Survey question

Survey question

Many statements of session etiquette say something to the effect that if you don’t know the tune, don’t play. I tend to agree with this, but would like to know how many of you would agree. Here are some statement examples:

‘If you don’t know the tunes they are playing, just sit and listen, and only play the tunes that you do know.’ []

‘Don’t play any tune unless you can play it through several times without faltering.’ []

‘Playing when you don’t really know the tune. It’s usually ok to do so very quietly, but… be careful! ’ []

‘If you don’t know a tune, don’t play. Never “noodle”.’ []

Do you agree or disagree that this session etiquette guideline should apply to ALL players in a session?

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I’d imagine the answer greatly depends on the size of the session and who is at it.
I’ve always been impressed by large groups of fiddlers who perform and all play in unison. I would not want to be That Player who messed up!

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I’ve been to a session of about 10 people who say just join in if you can play the tune fairly well. Mess ups don’t matter just find your place again. Even just playing a few notes of a tune you picked up the second time through is fine. Im guessing making mistakes would be much more noticeable in a small group.

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Like any rule of thumb it’s there to broken. It’s usually OK to join in with the fragments of a tune you recognise, and leave out the other bits, if it’s not intrusive, if it’s in tune, and if you’ve half a chance of getting it by the last time around. It does depend who you’re with, who you are, and whether there’s a risk of ruining a special moment, but most sessions aren’t that precious and less confident players are often encouraged to have a go. The etiquette is more about discretion and deference, the shy player often gets the encouragement while the over confident one gets the evil eye.

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Play the tunes you know. Listen to the tunes you don’t know.

Practice at home, not at the session.

Now, there are gradients of “know”.

There’s the tune you know and can start today.

There’s the tune you know but couldn’t start.

There’s tune you used to know, but need to hear it a few times to get it back in the fingers.

There’s the tune that is so much like that other tune you know, that by the time you’ve listened to it one time, you have the skill to play it the second time around like you’ve known it all your life.

Those all fit in my bucket of “tunes you know”.

Then there are the tunes you don’t know.

You can’t start them. You can’t play them if someone else starts them, and you haven’t learned them. Maybe you’ve never heard the tune before. Sit those out and listen. Record them on your phone. Send yourself a note with the name. Spend all the time you need at home to learn them and come back next week able to play them.

Or selfishly choose not to do that and distract and upset those next to you who actually know the tune while you haltingly try to play the tune playing wrong notes and starting/stopping rather than actually playing the tune. When they get upset with you, blame them for being unfriendly and intolerant.

On second thought, don’t ever do that. Just play the tunes you know. Listen to the tunes you don’t know.

Practice at home, not at the session. Take the time. Do the work. Be patient with yourself. Respect the other players. Respect the music.

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If I don’t know a tune I don’t play, either as an accompanist or melody. I listen, take it in, and follow up at home learning it. The alternative to that approach strikes me a somewhat absurd.

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I have sometimes played zouk accompaniment to tunes I don’t strictly know , but having sussed the key whether its Dmix, Adorian, Gmaj etc I can predict pretty well where the tune is going. I’m not advocating this as a policy that is always acceptable but it can be ok depending on the situation.

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As Michael Eskin said

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Michael Eskin 100%


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Yes, what Michael said.

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Yes what Eskin said.

You hear people rail against “noodling” but there are various types.

I’ve told the tale of a fiddler who used to always be at the sessions, she had an amazing ability to sound good on tunes she hadn’t heard before.

She would start by bowing along, the rhythm perfect, and if you watched her fingers you would see that from the start she had the chord structure.

Then you would see her using more fingering, as she figured out the melodic shapes.

Soon enough she was playing the tune as well as anyone in the session.

At no point did her playing clash; from the get-go it blended and was musical.

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I’d sooner people attempted to play tunes they don’t know how to play rather than people trying to play instruments they can’t play.

