Note: Couple of ‘picky posts’ coming up, for those who view sessioning as a collaborative performance artform. If that’s not you, give these posts a miss – they’ll probably only make you cross or dismayed. Please remember nothing on this blog is a ‘rule’ – it’s all guidelines, opinions and received wisdom, to be taken with many grains of salt. You’re always welcome to put forward another perspective in the Comments (not on Facebook, please), or write a guest blog post to present a different point of view.
In a session, whoever starts the song is the leader. So what should everyone else do? When the song leader starts out by accompanying themselves on an instrument, the protocol’s usually straightforward: play along and join in the choruses. But there are subtleties.
I was taught that if a person begins singing a song unaccompanied, you don’t pick up an instrument to accompany them. The voice is a legitimate instrument in itself, and the singer is making a choice to lead an a capella song – voices only. This is particularly obvious if the person has an instrument with them and could clearly accompany themselves if they chose to. Note that the same applies to percussive instruments – most singers can supply their own percussion if they want some. A capella, without percussion, is the norm for many styles of music including sea shanties, work ‘hollers’ and gospel songs.
But like any principle in the art of sessioning, ‘don’t play if the song leader isn’t playing’ is a rule of thumb. There are also a bunch of fingers.
A young man turned up to our regular session a few weeks ago and we asked if he’d like to lead a song. He muttered shyly, ‘I can sing if people can pick along.’ He launched into a song we all know well and usually play on instruments. However, we were keen to hear this new person’s voice, and we quickly realised that, a capella, this song had quite a different feel from the versions we’re used to, with instruments. So we didn’t play. We enjoyed the singer’s voice in the verses, and we joined in singing the choruses. It was so much fun to experience this much-loved song in a new way.
Later, the same guy started another song we all know well. This time, though, there was instant unspoken consensus that the performance would benefit from instrumental backing. The singer’s voice was still beautiful, but with this song he was struggling to find the tune and establish the timing. It’s not a short song, and everyone would have quickly become uncomfortable if the singer was left out on a limb. So one guitarist found the key, everyone else quickly picked up on it, and by the time we reached the first chorus everything was swinging along nicely. We checked in afterwards to make sure the singer was happy, and now we have a precedent: with that singer, in future, we’ll play the accompaniment issue by ear.
Christian, a regular at our session, has a couple of songs he starts a capella before beginning to play an accompaniment on banjo or bouzouki. The rest of us follow his lead. I have a few songs I prefer to sing without having to worry about the chords, so a couple of friends are primed to accompany me on request. No law against a little pre-planning!
I’ve also heard someone start singing, and then a violin or flute begins. You go to shake your head at the instrumentalist, then realise that the voice and the instrument are weaving together in a performance of unspeakable beauty. You smile and settle back to revel in the revelation that there are exceptions to every ‘rule’.
There’s also a role for a percussionist stepping in to help a singer establish the rhythm. Many singers feel nervous about silence, and will rush the phrasing when singing a capella rather than allowing the song to follow its natural rhythm. A percussionist can reassure them that notes not being sung (i.e. rests, if the melody were written down) are still part of the song. This can be very helpful to other people attempting to weave in a harmony or vocal accompaniment. Be sensitive, though – not every a capella song requires percussion.
So sometimes it’s best not to play if the song leader isn’t playing, but sometimes it works. Like every other aspect of sessioning, this is a judgement call that requires listening, observing and co-operating. We probably get these things wrong more often than we get them right, but the more people regularly session together, the more they get into each other’s groove.
Next post we’ll talk about vocal accompaniment. Can’t wait!