Competitiveness in Sessions…

Competitiveness in Sessions…

I have limited experience of sessions, but I have noticed players who launch into tune after tune without introduction, obviously hoping to impress & leave others behind; or they seem to be aiming for the fastest they can do, whether or not it improves the tune, with the same idea.

Sometimes on discussions here I’ve seen people trying to dismiss a poster’s remarks on the grounds that s/he can’t play very well - they sometimes even post links to prove their point.

Sessions are made up of human beings, of course, and maybe to play at a session at all demands a little feistiness. So is this competitiveness inevitable, or are there sessions where people are always amicable, trying to involve people where possible, and treating them politely when they’re not?

I am happy with the sessions I attend - it’s only a couple of people in them, and not the session leaders - and it amuses me rather than otherwise. I know I can’t play everything, and I’m happy to sit back and soak up the (generally friendly) atmosphere.

So I’m asking only out of interest & to hear about the experiences of others.

Thanks in advance for any replies. Peace on earth, goodwill towards men, and women! :)
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Mollie x

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All sessions are different as you will know.

However, in the majority of cases where this happens I reckon it’s more often down to lack of thought or just getting carried away with the moment rather than showing off as such.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily help everyone else although it may be useful to know when trying to deal with the situation.

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Good question.

When I was younger (started playing in sessions regularly at about age 14), I used to find this kind of behaviour a lot. Perhaps because I was quite young a lot of older players seemed to have an idea that they were going to "teach me a lesson" somehow, and would choose deliberately awkward or flashy tunes. Showing off, going fast. So… inevitably, I learned the flashy tunes off them, and learned to play them fast and ended up beating them at their game. This isn’t something I take any pride in, I have to say, but unfortunately it seemed to be the norm in the sessions that I was in at that time.

As time went on, I started getting invited to… how can I put this… sessions where the level of musicianship was a few notches higher? To cut a long story short, what I found was that the better the musician, the better the manners, and the less that sort of thing used to happen. Now, at that time, there was a lot going on, musically. I’d put a lot of effort in to building a repertoire of tunes, I was going regularly across to summer school in Ireland to learn more, had the chance to play with some absolutely genius musicians (which is something everyone should do when they get the chance - you can learn more in a few hours learning from a real master of the instrument than you will in six months sitting playing along with CDs).

Not long after that, I was involved in starting up a Comhaltas group, and that’s where things really started to change. Instead of just going along to sessions, we were now hosting them, and part of that meant looking out for the less confident musicians and making sure they had a chance to play. (That’s actually where I met my wife - in a Comhaltas-hosted session in Dundee). Totally different mindset at work, much more inclusive. By this time I was now tutoring quite a large workshop every week, as well, so I had pupils to look after. So all of that made a difference - I was much less inclined to try and show off (which I might have done once upon a time), and when you’re playing for dancing regularly you start to learn that speed has to be kept under control, otherwise people start falling over. Not good.

Anyway, from time to time, I’d find myself out in a ‘public’ session, or at a festival or whatever, and it really started to bug me that this competitive thing seemed to be everywhere. People jumping in on the end of sets, speeding things up, deliberately trying to play flashy obscure tunes. I remember thinking it just seemed like utter bad manners. I was still only young at the time, probably only about 20, so a lot of older players used to take one look at me and think ‘I can teach this kid a lesson’. Being young, I’m ashamed to say that occasionally I used to take them on. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but at that age I suppose I thought I was earning some respect, or perhaps that they weren’t being respectful by doing it in the first place… whatever the case, I’d end up trying to out-play people. But it was never a very satisfactory thing to end up doing, and I’d end up getting grief off my better half for getting involved. She was right, too.

These days, we rarely go to sessions that we haven’t organised ourselves, or to which we haven’t been invited. Partly that’s because of the restraint of having a young family, but also because if I’m going to choose to go to a session, I hate that feeling of having to battle to establish a musical ‘territory’. I hate having to battle against players that feel like they’ve got something to prove. And I hate having to play loud and/or fast. To my mind (and I’ve had this opinion for many, many years) the best sessions aren’t just about tunes. They’re about sharing something else, too - something that starts with music but ends with friendship, and friends don’t battle each other for supremacy.

So… if people start playing stupid flashy tunes at a million miles an hour, I let them go through it at least once. If I feel like it, I might join in, but I’ll play ‘under’ them. Let them have the limelight, if they want it. I don’t. Then I’ll play something simple, at a normal speed, with a bit of swing to it. Give it some oomph. Put in all the notes. Enjoy it. You don’t need to take people on to ‘win’. It isn’t a race. Most of the time, once they’ve played all their flashy tunes so fast that nobody can join in with them, they depart, off to another session to do the same thing there. I fail to see the attraction in that. Better just to wait it out and carry on doing our own thing, at our own pace, and at a speed that wouldn’t make a dancer’s legs fall off.

