Becoming more than just a session player…

Becoming more than just a session player…

Hi all,

Just registered to ask this,so my apologies if I’m breaking any sort of etiquette…

I’ve been playing fiddle since I was about 14 on and off, only ever really in pub sessions (a very brief stint in a ceilidh band). I’m now mid 30s, and feeling that I want to push myself musically.

I’m far from a "professional" player, but I think I can hold my own in a English or Irish session. My main issue is confidence or lack of it, I don’t often start tunes and I think this is what I need to work on!

I’m not sure what a good step to take would be, I’m considering trying out some folk clubs as I’ve never been to one. And see how the standing up and performing feels! Would anyone else have any advice on what to try please?

Thanks!

Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

Hi - welcome to thesession.org. Playing what used to be known as "floor spots" at folk clubs, mainly in Aberdeen, throughout the 1970s and into the 90s certainly worked for me. It gives you confidence to appear in front of an audience, and communicate with them , as well as just playing. Also makes you practice at home - no one wants to make an eejit of themselves, although I have seen some noteable exceptions.
Unfortunately, I think you’re about 20 years too late, as the folk club scene is nothing compared to what it used to be, and Covid hasn’t helped any either. Also, my own experience is that instrumentalists are no longer particularly welcome at folk clubs any more - it seems to have reverted to the singers, or worse, the would be singer songwriters. Sorry to be so negative, but it may be different where you are - I would suggest you give it a go. Best of luck. Kenny

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Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

One thing you might try doing is making an album. Recording is a great way to be able to analyze your playing, and doesn’t have the same potential pressures as standing on a stage and performing. (But does have its own pressures, like "red light syndrome". But once you realize that you can re-record anything you don’t like, the pressure eases a bit…) The two albums I have recorded (with a third in the works) have definitely helped improve me as a player!

Oh, and welcome to thesession forums, Lionheaded! What took you so long? We don’t bite… Well, most of us don’t, at least! 😉

Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

Solo busking is a fairly entry-level, low-pressure way to find out how well you really know your tunes and whether or not your playing resonates with listeners. It’s also a reasonable approach to building self confidence, though some passersby will freely offer their critiques and others will ignore you completely, so it may also help you develop a thicker skin.

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Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

I’m sure a lot of us could give an account of our introduction to playing in public just as Kenny describes - but, as he says, folk clubs don’t exist in the numbers that they once did. If you have one (or more) in your area, I’d suggest going along a couple of times as an audience member to get an idea of the style/ambience/preferred material, etc., and maybe ask the organiser how they go about including would-be contributors. Some have a policy of maybe offering new or unknown performers a one- or two-tune (or song) slot in the first half as a means of checking them out and allowing them the experience of playing at the club.

Worth adding that, although folk clubs are more of a rarity these days, there are a fair number of open-mic events at pubs that may be good to seek out. I guess some will be run along pop & karaoke lines, but there will be those that are more eclectic - and maybe even geared to the folk & trad market. There are certainly things like that going on in my area (Sussex, UK).

But I’d have to take issue with ‘… JUST a session player’. I’d say it’s good to take up any and all playing opportunities, and a session can be as good as any other format for enjoying tunes’n’beer which, after all, is the main point of it all. And regular sessioneering brings you into contact with other folks in the tune-based community from which other activities can develop, such as getting asked to dep in local bands when they’re short-handed, or maybe picking up the odd gig. Who knows what doors may open … .?

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Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

Try Minchinhampton Folk Club; Thursday nights, cannot remember where they meet now but I can find out. Instrumentalist were welcomed there when we last went.

Kenny, players very welcome at our session in Tarves, also at Fyvie Folk Club.

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Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

This will sound more negative than I mean it to sound, but personally I consider starting sets with confidence a relatively important aspect of a session player. In this context, being capable of playing an entire set solo if necessary is also part of the required skill set that a session player should have, IMO

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Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

If you’ve been playing sessions for some time, have you made any friends?
See if you can get together with one at home to share some tunes and sets. Without the cover of a full session, you may find, with a single companion, you can get over the jitters enough to call a set or two with the whole lot.

Worth a try and some good fun.

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Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

Dance bands are always looking for deps; if you’ve got any acquaintances in that scene you can just ask for their sets and and to sit in unpaid for a few gigs, and if you can cope with that then you might end up regretting asking!

The other thing you could consider doing is taking on some teaching, which in turn teaches you a great deal about your instrument and how it and the player does what they do. If it’s new to you, try and find students with a few years under their belt, and then work down the experience levels to beginners - beginners are obviously the biggest market in teaching but it’s wise to acquire some confidence in teaching before starting your first one.

