Will the circle be unbroken?

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 🙂

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7 thoughts on “Will the circle be unbroken?

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  1. What a marvelous overview of seating etiquette! A situation I find awkward is when (in a smaller session) someone kindly (or misguidedly 🙂 ?) ‘makes a space’ for a new comer in the inner circle. What should one do then? I, like many I’m sure, want to be ‘polite’ but I also don’t want to move from the position that I arrived early to get! Perhaps I am just a very bad person? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s not just a matter of giving up a seat or shuffling along. Pub Props may have been installed, instrument stands set up, maybe bags under the chair, and a drink on the table. Some sessioners consistently arrive half and hour to an hour late. No criticism – it may be due their other life schedules – but they shouldn’t expect to get straight to the inner circle, disrupting an established session in the process. “I’ll just squeeze into that gap” where there is no gap I just consider rude. There’s an etiquette in giving up a seat but there should also be courtesy in obtaining one.
    Ali, may I sit next to you and we’ll be bad together?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, and I’m aware Mal that you’ve been the victim of some inconsiderate behaviour in the past, when people keep squeezing into the circle until someone who was already sitting there gets ‘squeezed out’. It’s also important to bear in the mind the idea that the circle can’t keep getting infinitely bigger, because people won’t be able to hear each other. Better to start a second row.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Andrea,

    Your post reminded me of a song my mate Andy (Lloyd-Webber) and I wrote a while back about the finer points of sessioning. He cut it down dramatically to 3 verses so he could use it as a filler in a show he was working on (something about trains and roller skates?). Anyway, it’s a basic 12 bar blues and I hope you like it…

    The first line of the blues is always sung a second time
    Oh the first line of the blues is always sung a second time
    So by the time you get to the third line, you’ve got time to think of a rhyme.

    There ain’t no law that the third line has to be different at all
    There ain’t no law that the third line has to be different at all
    No there ain’t no law that the third line has to be different at all.

    And when you play a session, man you better know the rules
    Yes when you play a session, man you better know the rules
    ‘Cause if you don’t know them, then we knows you is a fool.

    Never start a singin’, ‘less you know all the words
    No never start a singin’, ‘less you know all the words
    And never stop singin’ halfway, like a scaird little bird.

    And the singer with a guitar, ain’t always your best friend
    No the the singer with a guitar, ain’t always your best friend
    Oh you better hide her capo, to follow her chords to the end.

    Don’t play no ukulele, if you want them all to hear
    No don’t play no ukulele, if you want them all to hear
    Unless twenty ukuleles just happen to be near.

    Don’t sit next to no banjo when you try to play a toon
    No don’t sit next to no banjo when you try to play a toon
    ‘Cause the noisy little picker will drown you out all too soon.

    And when the fiddles get goin’, may as well leave the room
    Oh when the fiddles get goin’, may as well leave the room
    With their see-sawin motion, it’s hard to recognise the toon.

    Better watch the bodrain player, if he buys another beer
    Better watch the bodrain player, if he buys another beer
    Better watch the bodrain player, if he buys another beer

    The good ol’ button accordion, is really very loud
    Yes the good ol’ button accordion is really very loud
    But don’t play in D or G and you won’t hear a sound

    You don’t borrow no mouth organ, not even from your best friend
    No don’t borrow no mouth organ, no even from your best friend

    ‘Cause you may survive the blowin’
    But the suckin’ gonna get you in the end….

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks Mal and Andrea, very wise words and yes, Mal – I will definitely I sit next to you and we’ll be bad together!! 🙂 Love the song Hans – especially the line “And never stop singin’ halfway, like a scaird little bird” :-).

    Liked by 2 people

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