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Thanks very much, Matt - that was such an interesting read!

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Sorry if I was waffling - I’ve been around music a long time, and it’s one of those things that’s always bothered me a little especially because once upon a time I was prone to it myself. I suppose I’ve benefited from the experience of others in a way - I’ve always played with older musicians, and generally, they’ve tended to have better session manners than younger musicians. That’s another way of saying there was always someone around to keep me in my place, I suppose!

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Not waffling - you were just explaining. I am an oldster who’s new to the session scene & it’s good to find out more. There don’t seem to be a lot of young people in the sessions I’m attending, which is a pity.
Thanks again! :)

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As long as we’re confessing, I too find that I sometimes play too fast for everyone concerned, including myself. And sometimes I beg forgiveness by making the sound of a police siren and "pulling myself over," at the end of the set. A little comic relief goes a long way.

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Genius. I’m going to try that next time I have a few too many ales and get a bit overexcited.

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I think there are always issues about the playing of tunes at the "right" speed.

When I joined our session I couldn’t play a lot of the reels at the session speed. I don’t think I knew what the right speed was but it was faster than I could play. I practiced a lot, took tunes to pieces, did a lot of listening and got faster. I could follow the tune leader’s pace: mission accomplished!
As the membership changed, and folk moved on, I could start tunes a bit more reasonably paced. The melody players appreciate this but the accompianiests [sp?] don’t, they’re still stuck in the frantic pace.

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Another factor that may be in play is just a desire to add some variety. Most of the sessions I’ve been to have been in public places, so there ought to be some consideration given to the audience. If every tune is played at the same speed (whether fast or slow, really,) it can get boring. Unless there are dancers. But I’ve not seen a lot of dancing at sessions, sadly.

So, occasionally speeding up a tune can be a very good thing, too. As can playing something slow.

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Speaking as a relative beginner, reels and jigs played as if the players are on acid just gives me a racing heart, anxiety and a right headache. This does seem to be a common theme among ITM players. This kinda thing seems to bypass other genres of music (particularly classical, where the emphasis is on quality rather than speed). I think there’s a huge wallop of testerone comes into play in ITM. Maybe. Maybe not.

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"Competitiveness in Sessions… " kills the session. It’s shouldn’t ever be a competition. The tendency in Scotland, in my experience is to ignore such people, but it can mean sitting out half the night. We’re far too polite about it, but I would not advise such behaviour at a session in Ireland. They are a bit more "robust" about what is and what is not acceptable, and in my opinion, their tradition is a lot healthier for it. My personal experience and opinion, anyway, for what it’s worth.
Just an afterthought, Mollie, if you have "session leaders" at your session, should they not be sorting it out ?

And a great post from Mr. Leavey above - I always found him to have impeccable session manners :)
- and a very, very good Irish fiddler, in case anyone’s wondering, as is his "ither hauf".

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Verily, oh verily, how I agree with Kenny. When a session gets competitive it’s not a session. Sadly there is all too often one, or more, egocentric jerk who plays with an "oh yeah, listen to this" subtext and it’s all the worse if they’re really good players (it could happen). Better to ignore them, best to walk away. They’re not gonna change. A session, to me anyway, is about inclusion and community. Sorry to hear that some around you, Mollie, are impervious to good manners.

The topic of proper tempo has been very covered here, many times over. Sometimes it’s good to play fast and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s good to play slow and sometimes it’s not. The important thing is to know when. Remember, if it’s annoying to be with others who play everything too fast ( a moving target) it’s just as annoying to be around those who play everything too slow. Is it that hard to make a little room for every to fit in some of the time?

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CCE are partly to blame.

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In some sessions, even introducing a new or unfamiliar tune can be seen as being competitive. I would suggest it is what makes for a more interesting session than playing same old, same old again and again (probably far too fast and totally mechanically). Any "new" tune should be played at least 3 times to allow those who are good at ear playing to join in.

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Cheers Kenny - and as one of those instrumental in correcting my bad habits you can take a fair share of credit for the state of my session manners.

Actually, it’s kind of an important thing, and I know there’s endless discussions on here about session manners already, and it’s something I don’t necessarily want to open up in discussion here as it has likely been done to death already. But… I do personally consider that competitiveness to be the height of bad manners. Nearly as bad as pinching someone’s instrument/seat/beer without permission. And Kenny’s right, the etiquette in Scotland is mostly to go all passive-aggressive and mutter comments until the offending person removes themselves… but I wonder now if that’s really the best thing to do. It certainly doesn’t help them learn better manners, and it does give you a long wait sometimes between tunes. However.

