What’s a session?

For the purposes of this blog, an acoustic music session is one kind of occasion when people play acoustic instruments together. A session is different from a performance, but it’s a little difficult to describe why, and publicans are often confused by the distinction. Imagine a band onstage, playing for an audience. They’ll probably have microphones, and amplification for their instruments. There’ll be a very clear separation between who’s in the band (people on stage), who’s in the audience (people sitting or standing in front of the stage, listening), and who may be invited on stage to play with the band (they’re probably in the wings). The band will most likely have a set-list, and they’ll have rehearsed their songs ahead of time. Hopefully they’re being paid for the performance, or at least having their expenses reimbursed. The band will have a name, a line-up, a repertoire, maybe a business plan – this is a reasonably formalised way for people to play and enjoy music.

Folk clubs can take many forms, some closer to the band performance described above, and others closer to sessions as described below. Some folk clubs begin with a blackboard or open mike, where you can put your name down to perform one or more songs in front of the audience, before the scheduled acts begin. Other folk clubs have people sitting in a circle, and each person gets to sing a song in turn. Again there’s a formality to the folk club structure that I see as different from a session.

Sessions, for me, are characterised by the emphasis on inclusion and participation, and the element of spontaneity or improvisation occurring moment to moment. One-off sessions may spring up at parties, in the green rooms of festivals, around camp-fires. Regular sessions often occur at a specific venue and involve whoever happens to turn up. Much of this blog will focus on the latter kind, because I’m pathologically proud to be a custodian of the Brisbane Saturday session that’s continued in an unbroken line since the late 1970s, despite numerous changes of venue, format and participants. But do feel free to leave comments – or request a guest blog spot – about other kinds of sessions.

‘Tune session’ is the usual Australian descriptor for a session where people play tunes, without any singing, poetry, interpretive dance or other intrusions. Since my tune-playing expertise is limited to the A part of the Kesh jig on a mandolin slowly, I’m not going to attempt to comment on tune sessions. Guest bloggers welcome!

‘Singing session’ is a title often given to sessions where people sing without accompanying instruments. This provides a lot of scope for harmony singing, body percussion, ‘mouth music’ and other creative ways of using the voice and body. People whose voice is their instrument often feel more valued in this kind of session, and it enables a range of dynamics and acoustic possibilities that’s different from an accompanied session. Not better or worse – just different. For the record, memorable singing sessions are often held in stairwells and toilet blocks at folk festivals. Just sayin’.

This blog will tend to focus on what might be called a ‘mixed’ session, in which accompanied songs, unaccompanied songs, tune sets, poems, jokes, banter, learned discussions of folklore and philosophy, Morris dancing, knitting and other folk-friendly activities are all welcome in a nice balance.

I’d love to hear about your local session. What’s in, what’s out, what gets shaken all about?


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