Closed vs Open Sessions

357410-closedThere’s a session I go to monthly that is held in a public place, but in order to play you need to be invited. Seems kinda exclusive, right? Well, it is, really. See, there are two kinds of Irish sessions–“open,” and “closed.” Ok–not entirely true, but read on…

At an open session, anyone can play. That’s not to say that there aren’t rules around playing. There’s an etiquette in place to guide the behavior of the musicians who play at an open session to help insure that everyone gets along, and more importantly, that the music is honored and that the quality of the music remains as high as possible. You’re going to get folks who can play very well at an open session, but you’re also going to get those who play only passably, sometimes poorly. As long as the poor players follow the rules–only playing tunes they know well enough to play without too many horrible mistakes, not noodling* during tunes they don’t know–then they probably will avoid irritating their fellow sessioners, and will be welcome to return. There’s a great potential for unexpected wonderfulness at open sessions, as new players might introduce new tunes to the group that they hadn’t heard before, or new sets, or stories. It can also bring in players with no respect or knowledge of the tradition, much less skill at playing. God forbid a cocky bones or tuba player should show up. But that’s why the etiquette is in place, and hopefully folks are mature enough to enforce it without being insulting–except when absolutely necessary!

A closed session is one at which musicians may play by invitation only. There’s probably a leader, or organizer, who wants to keep the quality of the music from falling below a certain point, so they invite only those who they know who can play well. Those invited to a closed session have usually already demonstrated that they respect the tradition of the music, as well as the rules of conduct, so there’s no worry that there will be any unexpected friction. I suppose there’s some variation in leading style from various organizers, and from session to session, but that’s to be expected.

That said, some sessions are more closed than others. For example, trusted invitees can sometimes invite others who they feel can play well enough to attend–sometimes those players are further vetted by the organizer, sometimes not. Around here, in western Massachusetts, the “closed” sessions I have attended have most often been house sessions. There is one closed session I attend currently, and I think that regardless of my place as one of the least skilled musicians (my own opinion) in the group, the fact that I respect the tradition, the music, and the rules goes a long way toward making me welcome. And that is a result of the very important social aspect of sessions–it’s a place where both music AND friends are made. In fact, it’s a lot like college–you’re all interested in the same subject, and you get together periodically to practice and study. Birds of a feather, and all that.

Regardless whether the session is “open” or “closed,” or something in between, the rules apply. The music is played. Friendships are made.

Do you have experiences with closed or open sessions? Share them in the comments!

Playing At Sessions & Getting Along With Others

Recently, whilst perusing the pages of thesession.org, I ran across a post by a gentleman named Tony Becker. His post was basically a link to this article. which he himself wrote, and in which a few people of note in the Irish traditional music community comment on session etiquette.

field guide sessionBarry Foy, in his book “Feild Guide to the Irish Music Session,” whilst poking fun at session noobs and veterans alike, ruminates on the peculiarities of sessions and exposes some of the underlying social mechanisms that make them tick. Among other things. It’s a great read, very funny–I highly recommend it. In this article he says:

It’s worth asking where anyone gets the notion that he can saunter in on a spell of music making by devoted, diligent players of a particular music and essentially try to remake it in his own image, on the spot. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to answer that question. The fact is, Irish music, like any handed-down music, is full of strictures and borders and prohibitions, and it signals its distinctive identity by treading a finite number of well-worn paths. That scenario won’t appeal to everyone; some may find it inhibiting, a threat to their self-expressive impulse. Luckily, the world is large, and there’s likely some other form of music that would suit those people better. If so, the players of Irish trad welcome them to pursue that other music, and we promise not to impose our own standards on it. In the meantime, we’ll try to make the most of our sometimes limited opportunities to play this music in the way we learned to play it, and have a good time doing it.

I guess if I had to pick one sentence from Field Guide to the Irish Music Session that matters most, it would be this, from page 52: ‘The fact that you are holding a musical instrument in your hands at a session does not automatically entitle you to play it.’

(See also this discussion of the Field Guide from thesession.org.)

Now, the Lower Valley Beginner Irish Session, as you know, is not at this time catering to accompaniment instruments–that includes bodhrán for starters, and also guitar, bouzouki, and mandolin unless they are being used for melody only. These instruments bring alot of controversy with them to sessions–many feel that they are unnecessary for the music, as they are not “traditional” as far as Irish music is concerned. Others enjoy and encourage their tasteful use. But I think one thing everyone can agree on is that any one of these instruments can pull the rug out from under a session if poorly played.

Shay Black 2013In today’s featured article, Shay Black, who leads the Sunday session at the Starry Plough in Berkeley, CA, quotes Jack Gilder, member of the Irish trad band “The Tipsy House” and host of sessions at the Plough and Stars Irish pub in San Francisco. He says, of guitars in particular:

Many people have the misconception that these instruments are the easiest to play. What they fail to realize is that the effect of these instruments on a seisiún is profound. The rhythm and tonal landscape of the music is what everyone is riding on, and if you’re playing an instrument that is the essence of this then you need to be spot on or you’ll throw everyone off. . . Also, two guitars or bodhrans in a seisiun are too many. If you are an experienced player on these instruments try taking turns rather than playing over each other. Do your part to protect the integrity of instruments that are actually fine contributors to the music.

Mr. Black goes on to say that

Experienced musicians eventually vote with their feet and remove themselves to other sessions because they don’t want to play alongside a noodler or a thumping bodhran or guitar.

So add Mr. Foy’s revelation that Irish music is often perceived as “easy to play” to Mr. Guilder’s assertion that guitar and bodhrán in particular are also thought of as easy to play, mix them together and you have a recipe for disaster at your session. These instruments are not usually considered essential to a good session (and they, indeed, are not.) It’s all about the melody, really. This makes it all the more frustrating when a sub-par player of one of these instruments comes to the session banging away without regard to how they sound. The result of the above recipe may well be Mr. Black’s observation that many good players will simply not tolerate the bad playing, and might well leave rather than muddle through if something is not said.  I’m not saying that these instruments can never be good for a session–they can. They can give it more lift and pulse if played tastefully, but in order for this to happen the musician needs to pay attention and drop the assumption that it’s easy.

This all comes off, perhaps, as somewhat random thinking on the subject, and I certainly don’t mean this to sound like I’m picking on accompanists in particular. These rules apply to all musicians. In my mind the core of it all is that I believe that everything we do we should strive to do mindfully. I believe that those who blindly stumble through life manage to poke, jab and generally irritate others along their way. In a session, a bunch of people have come together to create something transcendent, something outside of time and place, if only for a brief moment. (That’s why they meet weekly!) When someone comes in blindly poking and elbowing everyone musically, it’s annoying and can destroy a good experience for many. Fortunately the folks who get it outnumber the folks who don’t!

(PS: All reference to Tony Becker’s artical used by permission of Tony himself, thanks, good sir!)

(PPS: Please be sure to visit www.americeltic.net! AmeriCeltic is a non-profit organization that celebrates and preserves the culture and history of Americans of Celtic descent.)