In the interests of harking back to ‘the way things used to be’, I’ve just hunted out the following passage from Fintan Vallely’s excellent book, ‘The Tailor’s Twist’, about the life and music of Ben Lennon. This section is specifically about sessions:



"Ben’s session ethos is that of the country-house céili, where the primary purpose is communication, interest, socialisation and, above all, comfort. There has to be consensus about what is played - it is not a performance, it is more a participative democracy: "It’s about having a couple of tunes - not ten reels one after another - agreeing on what you’re going to play so that everyone can join in. Say ‘we’re going to play them three times’ or whatever - and then go on to the next set. And you have to have someone leading the session. That works very well". Acknowledging the ‘leader’ aside, he dislikes showing off, elitism and other manifestations of self centredness: "This other situation is chaotic - sure there’s neither head nor tail on it: and they’re away!" Ben’s experience is that this is what certain sessions have become, and his preference is for the more exceptional events which concur with his ideal. The latter is more what singer Sean Corcoran interprets as ‘vernacular musci’, while that which has become known as ‘Traditional music’ is ‘a new thing’, and a new term."



Now, I don’t necessarily agree with what Vallely’s saying here in it’s entirety - I’m not sure how well that definition of ‘Traditional music’ being ‘a new thing’ sits with me, for example. On the other hand, that point about communication, and about shedding notions of elitism and self-importance is absolutely spot on the money. A session doesn’t need a ‘star’, but it does sometimes need a ‘leader’ (in a Ben Lennon session, that is going to be Ben Lennon, by default, without any argument needed). So when we talk about the ‘leader’ of a session, what are we talking about? Are we talking about the best player? The one who knows the most tunes? No and no. The host? Perhaps, but not always. For me, the leader of a session is the one who brings everyone into the session, makes sure they are at their ease, and comfortable, and welcome. Now, that’s simply not possible in a big mega-session that you’d get at a Fleadh, for example - but that’s not the kind of session that the likes of Ben (or myself nowadays) would naturally wish to frequent. It increasingly seems to me that the best places to play are small, intimate, and amongst good company. Like I said in my previous post, friends don’t battle each other for supremacy. The best music is always made by cooperation, so that in time the players don’t think of themselves at all - the session becomes a single instrument, a single voice almost. Granted, such things are rarer than hen’s teeth, but they do happen.

Now, the reason I bring Ben Lennon into this is that, in my opinion, he is the absolute personification of good session etiquette and old-fashioned manners. An absolute gentleman in every sense. However, that doesn’t mean that he tolerates bad manners. Oh no. I’ve seen him absolutely crucify musicians for poor session etiquette - but not unkindly. It’s done with the intention of teaching them a lesson - and it’s probably something that could happen more often. Sadly, I tend to agree with Vallely that this doesn’t happen in a normal "traditional" session, but I suppose that’s because Ben isn’t a normal "traditional" player - he’s a direct link back to a way of playing and a way of living that is almost gone now. I think it would be tremendously sad if that level of decency and care for the music were to be replaced with nothing but one flash tune after another, and everyone trying to be the ‘star’. Indeed, were that to be the case, I could see myself engaging mainly in "kitchen sessions" for the foreseeable future, as I have very little interest in that sort of thing at all.

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Sometimes people launch into a tune without announcing the name because they assume most everyone will recognize it. Sometimes people play a tune without naming it because they have forgotten the name, or learned it by ear and never knew the name. Sometimes they play obscure tunes no one else seems to know in the hopes that someone else really does know it, and will join them. Sometimes people play an unusual, obscure or difficult tune just because it’s a cracking tune and they hope that by playing it they might inspire someone else to put in the effort to learn it, just as they did. Sometimes people play at a pace that seems fast to a beginner, but really isn’t. Sometimes people play faster than they probably should because they’re nervous, or excited, or a little tipsy, or all 3.

Just to give the benefit of a doubt.

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Hello, Mollie.

Interesting thread. I can only say (in my limited experience) sessions & players’ behaviour varies. Or as my dad might say about landing an airplane, ‘Anytime you can walk home after one, it’s a "good" landing.’

So, when it feels like a player starts the next set too soon or at an incredibly fast tempo I pay attention to how the most consistent, experienced, steady player(s) in the session responds, the ones who’ve made their share of landings. That’s assuming the session has a player of such caliber. If not I just listen through the first bit
before deciding if it’s worth joining in or not. I’m never above not playing a set.

Fiddle Aunt, I trust your observations of other players who play too competitively for comfort.
That doesn’t necessarily make it inevitable all *anxious* players intend to leave you sitting in their dust.
Yes, there are players who always want to impress their prowess on everyone else. Best to sit them out. However, I have been impressed with players who {though they can play much faster than myself} when I asked they have been willing to not only bring it down a notch but have also shown a genuine interest in helping everyone in the session play the set together.

I don’t know if this is rare. I just think session experiences vary across a vast range.

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I love hearing outstanding players spreading their wings and flying.
I don’t think they are ‘showing off’ - it’s more that they are sharing something
great. It sets a standard that keeps you motivated with your own playing.

People on that level are usually pretty healthy - not dickheads. If they
are - oh well, I’m not at the session to experience niceness.