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Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

I sympathise with your wish to gain confidence at performing. I can also see what some of the others are saying about folk clubs. Recently I went to a ‘session’ near here, and it was a round the table affair, with each person doing their own turn. There were seventeen people there and only three of us were instrumentalists, and of those two were guitarists. All the others sang and accompanied themselves on their guitars.

I did play a fiddle tune, and afterwards I thought I’d go to the next session, as I do want to gain confidence. But I’ve changed my mind after mulling it over - it’s galling to have to listen to fourteen songs in a row just to get one chance at performing, and then knowing that the singers are just waiting for your tune to be over so they can start singing again!

If I were you (but I’m a lot older, so I’ve missed my chance!), I would start by leading tunes routinely at the sessions you attend, and then, when you’ve got a little confidence, put on a concert for your friends, either on your own or with someone else from the session. Busking sounds like a good idea too. After that, you might consider making a tape. But I have to say that I’ve been given tapes by musicians at various summer schools I’ve been to and it doesn’t seem to be getting them anywhere much.

Best of luck. xxx

Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

The only way to gain confidence is to put yourself out there. Performing in a folk club should certainly help, but it is still a different environment from a session.

Try starting a tune you know well, and that you know the other session players know. They’ll join in after a few bars and then you won’t be on your own.

Don’t rush. It’s easy to play too fast when you’re stressed. Take a moment or two to find the right tempo in your head before you start playing - not always easy in those sessions where someone jumps in as soon as there’s a pause. Try to breath and relax, don’t tense up in anticipation.

If it goes wrong, don’t be put off, try again another time. Most sessions, especially where you’re a regular, are friendly places and tolerant of mistakes. You’ll fret about your mistakes far more than anyone else will.

Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

I’m kind of black and white about this. If you decide to be more than a session player (which is quite enough) there is only one other you can be and that’s a performer. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the main act, the opener, the dance band, or a busker, you’re a performer and that can be a heavy load. No room for "getting paid to practice" or "polishing the piece". The audience, even if they’re just passing by, dancing, or sitting in the arena. Is paying you to entertain and deserves your A-Game. Think of it this way. Would you pay any price to see somebody who’s just not that good? Ever? You’re the ambassador for these tunes, this music and it’s a pretty small pond. We owe it to the world to not let anybody walk away thinking is just that diddley stuff. It’s not easy. it takes thought, study, dedication to be the best you can be … very time. I have, and I’m sure you have, been to shows or even a ball game, where the band/team was just phoning it in. and left disappointed. So yeah, it’s hard. I can’t think of anything that’s worth doing isn’t. That’s what makes doing it worth it.

Done now. That’s my story and I’m sticking’ to it.

Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

Good for you for wanting to push yourself. I’d suggest two things.

First, work on starting off sets in a session. Pick some tunes that you’re comfortable with and go with those. That will help you build confidence in your playing.

Second, find some one - a singer/player, ideally - who you can pair up with for some open mics and/or gigs. That will take the pressure off you for having to do the whole set, and you’ll have a backup player for the tunes you decide to play.

Good luck!

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Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

Lionheaded,

Your opening post suggests that you want to perform solo?

That is a possibility, of course, but you might find it less daunting to play with others at first. e.g. in a duo or small group.

A ceilidh band could be a good start or you could seek small gigs whereby you play for small audiences here and there.

Folk club floor spots or an open stage (at festivals etc) might be a good move too but, as Kenny states, these are getting more singer/songwriter oriented although the opportunities might be better in your neck of the woods.

Sometimes you can get a more "mixed" session where you have the opportunity to do a turn on your own or start something off. We have such things "Here in Scotland" but the experience can be variable!

There are other options to being "more than a session player" too. You could join a "community" group. In Scotland, we have fiddle societies and the like but also other arrangements where non professional players get together.

However, I get the impression that you may be looking for something a little more than that.
Good luck, whatever.

Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

No telling what the situation is at Lionheaded’s session, but if I were in his/her shoes, I’d work on getting comfortable leading sets there (or finding another session where that’s possible) before thinking about any type of gigging or other performing. That would mark a minimum level of competence (and self confidence) before embarking on more demanding ventures.

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Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

Many good points here.

Just like anything else, performing gets easier with practice. And by practice I mean performing. There’s a world of difference between playing in your living room in front of the cat and performing to a listening audience. What you play can sound very different and seem unfamiliar in a strange place in front of strangers.

When performing you have to remember you’re there to entertain, which doesn’t always equate to showing everyone how good your chops are. If you look at seasoned solo performers you’ll see they do a lot of talking in between their musical offerings.

