An acquaintance once invited me to a session in another city. I stepped into the crowded pub with guitar in hand and nervous anticipation on face. My acquaintance wasn’t there, and hadn’t warned anyone else that I was coming. Despite being clearly visible, standing awkwardly in the room’s entrance with an instrument, I was studiously ignored for a while. Eventually one of the back row listeners told me where instrument cases were being stored (on the far side of the packed room, around a corner).
I found the edge of a chair and played along for a while. Near the end of the afternoon someone invited me to lead a song, which seemed to go well, with people joining in choruses. But that was that. After the session I packed my guitar and left, no-one having offered another word of greeting or conversation. I’d been assured it wasn’t a private session and that anyone was welcome. That’s certainly not how I was made to feel.
I don’t think it was me – I hadn’t had a chance to offend them. And in theory, I think this was supposed to be a public session open to everyone. But it seemed these people had been playing together regularly over a long period of time without the disruption of unescorted newcomers. There was no culture of welcoming visiting musicians, and no-one considered it their responsibility.
Since then I’ve tried to be more alert to session newcomers. Some are easy to spot. They arrive with an instrument and hesitate in the doorway, eyes roving hungrily over the group of musicians, faces suffused with a painful mixture of doubt and delight as they wonder ‘Can anyone join?’ These obvious ones are often out-of-towners, only here for one weekend, confident in their musical credentials, reckless enough to brave a roomful of strangers rather than miss the chance to have a play.
Others are much more subtle. They leave the instrument at home this first time, disguise themselves as punters (complete with one or two decoy companions), take a seat in the furthest corner of the room with a pint of ale for extra camouflage, and closely monitor what goes on in the session. They may come back several weeks in a row, edging closer each time, until one of the more observant regulars recognises the face, notes the attention, and strikes up a conversation. Why yes, Bill does play a little guitar – only in the bedroom – and sings in the shower. Oh no, no, he doesn’t play well enough to join the session – you’re all so good! He’ll just sit here and maybe join in a chorus or two. If the right number of sessioners smile and say the right number of encouraging things – not so many that it scares Bill off – he just might come back with an instrument next week. Or maybe this is Jane, whose instrument is her voice – and whose gift of absolute gold was just waiting for an invitation to be given.
Some sessioners are afraid to strike up a conversation with a maybe-muso, in case the conversation ends up being a waste of valuable sessioning time – or the person proves to be a session-f***er who, having once been invited, proceeds to turn up every week and ruin the music for everyone else. Come on folks, how often does that really happen? Most people who initially don’t get the session concept either drop out fairly quickly, or find a way to fit in. Without new blood and diversity, a session can quickly become samey and stale. Take the risk.
I’ve mentioned before that it can be tricky judging the right way to invite a newcomer to lead a song or tune – in this rare case, ‘no’ doesn’t always mean no. Some people need a lot of permission, in the form of coaxing and allowing time, before they’ll muster the courage to lead. For others, the mere invitation is excruciating and they’ll suffer agonies until attention is turned away from them. At least if people come back, others get to know them and what support they need to contribute to the session in their own unique way.
Welcoming newcomers can’t be left to the session captain alone: it’s too big a job, too subtle and too vital to the participatory ethos. Like look-out duty, welcoming strangers – whether visiting musos, would-be sessioners or appreciative punters – is everyone’s responsibility, to ensure a more enjoyable voyage for everyone.
Have you had a particularly good or bad experience dropping in on someone else’s session? What are your etiquette tips on being or welcoming the hopeful stranger?