What does it mean if everyone goes to the bar?

You start a song, and suddenly find yourself surrounded by empty chairs. Was it something you sang, or are you just being paranoid?

First off, let’s accept that everyone legitimately needs to leave the session sometimes. They have to get a drink or order food, go to the loo, make or take a phone call. At a festival there might be an act they want to see or a friend they’ve promised to catch up with. Or they’ve decided to play fiddle after all, and popped back to the car or tent to get it.

That said, whenever possible people will choose their moment to step away from the session. Usually it’s during a song they feel they can’t contribute to, or when they feel their contribution isn’t necessary. If everyone’s roaring away on voices and instruments, belting out I Wish I Was Back Home in Derry, the conscientious sessioner will feel it’s okay to slip off and attend to business. Similarly, if the song’s one they don’t know and don’t feel any attachment to, if they can’t sing or play along in that key, if they can’t pick up the words of the chorus and there are no lead breaks, they may feel ‘the song leader’s got this’ and wander off. There’s no need to take this negatively or personally; the rhythm of the session has opened up a space for that person to go and do what they need to do.

Personally I will sometimes leave the session because of song choice. That’s my issue, not yours, and I don’t expect you to adapt your repertoire to my values: leaving the session is a way of putting on shoes. However, if a lot of people leave every time you sing a particular song, you might want to reflect on what the song is saying to them even if you don’t see it the same way. I don’t like songs that seem to glorify or celebrate something I don’t believe should be celebrated: high school massacres, violence against women, whaling, racism/xenophobia, the rush of taking part in armed conflict. So I do tend to walk away from Pumped Up Kicks, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Ballina Whalers, Ghosts of Cable Street and a handful of other songs that push my buttons. Other people will have their own pet peeves.

I’ll always absent myself if someone has the execrable taste to sing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in a pub. Do please give that one some consideration: you may be a lovely singer, but if a song is so delicate and heart-deep that twenty voices of uneven calibre are bound to mangle it to the point of parody, please show enough respect for the song, the songwriter and yourself to leave it out of your session repertoire.

If you have a very soft voice and/or play softly, people may drift off because they either haven’t noticed you’ve started and think the session’s in a lull, or they can’t hear you and therefore lose interest. If they can’t hear they can’t join in, and although most people will listen politely to a new singer or an unfamiliar song, inaudibility will tempt them to sacrifice politeness for the chance of a fresh drink. If you’re going to session, you do need to do it at a reasonable volume (standing up may help).

Another common reason for a mass exodus is harder to explain. A good session has an energy, a flow. Choosing the right song at the right moment is a matter of instinct, feel and experience, not hard and fast rules, and every one of us stuffs it up sometimes. By the time the horrifying realisation hits you that this was totally the wrong moment for a slow traditional ballad – or a comic music hall number, or an up-tempo pop song ­– it’s too late.  You’ve started now, and with any luck the session energy will regroup, overcome its initial hiccup and get into your groove – but that may happen on the far side of an empty-chairs moment. It’s not the end of the world. Do the song justice and hang in there: the chairs will fill up again and you’ll have another chance later on.

If it happens more than once in a session, or on a regular basis, it might be worth checking with someone that you’re not breaking the ‘rules’ of this particular session. My local session is pretty relaxed but won’t tolerate one person dominating: doing two songs in a row is permissible by invitation only, and it’s considered bad form to lead every second song, unless there’s a severe shortage of song leaders present. If you’re back in the spotlight too often, people might feel justified in leaving you to it and taking a break.

I’ve also experienced a moment, singing away in an erstwhile singing session, when an accomplished tune player’s arrived and kicked off a tune session in another part of the bar. Instantly every tunie around me has flocked to their new leader like a jostling pack of disciples, leaving me and my song alone with a couple of other tune-illiterates and a guy who’s just picked up the riff on the banjo and is damned if he’ll abandon it now.

So in summary, the most common reasons for SSE (Sudden Session Evaporation) are:

  • unexpected competition
  • song leading not sufficiently assertive
  • song leading too assertive
  • song choice not quite on the money
  • mysterious workings of the universe

I’ve never known a session to desert a singer out of dislike or displeasure with the quality of their performance. So when it happens to you (and it will, trust me) relax, check in with someone, and session on. You’re doing fine.

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