People who are consciously showing off usually make a big hash of it, and they aren’t
even aware of how bad they sound.

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"… I have noticed players who launch into tune after tune without introduction…"

People are supposed to announce the names?

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… well, there are sessions - and there are sessions ….

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@meself: There are sessions - and there are sessions. True.

@Ergo: I wouldn’t normally announce the names of the tunes I’m about to play, and I know very few people who do unless they’re learning them and want to be sure of some backup when they start the tune. Of course, that means I’m about as much use as a chocolate teapot, because my retention of tune names is about as good as my knowledge of advanced string theory in 7-dimensional L-space. (One for the Pratchett fans).

@AB: "…I have been impressed with players who…not only bring it down a notch but have also shown a genuine interest in helping everyone in the session play the set together." Ditto. That’s my experience, too. The best players tend to rub off on others, and by modifying their own playing bring everyone ‘in’ and make them raise their game. Keeping things together like that is an art.

@Mark Huppert: "People who are consciously showing off usually make a big hash of it, and they aren’t even aware of how bad they sound." Totally agree with that. They usually get their comeuppance at some point. Strangely, they don’t seem to learn from it, though.

I suppose the point I was waffling on and trying to make above is that the reason I’m less likely to encounter the show-offs these days is because I’m that much more choosy about where and when I’ll sit and get the fiddle out. That’s partly to do with having kids - chances for tunes are few and far between, so I like to make the most of them, and this makes my tolerance for arseholery a whole lot lower than it used to be. I’m much less likely to pitch up at a session and think "I’m here now, I’ve got to make the most of it." Instead, there tends to be a bit more preparation and finding out if people I know are going, or else arranging a one-off guerilla session with friends in a random pub. (Sometimes those are the best; like the world’s slowest flash mob, but with pints.) If you can get the right people there at the right times, you can sort of guarantee a good ‘core’ to the session, and then you stand a better chance of being able to steer the numpties into behaving better. Sometimes. Doesn’t always work. If all else fails, there’s always someone’s kitchen to go and have a tune in.

As I’ve said before, this competitive edge to playing is something I’ve seen all through the time I’ve been playing, and it’s something I’ve been tempted by (both in terms of doing it myself and in terms of trying to combat it). From my experience, I don’t think that those who play in this way are fully aware of what they’re doing (though some DEFINITELY are, naming no names). I don’t think anyone would freely admit to being a "session arsehole", even to themselves. So… does anyone have a working strategy for the ‘competitive sessioners’? Other than ignoring them? I ask, because taking them on at their own game takes too long and makes everyone cross, waiting for them to run out of flash tunes can ruin a whole session, and no-one wants to be the ‘bad guy’ who reprimands them for bad manners. So how does one tackle it?

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What joefidkid said.

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Can someone explain to me what is meant with "obscure tunes" and "showing off" and moreso why it would be a bad thing if either of those happen in a session? Seems to me like worst case scenario you’ll get the opportunity to hear a new tune and/or see someone perform to the best of their ability…

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One (wo)man’s obscure tune might be well known to others in a different session and maybe a worthy addition to the local repertoire. However, too many all at once can also exclude others. There are ways and means of introducing them.

Everybody should appreciate a great player but many so called "show offs" may also try to play at a speed beyond their ability and it shows.

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To answer "Boyen" , 2 comments above - "Can someone explain to me what is meant with "obscure tunes" and "showing off" and moreso why it would be a bad thing if either of those happen in a session? Seems to me like worst case scenario you’ll get the opportunity to hear a new tune and/or see someone perform to the best of their ability…

An "obscure" tune is one a player starts off knowing damn well that few, if any of the other players in the session will know it. This means that the offender - and that’s how I see him/her - gets to "show off" their superior knowledge and ability to the rest of the session, while they are expected to sit quietly in rapt admiration.
If this happens once or twice in an evening, that’s fine, but in my experience, people with this mindset can take up a large chunk of the evening, and the whole thing turns in to a performance. A "session" by definition is for people to play together, it’s not the instrumental equivalent of a poxy folk club "Singaround", and when it does turn into that, I’ve better things to do.
The "worst case scenario" is you - and everybody else in the session - sit out half the evening while some schmuck tries to show how good he* is.
*And when I think about it, I don’t ever recall any female musician behaving in this fashion.

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Just to make it clear - I’m not averse to new tunes or good players, or to people who play so well or fast that I can’t join in (not difficult!). What I’m talking about is people who try to monopolise time after time by breaking into every gap with their own string of tunes - they announce the titles afterwards with pride, and appear to regard their playing as a solo. Often they don’t give a chance for someone else (not me) that the session leader (I sit near him) was going to give a turn to and sometimes that chance is lost. In one case, the new player never came back.
There are others who play ‘too fast’ for themselves, even - blurring a tune & losing phrases etc, but because they have been at the session a long time, they are tolerated.