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My tuppenceworth…
I’ve always told my students that a session is no place to “learn an instrument”, by which I mean you don’t try to play along with people until you can actually play your fiddle/whistle, whatever in a fundamentally acceptable way. Equally, I’ve always told them that you go to sessions to “learn the tunes”. This by listening, picking up the tunes, internalising them, repeating them. Once learned, they can join in on the tunes they know and try to learn the ones they don’t. I’ve been playing a long time and can pick up bits of tunes quite easily (in some cases, not so much in others) so if I hear a tune I don’t know I listen to it, watch whistle or flute players’ fingers, try to pick up as much as I can the first time, a little more the second time and maybe (quietly) on a whistle try to pick out the key notes the third time. It depends on the session, of course. If there’s only 4 or 5 of you this doesn’t really work.

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I think it really depends on the session and the player. At our local session there are tunes that come along that are unknown to me that I can hear almost immediately and sometimes I ghost the phrases I’m not sure about and try to get them the next time around. I’ve also been to sessions where the playing level was on such a high level and the players so familiar with each other and their versions and phrasing styles that I didn’t play any tunes whether I knew them or not other than the first set they asked me to play. I know a few players that can play tunes they’ve never heard perfectly by the second pass. I also believe that virtually every tune will have some variance at different sessions. This is something I’ve always struggled with.
I’m always trying to improve my etiquette but I’m convinced that there are no set rules. I try to watch and follow the tide if I’m at a new session I’m not familiar with.

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Back to my “It all depends” answer….

I agree with most of what has already been said.

How do you define “know”? You may be able to play a tune you are not sure if you know or not or, perhaps, have forgotten the title momentarily. Or have learned it by “osmosis” without realising it. There are other possibilities, of course.

Also, there are tunes may know or have known but can’t play at a particular time or with musicians who may have a different setting or playing style than yourself.

So, I don’t think it’s necessary to restrict yourself to tunes which you have constantly and consciously practised at home or already know inside out. As I said, in the last paragraph, you might still not be able to play these at a particular time and place if you are unable to adapt your own playing accordingly….. e.g. style, rhythm, settings, speed, and so on.

Perhaps the advice would be better given as “Don’t play tunes unless you are able to do so whether you know them or not” or similar. Of course, you may not realise this until you start and that’s happened to me often enough. I’ve often persevered as many will do but there should be a sensible “cut off” point when you realise that it’s much more appropriate to “sit things out” rather than continue playing the tune.

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I can only speak for myself. Before I had a weekly session to go to, I would never join a tune I didn’t know well. Now, I find I have absorbed so many tunes I’ve never sat down to learn, I just play what I can and vamp through the rest. We record our sessions for those who wish to learn that way (I don’t), and when I hear the playback, it actually sounds like I know these tunes much better than I do. Faking it that well is an acquired skill, but one that serves me well. Sometimes it is a bit annoying when folks try to join in when someone introduces a new tune, but you can hear the sound start to fill out after every pass. One gets a feel for the tune and whether it should become a part of the repertoire.

I think it’s not always okay, but I keep in mind that sessions are not performances. If the practice is incessant and disruptive, it should be called out and stopped. Otherwise, play on and enjoy. The music can only benefit from the participation.

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Other reasons or “depends” for not trying to play along:
You have a LOUD instrument (I play button accordion, which can be played softly if you really want to, but is, on average, louder than some other instruments.) It’s far worse to be loud and wrong than soft and wrong!
You don’t have any fingers to watch: I’m usually in a minority of one in any session. I can get a little help on key from watching guitar if they are playing basic chords, or from whistle or right hand of piano accordion for melody, but if in doubt, sit it out!
Some tunes have phrases in common with others: more than once have seen one tune morph into another, when the ones who thought they knew what was being played took over.

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That’s true, you can’t easily “try” and play a tune on the pipes or accordion without causing disruption.

At least with a mandolin you can often get your ear down close to the strings and very quietly work out a tune without disturbing anyone else.

