Traditional Irish Music
How frustrated are you with sessions these days and is there any better options? When they work and have a strong core of musicians driving them they can be great. There is also no doubt that there are some fantastic ones around the country, but these are by semi professional and professional musicians. In speaking to some friends recently they stated their disappointment with the general sessions. Too many musicians, too much singing, too much drinking between sets, to loose. You name it they could describe it and I think I got them on a good day.
I have also long held the belief that sessions are not necessarily the best way to learn and musicians should be getting together in smaller groups, learning some sets, and then starting their own session in the knowledge that they were in control of how it progressed.
Are there any better options?
I've experienced the thing about the "cold shoulder" too. It's a tricky one really - if a group of folk play well together, and have done regularly for while, I guess it would be annoying if others joined in who weren't up to scratch, but sometimes you're not even given a chance to show that you can play and blend in. If I come to a new but very good quality session where the sound is great, eg if there's flute, fiddle, banjo, mandola, for example, I'd rather just listen. I'd join in if invited.
Sometimes a session is welcoming too, to the point where anyone can join in, and often the result is poor, if people are struggling with the tunes. It's a fine balance between maintaining a good sound and being accommodating to new players, regarless of playing ability. You can't expect it to work all the time, I guess.
As for learning the tunes, I notice quite a few people bring along audio recorders and play back the stuff later.
I guess it also of course depends on what you call a session. Is it an open session where anyone can join in? an invitation session? closed session? Only those taking part can tell you. If you steam in without checking first you can expect to be frozen out. Mind you, I've been told a session is open and still been frozen out! However I suppose the answer is to always ask and you can't go far wrong. Jim's dead right it's a fine balance at any session and doesn't always work but when you're part of a session that does work it's a magical experience. I guess that's the addiction.
I enjoy playing in friends houses, had a great play on thursday with 2 others , it was much more satisfying than the local session on friday which had fifteen musicians, I was playing with a piper and whistle player and could really get into following the pipers style
I have had sessions here for almost 16yrs and all the musicians here e
are both helpful and welcoming and both me and them welcome young and old any nationality and I also provide a tutor for one hour prior to the session, I agree with you Terry that some of the not been welcome comments are Down to attitude and possibly musicianship, music is an art that is so pleasing to me and my customers whom are of all nationalities and I do not allow any form of discrimination or racism to anybody, my daughter is English married to an Irishman and I defy anybody to be racist to her in my presence. Big session Easter Sunday & monday celebrating 16 years of good music in The Herschel Arms
I think one of the biggest things for me having seen both sessions in the UK and Ireland is that it was a bit of a culture shock when I arrived in Ireland to find that sessions were a paid gig for some musicians, not in all pubs, but in most around Dublin city centre anyway (back in the late 90's). I think there are positives and negatives to this approach and over the years I've now got used to this idea although I am not fully convinced by it. The positives for me are (and these are only my opinions so I fully appreciate that others may have a different view on these):
On a negative front:
I don't want to dwell on too many negatives but I think that the fundamental question for me is whether or not it is actually a session or a gig. My concept of a session is an informal meeting of musicians/singers for the sole purpose of enjoying oneself musically and each others company. Generally, if the musicians enjoy themselves, so do the listeners.
I would have never equated a session to a commercial venture. Once money is brought into the equation I think that the drivers of the session are not the same and it has to be managed very carefully. I know that it can and does work in many venues all over the world but on the whole, some of my most memorable experiences at sessions are due to the unknown - not knowing who is going to turn up, not knowing what might be played, looking forward to what might transpire. When you remove some of the ability for things to just happen, it can become very contrived and controlling. I like the way in most sessions I frequent, everyone gets a chance to do their own thing, start their own sets of tunes, play their party piece if they want to, and generally contribute to the whole session. I don't think I'd turn up if it didn't work that way and I guess I'm lucky that there are so many different options in Dublin that you can take it or leave it whatever the case may be.
