Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

I don’t see how the answer can be anything other than a resounding Yes!

Session Play is generally at a very fast speed, pushing many players to play beyond the tempo at which they have tune mastery.

Session Play is group play, which masks individual playing defects.

Session Play stifles the development of the individual player’s musical expression, preventing him/her from developing their own “voice”.

Session Play encourages the development of a vast repertoire, effectively emphasizing quantity over quality.

None of this is to deny that there are many positives in Session Play, e.g., exposing players to new tunes, observing different playing styles, camaraderie, etc. But, on net, doesn’t Session Play ultimately corrupt aspiring solo players?

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Blues Riffing?

100% agreed. If your aspiration is to play solo, or in an orchestra, or play the blues, then that’s what you should focus on.

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

A great many of the very best traditional musicians regularly play in sessions so no, it is not. If all you did was play in sessions then probably, but how many people with any ambition to play solo only play in sessions? Many sessions offer an excellent opportunity for learning.

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

It’s not a zero-sum game. Playing in sessions enhances many important skills. Woodshedding alone at home enhances some other important skills. They’re not mutually exclusive, and if you’re paying close attention to the music every time you play (in any setting), you’ll find lots of overlap and common ground as you develop skills and musicality.

None of your listed “negatives” hold true in my four decades of session experience. Specifically, if while in a session you’re ignoring “defects” and “musical expression” in your own playing, that’s your problem. (It also becomes your session mates’ problem because no one wants to listen to that! 😀 )

Also, it helps to session with good musicians, including those who are above your own level.

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Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

It depends on what kind of session you go to, too. Sitting in with a small group of seasoned players better than you will definitely help you improve. If you go to a big session with 3 guitars, 2 bodhrans, 6 fiddles, 2 accordions etc. playing The Rakes of Mallow … not so much.

edit: bit of a cross-post w/ gimpy

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

I don’t think I’ve ever met “an aspiring solo player”. How many have you come across ?
But to answer your question, it probably is. So what ?

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Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

Your first sentence sounds like you’ve made up your mind. Was this post intended for theaspiringsoloplayer.org?

Taking the question seriously, I’ve learned a great deal from playing in small-to-midsized sessions that has informed me as a solo and small group player. Skills of thinking on one’s feet, varying and ornamenting, meshing with an ensemble, and reapproaching tunes I thought I knew when I hear a new voice for them.

Good session players are good players who also can engage with the social dynamic of making music in this context. I can hear when Josh starts playing fiddle even when there are three other fiddles not because he’s the loudest one, but because he has a distinctive voice on his instrument…where he bows and slides and ornaments are different from everyone else around. And then Jen comes in with octave doubling on the concertina and it’s just magic. These musicians are lovely solo musicians as well, but they lift each other up together.

If your impression of sessions is so toxic, I hope you get the chance to enjoy some good ones.

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

Session playing is just one aspect of a good musician’s playing, just like everything else that they do. It can’t hurt unless it is the only playing that they do.

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

Quality solo playing is work.
Session playing is play.

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

P.S. Playing in sessions works best when it’s based on an equal or greater amount of solo woodshedding at home. This especially holds true in the earlier years of your musical path.

And the other side of the coin is that a musician who *only* plays alone runs the risk of wandering away from the tradition—the musical community that shapes and informs the tradition. Perhaps Tommie Potts was an example of that. I’ve heard contrary stories about whether or not he fit into sessions as his own playing grew more idiosyncratic.

Weird that this topic comes up after we’ve all just spent 2 years largely unable to play together. And on a forum dedicated to session playing.

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Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

LOL, DonaldK, whether session playing is play or work depends on the session! 😀

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Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

So this is kind of a related question then…when the person leading the tune has a different version / setting of the tune, should I change the way I usually play it, to follow their version?

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

cancion, it depends on how stark or nuanced the differences are. If they clash, then yes, I’d change my playing to blend in or stop playing.

By definition, a brilliant session is one where everyone’s really listening to each other and getting in sync. It doesn’t have to be perfect unison, but everyone plays with the same pulse, and the same overall melody line.

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Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

Yes, cancion, that would be the decent thing to do, though I’m not always decent.

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

//it depends on how stark or nuanced the differences are. If they clash, then yes, I’d change my playing to blend in or stop playing.//

@gimpy - in an unfamiliar session, I often find that I play the tunes straight, with no ornamentation.

The advantages are twofold - I don’t clash with others, and I get to hear *their* ornamentation.

