There are two general camps of thinking regarding session etiquette. Many claim (usually those who have grown up in the tradition or around the tradition) that there’s no such thing as session etiquette and it’s silly (not the word normally used) to say that there is. And there are those who think that this is so much bull puckies (also not the word normally used), and who say that session etiquette sometimes borders upon the arcane.
General Session Etiquette
Etiquette is simply a French word meaning “the practices and forms prescribed by social convention or authority.” Using this definition, there are definitely some conventions followed by most sessions, although the SCTLS does not follow all of them, as befits a learning session (more about this below). Some of these might include:
- It is considered polite when first visiting a session to wait to be invited to play, if you are not an expert player (most expert players don’t need this list). If you walk into a session with an instrument in a case, the musicians will notice, even if you don’t think they do. Strike up a conversation with one of the musicians between tunes. (If you’re a beginner in a new area, asking after teachers is a good way to start.) Nine times out of ten, you’ll be invited to play a tune or two.
- If you are not a habitué of a session, expect to spend at least half of your time listening at first. The tunes may not be the same ones regular to your home session. Pay attention to what’s going on around you. This session might play tunes in a different key or wildly different setting from what you’re used to.
- Keep your instrument in tune. If there is a piper or a non-tunable instrument (a box, for instance), usually you’re expected to tune to that instrument. Otherwise, use a tuner or tune to the session leader — and tune quietly, especially when others are playing. Check your tune every now and again, especially if you tuned to a piper.
- Be aware of who the session leader(s) is/are, and defer to that person (especially where it comes to tempo and choices of tunes). Even when there’s not a designated session leader, someone is usually filling that role. Far better to be first seen as humble or quiet than first seen as rude to the session leader.
- If you are an accompanist, be sensitive. If there is more than one guitar or other accompanying instrument, play quietly so as not to drown out the melody instruments, or clash with another’s choices of chords. If it’s noisy, you might even sit it out until it’s your turn. There should never be more than one bodhran player playing at one time in a regular session of average size (under 10 players). If you’re a beginning piper, make sure that you don’t over-use your drones, especially when there are accompanists.
- Never “twiddle” during a tune unless this appears to be something everyone likes, nay, even expects. Irish traditional music rarely incorporates lovely harmonies and lush orchestration. An occasional foray into this won’t get you banned, but a lot of it will get you jokes and insults behind your back.
- Don’t mix types of tunes (a hornpipe with a reel with a slip jig). This is fine in a performance, but usually not at a session. Also, if it’s an Irish session, discuss tunes of other countries with the other players before launching them. Some sessions (especially those in the US) are Irish-only sessions.
- Miscellany: If a singer starts a song, stay very quiet. Ask before you record, and to be safe, don’t bring a video camera.
In general, sensitivity goes a long way. Every session is different depending on the players in it, so you must be aware of what’s going on around you and adjust accordingly. In middling to desperate cases, asking a friendly musician about whatever is puzzling you might be your best avenue. We highly recommend Barry Foy’s book, A Field Guide to the Irish Music Session for a look at Irish session etiquette that’s so complete some people think it’s total bosh.
The SCTLS, however, follows a slightly different etiquette in the following ways:
- Since we actively welcome beginners (most sessions do not provide for beginners), it is not necessary to wait for an invitation to play. If you bring an instrument, in fact, we will insist that you play at least one tune that you know at a good speed for you to play it (don’t worry if that speed is really slow — that’s better than too fast for you).
- We especially ask that all musicians be respectful and helpful to each other (this doesn’t count “slagging”) regardless of playing ability. Everyone is making a contribution to the session, for which we’re happy. Be generous with your help and encouragement. We believe that every musician can learn something from another musician, period.
- About the only things we actively discourage are speed snobs and sheet music. We are concentrating on good style and feel, and learning of tunes by ear, and our speeds range from a quarter speed, to half speed, to almost full speed, depending on who is playing that day. As fun as playing quickly is, that’s not what this session is about. It’s a good opportunity to discover new things about a tune that you already know while others are learning it, experiment with variations, etc.
- This is an opportunity for you to develop and hone your skills and techniques. Usually in a session, if you don’t know a tune, you should play quietly. At the SCTLS, however, we want you to play out so we know when you have the tune (and when you don’t!).
- We don’t care how many (fill in the blank) players there are (we once had seven bodhrans, which was a lot even for us) . . . play away! We’re a session that’s all about everyone playing and learning together. However, be aware that this is not usual session etiquette. All we ask is that you try not to clash with each other with chord choices or pulse or such, so please pay attention.
So…what are you waiting for? Come and play!