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//If you don’t know a tune, don’t play. Never “noodle”.’ []
Do you agree or disagree that this session etiquette guideline should apply to ALL players in a session?//

By and large, yes, but it very much depends on the instrument. I sometimes “play along” on fiddle, but with almost zero bow pressure - “ghosting” - just enough to be audible to me, but not to anyone else.

Of course, if I didn’t know the tune at all, and its form was unfamiliar, there wouldn’t be much point in using my hands at all. Just my ears, by listening, to at least get a basic handle on it.

In this scenario, as soon as I am aware that I’m audible to my musical neighbour, I stop.

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I sit firmly in the ‘It depends’ camp.

i. Different session groups have different expectations and standards. Some are very particular about how a tune is played, right down to the particular setting, and would not tolerate a note out of place; others are happy as long as one or two individuals are holding the tune together; most fall somewhaere in between.

ii. Different players have different degrees of ability to pick up a tune ‘on the fly’, either note-for-note or sympathetically to the tune. Some may be playing a tune for the first time and nobody would know; others think they are better at it than they really are and may not be aware of how far they are deviating from the tune. (This is much like when someone sings wildly off key or on a monotone yet they have no idea they are not singing exactly the same notes as the person next to them.)

It would be hypocritical of me to rail against playing along to unknown or unpractised tunes since I do it frequently - possibly sometimes ill-advisedly. Probably like a lot of people who have been playing in sessions for a couple of decades or more (and maybe less), I can pick up tunes fairly quickly (although probably not as well as the fiddler that Richard D Cook mentions above). I might myself sometimes fall into the category of musician I allude to above, that thinks they are better than they are (I couldn’t possibly say - if I could, it would be false). But, referring back to my first point above, that depends very much on the particular session I am playing in.

It might be a good rule of thumb for a newcomer to traditional music to “Only play a tune that you can play through three times without faltering” or some variation thereof. But the problem is, when should one stop considering oneself a newcomer? That rule could be extended to all players but then, if it were rigidly adhered to, it might exclude some players that are fully capable of playing along to an unfamiliar tune in an unobtrusive way or even in such a way as to greatly enhance the session.

So, it depends…

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Thanks for the insights everyone. It was interesting that some commented about certain instruments, such as pipes and accordions, presenting a different challenge due to volume issues. This made me wonder about other instruments, such those used for accompaniment like guitar or bodhran. Any thoughts on those kinds of instruments regarding playing a tune that isn’t known very well by the player?

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They should refrain from it. Particularly the backup players.

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Are you looking for some sort of permission or justification for you or others to behave rudely or impatiently?

Do you want it to be OK to disrupt and probably upset other players with distracting noodling or clueless backing?

What’s the motive behind this whole topic?

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“Any thoughts on those kinds of instruments regarding playing a tune that isn’t known very well by the player?”

Again, it all depends how you define “know”….

I wouldn’t expect backers to actually learn the exact melody of a tune before taking part in a session although some here might disagree.

However, they should really *know how it goes* if you know what I mean. Of course, for many “bog standard” tunes, a good accompanist can work out a good simple backing there and then even if he or she is not too familiar with them. As with melody players, however, they shouldn’t really be on playing tunes they don’t know unless they are experienced enough and the music sounds quite familiar.

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In our session, we sometimes have people playing when they don’t know the tunes. I find this is often disruptive, and tends to detract from the quality of the music. I was curious about how others here feel about this, so I asked your opinions.

The consensus seems to be that, unless the playing is quiet, people find it objectionable for other players to be playing when they don’t know the tune. My feeling on the issue seems to be reasonably consistent with most other respondents.

Maybe players who play loudly on tunes they don’t know will see this thread and reconsider their practice.

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dfost, is there a host in your session who is willing to have a conversation with players who are impacting the session? If so have you mentioned any of this to the host or hosts?

Posted by .

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Thanks for the clarification! If their noodling bothers you, tell them!

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In general the safe rule of thumb is to play what you know and sit out the rest (listen and learn).

