Recurring Topics

Recurring Topics

I play many types of music along with Irish. Blues, Old Time, folk, jazz, pop and rock. I’m sure many here do. Two recent topics that I wonder about concern guitar backing and learning new (ie, more) tunes.

About guitar backing: comment after comment stresses the need to know the tune. I think that’s stating the obvious. In other genres, players sit out what they don’t know unless improvising within a key is an option of the style. Many guitarists can follow what their mates are doing with their left hand. Neither approach will work for Irish. I don’t play guitar and I can figure that out.

Regarding learning an abundance of tunes, is this a virtue or a desirable goal? I know tunes my session mates don’t know and they know tunes I don’t. If I like a tune, I’ll learn it. That goes for recordings, as well. However, except when I was a beginner with no repertoire, I have not and would not set out to see how many tunes I could learn.

Mind you, to each his own. I bring this up for two reasons:

1. I find these two topics to be peculiar to Irish trad and wonder what others have to say on this point.

2. I think it may be a bit intimidating to a beginner to feel like they are in the junior league if they know fewer than some arbitrary number of tunes.

Please discuss.

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Depends on where you session and with who . Apart from the fact there are so many wonderful tunesto play and have fun with . If your repertoire is limited maybe you only play a couple of tunes all night……because the others know thousands …. if your repertoir is limited you repeat yourself the next night .bore yourself and everyone else…. .

Keep learning tunes , keep fresh material , its not a matter of numbers , ive no idea how many tunes I know , countless . Its a matter of having fun playing tunes making good music, good memories and good times for all .

As regards knowing a tune to back it , thats not true at all . Its about playing by ear , listening and picking up tunes by ear . As simple as that .
Same as playing tunes you dont know ….
Playing by ear, not by rote .

These skills come through practice, experience and desire theres no short cut , put the time in because you are driven. If your not , then you will never achieve the skills required to have these experiences .

The old zen saying comes to mind : With one eye fixed on the destination, there is only one left to guide you along the journey”.

Just focus on learning and playing tunes for the experience of learning and playing tunes , theres is no destination…..

As i said earlier : Put an album on and play along untill you know every tune on the album thats probably about 30 odd tunes so three albums is approaching 100 tunes , do this every day for 5-10 years and you will have a good repertoire then play those tunes for another decade while continuing to learn new tunes and voila , your a piper / fiddler / etc

It all depends on what your aim is , what you wish to achieve. Why you play ? Why learn tunes ….. everyone has a different answer .
Ive been playing music since i was a boy, its what I do , its part of me , i live and breathe music . Every day i play and every day im learning or in the process of learning new tunes . In fact most of the time I only play new tunes . Its only when I play with others that the old tunes get an airing !
( or when Im learning old tunes on a new instrument or key)

Backing is exactly the same process . Sure learn tunes from the dots too , learn chord patterns as well , all good , but the fundamental essential skill to be a real musician is listening .

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I just tell newer players to come to our session, play the tunes they know, don’t play the tunes they don’t know and if they are complete newbies, come play for the first hour because later in the evening we often get the more experienced players.

That pretty much covers all bases.

Since we’re often limited in space, knowing more tunes means you get to keep your close-circle seat. If you’re just just sitting there warming a prime real estate seat two hours into the session not knowing the tunes, and there are other players who are long time regulars hovering on the outside, you might just be asked to give up your seat for one of them. You’ll still get a free beer. 🙂

I have a list of a 100-200 or so common tunes we play (not a complete list, but chances are if you start one on the set, someone will play along with you) that I’ll send to anyone who asks. I think anyone who knows 100 common tunes could go pretty much anywhere in the world and have some degree of enjoyment in a typical open session, even if they might spend a lot of time listening.

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“…comment after comment stresses the need to know the tune. I think that’s stating the obvious.”

Unfortunately, sometimes people need the obvious stated to them explicitly. A lot of people that come to this music come from styles of music that don’t play around with the keys and modes as much as we do. If you learned rock, blues, or country guitar and decided you wanted to try to accompany Irish, you would likely start with simple I III IV V chord progressions (and you might consider your rhythm to be the basis that everyone else should follow…) And if you came from some other traditional styles, you might be used to being encouraged to provide some rhythm with chop chords as you’re picking up the chord progressions. Neither of those approaches would be particularly welcome in a good Irish session, and it is brought up repeatedly because people have repeatedly had to suffer through accompaniment that does not suit the music…

“Regarding learning an abundance of tunes, is this a virtue or a desirable goal?”

