Kids in the session

Today’s kids are tomorrow’s musicians. If we want to leave a legacy of sessioning, we need to welcome kids into session culture. Pearl, pictured deep in concentration in a session, aged 2, is now 9 and a splendid fiddler: she says she enjoys making music because ‘it’s so much fun’. And so say all of us.

For parents, though, it can be a tricky balance to ensure the session experience is positive for everyone – themselves, their child, other sessioners, and everyone else in the environment. We’ve all experienced parents who smile fondly while their children stagger through the circle, bump into tables and spill people’s drinks, grab at instruments with sticky fingers, squabble and shriek through sensitive ballads, and generally create chaos. I’ve seen a couple allow their child to wander onstage and completely disrupt a musician’s performance, with no attempt to intervene – they seemed to think it was ‘cute’. The gamely-struggling musician and the frustrated audience did not share this opinion. Eventually the preschooler was tactfully retrieved and distracted by an older child, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief – except the parents, onto their third cider and completely oblivious.

It’s not the kids’ fault. And the perspective of the parents is also understandable – it’s important to let the child be their own person, growing up within the accepting and nurturing village of the folk scene. But how do you make sure they don’t earn an early, undeserved reputation as a session-f***er?

Mostly it’s common sense. You need to be there, guiding your child, helping them explore the sounds that instruments make (with the owners’ permission, and without disrupting the music or the energy). Most kids love playing percussion, but need help to get the beat –  preferably on shaky egg rather than tambourine or lagerphone. Letting a child strum your guitar is preferable to letting them run around unsupervised with a tin whistle. Some children will, with a little encouragement, lead a song – one about a little star is a perennial favourite. Teach them the etiquette that everyone else abides by – one song, two at the most, and then it’s someone else’s turn. And don’t push or pressure them – let the child show you how much participation they’re comfortable with, and follow their lead.

Kids have short attention spans, and you can’t expect them to stay focused on the session for long – or the book/ colouring activity/ ipad you’ve provided in desperate hopes of occupying them long enough for you to get a few songs in. This is where it’s helpful to bring along another adult, and take turns sessioning and child-minding. If you can’t manage that, accept the offer when another folkie volunteers to hold the baby, dance with the toddler or converse with the older child for a while – but be careful not to exploit this goodwill and wear out the child’s welcome with the kind volunteer.

Much depends on the age and temperament of the child. One of mine was a ‘pass the parcel baby’, happy to be handed round until she fell asleep in her bassinet. The other didn’t believe in sleep – haunted by Fear of Missing Out – but would lie awake wide-eyed, taking in the music. As they grew older, they learnt to join in choruses, play independently when bored, and put themselves to bed on cushions under the table. In later childhood and early teens they weren’t interested in sessioning, so I’d negotiate with their dad or others to look after them so I could play music. At folk festivals they’d wander off with a tribe of other youngsters and sing ‘modern’ songs round a campfire while their parents and grandparents sessioned away in the main tent. Now they’re teenagers, they’re drifting back towards the table, ukelele or mandolin in hand. It’s been delightful, but not always easy, especially when they were small. I’m forever grateful to those folkie aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandads, who enabled me to play music and raise children at the same time.

Feel free to share your experiences as a parent, as a child growing up in session culture, or as a musician interacting with kids in the session environment. What have I missed?

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