: Week One

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Hi Lisa,
A friend an I started a mostly Irish with some Scottish and occasionally Breton music beginners group in Dorset about seven years ago. We regularly get attendances between 7 and 23 people. We started originally with a core set of well-known tunes, then after about three years we decided that learning by ear was the way to go.
So we now devote the first half of the evening to learning a new tune chosen by us which they all learn by ear played by a leader in sections repetitively. You will be surprised how quickly people pick up the tune, usually three quarters of an hour is enough for the tune to be being played fairly satisfactorily. After coffee we hand out the sheet music of the tune we have just learnt and then play any other tunes on our previously played list, with or without sheet music. This seems to work quite well as a format. We also have a website which you might find useful.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

At our beginner(slow) sessions, the 1st week of the month they would teach tunes and the 3rd week of the month they would go over the tunes we learned. The leader always made sure the newcomers had the resources we needed. Lists, CD’s, and even recommended listening. And if I’m not mistaken, there were two leaders sort of. One of them took more initiative, but the other one helped teach the tunes(If I’m not mistaken, they may have learned tunes together in private and then brought them to the session to teach.)

The beginner session was hosted by a music shop and they posted all of their session information on their music shops website. They included a list of tunes that would be taught as well as a list of tunes already learned. I was a part of the session for almost 2 years and they increased their repertoire a lot from when I started going. And they helped me a lot.

So I agree with others above. Someone needs to take initiative and be leader. That could be you considering you’ve already gone to the lengths to finding help for your session.

As for teaching tunes. The way our leaders did it was they would bring a recording of the tunes they wanted to teach. They would play the recording over a few times so we could get an idea how the tune sounded. Then they would play the tune very very slowly and teach it in sections. As was stated above, we were able to pick up the tunes pretty fast. That was mostly because the leaders learned the tunes really well and didn’t make mistakes when playing them(leading them) for us. Also, if lthey noticed us struggling, they would let us listen to the recording a few more times to get it into our head more.

I hope all this helps 🙂 Good luck with your session! I envy you! There’s only 2 of us traditional players in my area and we just learned about each so we still haven’t met yet. But it’s awesome that you have found others that are interested in The Music, I hope you guys have a good time and experience.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

You can learn the basic tunes when everyone is a beginner, but your style may leave a lot to be desired. My wife and I learned together from sheet music, and when we finally started playing out at sessions, found that we still had a lot to learn and a lot of adapting to do.
Although, playing music with your friends is always fun, so in the end, my advice is to go for it, and enjoy yourselves!

Beginner / Slow Session ~ In Discussion

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# Posted by Andee - February 8th, 2009

Dublin Sessions Beginner-friendly for learning tunes
# Posted by shinners1 - October 4th, 2010

Running a slow session is good for you…
# Posted by cag - March 3rd, 2011

Seamus Ennis Centre slow session
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slow sessions in UK
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Slow session invite
# Posted by Thornton Co.Grafton - May 20th, 2013

Traditional music class & slow session for learning adults
# Posted by Ceoltóirí Chluain Tarbh - January 12th, 2014

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Links to information on two other groups here in Northwest of England:

The Palatine Fiddlers

The Lakeland Fiddlers

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Keep open for ‘guests’, you never know when someone useful might be passing through or near, and you’d be crazy not to take advantage if the advantage were there ~ to expand your learning with direction from someone willing to share their experience, understanding and skill. And the other good thing to do is to go out and gather experience to yourselves, near and far and visiting Ireland ~ taking in any workshop opportunities that might be available, and bringing that knowledge back into the fold to share afterwards ~ benefiting the community both ways, welcoming visitors and visiting…

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Lisa M. Where are you? I’m sure you could find and invite players to put on house concerts or host workshops and similar things. Working musicians are always looking for gigs and those tend to be very nice ones.

A donation box might be a good idea to raise funds for such a thing. People have already stressed organization, a treasurer might be a thing to add to the list.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Wow, thank you everyone for the excellent advice and suggestions. I thought I’d be lucky to get one reply! To answer the questions asked in return:

- I’m in Anchorage, Alaska, USA. There is one long-established Irish trad session here, which I’ve spent the last few years hanging around as a dancer. So I’ve done plenty of listening, but only one of the others seems inclined to do the same thing. It’s kind of a moot point, anyway, since this particular group is so focused on Scottish tunes (which we can’t really pick up at an Irish session), and since to the best of my knowledge there are no slow/teaching sessions in town, of any sort, that we could listen at to see how the tunes are picked up.

