The Pub Session is a Socially Complex Critter

did ANYONE remember their instrument?

Did NONE of us bring an instrument?

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?

pub session

Thou shalt not play the bodhrán, my son.

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 ) 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. ( 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.


2 thoughts on “The Pub Session is a Socially Complex Critter

  1. Well, this is a LOADED post. Not the least because it nearly identifies a couple of people if you’re a regular at the above mentioned session (which I am). But, still, the questions themselves are valid. So here’s my perspective on the situation at this session. The point about session leadership is very important. The tone and goings-on at any particular session are shaped by the leader or leaders, whether they are appointed or paid anchors, or strong personalities who are also strong players. I happen to know from the pub owner himself that he wants sessions in his pub to be “un-lead.” Several years ago there was a pretty strong, alpha fiddle player who ended up being a de-facto leader in this situation, but the personnel and tunes and so forth were fairly stable over time, and he tended to just oversee the fairly automatic going on of the session. After that fiddle player left, some folks began coming regularly who hadn’t been so regular before, and the split you describe began to happen. Particularly when some of these folks explicitly said they wanted to shape the session to their own liking. Many of the people who had been there a long time (10 years or so) were not confrontational and ARE nice people, and hinted and made suggestions that they and other people were not happy with this different sound and approach to the music, But that gentler approach did not change this new style; those folks wanted to play what they wanted to play. At one point, things came to a head, tempers flared, words were spoken, and eventually the pub owner appointed one of the long-timers as “moderator” of the session. Currently that moderator and one of the other long-timers are kind of the gauges of whether things are OK at this session. When I’ve communicated with them recently, they felt things at the session had achieved a kind of equilibrium between these two sort of musical camps you describe. So, in a paradoxical way, this un-lead, moderated session has gotten a current style of being eclectic, not exclusively Irish or even very traditional at times (although sometimes falling right back into playing very traditional tunes in a traditional way with a love for and savoring of the people, stories, and culture that tie into this music). Then again, sometimes the pub is crowded and noisy and the tone shifts to something that while energetic and enthusiastic, would never be called traditional irish. A mixed bag; but I believe that the mixture is what the moderator is OK with and reflects the pub owners desire to have this session be as open and inclusive as possible. And we do have newer, and younger players coming back and sticking around I think mainly because of the welcoming tone. This is a pretty rare session in my experience (which includes going to sessions all over the Northeast, California, Florida, Mother Ireland herself). Most sessions are led, and many led by paid anchors. Some are friendly and inclusive. Some not. Some have wonderful, driving traditional music. Some not. It’s the mixed bag of the public session. Complicated, but still, in my opinion, worth it.

    • Yes I suppose it IS loaded. In the interest of expressing the ideas I’m sort of speaking without complete censorship–hopefully if some of the parties in question ever DO bother to read this blog, they will be adult enough to see that it is but the truth that is described, and my interpretation of it. If they want to challenge that, fine. I’ll discuss it like an adult, I hope!

      Your description of the “resolution,” such as it is, is very interesting and enlightening in terms of how individuals and sub-groups within social groups adapt to and compromise with each other in order to keep the social organism alive. It, frankly, opens my eyes regarding the session in question–I see it now as you do, Ted–perhaps a unique rarity among the plethora of Irish sessions. Not fully traditional and not so eclectic as to discourage the purist completely. That “equilibrium” may be the best thing for a session like this that has non-traditional musicians that have gone unchallenged for so long. Hooray for adult behaviour!

      Every session has its own personality, as you say–some are more welcoming than others. For me, music played with friends in a dining room somewhere in the sticks is ideal–especially since I no longer drink–for others, maybe this particular session would be just the ticket.

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