I think also, I only go out to a session when I want to play music. I know this sounds a bit obvious but I've seen situations where a commitment is made to keeping a session going and sometimes some of the musicians don't seem like they want to be there, have little to no enthusiasm in the music and are mostly killing time before they can get home. I think it helps if everyone is going in with the same mindset. I think that is why so many great sessions happen at festivals, fleadh's etc as everyone has the same (usually) reason for being there and all the musicians are pointing in the same direction (so to speak), wanting to have fun, play good music and generally have something to remember.
I don't think sessions are a huge learning environment in a formal sense. I also don't think they are a replacement for regular practice. I think there are some basic prerequisites before starting to join into sessions which I would deem to be down to courtesy and respect for the other musicians you may encounter in the session and I think these can also be the root cause to many disappointed session experiences. I think it helps if you are a musician wanting to play in a session if you have:
I think that a musician needs to practice his/her art in private to attain a standard which then provides the foundation for playing with others. A session is not for practicing in my mind although it is useful to try out new tunes/songs/sets I would generally believe that the bulk of the practicing has taken place prior to landing in a session otherwise who wants to listen to somebody practicing? I'm probably digging a big hole for myself here but anyhow, just my thoughts.
For reference, the pubs where I think the sessions really work and would be my first choice in Dublin are the Cobblestones in Smithfield Market and Hughes pub on Chancery Row. I mostly like these venues because there is still the sense of the unknown, you don't know who is going to turn up and there is always a wide variety of different musical styles and flavours on offer. Other sessions come and go depending upon who is in charge of the pub at the time and also what the particular landlord/owner is trying to achieve. I generally avoid all pubs in Temple Bar as these are really just gigs and not sessions at all (although they are dressed up like sessions, they seem not to be sessions for me).
I'd be curious to hear other musicians perception of the session scene in Dublin as I know I can be blinded by things when I see them each week whereas when you see it for the first time or in passing through it can be totally different.
Just saying "hello" to Tom King ... Tom, I only realised who you were, at the mention of the Herschel Arms. I haven't been there for some years now, but it always has been a very good and friendly session, and well-run by yourself.
Very much so! Which is why I prefer a good kitchen session, or a productive recording rehearsal.
I could go on a whole litany of complaints, but the truth is, I still go to sessions sometimes, cos it's important to "get out there and play", meet people and learn new tunes.
having just read this Brid, your bang on! Keep at it keep pushing Yourself!
I agree with much of what you have said here and you raise some very good points.
In our area we have many successfull sessions that have a couple of paid musicians. However, the good ones understand that no one is getting paid to play. Two people are getting paid to host the session, their job is to make sure that all the musicians have a good time; that, they get a chance to play and contribute; and, they are drawn into the social melodies of event.
It is generally understood that sessions are not the place to improve your mastery of your instrument. They are generally not the place to learn the bones of tunes or the beginnings of a repetoire. Practice time is the time to introduce your hands to the bones of new tune. Practice time is to the time to get heart, hands, and instruments integrated. However, Irish traditional music is much more than and individual with his instrument, more than solo performance.
It is that magical connection of hearts, one to one another, through the music that sets feet to dancing. Sessions are the best and possibly the only place to learn how to navigate those connections. It's were a tune becomes more than any individual's expression. It is also the place were each musician can explore the ornimentations in their toolbox to express the sentiments that rise, not just in their own hearts, but in the common heart of the group playing.
I liked your list of things a musician should bring and I would add a few more things:
1. A dedication to listening. Listening, not only to the notes and beats, but to what each player is expressing through the music. Listening not only with your ears but with your mind and heart. Even while playing, listen to what others are playing and listen to how you are adding to the music.
2. A willingness to lay down "me" and "I" for "them" to become "we". Leave your ego at the door and it won't get bruised.
3. Be patient in finding your place to add to the music. If you are new to the session or Irish music, show up earlier. It will give you more time to find a place or several temporary places. In many of our sessions pace, comlexity, cohesion rise through the night. The one exception, to the faster-later tendency, is that many times the first few tunes may be "dump your bucket" tunes where folks are forcefully expressing their frustrations with the day.