- Why mainly Scottish tunes? Because the group was started by a piper who’d gotten tired of the great highland pipes, switched to Scottish smallpipes, and wanted to build a session around them. The smallpipes’ very limited range rules out a lot of Irish tunes.

As a definite point in his favor, said piper realized his pipe band training didn’t prepare him for session playing and had someone up from out of town to explain what a session was and how to play together… all but one of the people in the core group attended that two-day workshop which really seemed like a great introduction to the concept of listening to and playing with each other.

- Socially, there are a couple of prior acquaintanceships at play -- including a couple of pipers who are there with non-piping instruments -- but otherwise we were more or less all strangers to start out. There’s a core group of about 5 or 6 of us, plus one or two that occasional swing by.

- Ability-wise everyone (except for me) has some degree of expertise with their instruments in -other- styles of music… folk, classical guitar/violin, etc. I think we might actually sound okay because we’re playing in public once a week (at a pizzeria, which swallows the noise so that you can’t hear us unless you’re right on top of us) and at least one or two strangers usually stop by each week to say we sound great. Or maybe only the good notes live long enough to make it to their ears, who knows.

I think the problem isn’t so much a lack of playing ability -- except for me, maybe, and if I’m making a mess of things, I just stop and wait until the bit I can play comes back around. The problem is more a social one of why we never made it to our goal of actually playing together (as opposed to just playing the same notes in close proximity to each other). I realize we won’t necessarily sound like that long-established session right off, but that “fishes in a stream” feeling of all swimming in the same musical current is in mighty short supply right now… and we’ve been meeting once a week for at least six months.

- We currently don’t have a leader because the piper who started things said he refused to lead any longer -- he didn’t really explain why. One of the other players did say he’d step up and lead, but it’s only been a week or two and I don’t see any change in the dynamic yet. It’s all a little odd.

Sooo… I’m starting to think that the others are quite happy with where we are, that we have achieved their definition of becoming a “session” -- which would make me the problem, since I have a different idea of what the word means and have been trying to push us in that direction.

That’s why I wanted some advice, which you all have given me in spades -- THANK YOU! Now that I have some practical ideas of how we could get where I initially -thought- we all wanted to go, I can run them by the group (we meet tomorrow!) and see if anyone is interested in giving it a try. If yes… great. If not I’ll probably show myself the door sometime soon, since I really came into this hoping for a session and am only going to antagonize some very nice folks by trying to push them into doing something they don’t want to do.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

To reply to a few others… hey b.maloney, I’m a Maloney too! 🙂 Of course you and ceolachan are quite right, but the group’s determined focus on Scottish tunes and our relatively isolated location (Alaska, USA) make finding visiting musicians quite a challenge. As far as I can tell we have a pretty healthy Irish trad community up here, not like somewhere on the East Coast but considering the size of the population, there are a lot of musicians coming and going. Scottish musicians, on the other hand… not so much. If the group is willing, though, maybe we could have a couple of the Irish players in to help us learn to play together.

To those who asked about how our evening unfolds … well, people trickle in, maybe chit-chat for a little while, but it’s not long before someone says “let’s play something.” Then out come the music stands and the sheet music. We’d all gotten used to the piper choosing the tunes, but he’s making a concerted effort to get others to pipe up (ha, ha) as well.

We all follow the same player (the fiddler) on every single tune because he is, far and away, the most technically adept among us -and- the best at reading music. We have a few sets put together, but other than those we just hunt and peck through the two books we all have, picking out individual tunes. We play them more or less exactly as the dots on the paper tell us to, usually once or twice through, then stop. Someone picks another one, and off we go again.

On the surface that’s not too bad for a session with sheet music, is it? But we’ve been together six months and we’re still missing whatever magic ingredient helps us gel and actually play together. I strongly suspect that missing ingredient would be listening to each other as we play, and it’s my best guess that getting rid of the sheet music would help us to do so… if only because most of us (fiddler aside) aren’t such great sight-readers, so it takes some concentration for us to read the dots.