I don’t see it as a major problem - as I said, I am amused by the foibles of human nature - and I started the thread just to find out whether such ‘show-off’ behaviour went on at other sesssions. (I am new to sessions & have limited experience.)

From the replies, it’s clear that some people have experienced competitiveness at sessions - and others have not. Good to know. Thanks.

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Well, the way I’ve read the OP is that certain players, for reasons of their own, choose to play tunes that a) nobody else will know or b) are too fast for others to join in with (or even for themselves to play properly). Doing both might be a sign that someone is going "look at me, aren’t I fantastic". As joefidkid rightly pointed out, it might be to do with nerves, excitement or drink as well. Nothing wrong with new tunes, nothing wrong with a bit of speed every so often. A few times in a session, if someone wants to play their ‘best’ most hardest most flashiest difficult tunes at a million miles an hour and feel all special about it, then that’s excusable. Probably. Sometimes. Among friends, with a following wind and a written note of permission from their mum.

However… if they’re doing it persistently, jumping in every other tune with weird flashy stuff that nobody else is able or inclined to join in with, then I’m going to stick my neck out and say that there’s probably some egotistical reason why they’re doing it. It isn’t the obscure tunes or the speed that are the problem per se - it’s the competitive (or another way to put that is exclusive) way in which it’s done.

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Kenny, thanks for your reply.

I would be really careful with assuming someones intentions if all you know is the behaviour you observed. You could be totally off the mark. The people I have met at sessions have been some of the nicest I’ve met in my life, I would rather give someone the benefit of the doubt.

What if those flashy tunes are simply the tunes that are played at his/her local session and the speed is just the speed (s)he is used to playing? Unless you’re in a session where tunes are announced prior to playing, there’s really only one way to find out if you have shared repertoire.

As with many things in session etiquette, it’s more about the whole picture than just those two individual aspects. You need players that; speed up / slow down, play the kesh jig all evening/play obscure tunes all evening, show off/try to include everyone.

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If it’s a small session - 5 or 6 people or less - then it strikes me as odd not to ask "does anyone know…?" before you launch into something. If nobody knows the tune and you’d really like to play it, then you just play it at a moderate pace and play it for a bit longer – you’ll soon have people joining in. Personally I welcome learning new tunes and I’d far rather have a bit of that than just blasting through all the tunes everyone knows already.

I do like the fact that some sessions have Facebook pages now or websites, where they list a bunch of regular tunes they play. Seems eminently sensible and friendly and inclusive.

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"I would be really careful with assuming someones intentions if all you know is the behaviour you observed. " I read it as an assessment, not an assumption. It’s something that humans do.

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Kenny has been been around long enough to spot the difference as a few others here have too. ;)

Sometimes, it just may be over enthusiasm or lack of thought. These players learn through time and also to develop a certain amount of reserve when visiting a different session.
However, there are a minority of obvious "show offs" and "Look at me" types too.

I was talking to a really good piper a couple a couple of months back who actually apologised for getting carried away. He was a former RSAMD student and he stated that many of the Glasgow sessions tended to be competitive these days. There was more of a tendency for each of the "high powered" musicians to want to do their own thing in sessions apparently….

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Thanks for your reply Boyen. I’d like to point out that I’ve been "observing behaviour" in sessions for over 40 years now, and these days I’m very seldom "off the mark". I’ve been giving people the "benefit of the doubt" for the same period of time.
And as for your last sentence, actually I don’t need any of those at any session I’m joining in on, apart from the last category, which to my mind is what a session is about.

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Compared to Kenny I’m a bit of a newbie where sessions are concerned, having only started playing regularly ‘in public’ about 25 years ago. Even over that relatively short period of time, I would say that there has been a general decline in the standard of session manners, which is another discussion for another day. Like I said, that topic has likely been done to death. Here, we’re talking about a particular class of musician who doesn’t just lack manners, but is also destructive to the session in a material sense.

So. For the record. Tune choice has very little to do with it. It doesn’t matter what somebody plays, if it’s at a reasonable pace, a good player will either know it, or be able to pick up enough of it to join in. That’s not the issue. If not, then it’s going to be a long evening.

Speed isn’t an issue either, unless it is being used to deliberately exclude less-experienced musicians. As a tutor, I’ve had pupils on the receiving end of that, and it isn’t pleasant - the responsibility does kind of fall on you to help your students out. Not fun. Having said that, if the general speed of a session is more than I feel comfortable with - I’m not going to bother getting the fiddle out of the case. Life’s too short.

Leaving those things aside, as Boyen rightly says, "it’s more about the whole picture than just those two individual aspects." Quite right. Which is why, when I call someone (in my internal monologue - rarely out loud) an a***hole, it’s because I’ve already given them the benefit of the doubt, and they’ve still continued to act like an a***hole. There have always been a***holes. There will continue to be a***holes. It is probably endemic to sessions that they inevitably attract a***holes.

