I’ve been thinking lately about a local pub session that I try to catch about once or twice a month. It’s in a nice pub, with a nice atmosphere–perfect for getting together for a quick drink or a bit of food with friends. This session has been going on weekly for some time now, so there has been plenty of opportunity for the group dynamic to solidify and change a few times. As it stands now, there is a line that can be drawn, almost literally, between two main groups of musicians who seem to have very different motives and goals as related to Irish music.
One group–who I’ll call “The Traditionalists,” are very interested in the music for its own sake. They generally go for “the pure drop,” that is, the music played in a traditional style without so much flash. In other words–they just want to play, and make the music sound authentic, the way it might sound in Ireland herself. They listen to the music very carefully, they are interested in improving their playing, and they are interested in encouraging and teaching anyone who feels the same. They take inspiration from other, older players who are well known for their virtuosity in the music. They know how to listen. These folks have been very welcoming to me, and I consider myself pretty much solidly in this group.
The other group I’ll call “The Performers” this group seems not to be interested as much in the music itself as are the Traditionalists. When I started attending this session some months ago, I sensed right away that there was something different about some of these folks. It’s hard to put one’s finger on it, but when one fiddler decides to play tunes outside the genre, and string five, even six such tunes together in a set, one realizes that they are not like the Traditionalists. They are performing. Their style of playing screams “WATCH ME!!! I’M PLAYING!!!” When one sees how a particular bodhrán “player” (ahem) really just isn’t any good at all, and furthermore uses other objects to inject “rhythm” (ahem) into the tunes, such as glasses, beer bottles, and using the tacks on the side of the bodhrán like a jug band washboard, one realizes that they are less than interested in the music. There are other examples, but I will not go into more detail.
On any given evening, the number of Traditionalists about equals the number of Performers. The Trads form one half of the circle, the Performers form the other. One Trad pointed out to me, only half-jokingly, that you could build a wall between the two and everyone would be happier. The tension between individual session members can be palpable at times, though mostly everyone coexists in an attitude of tolerance that the Dalai Lama himself would be proud of. That all-out war doesn’t erupt, especially given some of the stories I have heard, is nothing short of a miracle.
The questions that pop into my head are numerous–how did this dysfunctionality happen? What can be done about it? What are the “Performers” doing there to begin with? Why don’t the “Traditionalists” leave and start their own session elsewhere? Is this common at pub sessions? Why don’t they openly talk about what they all want the session to be, like adults?
It is true that a pub session is not just like a social event–it IS a social event. It’s not quite concert, not quite a private party, but a subtle mix of the two. It is a conference, of sorts, where supposedly like-minded individuals can meet to share and exchange ideas, tunes, technique, and gossip. And it just happens to have an audience of pub patrons. It is, in my mind, a bit like church.
I used to go to church, when I was a buachail óg. Now I do not go near churches. But I get a bit of what I think I must have been looking for there at the sessions I attend–a sense of belonging, a feeling of transcendence–I get that now from playing music with others, particularly Irish traditional music. This is what I believe the other members of The Traditionalist group go to the session for–not to elevate themselves–but to elevate the music. The Performer group is missing that, I think.
So, the question “How does this happen?” probably has many answers. I don’t want to get in too deep here, so let’s just accept that It Happens.
What can be done about it? Well if the session is at this slightly dysfunctional stage, that means the adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” has already been ignored to some degree. It may be that nothing can be done. That is certainly true if some members of the session are not willing to do the doing. It means talking to musicians for the purpose of getting them to change the way they play. Musicians tend to take this as a very personal sort of criticism, and so get pretty bent out of shape when it’s attempted. This, in part explains “how this happens”–people tend to avoid this sort of confrontation, so they just don’t do it when it’s appropriate. Thus, time rolls on, and the member who needed talking to get the sense that they’re doing just fine. By then it’s nearly impossible to approach them. I recently read an article by a gentleman named Chris Smith (see http://www.tradlessons.com/michaeleskin/sessiondynamics.html ) in which he advises using a non-confrontational approach that places the emphasis on the fact that Irish trad is not easy to play, so the “bad” player is not really to blame, but merely needs to be taught.
So a first step can be to convey to them, verbally or by demonstration, “this ain’t simple.” A gentle way can be to say, “Hey, why don’t you lay out on this one, while I play it (for melody players)/back it up (for accompanists), and you can hear what some of the possibilities are.”
This works best if taken as a “nip it in the bud” approach, because once the bad musicians are entrenched you may have to resort to something else.
One “something else” is for the members of the session, or the pub owner, to choose a leader. A leader can keep the session on track, and be the one who accepts the responsibility of intervening when members are mucking things up. Again, from Chris Smith:
For a pub session to have any longevity, the odds are very good that it needs a leader or leaders, paid or unpaid. To do publicity. To attract strong players who will be willing to come and play for free. To make sure there’s somebody to hold it together and be a traffic cop when there are few players or few strong ones. One way to treat the leader(s) fairly is to pay ’em a little money.
Leaders are people too, though, and can have dysfunctions of their own. But for an Irish session to be an IRISH session, it needs some limits and parameters. That is why I laid out guidelines for the Lower Valley Beginner Irish session right from the start. (https://lvirishslowsession.wordpress.com/about/) To let things get as bad as the above mentioned session is something you want to avoid. A good leader who really knows what the music IS and ISN’T can keep the session where it belongs.
Another route might be for the Traditionalist group to go off and start their own session. Leave the current session to the Performers and set something else up somewhere else, same time, same night. Don’t tell the Performers where or when, of course. Maybe they’ll stay put, anyway. The hard part here, I suppose, is finding another venue. Arranging house sessions isa great way to avoid the whole mess–they ARE private parties, more or less, and so you get to control who can come and who doesn’t. You lose the spontaneity of potentially meeting new and interesting people who wander in to play, but you also don’t have to worry if those people are going to need to be given “the talk.”
Sessions are complicated things, chock full of individual motives, emotions, goals. Rife with individual ideosyncracies and pet peves. Swarming with a variety of talent, or lack thereof. It’s a little like high school, only the average age is higher.
I welcome your thoughts on the matter–please leave comments and tell me what you think.
For more reading, also see this great blog post written by Lia Zito, who is a fiddle teacher located in Seattle, Washington.