OR maybe everyone else is gelling just fine, even with the dots, and I’m the only one with a problem -- but I don’t think so. I can feel it when we do sync up sometimes -- we just can’t stay synced, even for the length of a tune. Or maybe my expectations are totally unrealistic and we’re really doing fabulous, considering how long we have been together?

Okay, that’s probably enough from me for now. Sorry for blathering on at such length. I’m very grateful to whoever suggested that a few might join in a separate slow session, by the way -- I hadn’t thought of that, but I think there are a couple that might do so, even if the entire group isn’t interested in the idea.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

You’ve answered it yourself……….lose the dots and start listening to each other.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

the blind leading the blind. for sure lose the notation and use your ears but you have to listen to someone who can really play the music even if it’s a recording, at least for a start.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

“We all follow the same player (the fiddler) on every single tune because he is, far and away, the most technically adept among us -and- the best at reading music. We have a few sets put together, but other than those we just hunt and peck through the two books we all have, picking out individual tunes. We play them more or less exactly as the dots on the paper tell us to, usually once or twice through, then stop. Someone picks another one, and off we go again.”

The day you have a lot of tunes in common, lose the idea of sets and take turns changing tunes. (the other day, I think someone called that a Road set). In a group of six-seven musicians, somebody starts a tune and just before you feel you’ve played it enough times, give someone else a nod as in “Hey, if you have a tune ready, take over the set!”.

The transitions aren’t always smooth, but it’s great fun. It’s a challenge to come up with something, to play tunes in other combinations, to play a particular tune YOU like - after a couple of rounds it’s someone else’s turn anyway. 🙂

A friend and I used to “duel” like this in his kitchen. We had a blast every time. During a memorable session weekend with some long distance friends, we sat in a big circle and took turns like this. One particular set lasted 45 minutes.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Thanks Jeff, I’ll suggest that and see if anyone’s willing to give it a try… sounds like a lot of fun. Even if just one other person is willing to have a go, we’ll be on to something good.

Leoj and Minijackpot, glad to hear the confirmation that I am on the right track about losing the dots. It’s really strange, I’ve mentioned that at our “session” multiple times -- in fact, I think the others are tired of hearing me say it. The initial response was “Yes, you’re right! We’re going to work on that!” and now it’s become a defensive “We have people here who can’t learn without sheet music.”

We are indeed the blind leading the blind to some degree; no shame in admitting the truth. At least now I’m armed with lots of good advice from everyone here -- thank you again, very much -- so we’ll see if the group is willing to give any of it a try.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Nicely blathered, laid out and described, a valuable addition to the discussion.

“we just hunt and peck through the two books we all have” ~ Lisa M.

Which two books?

“most of us (fiddler aside) aren’t such great sight-readers, so it takes some concentration for us to read the dots.” ~ Lisa M.

You’re not alone, that’s usually the case, though some delude themselves that it’s not the case. As long as you’re reading, in a major sense, you’re not really with the music

“maybe my expectations are totally unrealistic” ~ Lisa M.

No, they’re not, and plenty of people have succeeded. One of ours, alias Bannerman, he ran two beginning/slow session, in Dublin and in Ennis, and his only complaint, quite gently made, was the success, many who started with him were soon playing out in the local sessions. But, he never seemed to have a problem filling seats…

Wherever one, yourself, and maybe a few more, extend themselves, meet challenges and progress ~ that benefits more than just those immediately involved. Go for it! Try not to make your changes too soon, to fall into another potential trap. Give any single tune some time, and 3 or 4 times through isn’t unreasonable, but once or twice, really, that is, doesn’t allow enough time to find the groove together and hold it, or to get intimate with any given melody. Savour it, don’t rush through one to get to the next tune. Don’t be in a hurry…

A friend who helps coordinate a local slow session here was sharing with me some ideas of how to move beyond the dots. I did drop him a line hoping he’d add his tuppence worth, but I suspect he’s probably ‘away’ again. I’ll dig out the bit where we were sharing those ideas via text and see if there’s something there I can add in his absence. It doesn’t have to be ‘cold turkey’, you can move away from the dots and into the music a little bit at a time. I was working with one fledgling ceilidh band that was very much addicted to their music stands, sheet music, the dots. I got some of them dancing to their own music, and then we worked on one simple polka. The difference, as they started to hear each other and make a much fuller connection, was amazing, and it wasn’t just myself and dancers that could tell it, feel it, the musicians were starting to as well.

