Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

You may know that because of inaccessibility, I don’t get to play at sessions much at all anymore. Because of this, when I do get to visit a session, I don’t know it’s repertoire. I end up playing tunes that I think(hope) others may know but there’s no definite way to figure it out for me.

So when do you decide to drop a tune and move on to the next tune in the set? Since I make everything complicated, I have a little system for this.

If no one else is joining in the first time through, I automatically drop the tune(if it’s more than two parts especially). If I get some noodles, I’ll play it a second time or until the noodles stop, then move on to the next tune. But there’s two conflicts I’ve found with this.

Sometimes, backers get involved. They figure the rhythm or chords out and play along with me. It’s fun, but awkward when it’s just me and the backer and no one else. But then, I feel rude if I drop the tune and the backer is enjoying themselves along with the other sessioners. I know I like to sit back and listen to a good live duet less than 3 feet away ;-)

The other conflict. At the last session, I played a reel set and no one knew the first tune so I dropped it and moved on to the next tunes. I didn’t realize until the end of the set that everyone was actually listening to me play the first tune rather than waiting for me to finish the first tune. They made a lot of comments about the tune. Had I known they were enjoying it, I would’ve played it again.

So what about you? How do you get around these common but awkward situations?

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

It’s actually not that uncommon for players to wait to join in till the second go-round of a tune. Either way, if you’re visiting a session, and you’ve been asked to lead a set, I think you’re fine with a couple times through, especially if backers are joining in.

I know you wrote right at the beginning of your post that you can’t get to sessions much, but I think there’s no getting around that this is an area where it helps to know the people you’re playing with, and what tunes are played where.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

I wouldn’t drop the tune after the first time, no matter how awkward it feels. I love when someone plays a tune that I’ve never heard before…I’m going to spend at least the first time through just listening to it, and I may or may not start noodling the 2nd or 3rd time through. But, even if I don’t join in at all, I still want to hear the tune. That’s part of the whole session experience.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

It happens to me all the time.

The South Side sessions I go to have 2 1/2 repertoires, since there is some overlap with a two of three session leaders.

"start something Damian…" He Said. In the 1 1/2 repertoires the leader is immensely knowledgeable, so even if no one else comes in there are two of us and as you say the backers stumble in.

The other one- a very good session notwithstanding btw- If I play things that we might do at the 1 1/2, I get blank stares. Once got a comment about so and so’s affinity for obscure tunes. Happened last Sunday at the 1. Got my name called, started something I have been learning at the 1 1/2, and hear a ‘what’s that?’

I am not good enough playing in public where the silence and stares mean nothing to me. Palms sweat, lose focus really quickly- Herself told me to deal with it and not bitch about it. Last Sunday I sounded like sh*te -really embarrassing. But there’s always tonight at the 1 1/2, and Sunday at the 1 to get up, dust off and give it go.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

If I start a tune and no-one joins in, I move on to another tune straight away (I would like to say seamlessly but it doesn’t always work out that way). If someone is obviously listening, I might play it once through before changing. I’m talking about melody players here — unless a backer joins in and obviously knows the tune, in which case I would probably carry on for the usual three times, and give someone else the chance to come up with something suitable.

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Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

Since this is a problem I am wrestling with now because I desperately need public playing time, The advice I received from the leader of the 1 1/2 is to ignore the silence and play, and do it again next week. It’s how sessions broaden their musical range. Now IMHO, for all that Glory and Light advice, playing out there all alone is intimidating -especially since some of the players have been playing since maybe before they were out of diapers (nappies?).

I noticed at the 1 1/2 if I play some thing from the 1 session, or one of the folks from the 1 session play in on occasion, the tune that people were unfamiliar with starts working its way into the repertoire.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

I play it three times then move on and hope someone knows the next tune. When I was a less confident player, I would drop it after once or twice and frantically scramble into another one. Now I don’t care if I end up playing something solo. If I was at a session good enough where I might care (and therefore might not want to), I wouldn’t start a set anyway or if asked to, I wouldn’t play anything obscure.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

It really depends on the session. If it’s the first time I’ve met the people, I might try to figure out things in advance, by saying "how about this… and maybe this…" and noodle a bit of each tune. What invariably happens is that it might be a tune that nobody knows, but they’ll ask me to play it anyway. But I always try to make sure that the rest of the set is something that other players know.