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

Jim, likewise, though I don’t strip out all the curly bits. But I’ll play quieter and adjust to whatever the group is doing. Once I have a good feel for the sound they’re after, I might do “more”—more of whatever sounds right while not intruding on the other players.

So much depends on listening and communicating (musically) with the other people in the circle. Sometimes, it’s best to stay in the background. Other times, among good, generous musicians, you can help lift the session and generate more craic than the night otherwise promised.

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Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

Yes and no. As others have pointed out, it depends. Depends on the size of the session: small sessions are my personal preference, because you, and the other players, are more “exposed” so they give you more of a chance to try to play your best (mind you, not that my best is anything special….) especially if you’re leading a set of tunes.
But even that depends. Some big sessions, if populated by good players, can be a great learning experience. The big session as portrayed by JoeFidkid above, with 10 geetars, shakey eggs, spoons, didgeridoos, rainsticks, etc, wouldn’t be good for the quality of the music or ones mental health.
If the speed of tunes in a session is too fast, for you or for the quality of the music, you have every right to complain. But, to me, the solution for you seems simple. Don’t go.

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

Only if the solo player is willing to lower the bar. Now I’m pretty sure I’m the outlier here so please don’t take this as an attack. I don’t “get” the appeal of solo playing. For 60 years now music of any kind has always been interactive. Playing alone is what I do to make me better at playing with others. Yeah sometimes it’s fun, just not as much fun as joining in. To me playing alone is like talking to myself so I would say the opposite. Solo playing is corrosive to playing in a group. Playing with others encourages developing a personal “voice” and brings shortcomings to the front for correction. Unless of course the group is not a group but a bunch of solo players all playing solo at the same time, and that as they say, “sucks out loud”.

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

The posts on a forum about Irish trad sessions are bound to highlight a confirmation bias for playing music socially and away from solo playing. Few surprises in the posts so far.

But the more I think about it, the more the OP seems to misrepresent what playing music together is all about. Perhaps that’s Jacobite’s unfortunate experience of sessions. If so, I hope he/she can find a more musical session.

Playing tunes with a small circle of like-minded friends tends to create a groove (and pace) where we play our best, trading musical ideas and feelings back and forth, and hearing individual voices and expression as well as the ensemble sound.

As to quantity/quality, in my experience, the more tunes you know, the more (techniques, nuances, variations, expression) you can bring to each tune. Think of it flipped: if you knew only two tunes, or even ten tunes, your frame of reference for the music would be so limited, you couldn’t imagine all the rich possibilities that a broader repertoire would bring. Those few tunes would exist in a very shallow understanding of the music, never mind of the culture the music springs from.

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Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

You are speaking of two different experiences, each with its own skill level, much like playing in an orchestra vs. being a soloist. Each is a different discipline. Both have disadvantages and rewards. The degree to which embracing both damages the proficiency of either depends on one’s ability and interest. The same goes for learning multiple instruments. Many seem able to get away with it.

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Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

"Session Play is group play, which masks individual playing defects.

Session Play stifles the development of the individual player’s musical expression, preventing him/her from developing their own “voice”.

Session Play encourages the development of a vast repertoire, effectively emphasizing quantity over quality."

Yes, to all of those. However, I think those are all positive aspects of session playing.

Can I get through a zillion tunes, but probably could not start most of them or play them solo? Yes, yes I can.

Do I care about my ‘individual musical expression?’ No. Does anyone else? No chance. Like seriously, who cares? Most of us are going to punter about and not be Seamus Ennis anyway.

Do sessions mask my ‘individual playing defects?’ I live in hope.

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

I’m reminded of a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip:

Calvin: “If you could have anything, what would you wish for?”
Hobbes: “A sandwich.”
Calvin: “A sandwich?! What a lack of imagination! I’d wish for a trillion billion dollars, a spaceship, and my own country.”
(Next scene, Hobbes eating a sandwich)
Hobbes: “I got my wish.”

Forty years ago, I set my sights on becoming a contributing session player. I got my wish.

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Session Play v. Solo Play?!

I hope I’m not the only one who thinks the OP’s question tends to miss why some of us play in sessions. Not saying one way or the other if it’s beneficial to other playing; music other than sessions. I’m saying when I am in a session it’s because that’s where I want to be when it’s happening.

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Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

“Session Play is generally at a very fast speed, pushing many players to play beyond the tempo at which they have tune mastery.”