There is a common adage that states that it’s better to play a few tunes well than a bunch of tunes poorly. While there is some truth in that, the more tunes you learn, the more you will understand this music and ultimately, the better player you will become. How far and fast you push it is largely determined by your circumstances of playing. If you regularly play in just one local session, and that session doesn’t play a huge repertoire, then there’s less reason to be learning more and more tunes. But if you’re going to festivals, playing in Ireland regularly, and are surrounded by a vibrant and dynamic scene, then you need to learn more and more tunes just to participate in a meaningful manner.

For what it’s worth, my core session group does all those things (festivals, Ireland, etc) and we grow our repertoire very steadily at a faster pace than most players I know. And we anchor two sessions, one is a fairly high level session with a wide repertoire that visiting players are often left behind in, and the other is an open and welcoming session to players of all skill levels. And I run a weekly tune learning session as well. This way, we get to have our fun, and we get to help encourage other players to expand their repertoires and enhance their skills as well. So absolutely, I consider having an “abundance of tunes” to be a desirable goal!

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Learning to back tune players “on the fly” is in my opinion an essential skill. The “rule” that you must know a tune to back it is over simplistic. Not just Irish trad - blues, bluegrass, jazz - you’ve got to train your ears to not only hear the changes but to anticipate them. There will be “tricks and road bumps” along the way but as you get more proficient they’ll become fewer. I play tunes as well as back and I love nothing better than having someone back me who is tuned in to me and almost reads my mind. Yes there are some tunes with distinctively unexpected chords but there is no better way to remember them than to meet them face to face in a tune. If you miss it, nail it on the repeat. Once upon a time I set out to “learn the chords” to the standards. My memory was never going to be near good enough and I lived in terror of being “wrong” Just keep listening to great players and backers and try to back people who smile when you miss one rather than frown because they know you’re onto it. 🙂

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Not only can many guitarists follow the hands of other guitarists but plenty can follow fiddlers hands and other instruments. Still runs second to ears but every little bit helps 🙂

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IMO - Learning a lot of tunes is simply a part of the culture. There are various levels of “knowing” and “learning” for most mortal musicians but if you’re deep into the music and find the inevitable musicians with “beautiful minds” you begin to want to keep up and learn and know tunes to play along with these creatures. It is a wonderful thing IMO.
I think you’re mostly correct about backing tunes (“you should know the melody”) but there are plenty of standard progressions that are often easy to recognize in a song’s melody that allow you to back them even when you may not know them. If you learn enough tunes you begin to develop an instinct for an occasional rare tune in which you can almost be sure you know where the melody is taking you and where the next chord wants to follow. Perhaps it is relatable to backing: jazz rhythm changes tunes (“I Got Rhythm”), blues progression tunes, I-vi-IV(ii)-V tunes (Blue Moon) etc. For me, there is a basic progression for most given tunes and then a plethora of options in terms of substitute chords to play within that framework. This is where the fun lies and where you can piss off the trad Nazis (“this is not jazz!”) - I try to stay in my lane depending on who I’m paying with.
I delved into a little chord study project of learning the backing harmony of different recordings of the same tune. It is extremely rare to find the same chord sequences by two different musicians. I think this is remarkable. There is also a lot of chords that are used that shouldn’t work as well as they do and a lot of “wrong” chords that sound good anyway because the rhythm is played well.

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We all start with zero tunes. We all struggle in early days with “full speed” sessions. C’est la vie.

A typical 3 hour session is going to play approx 40-50 sets of three tunes in an evening. So providing there is some variety from evening to evening - there is a core repertoire within the group of 150-250 tunes.

Some sessions have a minimally varying repertoire and might get by with a little less. But the bigger the base (especially of shared tunes) the better. Same people, same sets, week in week out isn’t exactly exciting is it?

The idea of having a small repertoire played well versus a large one played poorly sounds comforting to beginners. But the reality is that a certain depth of tunes is essential to building out technique. The more tunes learned the more likely you’re going to get better playing them. There’s a strong correlation between playing skill and size of repertoire - reflecting a time investment.

More variety and larger repertoire is always preferable. Always be learning. It gets easier the more you do it.

And there are discernible progression steps based on repertoire at approx 50, 100, 250, 500 and 750+ tunes.

