session etiquette for shy intermediate players

session etiquette for shy intermediate players

OK - I found a lovely session in Toronto, but I can’t really keep up with them yet (mostly because I don’t know any of their tunes). They are very warm and welcoming, but when they invite me to start a tune, I get an attack of nerves and either play badly, too fast, or a tune that no-one knows. Is it rude to sit there with my fiddle on my lap and mostly just listen (waiting - perhaps all night - for them to play something I know), declining the invitation to play because it terrifies me too much? Or is it ruder to play something badly that is more than likely unknown to the other players? Question 2 - I also play bodhran and I bring it to play for all the tunes I don’t know. What is an appropriate ratio of bodhran players to other session players (I am assuming 1 is the maximum for all but the biggest sessions). Also, is it rude to discreetly record the session on a mini-disk recorder if I ask the players first? This way I can learn the tunes and catch up quicker than if I just try to remember them one at a time. Thanks.

Re: session etiquette for shy intermediate players

From the response you’ve gotten in the other discussion chain, looking for a Toronto session, I’d be surprised if your new-found session mates would mind a recorder. Ask first, of course, but expect to be encouraged so you can pick up the tunes. The more the merrier. Also, I’m curious to know what tunes they play in Toronto. If you could post a list of tune titles, I’d be more than happy to post the ones I know to help you on your way to learning them.

I’ve sat in on a few sessions with more than one bodhran going, and it works ok as long as they’re working together and not overly loud. Some places are more hostile to the drum. And people who play drum and nothing else are sometimes put out when fiddlers or whistle players suddenly haul out their "second instrument."

Whatever you do, don’t put your fiddle away! My strategy at an unfamiliar session is to have two or three reels that I can play in my sleep—nothing too fancy or obscure, but good solid tunes that people will want to learn if they don’t already know them. I work them up so they’ll sound fine even if the adrenalin kicks in and I get right arm vibrato after the first three notes. That way, when someone asks me to start a tune, I can go, hoping for company, but carrying on even if no one else joins in. Of course it helps to keep it down to two times through if no one even attempts to putter along. You might also prep a tune that you already know they all know, to follow the first one.

Currently, my failsafe tunes are Last Night’s Fun (a session essential anyway), either of the two Toss the Feathers, and the Greenfields of Rossbeigh. All of these work at a stately (rather than racing) pace, but I can also get through them at just about any speed if I happen to start too fast.

Finally, and far more than you probably want to know 🙂, the key to NOT starting out too fast is to take a few seconds to hear the first few bars in your head before you play. Consciously imagine the notes starting slowly and deliberately, and then maybe hold the first two notes for almost a full second each before launching in. This will strike most listeners as dramatic yet controlled, and sets the stage for a few bars of building momentum. Then just keep it under control.

Hope this helps. In the long run, you’ll be laughing about those first night jitters in a few weeks with all your new friends. I haven’t met anybody yet who plays this music without firsthand knowledge of how easily our hard won tunes and technique vanish as soon as someone actually listens. I’ve seen the best players stop midstream with a blank mind, wondering where the notes went or wandering all over first position hoping to hit at least one note on pitch. Just come back next week and give it another go!
Good luck,
Will

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Re: session etiquette for shy intermediate players

Yes, I think Will’s advice is right on the money. About the only think I’d add is the possibility of using tune books for learning common session tunes. There are a ton of them out there nowadays. These are the ones that try to explicitly feature "common session tunes." Some of them even come with the tunes recorded on a CD. Now, I’m not a big fan of learning tunes out of a tune book but it is a good way to systematically pick up common ones, especially ones you’ve heard "a million times" but haven’t quite mastered. One thing that you could do, Fiddler on Vermouth, is to bring one of these tune books to your session and either make a note of those tunes they play or simply ask someone in the session to thumb their way through the book and mark ones they like to play. It’s not really "traditional" to learn tunes out of a book but hey, neither is learning tunes off of a web site ;) One tune book I use a lot is put out by Waltons: "Ireland’s Best Session Tunes with guitar cords". However, I don’t think it is good session etiquette, although I ‘ve done it, to have a tune book plopped open at a sessions and to be trying to learn/play tunes out of it. Woodshedding should for the most part be left for home. Cheers and good luck!

