THE WORLD OF THE SESSION can be extremely daunting for the
uninitiated. Sessions often exude an air of elitism, only for
those who know a mysterious repertoire of tunes, or those who
can play tunes at a very fast pace. Those who do not know the
unwritten rules can either be nervous of joining a session,
or insensitive to its aims and purpose.
trouble with session etiquette is that there are possibly as
many opinions about this delicate subject as there are participants
in sessions, and nobody can give you hard and fast rules about
it. I have attempted to give advice about some aspects of the
session, and hopefully you can use these comments as guidelines.
In general, the watchwords are courtesy, consideration, sensitivity
talking about sessions, I have divided the playing standard
into three main types:
The session appears to be going at warp speed, with long strings
of tunes played by all those there. There is an inner circle
of experienced musicians who prefer the company of others of
the same skill level.
Intermediate: There's a lot of stopping and
starting, and the skill levels of the musicians appear to vary.
Less serious, more welcoming.
Beginners: Participants have been playing a
year or two and are just building up their skills and repertoire.
It may be acceptable to use books or sheet music. It's usually
led by one more experienced player who calls the tunes and sets
Of course, in reality, the standard of a session may fall anywhere
between these definitions.
Joining the Session
"If you're new to the session and don't know what you're
doing, wait and watch"
You can learn a lot from a good session, just sitting right
outside the session circle and paying attention. Don't barge
in and start showing off - that's one way to annoy the regulars.
If it's a small session, ask someone who seems to know what's
going on if you may join them. In larger sessions, it's probably
OK just to join in.
aware of the skill level"
In an advanced session (it's very crowded, the music is fast
and furious and everyone looks very earnest), if you are new
to it, do not sit down in the circle. The circle will frequently
open up to a familiar or respected musician who turns up, but
don't you expect such behaviour. An intermediate session will
be more tolerant, but it might still have an inner core, which
is why it's best to watch and wait at the beginning.
sit IN the session if you're going to PLAY in the session. "
If you're there only to listen, be considerate and let those
that want to play sit next to each other.
Starting a Tune in a Session
Advanced sessions are often led by a small group of good musicians
who are being paid by the pub. If you are new to the session,
let others start the tunes. If you eventually become a regular,
nobody will think it odd if you start a set. It will be easier
to start a tune in intermediate sessions, but wait until there
is a break in the music. Be aware of the response from others;
if they appear disinterested, they are.
Don't play any tune unless you can play it through several times
without faltering. If you have started a tune which few people
know, try to follow it with a popular tune which will then bring
people back into the session (this informs folk that you're
aware of them and want them to be playing with you). It is often
expected that if you start a tune, you will be choosing what
follows, so make sure you have a group of two or three tunes
which go together well.
beginners sessions, there will probably be fixed sets of tunes
which everyone knows. Sometimes there will be copies of the
tunes in music notation so that if you don't know the tune you
can still join in. The leader will usually call the tunes, but
probably will be open to suggestions.
In Irish sessions, the convention is usually to play a tune
three times. This gives anyone trying to learn the tune or more
chance to pick it up. In Scotland, however, the custom is to
play tunes twice through. You will have to listen to each session
and work out what their usual convention is. In beginners sessions,
the tune can be played three times or more. Four-part tunes
would be played fewer times.
If you have a tune you'd like played, don't yell out "Play
such-and-such!"; simply ask "Does anyone know such-and-such?".
Never Speed Up Or Slow Down! The musician who started the tune
sets the tempo, and it should never vary or falter until the
set is over. Don't play at a speed above your skill level. Remember
that it's better to play a tune slowly and well than quickly
"Don't start playing a tune while everyone else
It's more difficult to tune while a tune is being played, so
be considerate and wait until everyone is done tuning before
starting to play. Try not to tune your instrument excessively
while everyone else is playing. It's distracting. A good time
to tune is when a break occurs. If no break seems to be coming
soon, try to tune quietly, or at a short distance from those
playing, so as not to disturb.
talk loudly while everyone else is playing."
Musicians are concentrating when they're playing tunes, so don't
walk up and start talking to them. It's distracting, rude, and
shows ignorance. Wait until they've stopped playing for any
before recording a session"
Tape recording a session is common, but it is always appreciated
when you ask first. It's unlikely that you'll be told "no",
and it is also a good way to preserve a tune for later learning
by ear. Be polite, and discrete - don't shove tape recorders
or microphones in the musicians' faces, even if permission was
granted. In beginners sessions, it is expected that people will
record many of the tunes.
be afraid to ask questions"
...but wait until there's a break in the playing. Once a musician
has put their instrument down, they may be open to questions
- otherwise, they may be waiting to play, so don't interrupt
them with a question. Common courtesy and decency almost always
win out, and a quick question or comment during a lull wouldn't
until a set is finished before asking for tune names.
others' instruments: Don't!"
NEVER, ever, handle, play, touch or move another musician's
instrument without asking them first. An instrument is of great
importance to its owner, and should be approached as a precious
"Every session has its unique unspoken rules..."
...or lack of them, as you'll learn as you attend more. As a
newbie, the less noticeable you make yourself, the less chance
there is of your being embarrassed or annoying people.