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“The “rule” that you must know a tune to back it is over simplistic”. It’s not a rule, but I have long argued that if the fiddler, the flute player, the accordion player etc. put in the effort and take the time to learn the tunes, why shouldn’t the accompanist ?
If you need to “follow the hands of another guitarist” you need to listen and practice more. I’ve seen that happen in our sessions on a few occasions, and what we often got was 2 guys playing chords in a wrong key rather than one.

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But is it a performance?

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I agree fully with Kenny. There is leeway but nonetheless to back competently , that means 90% + right , no one plays without errors ( even though no one else notices) you need to know the tunes, in your head. Not all of them … no one knows them all ! But you need to listen to trad, play it daily, breath it . You need to know at least 50-100 tunes ( by that i mean the chord patterns) after that you have a chance to pick up more .
I think its a non starter to walk into a session without this basic minimum . Now its quite possible the session may accept you if your obviously willing to learn, listen and play respectfully despite you being a total novice . By total novice i mean in trad, you may be an excellent jazz or classical player or whatever but that means very little truly because its an entire Genre . Its complete . You can spend 50 years only playing trad and be still only be half way … if that .
I liken it to martial arts , a 5 th dan black belt karateka is a white belt judoka ….. Your prior learnt skills may have some application , technical ability on the instrument , but frankly those skills required are fairly basic . Fiddle ;scales in 1st position , guitar Am, C,G Em D A …..
the skill is where and how you play them . And thats not obvious untill you have the basic standards . And then there will always be tunes with unexpected turns .

So although a backer doesnt need to know all the tunes ( no one does!) they do need to know 50-100. the names , the chords and the melody . The core repertoire of your local session or the first 100 tunes here
After this basic, basic….. requirement the rest will be approachable .

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I think knowing a lot of tunes helps, even when you are faced with a tune you don’t know. The key thing to remember is that you don’t have to play every note. I like introducing unfamiliar tunes to sessions, and am always interested to see how people react. The experienced players generally just listen the first time round, identifying key, rhythm etc. but also watching for ‘tripping points’, where the tune goes in an unexpected direction. Second time round they’ll play just the core notes: maybe just the first note of each bar, maybe just the beat notes. Third time through they start filling in the gaps, and that is where knowing a lot of tunes helps, because the little patterns are probably all things you are familiar with from other tunes. Working that way they can get from not knowing a tune to playing it very quickly, without playing wrong notes (or at least very few). In contrast I watch other players who will attempt to play every note straight off - they’ll play a bar or two, trip up and stop, gather themselves together and play another few notes before tripping up again. The problem is that they concentrating on the little patterns without having internalized the basic shape of the tune. And every time they crash out it is an annoyance to other players.

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Kenny: “… what we often got was 2 guys playing chords in a wrong key rather than one.”

Yes, the newcomer often assumes that the ‘regular’ knows what they are doing. I suppose one set of wrong chords is better than two… but none would be better still.

“… if the fiddler, the flute player, the accordion player etc. put in the effort and take the time to learn the tunes, why shouldn’t the accompanist ?”

The thing is, it’s not a question of moral virtue, it’s a question of what is required to best serve the music. For the novice accompanist, knowing the tune is, without a doubt, just as essential as it is to a melody player at a similar stage of learning. But, for an experienced accompanist, is knowing every twist and turn of every melody essential? It is useful for coming up with finely tailored accompaniments for specific tunes, but I don’t think that is always called for. Identifying the broader contours of a tune is necessary in order to build an accompaniment that both fits with the melody and hangs together itself as a progression, but with practice, and with a critical mass of tunes already learned, those contours can to a large extent be predicted based on experience, and any aberrations quickly recognised and adapted to. An accompanist absolutely must earn their stripes, just as a melody player must, but knowing the tune is a less critical part of that for an accompanist – there are many other skills that have to be learned in order to accompany well.

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“But, for an experienced accompanist, is knowing every twist and turn of every melody essential?”
Not at all, but to become “an experienced accompanist” you have to put in years of practicing and listening in the first place.
“there are many other skills that have to be learned in order to accompany well”. I’m sure it would help accompanists reading this if you were to list them, please.