Re: session etiquette for shy intermediate players

Yes, tunebooks are a great way to learn the repertoire! Many of the old masters routinely learned from tunebooks…the Irish and Scottish traditions acutally embrace this method for passing on tunes. Why else would we have tune collections dating back to the late 18th century, and such classics as O’Neill’s and Breathnach’s? Just make sure you’re learning versions that match what’s played at the local session.

I’ve found it helps even more to start your own tunebooks—the act of writing the tunes down helps me understand their structure and remember them, and I can write them exactly as I play them, at least one solid version to rely on under pressure. It was worth it to me to invest in transcription software (I use the "Mozart" program, which works in Windows, and costs less than $100 USA). So now I have 700 tunes stored in my hard drive, with a sound file for each one that can be slowed down to learning speed without changing the pitch. A tremendous aid to learning tunes!

Sheet music can never replace hearing the tune. But it’s a great help, and those who refuse to use it are missing an incredible resource.

The other idea that occurred to me after my first epic message was to ask an established player at the session to swap tunes with you during some other night of the week. This way, you can learn their tunes, and he or she will help introduce your favorites to the rest of the circle.

Now I have a query—lets have a show of hands for those of you who sit in sessions where tunes are occasionally taught—slowed down and played repeatedly until everybody gets it. We do this in Helena, Montana, at least once in a while, because otherwise there’d only be six of us playing and a lot of grumpy wannabes standing outside the circle. But I know that some sessions frown on this as it interrupts the flow. What’s the trend in your local circles?

Will

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Re: session etiquette for shy intermediate players

I’ve just picked up on this discusision and would describe myself in a similar way (shy intermediate etc!). The advice sounds great- its the sort of thing I’ve been wanting to know too. Its hard to take yourself to a first session not knowing quite how to behave. Good luck and lets hear how you get on.

Along these lines….. can anyone recommend a session in Manchester (England) and give any pointers. Am I right in thinking there are regional variations in what would be described as common session tunes. I’ve been playing nearly 3 years-fiddle- play a lot at home and have lesson monthly- would I be able to join in/cope at a session. Thanks.

Caroline
PS- Will- have got into the Silver Spear and play it OK and moderate speed. Thanks for the help. Any suggestions for the next reel to have a go at? (I like tunes in minor keys).

Re: session etiquette for shy intermediate players

Caroline,

Thanks for the feedback that my advice is useful…tis a great reward to know you’ve helped someone, especially when it comes to sharing this wonderful music!

Let’s see…minor reels. An easy one with tremendous potential for variations and fun is Tommy Peoples’ as played by Altan on their "Best Of…" cd. If it’s not already posted here, I’ll submit it.

The Annamaculeen (which IS on this site) works well at slower speeds and the haunting melody holds up under repeated playings.

Of course, to join in sessions you’ve got to learn Drowsy Maggie, the Blackhaired Lass, Ships are Sailing, Star of Munster, and Cooley’s (all of which are minor and relatively "easy" tunes). Also try Pigeon on the Gate, the Fermoy Lasses, the Morning Dew, and Toss the Feathers.

After all those somber tunes have you crying in your tea, give a whirl on the Morning Star, Last Night’s Fun, and Mullingar Races for easer major key, and popular reels.

These reflect my own taste, of course, but they’re also very common session tunes in most corners of the Celtic universe. Yes there are regional variations in what gets played at sessions, in the types of tunes, in the particular tunes, and even in versions of tunes (for example, some play Blackhaired Lass as a minor tune with c naturals, and others sharp the c for a major sound). Work on the local selection first, but don’t shy away from learning the core of the traditional repertoire.

A good session is just people being sociable over a few hours of music—don’t think of it as a performance at all. In this light, the labels of "shy" and "intermediate" melt away—we’re all just there to share our enjoyment of the music. I think this is becoming harder to do in a world dominated by cds and carefully wrought studio recordings and performances where every note is planned and perfect and technique is world class. But this is a particpatory sport—just folks playing music, with an emphasis on the "doing" rather than there being an audience of many listening to one or a few. So just play—to your abilitiy—and have fun.
Will

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Re: session etiquette for shy intermediate players

A query…what’s the protocol for playing airs in a session, say if two or three people are familar with the tune and can join in. I understand this is difficult given the diversity of interpretations and personal styles, yet..