Now, bad manners are a part of being an a***hole, but not exclusively the only quality that they possess. A***holes will often jump into every available gap in a session, depriving anybody else of the time needed to think up the next set of tunes. Or jump a tune onto the end of a set without getting at least a nod to say that’s okay. They might ‘correct’ other people unnecessarily or inappropriately (for example, instead of saying ‘that tune’s normally played in G’, they might simply say ‘you played that in the wrong key’, which makes them sound like an a***hole). They might play over the top of everyone else in the session. They might speed everybody up, or more likely just the ones they see as their ‘rivals’ for being the ‘star’. A***holes very often take great delight in playing vast long sets of reels, and know all the names of them and act very surprised when other people don’t join in. Doesn’t stop them doing it, though. At the same time, an a***hole will often jump into a tune without checking that they know it first, which can cause complete chaos if they get it wrong. A***holes will also talk loudly through every tune they definitely don’t know (or are unable to busk along with), or they might go to the loo or the bar right in the middle of a set, causing a disruption in the process. How do I know this? I’ve seen it. I’ve been on the receiving end of it. I’ve had countless run-ins with this sort of behaviour in the past.

This isn’t necessarily (to drag things back to the OP) to do with their competitiveness - but if their bad manners are having the effect (intentionally or not) of disrupting and breaking the concentration of other players, if their bad manners mean that nobody else can get a tune in edgeways because of their endless series of obscure reels in the key of ‘me’… well, that’s not okay. I might put up with it once or twice, but after that… a spade’s a spade and an a***hole’s an a***hole, and it’s one of the main reasons I don’t frequent so many sessions these days, unless I know it’s going to have that solid backbone of people who are more interested in the music than their own precious egos.

I really am turning into a grumpy old man…

In other news, and totally OT, I just received a massive delivery of wine for Christmas, so you can probably expect to see my mood improving any day now!

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‘In other news, and totally OT, I just received a massive delivery of wine for Christmas, so you can probably expect to see my mood improving any day now!’

Enjoy! :)

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Ach, it’s after 5.00pm - cheers, Matt ! I’m having a flute night out session with my flute class tonight, so that should cheer me up a bit, but if anyone gets "competitive"……………………………

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I don’t know; I’m probably out of touch: I used to play in sessions quite regularly and frequently, but that was many years ago. Anyway, some of the things people are complaining about I would have thought thoroughly legit. In my experience, it is - or, at least, was - normal not to introduce the tunes ("Kesh Jig? I’d like you to meet Merrily Kissed the Quaker! Or, Quaker’s Wife, as some would have it.") - chances are you don’t know the names, chances are you’ll make up the set on the fly. Now, if others aren’t competent enough to follow along, well, sorry (speaking as one who usually wasn’t and still isn’t competent enough, etc.); it’s our job to reach that level of competence; why would we expect the best musicians to come down to our level (unless they’ve come to ‘our’ session)? Re: tacking a tune onto a set somebody else started - obviously, if it’s just an excuse to take over the session it ain’t cool, but if it’s a case of ‘Hey - this tune would go beautifully after that one’ - why not? And I just never saw much of this competitiveness in action, unless I was just too, dense to pick up on it. When I’ve been unhappy with an Irish session, it’s never been about the music.

Obviously, people have different expectations of sessions. For some it’s as much, or even primarily, a social occasion as a musical. For some others, the session is first and foremost about the music; it’s the equivalent of a concert performance for, say, a Classical musician - it’s their chance to put what they’ve been working hard on into action and, with the similarly minded, create something wonderful. And, yes, for still others, it probably is all about showing off. So I guess the best approach is to figure out what any given session is all about, and proceed accordingly ….

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I’ve experienced many kinds of sessions. There are many variables in play: size, age, skill level, whether everyone present knows each other or not, speed, repertoire… gender.

"Hijacking" a set is rare, and mostly happens in situation mentoned by Meself above - when someone has an idea of a tune that goes beautifully after the current one. Often with a plain suggestion the second time through - "OK, one more time, then Brexit reel - whaddyathink?"

I’ve NEVER been to (nor expected) a session where one is supposed to announce the tunes in advance.

By the way, I appreciate when people play obscure tunes - where else would I hear them?

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"Announce" is a bit heavy. I’ve been to a few great sessions where we might converse. Someone might say "Cooley’s Reel? Then… do you know All Around the World? No? OK, let’s do The Banshee." Making sure we’re playing tunes together and not leaving anybody out.

My tuppence worth: I’m old enough now to please myself. A session can be spoilt by one person. If I’m not enjoying a session I leave. Man, it’s braw being auld!

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Didn’t touch the Christmas wine. Went out to the local pub… and had a few tunes. Braw.