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There is one skill : to play by ear . To hear identify and reproduce with no time lag . The more you practice the better you get .
Now there are im sure many subsets of this ability . But basically you are training the brain / body to identify what is happening and to reproduce this on your instrument . (Just as with AI i gather) this is done by having a large enough repertoire and this is done one tune at a time . I suggest the minimum is 50-100 tunes to get you started . And sure you may as well learn to flatpick those tunes as well . That way when you sit down in a new session you can start a set off by playing the tune before moving to the chords ….. they may well let you play the whole tune through alone so you better not be bluffing …..then after the third time through comes the tricky bit communicating the next tune without breaking the rhythm your playing to the tune you started flatpicking . If you have good session mates they will all stop and listen see where your going next .
Solves the “who is this guy with a dreaded guitar sitting in” issue as well

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On Ailin’s (OP) observation, regarding

“…learning an abundance of tunes, is this a virtue or a desirable goal? I know tunes my session mates don’t know and they know tunes I don’t. If I like a tune, I’ll learn it…”,

I operate similarly. There are many possibly obscure tunes that strike my fancy that I know won’t pop up in my local session, but that doesn’t stop me. As one rationale, maybe in future travels I’ll have that tune in my “back pocket” at a visiting session. But first and foremost, a great tune is worth befriending and exploring in its own right even if no one else ever hears me play it. At the same time I balance this indulgence with an effort to learn the basic shared repertoire of Michael Eskin’s 100 tunes or whatever (e.g. I’m currently working my way through the Fionn Seisiún series). Even tunes that don’t impress me at first, often show their virtues after some solid work, maybe finding someone’s variations that make them more interesting. So, also a worthwhile investment of time. Only a few tunes do I put in the ‘rubbish - won’t learn’ category.

I also have some thoughts on Ailin’s other observation that Irish music backers “…need to know the tune.” : there are different shades of “knowing” the tune. A good backer will follow Kenny Rogers‘ advice of “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away…”. (Hopefully a backer being chased out of a session is rare). I would submit that a good, experienced accompanist can provide a serviceable backing to a subset of the tunes she/he doesn’t know. Another subset of tunes will have enough unexpected twists/key changes that it would be difficult to follow blind even for the quickest hands. But even for the first case, a backer won’t be able to really enhance the tune based on its unique features. Let’s say you know Down the Broom but are not familiar with The Congress, another A dorian reel. Both tunes can be backed competently with similar, simple progressions, but unless you are familiar with the repeated ’egdg’ figure in the B part of The Congress, you will probably miss the chance to add a chordal/rhythmic comment that brings out this feature.

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“But, for an experienced accompanist, is knowing every twist and turn of every melody essential?”

Depends on the specific tune we’re talking about, so there isn’t just one answer to that question. For probably the majority of tunes, an experienced accompanist can suss out the progression having heard enough similar tunes before.

However! There are tunes that don’t follow the rules, that grab the ear because there are built-in surprises. You might get by with trying to accompany “Chief O’Neill’s Favourite” hornpipe if you’ve never heard it before and you miss that distinctive F natural in the B part. It wouldn’t kill the tune if you miss it, maybe just get you a few glances from the melody players. But if you don’t know how “Kid on the Mountain” sequences back and forth between Em and G modes then you’ll be doomed. Or if you don’t know that “The Gravel Walks” needs to move out of minor mode and into major for the last part.

There are enough tunes in common session repertoire that do require this kind of advance knowledge that it’s important to learn ’em as an accompanist, to avoid embarrassment or worse.

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Absolutely . These are the fundamental basic tunes of the repertoire. The idea that a novice can sit in without knowing the basic standards is ridiculous. As i repeatedly point out learn 50-100 tunes and after that you will have a good chance of being able to “ busk it” play by ear . But first you need to educate yourself so you know what is what .

For example i have a lot of tunes , far too many to count last time i tried was 25 yrs ago with 200 plus reels . But put me in a high level session in Clare and I will know maybe half a dozen tunes played . that night …… but because i have a solid grounding in the tradition i can follow the music well enough that everyone is happy , and even amazed on occasion 😉
And vice versa i could play tunes all night and maybe they would have half a dozen of them …..
different regions , different session ,have different repertoires , simple as that .
One of the greatest pleasures for me in this music is meeting players who know loads of the tunes I know . Where we just gell and wherever I go the other player can follow and vice versa . Love it .
And to find a competent backer …. well its very rare IME . But when they are , its great fun . You dont have to molly coddle them, shout out keys etc etc etc
Thats why backers and guitar players in particular are viewed with great suspicion ….. because they know FA but play anyhow .
And its not just the key …. its the rhythm ! FFS if you dont know the difference between a jig and a reel , or a slip jig and a polka …. then your definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time .
Kennys story of 2 backers both playing the wrong key …. oh dear oh dear oh dear
Dont be that player . Do your homework . As Kenny says the tune players learn the tunes …. do the same .
The idea of playing by ear is exactly the same for tune players ! I can play polkas all night , but I only know half a dozen ….. if your immersed in the tradition then youve already heard thousands of tunes thousands of times .
Saying that some of the very notey modern reels are beyond me to pick up by ear , maybe backing too . So i sit them out . But then why would i want to session with players who play like that anyhow ….

