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The Unwritten Rules of a Traditional Music Session

Article originally published in "The Living Tradition" magazine , Issue 53, May/June 2003

So, you've developed your familiarity with traditional music within a circle of like-minded friends and acquaintances within a certain radius from your home, and you're completely at home with the routines and conventions of the local sessions even though you've not really been aware that there are any.

Then one day you find yourself at a session a long way from home, or you've decided to sample another branch of traditional music, and you find yourself on another planet! The rules have all changed. How many times should a tune be played before you change? What decides which tune is played next? How do you know when to stop? Sometimes the answers are obvious, sometimes there seems to be some form of alien telepathy going on.

I find myself fascinated by the way these behavioural conventions vary from session to session, and have even dared to ask people what is going on from time to time. Sometimes I get a courteous answer, sometimes not. Here are some of my perceptions of the differences (and similarities) between the different sessions that I have visited. Of course, it could be totally different wherever you are.

First, before I get down to the nitty-gritty, a disclaimer. For the purposes of this piece I'm going to separate the music into some broad categories, without trying to define them, or the boundaries between them. Hopefully the reader has a perception of the difference between an English session and an Irish session. Certainly the selection of tunes played is not itself a sufficient measure. However, the behaviour of the musicians does give some clue as to what sort of a session is going on.

I'm going to make a start with the one convention that applies without exception to every session - break this rule and you will find that before long you are playing by yourself.

A session is not a concert. There has to be a good balance between a broad selection of well known tunes that others can join in, and the occasional less familiar piece. The best way of killing a session (and loosing friends) is to play a succession of obscure and complex tunes to show off your own virtuosity. By all means throw in the odd piece that others haven't heard before, but follow it rapidly with something that you know the majority will join in with. And don't do it too often. This might seem obvious but I have been to more than one session that has been destroyed by someone with a large squeeze box and an even bigger ego - we know who you are!

Next, what influences the way one tune follows another? In the English sessions there has always been a major influence from the recordings of the bands popular at the time. Frequently sessions will reproduce whole sets of tunes, exactly as arranged in these recordings. This leads to 'interesting' discussions "...such and such a tune always goes with such and such - not the one you played " A good Irish session works differently. The musicians tend to fly by the seat of their pants. Besides, any single tune can be found on so many recordings that there is little perception of a 'normal' co-existence of one particular tune with another. Indeed there is positive competition to discover new impact as one tune transitions to another. The tune being led by one musician sparks a memory of another tune with another player, so as the first ends the new player leads smoothly into the his tune, without a break in rhythm or tempo. The new tune ends, and is 'segued' into a third by a new player - then a fourth, then a fifth. This collective co-operation in an Irish session does trend towards a succession of tunes in the same or related keys and the same time signature. A long period of sets of reels will be followed by an equally long sequence of sets of jigs. In the English session the changes of time signature and key are much more frequent, leading to much greater variety for the casual listener. At the other extreme, an Old Time session is positively frozen. The five string banjo is normally retuned to suit each different key or mode. To avoid constant retuning the convention is to stick to a single key, either until all tunes that fit are exhausted, or a move to a new key is mutually agreed.

The first time I encountered a large Old Time session, there was a preponderance of banjos and guitars in open tuning. It almost seemed that, having selected a tune, we played an A chord for fifteen minutes. Then someone named another tune, and we played a different A chord for fifteen minutes!

Also in Old Time, medleys are unusual. A single piece is played through many times, permitting the participants to experiment at length with counterpoint and harmony - or at least to pick up the tune by the time it comes to an end. Contrast this with most Irish sessions, where tunes are rarely taken more than twice through before changing to the next one. Here the English session finds middle path : tunes are normally taken two or three times through, but if everyone joins in then a fourth or fifth time is quite acceptable. And what does bring it to an end? Simple - another rule : in most sessions whoever starts the tune signals the end - by a musical flourish, a grunt, a foot signal or any other means to their disposal.

A Bluegrass session might appear similar in structure to an Old Time session, but here the convention is to pass round the group of musicians, with each taking it in turn to produce a virtuoso solo against the rhythm section provided by the rest of the participants. Once everyone who wishes to has had their opportunity to shine, then a final frenzied free-for-all marks the Last Time Through. How this is all communicated in the middle of the tune is itself a mystery of the highest order. It doesn't always work to plan, but its fun trying!

Behind these apparently diverse approaches lies the nature of the different forms of the music itself, combined with the social nature of sessions. People go to sessions to play along with others. Sessions form a focus for picking up new tunes, developing technique and style, and the occasional bit of showing off. However, it is not always easy to join in. Irish tunes, particularly the fast reels, cannot be easily picked up from one or two listenings. Neither is there much opportunity for harmonic invention. So you either know the tune already, and can join in, or you have to wait for the next one you do know to come round. So, as the essential feature of all sessions is inclusion for as many of the participants as possible, the Irish session achieves this by cycling though a very large number of tunes. As your knowledge and experience increases, then you get a higher hit rate of tunes that you can join in with in a single evening. In an English session the tunes tend to be more harmonic and less complex, and easier to pick up after one or two hearings, so inclusively is achieved with rather less effort. Compare this to the Old Time session, where a tune goes round so many times that, if you didn't know it when it started, you can sure as hell get close before it comes to an end!

A final courtesy that applies to all sessions is the essential art of listening. If someone starts off a tune that you know backwards it is extremely anti-social to take the lead away from them. So, especially for the first time through, choose an entry point appropriate to the tune, don't play louder than the leader, and the greatest sin of all, don't force a change to the tempo or rhythm established at the start.

So what have I missed out? I have a perception that Scottish music sessions are pretty much akin to Irish sessions as described above. However, as I have never been to a session north of the border it would be rather presumptuous of me to state this as a fact. I do however remember an incident during a session at the Redcar festival many years ago . The session was going nicely, when the Cunningham brothers arrived, and after looking round for seats, sat either side of me. With Johnny on my left, and Phil with his huge accordion at my right elbow I decided that it was time to give my feeble scratchings a break. Phil soon noticed that I wasn't playing and leant over " Is my left hand putting you off? " he asked " 'cause if it is then I won't use it!" Now that is session courtesy writ large!

Having completed this article it occurred to me that there must already be similar dissertations on the world wide web, so I did a search. Most of the pages I found on this subject pretty well reflected what I have written, whilst a few propounded some quite scary attitudes regarding who can or can't join in ( you must ask for permission first!!? ) and the instruments that are and are not permitted. Lord save us from all pedants!

A final insight comes straight from Vivian T. Williams' web page on 'Jam Session Etiquette'

"In a Texas fiddle jam one fiddler often plays a tune through as long as he or she wants, and then turns it over to another fiddler who does the same thing. This is an even better show off technique, since each fiddler has unlimited time to spin out ever more fanciful variations. The down side is that it tends to wear out the guitar player."

No bad thing did I hear someone say?


Copyright of Tim Brooks. March 2003.

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