This is probably the first of many times I’ll need to point out that I don’t make the rules, I’m just trying to articulate them. This blog is all about the etiquette I’ve been taught over many years of sessioning, and a fundamental puzzle when you join a session is where to sit.
Sessions last a while, which means people need somewhere to put their drinks, which means sessions often take place around a table. If it’s a small enough session, there may be enough seats around a single table (e.g. the kitchen table at a party, or a bunch of tables pushed together in a pub). The problem with a large session is that if you seat everyone around a huge table, they won’t be able to hear each other from one side of the table to the other. We’ve all suffered through songs where one end of the table is a-line-and-a-half behind the other end (and sometimes in a different key) which is murder for the folk in the middle.
So sessions tend to arrange themselves in concentric circles. The unspoken rules go like this: the people in the inner circle, around the table, are the ones with the repertoire, confidence and musical skills to lead most of the songs. They’re also committed to the session – they’ve conscientiously arrived early enough to get a seat.
The people who also want to lead songs but missed out on a seat in the inner circle will sit as close to the middle as possible (or lean against a handy doorway). When they want to start a song they may need to be quite loud, or stand up, or both, to alert the people round the table who can’t easily see them.
People who are happy to follow along on their instruments and join in the choruses sit a bit further out. Those who just want to listen sit further out again. Those who want to do some listening and some talking should sit on the other side of the room.
Say you’re not intending to lead any songs, but when you got here the session was quite small, so you sat at the table. As the session fills up, session etiquette delicately suggests you reconsider this decision. Are there people panting to take your place in the inner circle? Should you let them?
If your partner/child/lover is a song leader and you want to remain at their side, most sessioners will accept this as fair enough. If you’re playing an instrument, and/or you’re an enthusiastic chorus joiner-inner, you’re probably justified keeping your seat.
It’s worth knowing, though, that seasoned sessioners who identify people further out as having more to contribute to the session will often graciously yield their seat at the table to these folk. Especially if your chosen role is strictly ‘appreciative listener’, you will get approving nods for voluntarily moving out to the boondocks to make way for someone who makes more noise.
I don’t know how tune sessions work, but I think the principle is generally the same – the more active session participants form the core. Tunies, feel free to shed more light on this vexed question of seating arrangements 🙂