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@Kenny – I think we are basically in agreement on this: whether an accompanist or a melody player, you have to put the hours in. In case it appeared that way, I am not suggestng at all that an accompanist is necessarily more skilled than a melody player, but I think it is fair to say that accompaniment requires a wider range of muscal skills.

“I’m sure it would help accompanists reading this if you were to list them, please.”
I am probably not the best person to do this in an instructive way but, from a more analytical perspective, I will do my best to summarise (in no particular order of priority):

1. Having a number of strumming/picking/vamping etc. techniques and the ability to use them in ways that support the rhythm of the tune
2. Having good dynamic control and the ability to use dynamics appropriate to the number and type of melody instruments being accompanied; also, when accompanying a soloist or small muber of melody players, being responsive to their individual dynamics
3. Knowing all the chords (major, minor and ‘5’ chords for all 12 tones of the chromatic scale, with or without the use of a capo) and having a repertoire of voicings for each; some other chords, such as 7th, sus4 and sus2 chords’ along with an understanding of how to use them to bridge between other chords, are a bonus
4. Knowing the principal modes (whether theoretically or intuitively) used in Irish music, the chord sets and typical progressions that go with them – but also recognising when not to use them
5. Recognising what chord fits with the notes of the melody at any given point
6. Recognising the harmonic shape of the tune (either pre-learned or ‘on the fly’) and building an appropriate chord progression to suit it.
7. Having some go-to ‘safety nets’ (e.g. droning on a single note or I-V dyad) that enable you to keep the accompaniment rolling unobtrusively when you come up against an unfamiliar tune, until you have figured what harmony is called for.

Controversial as it may be, I have deliberately omitted ‘knowing the tunes’ from the list of skills because it is implied in point 6. As Will Evans says, “… sure you may as well learn to flatpick those tunes as well,” with which I wholeheartedly agree; but we are talking about what happens when, as a backer, you encounter a tune that you *don’t* know (and there will always be tunes you don’t know, no matter how many you learn).
There are probably also be some accidental omissions from my list, which I welcome anyone to fill in…

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“Regarding learning an abundance of tunes, is this a virtue or a desirable goal?”

“Virtue” strikes me as a strange word here because it implies some moralistic advantage. I’m not sure that sessions have much of a moral focus, beyond perhaps “play well with others.” So let’s move on.

“Desirable goal?” Yes. Why? Because the more tunes you know, the more likely it is that you can musically participate and (assuming you’re a decent player) support the overall music-making. This is especially true if you attend more than one local session, or travel to distant sessions or fleadhanna, or simple play with a large enough variety of people. That doesn’t have much to do with making you virtuous, but it can make you an asset to a session.

And isn’t that the real goal? Not to simply amass tunes or reach some “arbitrary number” but to develop into the sort of player who’s good craic, adept with the tunes and sets, who can contribute to the session at hand. So the number of tunes a person can play is often less a specific goal and instead more a function of the breadth and depth of their session experience—the more people you regularly play with, and the more years you’ve played, the greater the number of tunes you will have picked up.

From the OP: “it may be a bit intimidating to a beginner to feel like they are in the junior league if they know fewer than some arbitrary number of tunes.”

Well, by definition, any newcomer to this music and sessions won’t be able to musically contribute as much to a session as a player who has a lot more experience at it. So, typically, the more experienced players form and sit in the core of a session. In sessions where space is at a premium, preferred seating may have to be “earned” in a sense, the best seats going to players who can keep the tunes and flow going by sheer dint of them (1) being deft musicians and (2) knowing lots of tunes.

This doesn’t mean that the core players are somehow “looking down” on the less experienced players. If anything, it’s usually the veterans who are most supportive of newcomers. But a session that doesn’t center on the strongest players won’t thrive.

