Music Session Etiquette


Now that fall has, well, fallen upon us, and the sun is hovering a bit lower in the sky, are you thinking ahead and starting to plan how you’ll spend the long, cold winter months (especially if you live in Vermont)? Are you a budding musician looking to play music with others? If so, you might be interested in joining a traditional session this winter. But, before I launch into music session etiquette, for those of you who don’t know what one is, let me define it for you here: Simply called “session,” it’s a term that describes a gathering of musicians who typically play Irish, Scottish, or old-time music. They can take place at a bar, restaurant, hotel, or a private residence. These are unpaid gigs, though some musicians  (usually those with experience) may be paid to “lead” a session. Some of the most common instruments played at sessions are guitars, violins, mandolins, whistles, and accordions.  Musicians usually play without amplification, or “unplugged.” I recall the first session I attended eight years ago – I thought my heart would burst through my chest. So, yes, sessions for newbies can be intimidating, but they are somewhat casual events where musicians play for pleasure. A certain amount of etiquette, however, is expected, and worth noting.

Guidelines, and tunes, vary form one session to the next, so it’s a good idea to listen for a little while if you are new to the session. In advanced sessions, where the musicians are experienced, you might not be as welcome to sit in the circle as you had hoped. I understand this may sound pretentious and unwelcoming, but these “closed sessions” typically cater to familiar, more respected musicians. And sessions are not places for practice, or “noodling.” If you don’t know the tune, don’t use this time to learn it. You might want to record tunes you don’t know so you can learn them at home when you’re not feeling under great pressure to play perfectly the first, or second or third, time around.

In a session, musicians typically play 2 to 3 tunes in succession. Tunes with multiple parts, like hornpipes, are usually played fewer than three times through. If you start one, make sure you can play it in its entirety without stopping, or faltering. It’s okay to play tunes that others don’t know, but be courteous and also play more common tunes. If you know the name of the tunes you are about to play, as a courtesy, ask others if they know it before starting. But there are an uncountable number of tunes to memorize, and many have similar names, so it’s not uncommon for session musicians to not know the names of them. The individual who starts the tune sets the tempo, which should remain the same throughout the set. If the speed is above your skill level, don’t try to keep up. It’s better to play slowly and well than quickly like hell.

If you are a novice fiddler, guitar player, whistler, mandolin picker, or accordion squeezer, don’t fret. There are beginner sessions out there that are more structured, with leaders who start the tunes and who may be open to handing out a list to participants. If you don’t know of a venue that holds sessions in your area, how about starting one with a few musical friends in your home? Or reach out to other musicians on social media.

To learn more about session etiquette, I invite you to click here and here. The Session is a user-friendly website where you’ll find a variety of tunes from which to choose to learn, and it’s a great place to engage in all kinds of discussions about music.


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