Are you familiar with those pictures there used to be of dots you connected to find out what the picture was? In the end you can identify the picture, but there’s no colour and it’s all dots and lines. It’s worse than a pixelated graphic. That’s what dots to to the music, you connect the dots up, but it’s colourless and jagged. I’ve never ever known anyone that wasn’t glad to break free of that dependancy. Funny, I can teach notation to someone in an hour, given their full attention, and with some fun. But to break someone of their dependancy on the dots ~ like any bad habit, it’s difficult to undo, and damn near impossible if they don’t understand the benefits and the need. In so many ways it reminds me of addiction.

As others have said, you’ve got the right notions on this, further proven with your latest contribution ~ go for it, have faith…

Beginner Sessions / Slow Sessions / Learner Sessions ~ making connections & writing grants

Pooling resources, & some ‘nearby’ contacts that might help, based there in The Pacific Northwest? -
Juneau / British Columbia / Washington State ~ lovely folk in all these places, speaking from experience and having done workshops along the West Coast, and beyond. 😉 The islanders, just down from you, meaning Vancouver Island and Victoria, and thereabouts, will no doubt be glad to help if they can. Cooperation and coordination are also part of tradition.

Juneau - Alaska Folk Festival

Victoria Folk Music Society

Victoria Fiddle Society

B.C. - Roberts Creek
The Coast School of Celtic Music Society

B.C. - Vancouver -

Washington State ~

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Fiddler Magazine

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& an excellent contact to have on the West Coast: Alasdair Fraser
Here’s a dedicated nut, the sort I have great respect for, who would, I’m sure, gladly help you widen your connections.

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Grant writing ~

Universityof Colorado at Boulder - Center for Humanities and the Arts

Michigan State University:
See link at bottom ~

There are no shortages of books on the subject, from “Grant Writing for Dummies” to “The Only Grant-Writing Book You’ll Ever Need”, and this one, art centered, but one I’m unfamiliar with:
“The Artist’s Guide to Grant Writing” by Gigi Rosenberg

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Other resources - not forgetting the wider Scotland ~ The Isles, The Shetlands, The Canadian Maritimes, Cape Breton Island, P.E.I., etc…:

Cranford Publication ~ Paul Cranford

Taigh na Teud / Scotland’s Music

The Highland Music Trust

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Best of luck, and let us know how it goes, keep us in that loop ~ ‘c’

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

I thought I couldn’t learn by ear. I went to workshops where no dots were given until the end and I found I could. Very hard at first, but the sense of achievement was amazing. Now it’s becoming second nature. Go for it!

A few favourite recordings that feature some fine Scottish whistling:

“Julie Fowlis: Mar A Tha Mo Chridhe”

“Julie Fowlis: Cuilidh”

“Julie Fowlis: Uam”

“Eamon Doorley, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Julie Fowlis, Ross Martin: Dual”

“Iain MacDonald: First Harvest”

“Breabach: The Big Spree”

& a YouTube too:

Aberdeen whistle player Scott Williams: march/strathspey/reel

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Thank you for all the resources, ceolachan! Especially for the videos/recordings of whistle playing… and minijackpot for the encouragement to go for it 🙂 I actually discovered that I am capable of learning by ear a couple of weeks ago when I tried it out of sheer frustration. It was neither pretty nor easy, but I was able to pick up the Swallowtail Jig and part of the Rites of Man from the fiddler. If I can learn to make a start at that, I know the others can too.

I guess we’ve only really got one book we’re working from, it’s “The Seabeck Collection for Smallpipes and Fiddle” from the Celtic Arts Foundation. The second book, as it were, is mostly a reduced collection of that with a few random additions. We’ve also been swiping dots from various online collections including here.

