Starting a session

Starting a session

I moved from Cook County (Chicago north shore) to Lake County, bordering on the north. Tired of no sessions up here (a shame given that I’m told that Liz Carroll lives only a few miles away), I have taken the initiative to start one up myself. I’ve contacted others who seem interested, got a venue, and my session-arranging partner has contacted a nice local bar that will probably host us after a bit if all goes well.

I’m no flash player but I can get by fine on a number of tunes, and I’m not bothered in any significant way if the music isn’t great. This session will never, in the foreseeable future, compare to the Abbey Pub, the Grafton or other great sessions in Chicago because, let’s face it, I’m leading it. So what though, I love the music and want it to be open to all who care. This is folk music for all the common folk right? I have always been suspicious of those on this board whose comments make sessions seem cliquish, clubby, exclusive, only for those in the "in" crowd.

So here’s the problem. It’s 1:45 a.m., I just got back from an acoustic jam with some people who had heard about my new session. I spent the evening playing folk music, some 60s pop, blues, bluegrass, all sorts of things, all good fun. But: some excellent bluegrass and old timey players came up to me to tell me that they want to come by to play at the new session. I can tell they don’t know any Irish tunes or any session etiquette. Now what do I do? They really are wonderful musicians, but I don’t want to be overwhelmed by wonderful bluegrass players. It won’t be a session. If I wanted to play old timey and bluegrass I would (and will) keep going to the Friday acoustic jam, but I want the session to be, well, a session. I’m thinking I’m being cliquish, clubby, exclusive, saving my session only for those in the "in" crowd.

That said, the communitarian side of me doesn’t want to turn people away. I’m a relative newcomer to Irish music myself (4 years) and I want to give other serious amateur musicians the opportunity to fall in love with this music like I did.

Obviously I need to get the message out, in a polite way, that this is going to be a true session, and then just play it by ear (pun intended). Does anyone have any experiences or thoughts that are helpful here?

Many thanks


Re: Starting a session

The thing is, it is going to be quite hard trying to start a Irish traditional music session if you’re the only guy who really plays the music. I was in the same situation as you are in - well I still am actually, but have come to accept it.

Unless you can find 1 or 2 more like-minded melody musicians who are into Irish music, your attempt at a session is very likely going to turn into a 60s pop, folk music, blues, bluegrass jam session. Its going to be tough keeping it a "true session" and might not be worth the effort. You definitely need that 1 or 2 more ITM players to anchor the session. Just you trying to lead wouldn’t work.

So what I would suggest is to keep your eyes peeled for people who play Irish music before you launch your session. Do stuff like busking, playing in the park, things that will attract the attention of any potential session buddies that pass by. It seems to work for some people. Or if any of the bluegrass musicians express interest in the music, try converting them. Lend them CDs to listen to etc.

If anyone else has a better solution to this problem though, I’d be really glad to hear it.

Re: Starting a session

try finding some ITM-melodie players (2?) as Eldarion sugests, and try to come to some repertoire together, before you get the word out. once you get comfortable leading (if necessary) the session, you can let the word out, so then people might already have a clue on what’s the intension. if you just round up some musicians, you might end up playing wathever THEY want to play (60s pop, blues, …).
get your whistles and play in the street/park/bus … to draw the itm’rs out of their hiding, they ARE out there !!!

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Re: Starting a session

You might consider typing up a list of tunes, or even suggesting a common book of tunes. An enterprising local fiddler put together a book of tunes played at our local session, along with pictures and a short history.

You could also suggest that the better players—most of whom would probably not only be able to pick up tunes quickly, but would be interested in playing new tunes with ornamentation—go check out some of the more established local session to see what’s being played by whom and how. You might even convince some of them to take a trip to Ireland to sip at the source! Or you could at least have a chat at the bar with one of them to spread the meme. After all, bluegrassers or old-timey pickers can get a bit offended if someone barges into their scene and starts playing jazz or blues.

Another idea would be an etiquette sheet for handout. We put one together a number of years ago to help organize a common direction. A few people get their noses bent out of joint, but it’s a session, not a anything-goes jam. Americans’ sense of equality is good, but it can be a bit out of place in a session.

Any solution to this must be done with the maximum amount of consideration. We all know how sensitive some musicians can be. On the other hand, it’s a session you’re trying to create, and some people are bound to be disappointed, perhaps even offended. However, they can urged to create their own scene if they don’t want to play Irish tunes. If you are having your session in a bar, and if you’re being paid, or at least the drinks are provided to the musicians, then you have the control you need to create an Irish session, and not an open jam.

Good luck—you’re going to need it. If you succeed, post your results and methods. I’ve been considering creating my own session, and I’d like to know how to deal with this issue.

Re: Starting a session

Hi Mark, remind me where you are?? I might be able to help out a bit once in a while, depending on time and day of your session. (I know Sean’s mother-in-law lives up there, so he might be available occasionally, tho I’m certainly not speaking for him.)

It’s going to be very hard to ‘lead’ a session unless you’re playing ‘lead’, that is, melody. Leave your guitar at home and play your whistle. As with most start-up sessions, there will be be no shortage of strummers.