If I’ve played with the people before, and we’re comfortable with each other, I’m more likely to just launch into stuff. If nobody has joined in the second time through, I’ll look around with a quizzical look, and see if that elicits a response (which is often "one more time", because people are trying to get familiar with the tune). And if not, I’ll go into something else.

There are some people who advocate always trying to figure out what you’re playing in a set beforehand to make sure everyone is on the same page. But I usually don’t know what I’m going to play after the first tune until I’m partway through it, and then I’m going with the flow and seeing what occurs to me… And when I’m in my normal sessions, people look at me funny if I try to tell them what I’m going to play before I start. But I also have a pretty good handle on who knows what tunes at those sessions, so I always have stuff to fall back to if it starts turning into a one man banjo show. ;-)

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

This depends on so many factors. We’ve had folks join our session, and usually they will ask something like, "Do you know George White’s Favorite?" (or any tune) and we’ll either say Yes and join in, or we might just ask him/her to go ahead and play it. We’ll also probably ask what he/she plays with it and have an idea of the set before we start playing. This would be much harder, I guess, with a large session, but you could still work this out with the folks around you.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

"There are some people who advocate always trying to figure out what you’re playing in a set beforehand to make sure everyone is on the same page."

yeah at a gig, but if everybody did this all the time at sessions nobody would ever get new tunes.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

If you’re visiting a session and they ask you to start a tune it’s up to you how to proceed. If you play a tune or even a whole set and no one else knows or joins in… that’s part of the bargain… no harm done, but you are going to have people listening… or maybe ignoring you… but you are welcome to play the duration and not worry about how many times and if others know the tune, etc. The worse thing to happen is if people start noodling while you’re trying to play and others are listening… but that’s not your responsibility. However… if you start the tune uninvited you might not receive the same reaction. You might get away with it once, but you will wear out your welcome if you do it any more. There are exceptions of course… the session might happen to run that way and you’ll fit right in, but you better sus that out first. Things that annoy people much more than whether they know the tune you’re starting is: incessant noodling, people starting too many tunes, (unless they are the hosts of course), and bad players… among other things.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

If nobody played any obscure tunes more than once, there’d be no new tunes. Any reasonable session should give you space to present a couple new (obscure) tunes over the span of a few hours. Don’t apologize for playing a new tune at least three times—that’s how we learn them. If people start throwing food items on the third time, you might want to shelve that tune.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

OP: "Sometimes, backers get involved. They figure the rhythm or chords out and play along with me."

Hmm…. If the none of the melody players know your tune, it seems unlikely that any backer would know it either. Chances are then - especially if joining in with it the first time through the tune - the backer would be screwing it up and making things even worse for you.

True, there are some backers around who can provide good accompanient to a tune that they’ve never heard before …

.. but such backers are as rare as hens’ teeth.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

Generalisations about trad don’t go very far but I’ve often noticed that here, inadvertent solos as described above are usually played through and closely listened to, whereas in the US there’s as often an uneasy twitchy vibe while the other musicians wait for the opportunity of play again. Indeed here it’s not uncommon for the turn of the third round through to be greeted with a Mrs Doyle like "go on, go on" refrain.

There’s also a bit of a trend at the moment of sessions going back to the old way of solos and duets rather than continuous group playing.

Plenty of backers around here that know as many if not more tunes than typical melody players. But then it’s the rare backer here that doesn’t play the tunes on his backing instrument (as well as a more typical melody instrument). I can also easily think of half a dozen non-musicians that would have as many tunes as the average session musician.

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Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

You spoke a true word there, Hurler. The best backers are usually those who can play a melody instrument as well.