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What CMO said! 🙂
The only skill I’d possibly add (which is a skill I still need to work on!) is being able to be ‘heads up’ as well as ‘ears open’ at all times, in order to capture (and respond to) any visual cues related to the music flow, of which you, as the backer, are a follower, not a leader. Head buried in the fretboard is not a great way to go.

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Thank you for your addition, jond. I speak from the perspective of one that essentially knows how to accompany tunes but is not very good at it in practice – partly because I focus primarily on playing tunes and have neither the time nor the patience to devote to all the rest of it, and partly because I am just, well, not very good at it.

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> 2. I think it may be a bit intimidating to a beginner to feel like they are in the junior league if they know fewer than some arbitrary number of tunes.

I want to make sure that I stress that I don’t want to intimidate beginners or drive people away. However, what for some may seem like intimidation may feel like humility to others. In other words, to a certain extent a beginner *should* have a sense that they are in the “junior league,” since they’re a beginner. I get the need for inclusion, and I am very grateful to the people who were patient with me early on as I was learning, but a beginner is a beginner and can’t be treated the same way, for better or worse, as someone at a much more advanced level. Again, this is not to say they should be shunned, humiliated, or intimidated, but they also can’t expect to be centered either.

> This doesn’t mean that the core players are somehow “looking down” on the less experienced players. If anything, it’s usually the veterans who are most supportive of newcomers.

As I moved through the first few years of learning, I consistently found that the highest-level musicians I came across were the most generous and welcoming. I’ll always remember when I had been playing flute for 6 months when I found myself next to Seamus Begley at a session, and even after hearing my feeble attempts for an hour or so he turned to me and asked if I could lead a set. I’ve sat in with tons of great “name” musicians and the best of the best have (for the most part) been wonderful. But welcome and respect are a two-way street, and there’s a certain amount of humility that one needs to have at any level, but especially as a newcomer.

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This discussion really has two distinct themes. And they are quite independent of each other. Lots of interesting comment regarding both.

Beginners and improvers, in general, aren’t “session ready” unless it’s a session geared at players of that level. It’s not about the number of tunes, or how long you’ve been playing for that matter, it’s about having the standard of musicianship expected of the group.

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It’s maybe a little different in Ireland but “Here in Scotland”, we didn’t have much in the way of courses and/or sessions for improvers or beginners until the last 20-30 years or so.

Most of us had to find our own way into sessions and traditional music in general unless we were fortunate enough to be “brought up in the tradition” so to speak.

Although there were a few “cliquish” gatherings even back then and more private arrangements where the experienced and or professional musicians got together, on the whole the vast majority of sessions were very welcoming to newcomers and players who were at various stages of their musical journey.

Of course, the “newbies” in those days usually knew how to behave in such situations… i.e. respect the regular experienced players and let them have their space, only play tunes you know etc and not be disruptive and so on.

A lot of that seemed to change after the introduction of trad music courses. At the ALP in Edinburgh in the early days, we were encouraged to go out into the world of sessions. Of course, we weren’t quite ready and they weren’t quite ready for us. 🙂

Naturally, beginners and improvers who had already learned quite a few tunes wanted to play in a session but didn’t always “fit in” the regular sessions. So, inevitably, they started their own albeit with some encouragement from more experienced tutors/musicians etc.

Also, advertising sessions on social media and sites like this has caused issues too. Players “turn up” expecting to play or not knowing what to expect. In the old days, while sessions were usually mostly welcoming, there was less of an issue with visitors and new people coming along. It was mostly “word of mouth” and new players could more easily be absorbed into the set up regardless of their level.

So, now we have various sessions specifically for various levels of players and/or different styles of music. It was less so previously but, in most cases, it sorted itself out naturally.
While I do like the fact there’s a lot more choice and something for everyone, I miss the old days too.

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> Two recent topics that I wonder about concern guitar backing and learning new (ie, more) tunes.

most important topics. good or bad guitarist/drummer makes or breaks a session. learning new tunes is the main thing we do in this music.

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Since this discussion was probably partly prompted by a recent discussion that I had started myself (, I am copying here a comment that I just posted on that thread:

At this point, also in view of a present discussion which was probably partly prompted by this thread (, I have to add a few words on my approach to learning and practicing tunes.

The main reason why I learn a tune is that I like it. Some of the tunes I learn, are played by other people among my session mates, some others not. I have little time to practice, so I practice only the tunes that I like to practice. This means that the number of active tunes (which do continuously vary) that I can play at a session is well below 500 and I am more than happy with that!

