Words in the session

In the last post, I suggested a bit more chin-waggery about the pros and cons of bringing song lyrics to the session. People have passionate feelings on both sides of this issue.

Pro Words

Some of the most energised ‘sessions’ I’ve seen are ukulele gaggles (not sure of the collective noun for ukulele-players), in which people are learning to play the instrument by singing and strumming along to classic songs. Typically, the leaders project the words and chords up on a wall. This gives everyone access to both, and as a result we hear lovely strong confident singing and playing. It’s not technically a session, though – more a class or workshop. And what you see is everyone looking in one direction (at the wall), playing the same thing on the same instrument. The dynamic s of a session situation are quite different.

Similarly, the leaders of gospel singing sessions usually distribute a ‘hymn book’, and unaccompanied singing sessions often operate with a booklet (e.g. Paddy Lay Back) so everyone has the words in front of them.

In the kind of session where people are singing and playing instruments, improvising with one another, the song leader will sometimes open a book on the table in front of them (or, increasingly, a mobile phone or tablet). The advantage of this is, obviously, that the song leader has access to the words of the verses (we usually count on session choruses being simple enough for people to pick up and sing along without assistance).

It’s good that the song leader should feel confident, and I know many older people, shy people, inexperienced session leaders, people with health challenges, and people whose memory is easily affected by alcohol, who prefer to have the words in front of them as insurance.

Another situation in which words are useful are times when the previous song or conversation triggers everyone to remember some wonderfully apposite song to sing next – but our collective memory of the lyrics is on the hazy side. Here Uncle Google comes to the rescue – someone calls up the lyrics on a phone, and away we go.

Anti Words

But here’s the thing: as soon as your focus is on the written words, you don’t have as much attention to spare for what’s going on around you. As the song leader, you need to be listening and watching, adjusting your performance to maximise everyone’s enjoyment. Maybe someone wants to take a lead break. Maybe someone is singing along shyly in the choruses, and would benefit enormously from an encouraging smile. Maybe someone down the end of the table has fallen and cut themselves, and requires assistance (I’ve seen this happen). By focussing on a book or device, you’re abrogating some of your responsibility for ‘leading’ the song – being in charge of what happens in the session for these few minutes.

Sure, it’s not usually going to be a matter of life and death. Someone else will rescue the injured person, someone else may smile at the shy singer, and someone else might tap you on the shoulder and nod to the trombone player to suggest throwing them a solo. But when I’m leading a song, if at all possible, I want to be attuned to everything that’s happening round the table. And that means being able to looking up and around, not down.

There’s an acoustic effect of looking down, too – you’ll be singing downwards, and therefore harder to hear.

At a less practical, more energetic level, it creates a kind of energy sump when someone in the session space is looking downwards, switched off or disconnected from the group. This is very noticeable when someone in the circle is reading a book, texting or otherwise disengaged from the session – they seem to create a hole that the session energy falls through, and seeps away.  You might think it’s different if the ‘looking down’ is for the purpose of reading words and leading the song, but in fact the effect can be heightened in this situation, because the song leader is the focus of the group.

So – words or no words?

At the end of the day, if you’re not going to lead a song without the words in front of you, then by all means bring the words! Maybe consider propping your book, phone or tablet upright on the table, so people can still see your face and eyes, and it’s easier for you to glance around and make eye contact.

If you’re singing unaccompanied and don’t need your hands for playing, think about standing or sitting with the words held out at an angle in front of you, giving the other sessioners as much as possible of your face, body and voice.

When I’m doing a new song for the first time, I’ll sometimes have a list of the first lines of the verses on the table in front of me, so nerves won’t stop me from getting the order right.

But I would really encourage all session leaders to memorise the words, and take the risk of getting them wrong. Practice makes perfect, and the more you practise leading songs from memory, the better you’ll get. On the whole, I really believe this makes for better sessions.

But I’m perfectly happy for people to disagree!

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4 thoughts on “Words in the session

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  1. Sessions differ in their implied purpose and hence their unwritten rules. I see them generally as catering for different skill levels – usually tolerance is inversely related to skill!
    The wonderful thing about the Mill sessions (and forebears) is its tolerance of learners and its unique ability to expose learners to accomplished musicians, building their skill and confidence in a supportive climate. Harsh rules would threaten these aspects.
    As for reading the words, undoubtedly it detracts from the performance, but sometimes the overall quality of the song justifies it and this is usually evident to performers from the response they receive.
    In any case is up to the leaders to set an example by not letting failure to remember words detract from the session eg. If you can’t learn the words, repeat a verse or make up the words – this contributes to the evolution of folk music 😉
    It is probably best if sessioners tell each other, frank and friendly, if someone is off key, out of time or otherwise blissfully unaware of some glaring problem. Likewise we should listen when people are performing however tentatively, or move away from the circle. That’s basic good manners.

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  2. Great points, Doug. I’m waving my hand in the air to agree with your point that ‘harsh rules’ would only kill people’s comfort, spontaneity and willingness to participate. I hope people are finding the blog a gentle and stimulating way to consider the mysterious but wonderful ways in which sessions work.

    You make a really good point about telling people, in a frank and friendly way, if they are making life more difficult for others. Josephine gave an example from personal experience, in response to another post, of someone kindly asking her not to drum along with a tunes session – she greatly appreciated this feedback.

    I find it really difficult to draw someone’s attention to the fact that they’re doing something that challenges other people in the session. It’s easier with a ‘non-musical’ thing (like talking loudly at the table and disrupting the session) versus a ‘musical’ thing (playing too loudly, out of time or out of key). We all make these mistakes sometimes – I hope people feel able to give me feedback when it happens!

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  3. It certainly is an interesting topic and gets debated from time to time at the music club I’m involved with.

    I personally memorize just about all the lyrics/chords of everything I play in a session, particularly after being encouraged to do so by another club member. Learning to memorize the songs I play has improved my ability in orders of magnitude. I’m a huge fan of it.

    I also encourage others to do the same. Lyrics sung from a song sheet are more staccato sounding, the flow of the song is inhibited.

    On the other hand, we have some who want to ban song sheets / iPads from sessions and I’m personally quite against such a ban. We get people contributing and learning who only do so because they can use their song sheets, I’d hate to lose those contributions by enforcing a ban.

    Josephine’s example of being told not to beat along with the song was interesting. While I like such informal suggestions being passed on, there have been times when similar suggestions have just been the preference of the person giving the suggestion, not the general group consensus.

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  4. Thanks for this, Tony. You make an interesting point, that anything you’re told about the etiquette of a session might reflect the individual preference, prejudice or perception of the person you’re talking with. That’s one reason I like to encourage open and regular discussion about the ‘unwritten rules’ of a particular session (and sessions in general). I’d suggest that as a rule of thumb, if you’re unsure about something, ask. And maybe ask a few people, or ask in a period of ‘general conversation’, so you’re more likely to get a common view than an idiosyncratic one.

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