Session etiquette

Once upon a time, I was sessioning in a pub (as you do) and a young woman, somewhat under the weather, approached the session table and picked up someone’s guitar, presumably intending to launch into song. The owner, startled, reached out to reclaim it. ‘You can’t just grab someone’s instrument without asking,’ he protested.

‘Why not?’ the girl demanded belligerently.

Nonplussed that anyone could even ask, he managed, ‘It’s against session etiquette.’

The girl flounced back to her friend and announced in an aggrieved tone, ‘Apparently, there’s an etiquette!’

Of course there is. Every social situation is bounded by rules – usually unspoken – a code of conduct that people abide by. One problem with sessions is that people get over-excited, especially if they’ve had a few. They can be carried away by the music and the craic, start believing they can fly or play guitar like Tommy Emmanuel or that everyone unconditionally loves them no matter what they do. If sessions are an unfamiliar social situation for them, they can lose sight of the usual rules of common sense, common courtesy and respect, and think that anything goes.

At a general level, session etiquette is simply about making sure everyone has a good time – not some people enjoying themselves at the expense of others. The subtleties and nuances of what that means in a session are worth exploring and articulating for the uninitiated, and for sessioners who’ve never given ‘etiquette’ a lot of conscious thought.

That’s what this blog’s about. It’s not intended as a list of ‘thou shalts’. I’m hoping for lively dialogue from all over the globe about how the art of sessioning works and doesn’t work – how to choose the right song for the moment, what to do when someone next to you is playing in the wrong key, whether and when to applaud, kids in the session, mobile phones in the session – anything that has ever bugged, intrigued or concerned you about session culture. I was inspired by a Facebook discussion, a while ago, that went on for pages, about whether or not it’s okay to sing a song from another sessioner’s repertoire. People had strong opinions in many directions: ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘yes if’, ‘no unless’… Everyone expressed their ideas courteously and respectfully, without descending into name-calling, and the whole debate was exhilarating to follow. I’d love to see the same kind of energy develop around this blog.

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10 thoughts on “Session etiquette

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  1. Thanks heaps Alison! Many more to come. I like to think of session etiquette as ‘guidelines’, and this blog as a way to help us reflect on these guidelines, articulate them for ourselves and one another (and newbies), and thus become ever more observant and sensitive collaborative music-makers 🙂

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  2. This is a fascinating topic for me for several reasons.

    I remember backpacking in Ireland with just a pocket ukulele, a tin whistle and a mouth organ back in 2012. I played at sessions in Killarney, Galway, Belfast, and Derry. I was lucky enough to borrow guitars and Bodhrans to play (with permission!) and that was fine. I did get into a bit of trouble playing my own whistle because I was trying to play some tunes that I didn’t know so well and when that happens I tend to improvise and play some simple harmonies. I got told off for that!!

    I find it interesting that some kinds of accompaniment deemed acceptable by famous Celtic bands, eg Altan, Caperceilie, etc are deemed unacceptable at a session and as someone who plays melody (mandolin, tin whistles) as well as accompaniment (guitar, bodhran, etc) I find it frustrating that sometimes a tune is begging for some counterpoint or cross rhythms to bring out its innate flavours but some accompanists want to just play the blandest chords and/or rhythms! It is my belief that Celtic dance music is not based on chord progressions so there are various ways to put chords and bass lines to the tunes, eg substituting a Am, G, F, Em pattern instead of the standard Am, G, Am, G… for a tune such as “The Dancing Master” or even sometimes just droning on the one power chord for a whole half of a tune, eg Kesh jig…

    Anyway, I count being able to play anything at sessions to be a privilege,

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    1. Hey Gavin, you’re right, there are many ways to accompany both songs and tunes. I guess the art lies in making sure we’re serving the tune or song and not overpowering it with our accompaniment. Thanks for contributing!

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  3. I remember my first gentle education on session etiquette many many years ago when I enthusiastically went to beat along to the Irish session on the back of a chair.
    Gecko kindly said to me, “The players prefer that you don’t bang along.”
    “I took heed and was welcome to listen and learn.
    Session players have been my most inspirational and generous music teachers as well as long term lenders for free of cherished instruments.

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  4. What’s the etiquette in a session when a muso, perhaps a tune player or a singer, keeps on going without leaving a space for others to contribute? Generally this can happen with more accomplished performers who have an extensive repertoire and /or a loud instrument or voice.

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    1. Hi Margaret. I believe it’s different in tunes sessions – I think the most experienced person tends to lead. Tunies, can you tell me if that’s correct? In our voices-and-instruments session at the Mill, the ‘rule’ is that you do a song and then give someone else a go. You might occasionally lead from a song into a tune, or from a song into a parody. Once or twice we’ve had a new singer completely blow us away, and we’ve urged that person to ‘give us another’ straight away, to encourage them. And if someone who doesn’t know the etiquette launches into a second song, we won’t stop them – but we’ll jump in quickly after the second one to let them know the norm at this session is sharing the role of ‘lead singer’ around.

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  5. Here now is the thought pattern, we can read it on every hack guitarrist’s face, as s/he blunders in:

    “ what’s this one in ? Oh, G, sure. Soooo, I’ll just strum a G here … oops something changed, better go to C, and then D next bar. Oh, I was too late, but I’ll know next time around. Here it comes again, I think,.. mmm that didn’t sound quite right, must be something else … I’ll try a D minor after the C next time ….. ah,… here it comes …. Oh, shit, no that sounded bloody awful. Maybe it’s an E minor ???? yeah I’ll try that …Must be that … well to be honest I haven’t a freakin’ clue, but it doesn’t matter, I mean there’s those 2 others playin’ guitar too, they’ll drown out my mistakes …. Here comes the E minor ….. WTF ???!!!?? huh ?? oh, it’s a whole different toon. What’s the key, I can’t see those other guys’ hands. Hmm, Guess I’ll just try D major ….. here goes ……. Oh, Christ, that sounded completely wrong. I’ll try, ummm, A major. Yeah, if it’s not D or G, it must be A …. Oops, no. These goddamned toon players, why does this have to be so hard…… Sooooo, it must be a minor then, but which one ? Guess I’ll try E minor …… aaah, that sounds Ok, yeaaah, in the groooove now baby. Huh ? What’s that guy on the banjo doing ? He’s givin’ me a nasty look. What’s he sayin’ ?? I’m playin’ a jig rhythm to polkas ?? Oh, well it sorta works, doesn’t it. …… etc, etc …..”

    And so it goes on, all night or afternoon. Whilst the custodians and stewards of this music of gods suffer in silence.

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    1. All of which is probably fine, so long as the person plays very very quietly until they’ve got themselves sorted out, so as not to distract other musicians. But you’re right, Simon – often, they don’t! And people who want to accompany tunes definitely need to put effort into learning about the rhythms for jigs, reels, polkas, strathspeys etc. – most of us don’t grow up with them, and we don’t learn them from ‘popular’ music, at least in Australia.

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