4. Recognize that the music seeks to express those things that cannot be put into words. So don't worry if you can't figure it out in your head, keep your heart open.
5. Finally, and most importantly, Listen. Yes that was my first point, it is the beginning and ending of the session life.
With the wealth of sessions in our area, it make it easier for folks to find a session that is good for them. Some are predominantly advanced beginners and intemediate players; some are almost all accomplished players; and, there are a lot of sessions that fall in-between. This is great for the growth of the tradition. For me, I can play bodhran at any of the sessions; but, it is nice to have a couple of intermediate sessions where I can play guitar comfortably; and even a slow/beginner sessions for when I feel like flute or whistle. The point is that each session is different in make up, history. and dynamics. Each is different in the needs it meets for the folks there. My suggestion to anyone seeking a session to attend regularly is to go to several and find the one that you are best suited to contribute to.
Regardless of where you attend, don't go cheap, respect the venue that is giving us a place to create this magic. If your at someones house, bring a snack, drink, or food to help out the hosts. If your at a public house (pub) buy the same from the proprieter to help them sustain the life of their venue.
I think that most folks that pursue playing music have an inate need to express those thing that can not be put into words. They need to expound on the essence they find within, that is beyond the ability of the mind to analyze, categorize, or reason with. Musicians gather together to share this in a social setting that respects those needs. I think sessions in pubs, parks, parlers, or porches all are part of this wonderful musical institution.
So Enjoy Your Music,
Baltimore MD - Washington DC area
P.S. posts tend reflect the life of the poster, if this seemed disjointed, well there you go ...
I can't say I agree totally. When I was learning music in my early teens, sessions brought me on a hell of a lot. A regular session out in Comhaltas HQ in Monkstown gave me 100-200 tunes to focus on and learn, and I was becoming used to playing with other musicians and listening to others. It also teaches you patience when you've to sit there on the sets you're unsure of!
As I progressed, I outgrew these 'organised' sessions (i.e. same tune groupings every week) and began frequenting places like The Cobblestone and O'Donoghue's. These were even better as both venues comprised top notch musicians as well as great tunes (not the bog standard ones I'd been playing up till then). As I was going to these places before I could legally drink, I was fired up to play as many sets as possible.
However, nowadays I rarely go in. It's nothing personal with the pub but I think as you grow up you become more aware and conscious of your surroundings. I'm not inclined to play with people I don't know without asking them first, "Is it OK to join?". As a young pretender, there would have been no stopping me joining! To get the session to work, everybody's heart has to be in it. Everybody has to be on the same 'buzz' to create that atmosphere when everything just works. It's not all about heavily technical players bunched together doing what they do best. Some of the best sessions I've had have just included one or two others. Depends what you're idea of a session is too. "Getting together in smaller groups", as you put it Tony, constitutes a session in my opinion.
To answer your question, I wouldn't say I'm frustrated with sessions, but as a beginner and an 'outsider', it can be a bit difficult to get involved with an established session where most of the musicians know eachother really well. Those first shaky steps can take a lot of confidence and even courage! I'm very lucky in that I am involved with what started out as a group of three - myself being a beginner and two others who were returning to playing after a long absence. I found their experience and patience invaluable in finding my way, as playing with other musicians is very different to (and more demanding than) playing alone! After nearly seven months of weekly kitchen sessions, we now have up to nine musicians, of varying levels of ability - from beginners to very experienced, and it's working out really well. It's an environment based on mutual respect, the beginners listening to and learning from the more experienced players, and the experienced players encouraging the beginners and 'pushing' us out of our comfort zones to expand our horizons! Unlike a pub session, where anyone can walk in, we tend to proceed slowly and cautiously when inviting in a new player because we want to preserve the wonderful atmosphere we have created and after all, it is someone's family home, so harmony (no pun intended) is essential! Most of us drive to and from the sessions, so we don't bother with alcohol, but it's not unknown for the kettle to be put on (yet again) in the early hours, to facilitate one or two players, who just can't leave without mastering the final notes of that new tune!