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The Scottish Slow Session

Session Etiquette

THE TRADITIONAL MUSIC SESSION can seem hostile and unfriendly to anyone, let alone beginners. Some sessions are elite and are not very interested in welcoming outsiders. Sessions like that are enough to put you off ever trying again.

The trouble with session etiquette is that there are possibly as many opinions about this delicate subject as there are participants in sessions, and nobody can give you hard and fast rules about it. I have attempted to give advice about some aspects of the session, and hopefully you can use these comments as guidelines. In general, the watchwords are courtesy, consideration, sensitivity and patience.

In talking about sessions, I have divided the playing standard into three main types:

  • Advanced: The session appears to consist of lots of tunes played very fast, many of them you might not have heard before. There is usually an inner circle of more experienced musicians who like to play with others of the same skill level.
  • Intermediate: These sessions can be made up of less experienced musicians, or people who prefer tunes played at a more reasonable tempo. The repertoire is smaller and contains more popular tunes.
  • Beginners: Participants have been playing a year or two and are just building up their skills and repertoire. It may be acceptable to use books or sheet music. It's usually led by one more experienced player who calls the tunes and sets the pace.

Of course, in reality, the standard of a session may fall anywhere between these definitions.


Advice for Session-Goers

  • If you're new to a session, have patience. First be prepared to listen and watch what's happening. Assess whether you're ready for this particular session. Whatever you do, don't barge in and sit in the inner circle, don't start lots of tunes, and don't show off. It's best on the whole to let the session regulars start the tunes, at least until you become one of them.

  • Smaller sessions (4-8 players) are more daunting to join, so it's best to ask someone if it's OK. For larger sessions (10-16 players) it's usually OK just to join in. Beginners sessions are generally more welcoming and may invite you to join, especially if you're holding an instrument. However, the same rules apply: don't show off, don't start off too many tunes without invitation, and don't take over.

  • If you're there only to listen, be considerate and let those that want to play sit next to each other.

  • Don't play a tune unless you can play it through without making mistakes. If you have started a tune which nobody else knows, go into a more popular tune quickly, so that others will then join in.

  • If you start a tune, you will usually be expected to choose the next one too, so prepare for this in advance. It's not unreasonable to tell people what tunes you're going to play before you start.

  • In beginners sessions, there will probably be fixed sets of tunes which everyone knows. Sometimes there will be copies of the tunes in music notation so that if you don't know the tune you can still join in. The leader will usually call the tunes, but probably will be open to suggestions.

  • In Irish sessions, the convention is usually to play a tune three times. This gives anyone trying to learn the tune or more chance to pick it up. In Scotland, however, the custom is to play tunes twice through. You will have to listen to each session and work out what their usual convention is. In beginners sessions, the tune can be played three times or more. Four-part tunes would be played fewer times.

  • Never Speed Up Or Slow Down! In theory, the musician who started the tune sets the tempo, and it should never vary or falter until the set is over. In practice, however, tunes are all to easily speeded up. Try to respect whatever tempo the tune starter sets; it's always better to play a tune slower and well than faster and badly.

  • Tune considerately; wait for a break, or go to a quiter part of the room to tune. Don't play if others are trying to tune - wait till they've finished.

  • Part of a session is often the social aspect, and chatting with others between tunes is great, but talk considerately. Don't walk up to sessioneers and strike up a conversation if they're in the middle of a tune.

  • Recording sessions is common, but it is always polite when you ask first. Be discrete. In beginners sessions, it is expected that people will record many of the tunes.

  • Wait until there's a break in the playing before asking for tune names.

  • Don't touch other people's instruments while they're not around, and never without permission.

  • "Every session is different, and when you're new, it all seems inpenetrable. You'll learn the unspoken rules in time.
Last update: 3rd January 2015

Nigel Gatherer, Crieff, Perthshire | nigelgatherer@mac.com