Eh, yeah… I don’t tend to announce tunes. Too often I don’t know the names, or I know the names and can’t connect them with the tune. But I’ll play a bar or two. I don’t often launch into something that I KNOW nobody else knows, unless I’m flat out asked to do so, which might happen once in a blue moon, but apart from that…

Look, session etiquette is a big, vague topic with no right answers, which is why I’ve tried to steer things away from it. Since it won’t go away, let’s deal with the point that meself raises - whether or not to join a tune to the end of a set.

Let’s say player A starts a set. Wynne’s #1, followed by Wynne’s #2. At the end of that, player B wants to go into the Longford Tinker, because that goes beautifully after Wynne’s #2, and because the Bothy Band done it that way. Player A doesn’t want to go into the Longford Tinker. Player A wants to go into Wynne’s #3. There’s going to be a clash here, unless someone backs down.

Of course, what should happen is that Player B makes some sort of gesture to indicate that they might want to follow the present tune with another, but Player A has… let’s call it right of way. It’s their choice, and, unless they have deliberately given Player B the ‘nod’, then there is no reason that the set should be taken off them.

But no. Player B bashes into the Longford Tinker, and now we have two tunes going on at once, until somebody backs down. It shouldn’t happen, but it does. It’s not really a big deal, unless it starts happening frequently, and then we can safely say that Player B either isn’t listening to Player A, or wants to take their sets off them. It could just be poor communication, but if it keeps happening, then it quickly becomes a problem. The protocol is simple - keep an eye on the person that starts the set. It’s up to them to decide what comes next. If they shrug as if to say ‘I don’t have another tune,’ then it’s okay to join one on, otherwise just don’t.

I’m not saying that everyone should formalise what tunes to play beforehand, let alone ‘announce’ them, just that a little bit of communication goes a long way. The competitive players won’t play by these (unwritten) rules, of course, and that’s one of the reasons why they can end up making a nuisance of themselves.

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I agree. I wasn’t thinking of someone horning in on another person’s set; I was thinking of the situation where the ‘leader’ of the set is clearly heading for the barn - that is, reaching the end of what he was planning to play - when another player feels inspired to add on another tune.

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Yeah, that’s fine, I have no problem with that whatsoever. Like I say, it comes down to manners and communication, that’s the protocol. For me, anyway.

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Please don’t read into this that I’m being a pill. But, if you don’t mind my asking, why does player A not want to go into Longford Tinker?

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I don’t know. Maybe that’s the set they had in mind before they started - Wynne’s 1, 2 & 3. Whatever the case, the player who leads the set off ultimately should have the choice as to whether to continue into another tune, stop, or hand over to another player. Anything else would breach session etiquette, wouldn’t it?

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Yup.

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Yes, of course, etiquette defers to the player who leads off. I was just curious.

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I don’t get out much these days because a lot of the sessions around town these days are more like horse races. I used to go to anything anyway, even if it turned out to be no fun because of wonky social dynamics, but these days I don’t bother unless the session is going to have what I want. Which I guess are what Kenny and Matt want (I’ve played tunes with both of them).

Things I find vexing include:

Players who regularly hijack other players’ sets. If you occasionally tag a tune onto the end of someone else’s set for a laugh, that’s fine, but don’t be that douchebag who latches their own tunes onto every single set of the night. It’s funny once or twice, but irritating all the time.

Serial tune pouncers. The ones who wait a milisecond after the last note has been played, then launch into their set. They do it all night and seem incredibly unconfortable if there are any moments longer than three seconds where people are not playing. Nobody else can get a note in edgewise. There’s no space for a natter, or for you to lazily contemplate what set you might want to play, or even fill your uilleann pipe bag with air. It’s also contagious — if one person is doing this, others are likely to start. If you are this person, don’t do it. Nobody likes it.

Show-offs. The players who launch into great long sets of tunes nobody knows. Like others have said in this thread, they’re harder to identify because there are many reasons why someone will play tunes no one knows. I’ve played a tune no one knows, thought, oh, cock, played it three times then switched to another one, only to discover no one knows that, either, then I tag on something bleedingly obvious like Cooley’s. The dilemma is do you slam on the brakes when you find yourself playing an accidental solo, or do you run with it? (my answer: it depends. Were you relying on someone else to remember the B-part? If so, you probably shouldn’t have played that tune in the first place, but we’ve all been there anyway).

That’s different then choosing to play some obscure syncopated Gordon Duncan reel or elaborate Scott Skinner strathspey at an Irish session where everyone’s playing the Kesh and The Silver Spear; in that case you must know fine well that no one is going to join in. Or if someone plays stuff no one knows on every set they start and doesn’t seem to care. I can work out pretty quickly if my repertoire is vastly different from the session one. Then I start asking the regulars, "Do you play this? Could we play x into y?" I don’t often plan sets, but sometimes you have to.

Showing up as a visitor to a session and doing your own thing regardless of that session’s norms and social dynamics. This should be a no-brainer, but it happens. I’m reminded of the time a group of lads (sorry, it was lads, and we’d never seen them before) dropped into to our easy paced, chilled out Irish session and launched into set after set of syncopated Scottish tunes at 100mph. Come on, guys.

