Song choice

Introducing our first-ever guest blogger, the lovely Sam Krauser. Sam, who has been sessioning since he was a cute little red-haired boy of 12, is now a cute big red-haired boy of 22 who plays guitar, bouzouki and mandolin. He is a fabulous singer and his session-mates like him quite a lot. Huge round of applause please for … Sam!

So I’m writing this little bit about song choice. I’ve got a whole bunch of opinions on this topic but most of them are very fluid. In my head I’ve got rules and guidelines and set-in-stone laws, none of which really are immovable; and in fact I break most of them semi-frequently.

My goal when it comes to song choice (and I also suggest it should be yours too) is to make everyone feel good. In a session, that means that everyone is in sync, on key and “feelin’ it”. It’s a hard thing to quantify but most people at a session have at least one song that does this. I’m constantly on the lookout for this sort of song to add to my repertoire and it’s quite a task finding a song that ticks all the boxes, but every now and then you find some obscure Mongolian dance tune that leaves everyone at the session smiling (by the way, nobody liked it when I played Mongolian dance tunes at my session. Avoid).

What follows is some little rules that help me decide what songs I’m going to learn and play at a session. You’re probably not going to find one that meets all these criteria straight away and in fact, a song that only has a few will work beautifully (these make up most of the songs I have under my belt) but I’m always searching for my white whale.

  1. Good Chorus

Seems obvious, but it’s a little harder than just having words that repeat. The things I look for are: a memorable but easy to follow melody, few(ish) chords, and lyrics that are easy for your fellow sessioners to understand and pick up. On that last point, I often really really love a song and I think to myself: “Great! It’s got a chorus, it must be a session song!” However, often the chorus is quite complicated in its wording or the lyrics are so quick they can’t be understood until the second or third listen. Either of these situations can leave you singing a chorus that you think is amazing, but no-one else picks up until the last line of the last chorus (if at all).

  1. No Complicated Instrumental Parts

This one applies mostly to guitar/mandolin/bouzouki players and usually only to new ones. Don’t put that awesome little 10 second lick that you learnt from the recording into the song. It’s almost impossible to play along with and remember you’re not there to perform, you’re there because these people are your friends and you want everyone to have a good time.

However like with all these rules there are exceptions. If it’s a well-known song go for it, chances are someone will know it and play along (see The Band’s “The Weight”). If you’ve taught it to the group and people know what to do when that part comes along, then it’s gonna be great. At my session there are a few songs like this but they really only come about after sheer repetition. Lastly, if the little cool thing you’re doing lies within traditional chord shapes and within the rhythm of normal strumming, then you’ll probably be alright because people will just continue with the usual chords until your bit is done.

  1. Not Too Long, Not Too Short

This tip encompasses two different things. The first being; most of the time your song could gain a lot from being shorter. Recordings of songs (especially folk songs) are often quite long and trying to emulate the exact structure of a recording can often lead to verse after verse when people are wishing you’d get to the chorus. Change it up! Remove a verse or two if there’s 234 of them, get rid of the weird bridge with the difficult key change. It’ll help.

Second note on this rule is: don’t stop if everyone is “feelin’ it”. Repeat those choruses and give three different people a lead break. You’ll be able to feel when the energy is winding down and people are pushing the song to a conclusion. Just keep everyone smiling until then!

  1. Well-Known Is Good, Obscure Is Better

Now this is where my little ramble strays into pure opinion. I LOVE playing well-known songs, I bust out Fairytale of New York every Christmas and have a ball. However, all my favourite experiences of songs in sessions have been playing songs that people don’t immediately recognise.

For example a mate of mine, Christian, brought the song Clasped To The Pig down to the session a few months ago, and it was an instant hit with everyone. And I guarantee  nobody had heard it before – as far as I can tell Christian only found it because he heard someone play it live.

Now maybe people love it because of its comical story about sleeping with swine. But I think it’s because the song is simultaneously very easy to sing and play along with, and completely new to everyone. The litmus test for this sort of song is watching your fellow players during the song. If they’re singing along by the second or third chorus, you’re in business.

  1. Read The Room

This is more about choosing what song to play next at a session. I’m guilty of breaking this rule a fair few times to varying degrees of success. Basically, feel what’s going on around you and follow the mood of the room. It’s very easy to kill the rising energy of a session by playing The Band Played Waltzing Matilda when everyone wants to hear Crocodile Rock (by the way, I’m guilty of exactly this). Likewise if everyone is in a more mellow mood and playing gentler songs, keep yours gentle too. Don’t bust out your favourite rock song when everybody is wanting to feel a little more introspective.

This isn’t to say you can’t play what you want, but just make sure to take a look around and get a feel for what everyone is feeling.

  1. Miscellaneous Tips

TRY to keep things in manageable keys for players who don’t play instruments that can be capo’d (e.g. box, fiddle, flute). It’s not always an option but these people make us lowly strummers sound good, so give it a good try.

Signal the approaching end of your song. People will just keep playing otherwise and it’ll be a bit of a muddle at the end there. What I do is slow down slightly and raise the neck of my guitar to signal the end is within the next bar or so, then for the final beat swing the guitar back down. I look like a dork, but it works. {ed. – no he doesn’t, and yes it does}

Tune your guitar before your song. Tune often. Basically tune whenever there’s a break. It makes everyone sound so much tighter.

If it’s an acapella song, signal a repeating chorus by swirling your hand in the air. I know some don’t like this as it does look a bit goofy, but it keeps everyone on track for a great repeated chorus and ending of the song.

Well that’s my bit. As I said, all of this is opinion and I break these rules all the time but it’s a good little benchmark for the type of songs I’ve seen work best at my session. The biggest thing I want to come back to is that all these rules stem from one place: helping everyone have a good time. Playing a song at a session should be about everyone else, not about you. You’re not on stage with lights on you, you’re around a table with your friends. So try and choose songs that let everyone get involved and have a good time.

 

 

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