Being compelled to play in a way that is outside of your comfort zone, challenges your natural setting, and pushes you past your present level of mastery, is one of the most efficient ways to improve overall ability. In most cases, there is no improvement without some stretch or push outside of one’s comfort zone. There is absolutely nothing wrong with playing/practicing fast if it is refined by clean slow practice. Also, being compelled to push past one’s *perceived limits can grant awareness to the player of their *true capabilities.

“Session Play is group play, which masks individual playing defects.”

If you’re paying your due diligence in practice, you’re already aware of your playing defects. While playing in a group may somewhat mask individual playing defects, it is more likely that overall playing is improved due to the heightened awareness that comes from having a mirror; In the form of another player who you are either in sync with or out of sync with. Not to mention the added accountability of maintaining the integrity of the music for the sake of everyone else listening. This awareness can seep into your solo play, opening your ear more to how you sound, and in turn, how you perform.

“Session Play stifles the development of the individual player’s musical expression, preventing him/her from developing their own ”voice“.”

Hearing different instruments, different settings of tunes, and different interpretations of musical phrases in general, expands a musician’s palette, it doesn’t stifle it. It may be against one’s better judgement to play tunes in a unique, solo setting when playing in a group; But that does not mean it diminishes any player’s actual capacity for creativity.

“Session Play encourages the development of a vast repertoire, effectively emphasizing quantity over quality.”

Though it’s true that attempting to learn too much music at one time can be counter-productive, one direct path to instrumental and style mastery is repertoire. Every tune informs you more about your instrument, and every tune informs every other tune. If you focus on one tune, that tune will only offer so much in terms of your development. Learning different tunes in the same key expands skills required by that key. Learning tunes in different keys builds overall instrumental competency. In any case, there will come a time when the only way to improve is to simply learn more music; given that one has given their due diligence to the other tunes.

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

No, it does not need to be detrimental nor stifle anyone’s creativity! Thank you, Jerone.

“Hearing different instruments, different settings of tunes, and different interpretations of musical phrases in general, expands a musician’s palette, it doesn’t stifle it. It may be against one’s better judgement to play tunes in a unique, solo setting when playing in a group; But that does not mean it diminishes any player’s actual capacity for creativity. ”

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Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

I’ve never heard of a music teacher in any style of music telling any promising student, “No, don’t join the band/choir/orchestra/string quartet, it’ll ruin you for solo playing.”

Not ever. And I’ve met a few seriously world-class musicians of classical, jazz, and blues at least, who all value the time they’ve spent playing with others as part of their development.

“You’ll need to work a bit more on your music skills before you’re good enough to join this group,” sure, that I’ve heard plenty of times.

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

I would ask the question the other way round. You occasionally meet players (who invariably have not grown up with the music) who seem to be focused on becoming star players (legends in their own mind), are attracted to and learn difficult or unusual tunes and fancy settings off recordings, and never seem to bother acquiring a more basic session repertoire. These players are generally corrosive to sessions…

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

Betteridge’s law applies to any heading of this ilk.

The supposed disadvantages of session/group play are equally strengths - including the ability to learn, imperfectly, and improve (speed, technique, repertoire, ornamentation). There is also the cultural, social and community dimension.

Is “quality solo playing” of ITM a real thing? Other than a handful of extraordinary talents. Who, where?

My answer to the question would be a resounding and unequivocal NO.

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

> Is “quality solo playing” of ITM a real thing? Other than a handful of extraordinary talents. Who, where?

I have to say, this is a silly statement/question given the existence of (among many other things) the whole Fleadh Cheoil system, which is more or less designed around the idea of solo playing (although there are group categories). Never mind that solo playing is and always has been a massive part of the tradition, since well before the pub session became a well-established “thing.”

As for the question at hand, I’d say it very much can be. Session playing can lead to learning tunes to the minimum viable standard, just get the notes in order so you can play along with everyone else and you’re good to go. If that’s your mentality (and I see/hear it a fair bit at sessions), it absolutely is corrosive to good solo playing. But it doesn’t have to be at all!

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“Is “quality solo playing” of ITM a real thing?”
Yes, it is.