I liked your "Mrs Doyle - go on, go on!" analogy, BTW. :-)

Generally speaking, I much prefer the "group playing" thing. A session is supposed to be a session and not a performance. Having said that, I’m more than happy to sit out sometimes and listen to someone soloing an obscure tune - or perhaps singing a song. As long as that sort of thing doesn’t take over the session.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

My inclination is to drop something right away if nobody joins in.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me there’s a cultural difference, with Americans often wanting to get on track to something everybody knows, but Irish wanting to listen to the solo (if it ends up being one).

My old Irish priest talked from time to time about how people back home (he was from a small rural village) were great listeners, and that he rarely encountered such here. His homilies were challenging because they came from the assumption that everyone was closely actively listening.

So Irish people will oftentimes express disappointment at a ‘solo’ ending abruptly. Sometimes I think I see a bemused mischievous expression on certain faces, perhaps waiting to see if the soloist has bitten off more than they can chew.

So sometimes I’ll soldier on, playing the whole thing, hoping either that somebody will join, or that somebody might want to learn the tune someday.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

Richard, "car crashes" come with the territory. Sure playing solo surrounded by aficionados that are also your neighbors and friends is a high wire act. I have vivid recollections of both Clancy and Potts, on separate occasions, getting themselves lost up blind alleys with variations that didn’t come off and it ending in laughter all round.

Mix, the various mutations of the pub session are a source of almost endless fascination to me. I was brought up to think of local pub sessions as being social events with the music as a by-product. And how could there not be an element of performance when most everyone in the pub knows and loves the music (so is potentially a well informed critic), and you’re playing tunes and settings named after local musicians or geography or incidents. The music is ideally suited to solo playing so why would that not be a norm, with group playing being great fun and not to be taken too seriously. I’m not suggesting that this form of session is in any way superior to the much more common "got to get my allowance of tunes/playing with others in this week" type of session (and God knows I’ve played in plenty of those even over here and they can be great fun) it’s just very different.

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Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

@Mix:
"If the none of the melody players know your tune, it seems unlikely that any backer would know it either.[…]True, there are some backers around who can provide good accompanient to a tune that they’ve never heard before…
.. but such backers are as rare as hens’ teeth."

They’re rare alright, but they exist. The times we have sessions around here, we’re generally joined by this telepath who knows exactly which chord to play in any random tune. By the way, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where to play the the Em and the D for a typical, albeit "unknown" tune. As long as the backer doesn’t play pre-set sequences and/or treats every major tune as mixolydian (which seems to be the norm in some places…) it usually works pretty OK. Not the ideal situation, but hey, if nobody else knows the tune, nobody else knows the tune.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

@jeff: you’re lucky to have that "telepath" with you. Indeed, if someone is "out on their own" with a tune it would be better to have a good backer.

Agreed, if its an E-Dorian tune, Emin and DMaj should pretty much cover it - and it shouldn’t be rocket science to work out where those chords go …

Trouble is, a lot of those so-called backers think that it makes those E-Dor tunes more "interesting" if they shove in some C-Maj chords. It doesn’t.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

And Mr Gill’s fave: the Fmaj7 in Ador!

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

When at a strange session, and you get a chance to start a set, I would suggest going with some tried and true tunes that a lot of folks know. Or at the very least, end your set with an old session standard. Once you know them better, you can roll out some of the different stuff.
My instinct would be to err on the side of being inclusive.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

It mostly depends on how confident you are. If you can play well on your own—play the tune and allow others to enjoy it. If you’re requiring the help of others—make sure other people know it before you start the tune.

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

"It mostly depends on how confident you are. If you can play well on your own—play the tune and allow others to enjoy it. If you’re requiring the help of others—make sure other people know it before you start the tune."

That’s what I gathered.

Thanks for the replies everyone. I’m glad you’ve informed me about how things are different in Ireland in terms of listening vs. waiting. If I was in Ireland and I started a set and no one joined in, my first thought would’ve been something along the lines of "Oh man, how come no one else is playing… I must sound terrible"

Re: Session Etiquette: When to drop a tune?

It’s not just Ireland, here in SF we will listen if we don’t know it for the most part, we do have the occasional noodler… but we enjoy listing to each other and visitors perform tunes on their own if they start one we don’t know.