Stratified sessions. That’s all sessions to some degree — I get that, and all sessions will have some measure of hierarchy, but for the most part I stopped going to the ones where there are clear and intransigent boundaries between the elites and the plebs. And the plebs aren’t necessarily beginners: they might be okay players, but not as highly evolved as the elites. There’s no craic, and when you’re in the pleb category, you feel as welcomed as the fruit flies that appeared in the kitchen compost bin when we forgot to empty it for a while.

There was one where myself and a friend, who doesn’t live in town and was just passing through, showed up, and we were the only people who did that week, so it was just us two and the session host. I usually don’t go to the session in question, but friend was in town that night and wanted to. For me, the host had some initially polite, "How are you, fine" sort of chat, then spent the rest of the evening nattering away to my buddy, asking him what tunes he wanted to play, or playing a wee snippet on his instrument and saying, "Do you play this?" or telling him about how Josie McDermott or whoever played it. Not a word to me the whole evening. And because there were just the three of us, and friend and I had plainly come together, it was cringingly obvious. I haven’t been back to that since.

I think all of this can be boiled down to "don’t be a d*ck." First rule of session etiquette.

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Aye, that about sums it up…

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Brilliant post, @Dr Silver Spear.

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Wow! I never imagined there could be that level of disruption in sessions.
Thank you for posting, Emily.

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CCE encourage competitors to be competitive, this attitude can occasionallyoverspill into sessions, why dont they go way to a desert island with their competitions and never come back

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True, RichardDalton - that can happen. A worse culprit for this in my experience has been the plethora of degree courses that seem to be constructing a generation of self-centred show-offs. Perhaps we’ve just had bad experiences of the products of both of these…

My own experience of CCE was as a committee member/fiddle tutor/resident musician/general session dogsbody for a number of years (long since lapsed). I have to say that we actively discouraged exactly the kind of competitive playing that the OP refers to, and tried to encourage every player to participate as much as possible - whatever their skill level. We organised sessions, masterclasses, regular workshops and céilis. I even entered the fiddle competitions and did pretty well, but I didn’t view this as anything other than a personal challenge and a way to challenge my own ability. Some branches, I am aware, have not always done so well at that sort of thing, and I’ve heard some pretty awful stories about bad behaviour, and some very unsympathetic treatment of people who definitely deserved better in difficult circumstances. So I suppose there’s good and bad to be found.

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True any organisation is only as good as its members

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True, and any session is messed up by players egos

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Session playing is about communication; it’s a musical conversation. You are never playing to an audience; you are always playing with other musicians, otherwise it is not a session, it’s a performance.

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I think we discussed this…

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If it’s a musical conversation - then some people talk too much! :)

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I posted a similar thread myself before this thread was pointed out to me..I remarked on the lack of manners, ignorance and intolerance that seems common practice in sessions these days, a culture that has finally put me off after 40 years of playing.

Be it obnoxious egotistic players, hyped up Mammys with the comhaltas ‘win win win..listen to my child isn’t he great’ mentality..be it the players who feel they have a right to direct and manipulate sessions simply to suit themselves..young players who think they are the next Frankie Gavin or Matt Molloy..players who constantly play obscure tunes or in obscure keys, players who insist on playing their full repertoire and Fk everybody else, players who will not allow another to finish the set they started by forcing their own tunes..I have seen tune fights at the start of sets with two different tunes played at once until one bows down..I have been surround by 5 or 6 Bodhrans deafened and been told to carry on playing..I have been told I play to fast, to slow, to tight, to quite to loud. …and the funny thing is that much of the ignorance comes from people who don’t know the first thing, couldn’t hum a tune or have only been playing for a year or so…Music does funny things to their ego’s..

..the worst I ever encountered was in Clare , I was listening to 3 people who were playing a session, it was an open session with a sign on the door welcoming all musicians, I only wanted to listen..in walks four local musicians, the box player took out his box and at the same time took out what I thought was a birthday type card..it was a notice asking that no other players join the session..he put it on the table, ,they then played non stop for two hours, the other 3 never got a look in ….enough..

What I have noticed however, is that this culture is now being accepted as the norm..and I am sick of it …. I play with a select few, or own my own and pheck the rest of it..it’s not worth the hassle..I wont teach whistle or flute anymore, I am sick of obnoxious expectant parents and big headed children, I wont play in sessions and have stopped going to Fleadhs…I have learnt that when confronted with such ignorance its better to leave the morons at it..it’s just a pity though that our music is being stained in this way….stained with ignorance and arrogance…. if you ever watch the fleadhs on tv , look out for those middle aged, stern faced woman, who push and bully their way to the front of the crowd, especially if there’s a tv camera… thats a good reflection of what Irish music is becoming..imagine now trying to teach their children how to play, or being stuck beside one in a session…. no thank you anymore !