In sessions throughout the world there are two basic camps of thinking regarding session etiquette. The first group thinks that “session etiquette” is a silly topic, and that those who think it important are delusional. The second group thinks that unless we set out session etiquette in detail, we’ll have cats and dogs sleeping on the bed together and all sorts of other unholy occurrences.
Now the first group also has those extremists who think that the very act of mentioning “session etiquette” — just saying those mere words once — will eradicate the possibility of any worthwhile session within a two-hundred mile radius for the next forty-seven years.
The extremists in the second group merely expand their cautionary tale to include zebras sleeping with horses, and wombats sleeping with any random non-marsupial — so apparently they have some baggage about who gets to sleep with whom.
In my view there are all kinds of people who come to sessions, extremists (like the two mentioned above) and a whole lot of people in between. If you are aware of this, and treat people with respect things will go pretty well most of the time. If you have a sense of humor, then even better. Still, sometimes things go off the rails, and the point of guidelines is to keep the carnage to a minimum.
General Session Etiquette
“Etiquette” is a French word. Roughly, it refers to the practices and forms of behavior prescribed and proscribed by social convention. That is, the dos and don’ts of social interaction within a given group. Here are basic guidelines a novice should consider whenever going to an unfamiliar session — most, but certainly not all, expert players don’t really need this list.
- Treat all musicians with respect. <– that’s a period!
- Quietly tune your instrument and periodically check to be sure that you are in tune with the group. Pipes are non-tunable, like a box, so tune to them. Otherwise, use a tuner or tune to the session leader.
- The musician who starts the tune sets the tempo, and it should not falter until the set is over.
- Don’t play at a speed above your skill level. It’s better to play a tune slowly and well than quickly and badly.
- Don’t start playing a tune while others are tuning (unless they’re just way too slow!).
- When first visiting a session you should wait to be invited to play, particularly if you are not an expert player. When you walk into a session with an instrument case you will be noticed. If it’s an open session, you’ll likely be invited to play a tune or two at some point. However, as a newbie, expect to spend at least half of your time listening. If you come often, and orient yourself to the settings, then you’ll be asked to join more often.
- At any session under ten players, only one percussion instrument (bodhrán, bones, etc.) at a time is reasonable, so take turns. Bones and bodhrán can sometimes work together, but not every time.
- At any session under ten players, only one rhythm instrument (guitar, bouzouki, etc.) at a time is reasonable, so take turns. A bass and rhythm instrument (e.g., mando-bass and guitar) can work together. Accompanists MUST be sensitive. Insensitive accompanists, no matter how big their ego, will be regarded as a pariah, and jokes about them will abound!
- If you’re a beginning piper, make sure that you don’t over-use your drones, especially when there are accompanists. Just play the tune until you know the instrument better.
- If your instrument is much louder than the other instruments at the session, then you should play it so that all the melody instruments at the session can be heard clearly by everyone. (see the first point above)
- The more popular tunes, which every musician knows, are often played early in the session, so if you want to play these tunes, get to the session early. If you arrive later in the session, ask before you start playing one of the popular tunes.
- Don’t “noodle” during a tune. It is really disturbing.
- Play the tune, not the harmony. An occasional foray into harmony won’t get you banned, but a lot of it will result in jokes and insults behind your back.
- Before you start a tune, listen to be sure that another tune has not already started.
- Irish traditional music sessions are acoustic sessions, and so no amplification is used.
- Playing great music is serious business, but it helps to have a good sense of humor.
- 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 a rude person to the session leader.
- Don’t mix types of tunes. Unless you’re well ensconced in the session don’t play a jig with a hornpipe with a reel with a slip jig. A band can do this, but it’s rude in a session since you’re just trying to make people feel silly.
- If it’s an Irish session, discuss tunes of other genres with the other players before launching them. Some sessions (especially those in the US) are Irish-only sessions.
- If a singer starts a song, stay very quiet. Ask before you record, and to be safe, don’t bring a video camera. Also, don’t start up a conversation while the singer sings as that is just plain rude.
In general, sensitivity goes a long way. Sessions differ, as do the players in them. 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, though it’s a humorous look at session etiquette.
Here’s the basic KCITMS session etiquette:
- Respect all musicians and be helpful to each other, though feel free to slag away if you know the player.
- Don’t bring sheet music.
- Don’t play at lightening speed all the time. And don’t play only slow waltzes.
- Everyone is making a contribution to the session, so be generous with your time, help, and encouragement.
- We welcome beginners right now, so sit down and play if you know the tune and start a tune at whatever speed you like and we’ll follow along.
- Feel free to experiment with variations, but be cognizant of what others are doing.
- If you bring an instrument, be it a guitar or bodhrán, then you MUST play it, no matter how many others are doing the same thing. If it gets to be be too much for the melody players, we’ll let you know. We won’t take offense, so you shouldn’t either. All we ask is that you try not to clash with each other concerning chord choices or pulse variation or such, so please pay attention.
So now it’s up to you. What are you waiting for? Come and play!