But there’s also safety in numbers, so if you can find a friend or friends to play with, especially to begin with, all the better. You can cover each others’ mistakes and stage patter can include a bit of repartee. And, when it comes down to it, playing music with other people is where the real joy is. Playing solo can be an awfully lonely furrow.

As Kenny and others have pointed out, these days there aren’t perhaps as many sympathetic spaces for honing performance skills as there were at the latter end of the last century but you can still find opportunities to perform, especially in non-paying situations (charity events, etc).

Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

I’m with ross faison on this: any time you are in front of people, whether on a stage or busking or whatever, the show is on. You should be trying to play as well as you possibly can at that moment. Now, obviously at some point you’ll make a mistake, and that’s fine. Busking in particular is a good place to make mistakes, since anyone who notices will have walked by and be out of earshot in about 30 seconds. But don’t confuse lower stakes with "practicing."

The same is true of sessions honestly, I think it’s generally more enjoyable for everyone when people approach it with the attitude of "let’s play well together." I’ve been at sessions with a lot of, for lack of a better term, futzing around, half-playing half-remembered tunes half-assedly, and it’s just not as fun. Again, that doesn’t mean you’re suddenly Johnny on the Spot or that you have to either play like Matt Molloy or not play at all, but the spirit of "I’m trying to play as best I can, and you are too" is great to have no matter what level you’re at.

Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

Wow - thanks for all the replies!

First of all, I mean no offense to session playing, and should have probably worded things a bit differently. I have always enjoyed playing in sessions!

I’m not a complete, gibbering wreck of nerves and have started sets, and indeed co-led sessions when it’s been a quieter evening. I think that I’ve identified two areas I want to improve on and sessions don’t seem to be working for me in this.

1) gaining confidence. I agree with everything said about bringing your a game. I am finding that when I practice at home, or join a tune I know well, I can play it pretty well. Ornamentation, small harmonies, adjusting volume & tempo as required…
But when I start a tune/set, I’m nervous. Am I playing in right key? At the right speed? I revert to playing in "safe mode", because I have this overwhelming feeling that I’m being judged and found wanting!
For some reason, this is worse when playing in my local sessions, or in front of people I’ve known and respected for years. I know they’re not judging me really, but I can’t shake the feeling! I’m far more confident if I walk into a session I’ve never been to before, on the other side of the country.

2) bringing my a game out from home. When I’m playing at home, I will come up with ideas that probably lend themselves more to a performance/band situation and are a bit unsuitable in a session. What if I added this bit in? Dropped into a minor key? I’ve written a couple of tunes, but never played them for anyone.

I don’t expect to ever be headlining a festival, or winning an award. But I think i might like to try being a performer, which will take more practice and pushing myself musically! But the biggest push is the confidence thing. I’ll try a couple of folk clubs, and possibly busking - I hadn’t thought of that.

Thanks again everyone

Re: Becoming more than just a session player…

This is a great question. During the pandemic, I lead a small group with some experienced Irish players and some good musicians with no Irish experience to learn two dozen or more tune sets to play at sessions or in performance. Here are some thoughts from the experience.

Focus on the rhythm and its continuity throughout the set, understanding that tunes do not need to be played fast to be played with energy. Tunes will have their own speed and rhythm even within tune types, so that some jigs or reels may be faster or slower, and they may also have a different swing. The sense of energy comes from giving notes their full value within the rhythm and swing of the tune.

Prepare the tune in your head before you start to play it. Anticipate the rhythm before you start the tune. Count it out to yourself. Practice the onset. Remember where the opening notes are for the tune, for each phrase and for each part – and for the next tune in the set.

Practice setting the rhythm. Practice listening to the other players and matching the rhythm they set. This was done by having one playing start the set and play through the first phrase or two before the others join in. As players, we often do not think about listening to what everyone else is doing.

Practice the transitions: play each part of a tune once and then go into the next tune immediately so that you get used to the transition – finding the opening notes of the new tune – anticipating how the rhythm changes for the new tune (or not). When necessary, plan the transitions by holding the last note of a tune a little longer or holding a bit longer the upbeat of the first note of the next tune.

Create some variations. Controlling the rhythm so that the tune is not too fast will allow space for the ornaments to be placed on the beat and in the rhythm. Just as importantly, have variations that simplify the tune by omitting notes and holding some notes longer within the rhythm. This practice will allow you to maintain the rhythm and continuity and avoid getting lost within the tune. It will also allow the sound of the other players to emerge more, making it easier to hear them and the rhythm of the group better.

Look at the other players and their body language to reinforce the sense of rhythm. When everyone is listening to and watching each other, they should naturally gravitate towards the same rhythm, even when the last phrase of the set slows down to signal that the set is finishing.