But there are quite a few sessions, especially of the “local” variety, which are geared to be beginner friendly and welcoming of all abilities. Such sessions are often looser in their expectations regarding the ability of a player to keep up/in with the tune. Participation and inclusion are regarded as more important than the musical excellence.

In smaller session groups with proficient players who are obviously looking to “do it right” it is simply disrespectful to expect to be welcome to play along with a sub-par performance of a tune.

I suppose that ultimately each individual needs to be AWARE of their abilities and limitations and not to impose their desire to participate where their playing is not up to the standard necessary.

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Another thing I’ve noticed in many sessions(Again, depends where you are), session leaders or those who start off a tune will shout out the keys of tunes often for the benefit of backers but, possibly, some melody players too. Presumably, there are expectations that all players will either “join in” or give it a go.

Of course, as I said earlier, if you are floundering or just haven’t a clue how the tune is going, you should certainly sit it out. Also, if you are attending a new session or or just “dropping in”, then it’s always best to err on the side of caution. I always try to be ultra careful in these situations.

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It depends entirely on the culture and nature of a particular session. “Pure drop” sessions are very insistent on everyone playing the tune correctly and for people to have thoroughly learned it before joining in. Other sessions may be more tolerant (I don’t mean this as a criticism of pure drop). These days I play mainly English music, and when I do go to Irish sessions they are far from purist. English sessions are more like jam sessions and often actually encourage improvisation and development of the tune.

Since most tunes from all the traditions of the British Isles follow a very similar regular structure, it is often possible to pick up the bones of an unfamiliar tune very quickly, unless the culture of the session requires you to know it properly. Some tunes have a particular quirk or twist which can be more difficult to work out on the fly, but that can easily be avoided or fudged without distracting from the other melody players. On melodeon, I often start to join in by playing a drone while emphasising the rhythm, and then add melody and other chords as I get to grips with the tune. However it is essential to remember that what may be accepted and even encouraged at one session may be completely out of order at another.

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“However it is essential to remember that what may be accepted and even encouraged at one session may be completely out of order at another.”

Including, perhaps, use of the term “British Isles” when talking about ITM. 🙂

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“These Islands” - so how would I not living there call them? “Those Islands”?

As for knowing the tune more or less, I agree with what Michael Eskin wrote.

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The initial quotation about ‘noodling’ comes from Roy Johnstone - now, Roy is a master fiddler. If you sit down with players who are at that level, you keep your head down and mind your Ps and Qs, if you want to be tolerated. It’s not a time for noodling or bumbling, and if you get a ‘look’, you stop. That simple. If you sit down to play with some hack like me, on the other hand, … well ……

Re: Survey question… [It depends]

“In our session, we sometimes have people playing when they don’t know the tunes. I find this is often disruptive, and tends to detract from the quality of the music.”

dfost, I’m assuming you have not been online since your most recent comment; right before my reply.
I’m still hoping to hear from you. Rather than have you scroll back here is what I posted earlier,
"dfost, is there a host in your session who is willing to have a conversation with players who are impacting
the session? If so have you mentioned any of this to the host or hosts?"

I appreciate any response if & when you see my post.

ps - I don’t want to be a bother. I sincerely want to give my feedback. Having said this, the inference
on this thread that the answers to your OP question “depends on the session” is critical. Absolutely critical!

Posted by .

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If you don’t know a tune, don’t play! I absolutely agree, that’s why i’m playing only at home ;) When everybody are out, of course. Let alone this session :D

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Yes, I have read your recommendation AB, and I agree with your advice. I’ve had several discussions with this person, but it hasn’t helped. I hope that if this person could someday understand that the general feeling of most session players is that loud playing in the absence of knowing the tune is inappropriate, but, while for the melody players in our session it’s all about the tune, for this individual, it’s all about themselves. Maybe they’ll get the message if they understand that for most session players - not just me - this kind of inappropriate behavior can be damaging to a good session.

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Lol @ “noodling”

Jeremy will scold me for this post.