The whole group wasn’t there last night, but those of us who were talked about it and they seem open to incorporating more learning by ear… especially when it came up that if we CAN’T accustom ourselves to learning by ear, we won’t ever be able to sit in at other sessions. Also, for the first time we spent most of our time on just two new-to-us tunes (Jig of Slurs and Lark in the Morning) and it had a great effect on the mood, everyone seemed happy and relaxed with how we spent our time.

I came armed with recordings but they didn’t seem thrilled about learning from those, whereas they were happy to follow the fiddler or (for the first time) me… so until we can get someone else to join in “teaching mode,” I guess it’s up to us to start the ball rolling by leading a tune or two from memory.

So how does reaching out to other nearby folks (in the islands and Pacific NW, etc.) work? Do you just say “Hey, if you ever come up this way, would you care to share a tune or two?” … that is unless/until we can get ourselves organized enough to pay someone’s way up here to teach.

P.S. I had no idea Alasdair Fraser lived in the USA, much less on the West Coast! I heard him and Natalie Haas play up here last year… they were really something else.


Glad to hear the positive news about your group having consensus in your hopes, and the raised spirits in this regards. Good on you for being brave and passionate. Keep up the good work…

Grants! ~ You’re perfectly set up to qualify for grants, and while things might be slimmer than they were, they are still out there, and often they go unclaimed, or with little competition. A good source for guidance there would be any further or higher education establishment there, also worth contacting, and often a good venue for any related future workshops or festivities. Also, the Juneau folk are familiar with tapping into this revenue resource, and, as I remember, even have a lawyer in their midst, at least one. I’ll see if I can chase up a specific contact there for you. It’s a good community.

First contact first, say hello, then make sure you keep communications open and active, which would be even better if you or members of your community were able to attend their activities, and meet face-to-face. Just write and say hello, say what you want to accomplish, and that you’d love to try and coordinate visits between when there’s talent coming in, for whatever reason, or ~ their own local talent.

You do need to be careful though, some folks will jump at an opportunity to promote themselves if there’s anything like grant money going, and while their passion may be impressive, and their belief in themselves, too often the ability doesn’t meet the belief in self, either as a musician, or a teacher, or both. The better ones usually have a history and you can confirm with others about their capabilities. A good judge of character, with a lot of experience at festivals and workshops all over North America and beyond, is the character already mentioned ~ Mr. Fraser, who has a long history of teaching and promoting Scottish traditional music. While I’ve yet to enjoy a workshop with him, others I respect speak favourably of his ability to raise standards in the playing of others.

So, write, say hello, and why not share this thread with the rest in your group, and with anyone else you make contact with, if it will help in understanding your hopes, goals.

Back to using recordings to learn from, don’t forget the ability to slow them down and to break them up into parts, and phrases, to help facilitate picking them up by ear. You could just set one meeting a month to do it that way and see how it goes. It’s also a good idea to keep mostly to just two part tunes, rather than the heavier multi-part tunes, and those two-parters are what is the more common structure called on for dancing, as too the usual maths for those ~ 8 + 8 + 8 + 8 = 16 + 16 = 32 bars. The more common way to teach by ear is to break things down into at least 4 bar phrases, but that can also be down in 2 bar phrases too, or a bar at a time, and then you build up to a longer phrase, and then a part. In some places they even limit their teaching, with beginners, to one part at a time, whether that is from one week to the next, or one day to the next, or one workshop to the next. With advanced beginners then a tune a meeting can work, but you also risk running out of time to stay connected to the tunes you already have. Ideally with each meeting you learn a part or a tune and before the night is out you revisit it and play it again.

Had a good night of dance and music last night, despite still fighting this cold which remains in the chest, and coming back here I remember I forgot to chase up that discussion with my friend Nick, another view on learning by ear, something they’ve been trying with their group. I’ll chase that up now.

The collection you’ve mentioned, “The Seabeck Collection for Smallpipes and Fiddle”, that’s one I’m unfamiliar with. I’ll have to check it out.

Celtic Arts Org & “The Seabeck Collection”

Alas, it seems, are no more, their website, and a link to a PDF of this collection, appear to be defunct, sadly. I was hoping to check out the version in this collection.