The reason why I learn a bunch of tunes is that this puts me straight “into” the music, I learn the grammar of it. Knowing a tune for me does not mean to be able to play it on my flute. It simply means that I can sing it: I know perfectly and flawlessly how it goes. Then, my approach to flute playing is as follows: I aim at being able to play on the fly and flawlessly the musical idea that I have in mind. I am not yet at this stage but I am steadily progressing towards it, with daily very focused effort. Mergint the two things, ideally at some length one ends to a point when knowing a tune means being able to play it which is, I suppose, what most great musicians do.

It happens that with tune #500 I also started to get interested in guitar backing (I used to play guitar before starting the flute journey). When backing, knowing a tune is the best option to do that properly (I assume here and in the following that the backer has listened and absorbed enough ITM and “knows”, consciously or not, the theory for backing Irish trad tunes). If you don’t know the tune, in many cases you can still improvise a decent accompaniment if you have gone through a bunch of tunes and learnt the grammar of the music (this helps you make predictions on where the tune goes on the fly, and if you are wrong at the first repeat, you can correct yourself at the next one).

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List of skills - that’s tough. I would write a short book, or better, find the right book to recommend.
Generally I would say you should know a lot of tunes. It definitely builds instinct. Know when not to play for sure. Understand the concept of melodic phrases and how they relate to the root chord and the off chords (this deserves further explanation but I want to keep this simple). For me, music phrasing is about tension and release in how it affects the listener. Chord concept follows this notion. You should have a good understanding of chord function and how substitutions can work eg the ii for the IV and the vi for the I. Know how root movement creates color and how root substitution creates color (eg I/3rd aka slash chords). These simple concepts can be stretched into modern harmony concepts. A lot of the young players have a good understanding of modern harmony and some use it quite effectively IMO. A caveat to the previous concept is that these same good players tend to know when not to push certain traditional player (honor the musical environment).

I personally love sessions best when there are no accompanists and I think there should never be two unless they have some serious experience playing together and know how to keep it from sounding chaotic.

My last time I played at the St Pats session (I’ve had some health issues) a guitar player showed up (and a second) that didn’t know the music and played anyway. The second g player knows it very little but has a little bit of ear. I was at the piano and kept playing to try to lead them to better chords - jumping back and forth to the flute. Our culture does not welcome shooing people away but I was really frustrated (pissed off). It was a big day and I was being paid that particular day. Normally I play only a little piano for any given session. I played on some tunes trying to lead the two guitars where I made a ass of myself because they were unusual changes and I went the wrong direction. I almost always would normally not chord these tunes but I thought I had a chance to save them from the wreck these guys were making.

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Playing half a dozen tunes well doesn’t get you that far in most semi-advanced sessions. You can’t really participate in the conversation.

Sat in one the other day where the main session leader started all these tunes that I’d never heard - like Scottisches and 4/4 polka-type things but not Irish polkas. Couldn’t even say what they were. I’m thinking, why am I here?

Playing several hundred sort of competently gets you a lot further.

Playing several hundred like you’re Cillian Vallely is obviously living the dream.

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That sounds more like you finding yourself in the “wrong type of session” in terms of musical content as opposed to your lack of knowledge.

I think if the other musicians are playing a lot of good tunes which you like and would be happy to learn and play in the future then I don’t see an issue with being in a session where you feel that your contribution is more limited. All the usual caveats and considerations re etiquette apply, of course.

As I mentioned a few posts above, this seemed to happen a lot more in the old days. Players would come along and be welcomed and it didn’t matter if they knew that many of the tunes. If the music was good, they would be happy to stay and enjoy it anyway.

Nowadays, I also feel more self conscious in a situation where I don’t know enough of the tunes. If I’m not keen on what’s being played it doesn’t matter and I’m happy enough to leave but if I’m enjoying the music that would be a shame.

As I also said earlier, while it’s good that there is plenty of choice re “levels”, repertoire etc these days, I also think that this can be “limiting” in the long term. Many of us (including myself) seem to have more of a tendency to “play safe” these days.

