To accompany or not to accompany? Pt I

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!

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10 thoughts on “To accompany or not to accompany? Pt I

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  1. Beautifully put Andrea – I also struggle with 10 guitars and one voice – primarily, for me personally, this has dictated my usual choice of singing un-accompanied at our main Brisbane session, as back in the day when I was playing guitar as well, I sometimes struggled with the instruments all joining in, which I found drowned out the voice – just wondering how to get around that one without it becoming a ‘performance’ which it is not aimed to be. Certainly with an a capella song, the aim is always to find ones that have a chorus so the song can be shared.

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  2. Thanks! A few people have mentioned the ’10 guitars and one voice’ issue. Are you interested in writing a guest post about it? If not, I’ll have a go – there are probably other instances of ‘less is more’ that would bear mentioning…

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  3. One problem with starting a song unaccompanied, is that if you are not blessed with perfect pitch, your key might be a bit weird at first. As you say, things can work themselves out by the end of the first verse…

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  4. If singing unaccompanied the key of NKTM is quite acceptable of course. However there are advantages to singing a song in a consistant key and of course it’s a necessity if the singer wants instruments to join in. To this end they can always ask somebody for a starting note or chord, just as a cappella choirs do. They may not know what this is the first time they sing a particular song but afterwards they can ask what it turned out to be and make a note (ahem) of it for future use, with adjustments up or down if needed. In keeping with this blog post “can you give me a D” should not be taken as an invitation to keep playing for the entire song.

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  5. It’s always helpful if the leader (or a session veteran) has a view about what works and what doesn’t, for a specific song, that they let the relevant persons know. If it’s positive, public comment is fine (this happens a lot), and if not, privately. As public performers, we should be able to handle a bit of constructive advice! 😉

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  6. I am really enjoying your blog. I have printed a bit of it out to share at our Friday at The Shed Nanango. I would love to be able to find a list of some folk songs that I can introduce some to our group. Can you suggest some. We have probably established our own protocol which is a round the group in turn rather than just taking your turn as you can. Despite Glen Donald trying to influence us we also have books and sometimes a long table. 😄

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  7. So glad you’re enjoying the blog, Jane. ‘Round the table’ is a perfectly good way to run a session or folk club. Songbooks are fine too. I will look into your question about folk songs.

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  8. Jane, John Stafford has put together a book of real English folk songs (like real ale) for Neurum Creek Festival. It was forwarded around on the Folk Brisbane email list, and is a great starting point. Send your email address on the ‘Contact’ page and I can send it to you. Another thing to do is use You Tube – if you watch one folk song video, you’ll get lists of suggested similar material down the right hand side of the screen. I don’t know how your internet connection is – Mum and Dad live up your way and are still on dial-up, and the service isn’t very good. But if that’s the case, it’s something you could do when visiting Brisbane.

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