I’ve written Nick, and hopefully, if he isn’t way far away gallivanting around some mountain range or canal system, one of us will return and add that way of ear training he’s seen work well with some of those in his slow session group.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

“Alas, it seems, are no more, their website, and a link to a PDF of this collection, appear to be defunct, sadly.”

I think they are having server problems. I got the home page after a wait.

Chorley “Slow and Steady” Session ~ Nick’s way… 😎

I’ve just received a response from Nick on how his slow session has developed with regards to moving more into the ‘light’ of their ears and hearing, listening. The poor lad has been ill, and is still, though it sounds like something different from what is ailing me. 🙁 Let’s hope we’re both on the mend, I’m hoping to convince some fledgling musicians to make a visit to Nick’s group next month.

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I used the jig “Balance the Straw” as the first 4 bars are repeated in the A and then in the second half of the B. (c: There are plenty of Irish and Scottish tunes built on a similar repeating structure)

I had the first bar in full then say |c3 d3 | just two notes per bar then last bar in full.

It worked well because it gave them an anchor mid tune.

We also noticed when they got lost they would listen to the music being played to get back in. Result 🙂 they’re listening.

Also, because we play the same set of tunes each month they’re getting to know them so well now that in the second half we pick a tune and tell them to close the books. It’s a bit ragged to start, but 3rd time through its getting there.

Hope this makes some sense. ~ Nick

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Thanks Weejie, I did try repeatedly and had waited a spell, but am glad to hear they are still in the present. Maybe eventually I’ll get through. If the PDF for the collection is still live I’ll add that link as well, for reference.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Yes… I think the CAF is still there. Their homepage link - - works just fine for me. It was their executive director, Skye Richendrfer, that came up and did the basic “this is what a session is” workshop. I think he did an excellent job, particularly of stressing the importance of listening to and playing with each other… actually the apparent difference between session music and the competitive/performance pipe-band background some of our members come from makes me think of the difference between dancing to live (and lively) music at a session and dancing as part of a formal Irish dance school. In both cases the latter can build great levels of technical ability, but doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the more nuanced aspects of the former.

I found this PDF link for the Seabeck Collection -- the first page or two display some gibberish, but the rest seem to show up okay:

Thanks for relaying Nick’s advice! Yes, that does make perfect sense -- especially the bit about keeping it simple, which we seem to have a problem doing 😉 Hopefully next time we can choose something simpler to work on. Thanks also for the etiquette primer on contacting nearby (by Alaska standards, anyway) musicians… 🙂 I think once we can get some sort of a functional teaching/learning structure that works for us, that will be the time to start looking at grants, asking people in, etc. If we can just get our structure sorted out, maybe we can turn ourselves into some sort of a community resource… as to the best of my knowledge we’d be the only consistent beginner session going on in town.

Mountain ranges… we Alaskans know about those, they are excellent places in which to gallivant 🙂

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

I’ve tried more than one browser and only got a partial from the site’s homepage. There’s obviously something wrong, but maybe it has to do with European reception. I’ve never managed to get the PDF to show at all, on any browser, and trying to link from any fragments of the homepage also failed. Ah well… I’ll try again another time. It would be interesting to see what’s included in that collection and to give the versions a go.

Best of luck Lisa, let us know how it goes… I’m posting something else to you that might be helpful. Another possibility would be to start a thread asking for lessons? I mean audio lessons that could be sent to you and you could try them out with your group, or just enjoy them yourself…

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Check your mail, Ceol.

Thanks Weejie, appreciated…

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Thanks, ceolachan! I did see that other thread… glad to know we’re not the only ones struggling with this issue. I sent this thread to the entire group and asked if they’d be up to trying a half-hour of learning by ear at the beginning of each get-together, or failing that if anyone would be interested in joining a separate beginner session… I will probably get my answers tomorrow, hopefully they will be smiles instead of a good firm boot in the backside. I’ll post up when I have some news.

Re: Structure of a beginner session… with ALL beginners

Well… long story short they’ve decided to give up any pretense at being a session, and just be a performing group. At least that’s clear now. I’ll try to start a beginner session if/when I can find another melody player or two who wants to commit… once all the St. Patrick’s Day dancing is done with 🙂

Thank you again for all the advice and suggestions, hope I’ll be able to put them to use soon.