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Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

“Is “quality solo playing” of ITM a real thing?”. As bigsciota says above, isn’t that the raison-d‘aitre of Comhaltas, and what is its’ worldwide membership ?
I had a look at the number of finalist competitors listed in the 1976 programme for the All Ireland Fleadh Cheoil na h-Eireann for solo fiddle. There were 5 age groups with a total of 68 players. They all had to qualify through 2 stages of competition to get there. That’s a lot of fiddlers practicing solo to be able to get up on stage to play, on their own, with no accompaniment at all. And that’s just for fiddle, and not including the “fiddle - slow airs” category. Of course, the vast majority, if not all, almost certainly can play in a session if they so choose. But not everyone who plays in a session is capable of getting up on a stage and playing solo in front of an audience who are actively listening, and possibly very knowledgeable about the music. That takes a certain kind of courage, and ability.
I don’t think personally I ever improved any as a musician through playing at sessions. To me they are as much social occasions as musical. I did improve in the days of entering competitions, when I played in various bands, or was regularly performing solo at folk clubs.

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Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

As we’re talking about Irish/Scottish sessions, I agree there’s a difference between Session V Solo playing although I don’t believe that one of these is necessarily detrimental to the other.

There is a time and place for both and different disciplines are involved. I don’t generally perform solo in public as such although I will often have a tune or two outdoors or in a quiet pub etc and people sometimes might listen in the passing. Or maybe in a “circle” or “take your turn” session, I might do something as well.

Of course, I also play at home a lot myself and will try out different things. However, when attending a session, I have to play the same thing as everyone else or, at least, something which will “blend in” and not disrupt the proceedings. That is an important discipline too and it’s not appropriate just to do your own thing no matter how brilliant you think it might sound.

In some cases, this might be considered to be “dumbing down” but, if you find yourself in the company of much better musicians, it could also be a case of “raising your game”.

In other types of sessions, e.g. bluegrass , solo performance often plays a bigger part in that different instruments will be allowed or encouraged to have “breaks”. So, a session wouldn’t necessarily confine one’s solo playing as much. Of course, there is still a “format” to be followed in most of these situations too.

Re: Is Session Play Corrosive of Quality Solo Play?

Nylon Flute says

“I’ve never heard of a music teacher in any style of music telling any promising student, “No, don’t join the band/choir/orchestra/string quartet, it’ll ruin you for solo playing.” ”

Yes, this is slightly different from being in a session though as there are extra disciplines involved… i.e. you have to learn different arrangements, parts, and may even have the opportuntity to perform solo or, at least, take the lead withing the group setting.

So, in some ways, it’s a bridge or “half way house” between the “session” and “solo” scenario. The latter, of course, does leave you much more exposed both in terms of having to build up the necessary confidence and being particularly meticulous with your playing.

I’ve played in quite a few such “ensembles” over the years albeit in a very amateur capacity and have learned much and “improved” as a result of the experience. Arguably, not as much as if I forced myself to be a completely solo performer but I’m also aware that the world isn’t ready for that . 🙂

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Solo play is about you, your instrument and your music. Learn, practice, take lessons, busk, and you can do it.

How possibly can something external, like playing with other people at a session, destroy that?

So at sessions you play half-learned tunes, too fast, badly? Well, when solo, play well learned tunes slowly and perfectly. What’s to stop you?

So at sessions you learn bad habits? More likely the bad habits came with you from home. and it can go both ways: “Dave, it hurts when I play the Kesh jig! Dave: hmm… you are holding the whistle wrong! ohh… ohh!!! thanks, Dave!”

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When people asked me how I learned music, I don’t just tell them that I took private lessons for 10 years. I always include the fact that during that time period, I also took an assortment of music and art classes in school; Including over 6 years of singing in chorus and other ensembles. There is no doubt in my mind that I would be a lesser musician, if not for the learning and social experiences of performing with ensembles. And I’ve never heard of ensemble playing being “bad” for anyone, whether it is an Irish music session, or some other grouping.

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Kenny wrote: “I don’t think personally I ever improved any as a musician through playing at sessions.” I guess that’s possible. It would depend on the quality of the sessions and your reason(s) for being there. I’m sure Keny’s played with many top-flight musicians.

My experience is different. At various stages, I’ve been fortunate to sit in next to some stellar musicians. Paying attention to how they played has greatly improved my own playing, including giving me a more precise sense of timing and brilliant insights into creating pulse, phrasing, how to layer variations and cuts, rolls, triplets, etc.

My playing also improved from years of anchoring sessions. Leading sets quickly reveals how well you really know the tunes. And pulling along a group of less experienced musicians forces you to focus on providing a strong pulse, lift, and continuity (both within a tune and from one tune to the next). It’s also taught me to play through distractions. All of these are important skills for solo playing.

Sure, I woodshedded on all this at home, alone, but the substance and motivation came from immersion in sessions with wonderful musicians.

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