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Its the people … that make the session . Personally i would always start sets that i think the majority will know . If I start and it’s not well known i might chop it down to twice through and head for something a bit more sociable . Its good to be inclusive IMO and if they dont know banish misfortune for example then i probably am in the wrong session 🙂 i did actually find myself in a session of youngsters who didnt know that tune?!? The impression was they were into modern tunes from the likes of Fluke . Yeah i made a quiet exit 😉
Whistle and pipes have the hardest instrument for sessions . In that they are loud powerful and dominating which means its very hard to “ fit in ” to pick up tunes by ear , almost impossible id say . So its a lonely job building a repertoire .
So from my perspective i would tend to view a piper as the lead instrument and follow them . Same with whistle . I tune to the whistle .
If im not intune with the whistle or pipes … then im not in tune .
So from my point of view someone leaving a guest cold is just a D**k . Sorry you didnt get to have fun and play loads of tunes that night DSS.

Its the ego really isnt it , pushing ourselves forwards , always wants to be first , lead, get the best seat, the best morsal of food, dominate ….
of course there is a place for this pushyness but also there is value in chosing to be second, to support and help others , to be generous and giving . Life is all about a balance between give and take ,push and pull .
Anyhow i drifted abit there 🙂

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I think it’s quite selfish to leave a visitor “cold” but you can’t expect regulars to change their entire usual repertoire to suit either. So, a happy medium is nice and everybody is “hopefully” 🙂 satisfied.

One time, I visited the Monday night session in The Birnam Hotel(Perthshire, Scotland) which was being led by the wonderful and now sadly missed Angus Grant Junior. This session had a great reputation of attracting many of the top players in Scotland and I had been slightly wary about taking part.
However, without saying anything or making a fuss…that was his way…, he led all the tunes which he thought most of the company present would know. There was no “dumbing down” or anything like that and they were still all great tunes. It just meant that everyone was included.
I thanked him at the end saying I enjoyed playing that night especially as I knew most of the tunes. He just smiled and said “You should do. I probably taught you most of them..” (That was at The ALP/SMG) 🙂

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What a gentleman .
There is no dumbing down because the tunes that make it through the tradition are great tunes one and all . The fact is that its the player that makes the tune not the other way round .
Now of course there are tunes we learnt 40 yrs ago when we were starting but to be honest weve probably not played them for the last 38!! 😉 so bring them on .
No expectations of course . But at the same time … be generous , support the beginners because they are the ones who will carry the tradition after we are gone . And once upon a time that was you and me . And the welcome we give is the welcome we got….
Glad we are in the same page. And as an aside the most welcoming musicians are generally the best and vice versa ….. there is a reason for that…

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I did start one set (when asked!). Played a set of common (I thought) Irish reels, and they didn’t know them any more than I knew their tunes. They did have standard Scottish ones like Calum’s Road and Father MacMillan of Barra, which is fine. But the Scottisches and obscure walzes were not really my beat, and Irish reels were not theirs. Fair enough.

How did we get on this? Learning lots of tunes v. learning very few tunes. Sitting in a session when you know very few tunes feels like sitting in on a conversation where most people are speaking Klingon or some other language you don’t really know. Doesn’t matter if it’s because you only know a few tunes, or if it’s because their repertoire is wildly different from yours. It feels awkward. Obviously, that’s a stage everyone *has to* suffer through when they are first learning the music, unless you are one of those lucky people who grew up playing it and have a massive repertoire by age 10. But once you’re kind of beyond that, you’d rather not. Well, I would rather not.

Knowing many tunes, even if just to follow someone else leading them, gives you the warm, fuzzy feeling of being involved in the conversation. While I have come across people who have been playing for about 20 years and know about 20 tunes, I would not choose that. I try to find sessions where I’m likely to share the repertoire, but I don’t always get it right when it’s slim pickins’ around here.

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Well, I’ve been weirdly on the opposite end of that…showing up as a“new fiddler”, and they keep asking me if I know this tune or that tune, and then if I know it, they ask me to start it…and then they all play it…after about 5(!) of those in a row, I feel embarrassed. It also starts to feel like an Audition, like they are checking out what I can do, and I leave feeling exhausted and tense…unlike my usual relaxed mood after playing music. Being a newbie is tough either way!! I prefer to kind of slink in on the edge, play a tune or two if I know it…and be unnoticed, except maybe a nod or smile if I join in. ( I don’t know if this is an experience peculiar to fiddlers, or just that sessions have been small since the pandemic, so new people are eagerly leapt upon…)

But I agree that knowing more tunes is just a more pleasant experience - because you get to play with the group more. And if you go persistently to play with the same group every week, after a while you will start knowing most of their tunes, it’s like “osmosis”. I try to be efficient with my learning time/brain space in that I work on tunes that a)I like and b)are played by other people in the group.