Thursday, July 13, 2006

Seisiún: How to Ruin a Session

No, that's not a typo in the title. I'm going to propose a unified theory of session suckage.

Let's consider a list of things people complain about / forbid / write guides to discourage doing at sessions:

  • Use of sheet music
  • "Noodling," and other efforts to play an unfamiliar tune during the session
  • Guitars, recorders, and other "non-traditional" instruments
  • People who start too many tunes
  • People who play over other people when they are trying to start a tune
  • Bodhrán owners (as opposed to bodhrán players)
  • Multiple bodhrán owners
  • etc.

Now none of the above strikes me as intrinsically evil. If you're a good musician, looking at sheet music isn't necessarily going to turn you into a bad one. There are some truly great guitarists, such as Arty McGlynn and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill.1 But what they have in common is that they're devices which seem to facilitate people playing along with tunes which are not the best in their personal repertoire or which maybe they don't know at all. Guitarists with no background in traditional music may show up wanting to "jam." People frustrated at how long it takes to learn to play the music may buy a bodhrán because they think it's "easier." Folks who are good sight readers might try and play along with tunes they've never heard before. Etc.

At both of the sessions I go to, people tend to play along with every tune they know, and sometimes a few that they don't. Granted, one is a learning session, and one started life as a beginning session and is still very beginner-friendly. So that sort of thing isn't completely against the rules. But one of the things I really like about, for example, the CD Music at Matt Molloy's is how frequently there will only be one or two musicians playing. Here you have a group of some the finest musicians in the world spending much of their time with their instruments on the table listening to a couple guys play a tune together.

Since I spend a lot of time listening at sessions, people seem to go out of their way to tell me that I "have as much right to play as anyone else" and ask me if I'd like to start tunes. That's really nice, and I appreciate the fáilte, but I consider time spent actively listening at a session to be productive time.

To be clear, I'm not saying that people who are terrible musicians shouldn't play at all; I'm a beginner myself! I just think that if something like sheet music can allow me to play when I should be listening, it's doing me — and the other folks in the session — no favors.

1 Sadly, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill died this week. I started a Wikipedia article about him as a small contribution to his memory.


Anonymous said...

Personally I'm not terribly put off by session players with limited musical skills. The Western culture has basically lost the whole notion that music can be a participatory exercise for an average person; now we view music as something performed by experts and enjoyed by everyone else. That's led to the (unrealistic) expectation that you shouldn't play music unless you're a professional-quality musician. While I like Music at Matt Molloys as well, I quickly get bored at sessions where solo musicians or small sets of musicians play obscure tunes, no matter how well they play. To my mind, the whole point of the session is casual, unrehearsed group music.

That aside, I do enjoy listening at a session. I just don't like solo "performances".

Of course, I have to admit that I've just recently started to play the bodhran, so that may disqualify me forever from commenting on anything to do with music. In my defense, my band asked me to learn it :-)

-- Scott

Craig said...

I don't really think limited skills are a problem at all. But then I'm biased since my skills are so limited. :) An expert player who tried to start every tune, whether or not anyone else was playing, would be just as much of a problem as a newbie who tried to play every tune off of sheet music. I think everyone needs to listen.