Re: session etiquette for shy intermediate players

Will- Thanks again for the help.

Strangely enough I’ve just started learning Last Nights Fun-very early stages but one to work on over the weekend and more.

I love Cooleys- cant say its easy as yet!(for me).

Yes- it seems as very good and simple idea to just loosen up and enjoy the music. Will do.

Caroline

Re: session etiquette for shy intermediate players

In regards to how to get over the intermediate blues, I really don’t have a lot to offer that Will and others haven’t said. It’s all very good advice. I’ll probably take some of it myself, as I’m in the same spot.

Will, the occasional slowing down and repeating of tunes for newbies to learn at an otherwise "fast" session is pretty uncommon here in Rhode Island. Occasionally, the group will play at a more relaxed pace for someone who is already learning a tune or to share a different version, but that’s about as far as the teaching aspect goes.

Regarding the playing of slow airs, someone will usually start a slow air during an extended gap between sets, or if there has been very long stretch of breakneck reels. I usually don’t like to hear two people trying to play slow airs together unless they have rehearsed their interpretations and synchronized their versions.

With jigs and reels, having one or two people playing slightly different versions doesn’t really wreck the overall sound when everyone is playing together (though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to learn the local version), but when two or three people try to play different interpretations of a slow air it’s about as pleasing to the ear as a handfull of pennies in a blender.

Take care,
John Harvey
Rhodeirish.net

Re: session etiquette for shy intermediate players

I see several possiblities here. One is, have sessions in places that are not "public," that is, not in pubs, taverns, or restaurants. I’ve just recently started one in a local community center. Some of the ideas shared in this discussion are really good, and I will suggest that the more advanced players play the the tunes for a long time, so people can pick them up. I hope that they have the skill to improvise each time they play so that they do not become bored with repetitions.

Another possibility is that maybe it’s not just for the intermediate players to think about THEIR OWN etiquette — maybe the hot players need to think of theirs too. Like someone said above, maybe have half an hour of easy tunes early in the session, even if it’s in a public house.

This latter has a long tradition — I don’t know if it does in Irish necessarily, but it sure does in other traditional folk arts, like dancing. Contra dancing has half an hour of instruction, then a few easier dances, before the really complex dances get going. So do the International Folk Dancers, just about everyplace I have ever been. These traditions are so very welcoming, and the people realize that it’s important to make new people feel completely at ease and welcomed. The contra dance group I have been with in Portland, Oregon, does have to remind the experienced dancers, through the dance newsletter from time to time, to dance with newcomers, and to get out of the center contra line, though. Otherwise, the hot dancers will just get off on dancing with each other and forget all about the newcomers. But gentle — and maybe a little less gentle (but nice anyway) — reminders usually get the great dancers to share their skills. Contra dancers are great folks, too.

Old timey musicians are another bunch who share all around. These musicians generally play the tunes for a long, long time — 15-20 minutes, often! People come and go, in and out of a tune, or medley of tunes! And players take "breaks," meaning that the players give everyone a chance to be the lead player, while everyone else plays backup (harmonies).

I am new to the Irish music scene, myself. I played a lot of Irish tunes with Old Timey musicians a long time ago, and we played in the Old Timey style I just described.

The way I learn tunes is, I get the best recordings I can find, get the tune I like best, and make ten or more taped recordings of that one tune, all in a row. Then, I play along with it. I figure out harmonies for it, or if I want to learn the melody, I do that. But I much prefer playing harmony. I can use the notation if I need it, too.

I also play the harmonium, and although I want to play mandolin and guitar parts because I don’t want to haul the harmonium around (it’s too heavy and I’m tired playing keyboard anyway), it helps to figure out some nice harmonies, which I can transfer to the other instruments. Unfortunately, I am having to learn things much more slowly than I used to, due to lack of time. So I just listen and lot at the sessions and play quietly. I am working out strategies.

Marian63

Re: session etiquette for shy intermediate players

thankyou all very much for your input. It’s been tough having to leave my old session friends behind and move across the country. Playing with strangers is an odd experience, but it’s very important to me to have a regular session in my life, both for the practice and learning, and for the sense of community. And for the beer!

Re: session etiquette for shy intermediate players

I think it’s fine to decline the invitation to play. Most people won’t pressure you. Those that do aren’t worth worrying about.

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