As for the OTBG (old-timey/blue-grass) problem, you might try and make it clear that the session is a ‘learning’ (or ‘slow’) session, and that players are there to ‘learn tunes’ (as opposed to jamming out). You might compile a ‘hand out’ of tune names. (Please, no dots!! 🙂 Encourage players to bring there recording machines. You can also reserve a time slot for the ‘guest segment’, allowing the OTBG players to blow off a little steam.

Don’t assume that Liz C. is not available. Once again, I’m not speaking for her, but if it’s close enough you may be able to get her to stop by occasionally.

Good Luck, Sandy

Re: Starting a session

Making sure we have a Irish melody-makers is an excellent point. I don’t think I’ll publicize this until we have a core group of people who really play the music.

Hi Sandy! I moved to Grayslake. Yes, Sean’s been kind enough to stop by my house for a booster-shot whistle lesson when visiting the new in-law up here. Believe me he’s on my radar screen for this project, as are you!

Sandy, all very good points. Me leading a session…just the thought makes me giggle. But I certainly will be leaving the guitar at home. We have planned to do this as a slow session. We were going to do handouts (I need to do some persuading on the dots issue). Hadn’t thought of suggesting recording or the guest segment, thanks. Liz C. had apparenly expressed some willingness to stop by now and again to my colleague when he tried to put together a session in the past up here, so I’m hopeful.

Re: Starting a session

Hello Mark. I am just starting out on fiddle and would be interested in a beginner-friendly session in Lake County, depending on the day of the week. But High-strung’s suggestions about letting out a list of tunes you’d like to play at the session in advance would be helpful to me, so I could find recordings of them (if possible) or look them up in O’Neill’s (uh oh) & practice them at home and be able to play along properly. Alternatively I could just bring a tape recorder to the session and record some of the tunes and learn them that way, but it would be fun to be able to come into the session already knowing some tunes that other people there know and want to play.

I also know a beginning button accordionist who might be interested in stopping by now and again, and he would probably feel the same way about learning a few tunes in advance.

A few tips on session etiquette would be helpful to me too.

Re: Starting a session

Mark, I really don’t have a problem with ‘dots’, and use them quite often. But I’d recommend that you let people find them on their own if they feel it’s useful. Handing them out at the session is very unsession-like. Players are much better off learning the session repertoire by ear from the live recordings of the session (or other recordings) and using the dots only as a supplemental learning aid.

Just my .00002 cents worth.

Re: Starting a session

If you’ve Sandy in your corner, you’ll be more than fine, Mark, and certainly there’s lots of players up your way. You seem to be going about it the right way, though — you might try getting a few of your pals that you can count on and trust both as people and players in on the whole thing. Tell them that you would really like to find four other players who will commit to being at the fledgling session and act as defacto leaders until the thing takes on its own momentum.

I agree with Sandy that handing lists of sets and sheet music out at sessions is not truly necessary. While your beginners would appreciate it, you’ll be setting a precedent for set-in-stone sets, which is never optimal for a truly good session (unless you want this to be mainly a learning environment kind of session), and not encouraging of the ever-evolving nature of settings under the fingers, also not very optimal. And, as Sandy says, it’s not very session-like.

2nd Fiddle, if you’ve learned a few of the tunes off the common tunes lists littering this site in the archives, you’ll be playing tunes that other people know and will play with you.

We’ve any amount of past posts (too many for me to go Web Ferreting in any effective way, I’m thinking) on 1) starting up sessions, 2) session etiquette, 3) the care and feeding of a session for growth that is pleasing to its inhabitants (since we all know no other kind of growth counts), and 4) common tunes that just about everyone likes to play, as well as any amount of verbiage about 5) common tunes that people who are Good Joes will play with the beginners but that they don’t normally play otherwise. Go a-looking, and have fun rummaging around in the old threads!


You won’t have been the first player to have found themselves railing against closed sessions and "elitism" and then started up a session only to find out why those things exist for sometimes good reason, Mark! 🙂

Re: Starting a session

I’ve had good luck with bluegrass and old timey players by saying what Mark said here is his original post—that I like to play other types of music too, and having a Friday night bluegrass jam is great. But the Irish session is for Irish music, which has its own etiquette (play all together rather than each person taking a break, etc.) and it’s own repertoire. If you have to, you can point out that if other types of music get played, it takes time away from the people who want to play the jigs and reels they’ve been practicing at home all week on.

Using this approach, we’ve been able to welcome some good musicians into the circle without diluting our tunes, and everybody’s happy.

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Re: Starting a session

Hi Mark.
Let me know when you are going to be starting…
In the words of Dickens, "Barkus is willing."
Good luck, and let me know if I can help at all.

Re: Starting a session

Jesus, there’s an offer. I’d take him up on it if I wuz you. ;)

Re: Starting a session

Sean — didn’t know you were lurking around here (like me)! I need melody players so if you have suggestions point them my way. I’ve taken the good advice here and will not publicize this until I get a together a core group of locals/regulars whom we can count on to play Irish music. After our first 1 or 2 proto-sessions I’ll bug you and Sandy about what to do next. In the meantime if you still want to get together some weekend again let me know. Also I’m back at Old Town every Tues. evening next session (starting late Feb/March sometime) so maybe we can have a lesson or 2 then. Best, mw