Hosting a fun Multi-level Session

Most fiddling is very sociable — playing with others in a session, at a ceilidh, for dancers, providing support for a community function such as a wedding or funeral.  Even in the extreme situation such as an intense fiddle competition, you’re judged primarily on whether your spirit and sense of the tradition is convincing, and the audience is with you, not agin’ ya.

One of the best ways to get comfortable with fiddling as a participatory and sociable activity is through sessions.  Let’s talk here about hosting a good session, and next time about how a player can fit in to any session.

The ideal session is a repeat event with a fairly consistent group of players that get to know each other and their repertoire.  But every session, even such an “ideal” group, has to deal with players with different levels and experiences.

Here are some ideas for hosting a successful and fun multi-level session.

1. Have food and drink available.  It’s a social occasion above all else.  People of all levels can be shy in their own ways — beginners feeling inadequate; more advanced players wondering if there will be something in it for them.  When there’s food and drink, there’s always something in it for everyone!  It also gives people a good excuse to sit back now and then to listen and chat instead of feeling they have to always be in the thick of things.

2. Allow, but minimize, verbalizing about the music.  Some people hide behind talking about tunes and rules, instead of actually immersing themselves in playing, trying, and listening.  It can be nice to chat about the name of a tune, etc., but if the music doesn’t get going and keep going, the energy and fun will fade.  The sound of one person trying to start a tune, however timidly, should trump any number of people merely talking about it.  Play the tune that timid person was starting, then come back to playing the tune the talkers were debating about.

3. Make sure nobody goes too long without playing something.  If you know what tunes people know, and you see someone not playing over the course of four or five sets of tunes, start a tune that you know that person knows, at a pace you know they can handle.  If you do, they’ll appreciate it and stick around.  Otherwise they may pack up, go home, and not feel comfortable coming back.

4.  The best way to keep people engaged, however, is to have everyone start a tune of their choice, tempo, and form.  This requires a routine, a tradition people learn to respect, and it has to be modeled by the session leader.  Invite and encourage anybody and everybody to start a tune, and demonstrate respect for each person’s tune choice, tempo, their form (AABB vs ABAB; how many times through; whether to move into another tune).   Keep a good eye on that person, not just when they start the tune, but throughout the tune.  If the tempo gets away from the player who chose the tune, it’s simply not fair to them, and they will rightly feel put off.

Ensuring that everyone starts a tune is probably the best way to make a multi-level session work for everyone, so let’s talk about some of the ways to make it happen.

First of all, there is always resistance to starting tunes.  It’s easy for a player to make excuses.  But there really are no excuses!  An advanced player may “blank out” or fear that the tune that comes to mind isn’t what people know or want to play.  It doesn’t matter.  They should feel comfortable starting it anyway, whether it’s too hard or too simple, or has been played already that night.  They don’t have to be fancy or creative, and it’s fine if the same player starts the same tune at every session.  That may be the one tune they know best or can fall back on, and it can become their signature tune.  It’s fun when everybody knows that Jim is going to start Spootiskerry every time!

If the advanced player worries that nobody will know their tune, they should start it anyway.  Somebody may well know it, and others may start to pick it up.  If nobody knows it, and nobody starts picking it out, it’s best to encourage them to play it through to the end — people are there to enjoy music, so let everybody hear this new tune.  However, it’s best if the player doesn’t keep playing the tune nobody knows, or goes on to other tunes nobody knows — this changes a session to a performance.  It is actually nice to have an occasional performance of a tune or song in a session —  it’s good for people to sit back and listen sometimes; after all, it is all about music and not about how many notes you play.  But if it goes on too long, you’ve lost your session.

A more beginning player may make the excuse that they can’t play fast enough, or may even claim they don’t know any tunes.  These excuses don’t hold water either!  If they are present at a session with their fiddle out, they know at least one tune, and should feel free to start it.  They really only have to play the first 4 or 5 notes before others join in.  It’s not a performance, it’s a suggestion, and everybody is looking for musical suggestions so they can play a tune, any tune. A beginner can help just as well as the next person.

Is someone worried about not playing fast enough?  Not an issue.  It’s the job of the session leader to make everyone comfortable starting at a tempo they are comfortable with.  Advanced players should feel fine starting a difficult tune fast, beginners should be able to start a tune slowly, and everyone should respect these choices.  If the tune’s too fast, just listen, learn, and enjoy.  If it’s too slow, support it, join in, maybe experiment with ornamentation or variation.  In either case, people should know they’ll get their turn, and they can always fall back on having a bite or a sip of something, to distract and relax for a moment.

One way to make sure everybody starts a tune is to have a round robin where each person starts a tune in the order in which they are sitting.  The session leader needs to have good energy and insist in a good-natured way that each person start a tune.  They might even remind the next person to think of a tune while the previous tune is still going.

Another way to include everyone is to allow the starting of tunes to happen organically but, as leader, take note of who has started tunes more than once, and who hasn’t started any.   Personally invite someone who hasn’t started a tune to get the next one going, regardless of the tune or tempo, and if as session leader you can possibly join in soon to support them, that is a big help. Encourage others to give the person a chance and not jump in over them, or if that should happen, come right back to that person.  Above all, don’t start the tune for them!  Just get them to play the first few notes, and you can pick it up from there.

Certainly as session leader, but also as a regular participant in this kind of session, keep an eye on the person who started the tune.  Stick with their tempo, and if they play AB instead of AABB, follow them.  If they start to be inconsistent with form or timing or tempo, do keep it consistent for everyone’s sake.  You can almost always tell when someone’s coming to the end of playing their tune (I am opposed to rules about how many times you have to play tunes — let the tune leader decide), and it’s fine but not necessary for people to make a show with an outstretched foot or a verbal “hup!”.  If you watch the tune leader, you can tell when they’re ready to stop or go on to a new tune, and the more you try to notice this, the better you get at it.  Let them move on to a second tune and support it.

There can be some problem people to deal with.  The main thing a session leader has to do is think of the good of the group above all.  If the group starts speeding up, or skips a B part, let it happen but try to get things back on track.  If you lead a Scandinavian session and somebody starts a Polish tune, enjoy it, and then remind people of the goals of the session.  It’s nice to hear a variety but also nice to provide a place to play a particular type of music, and that’s probably what people came for.

Sometimes a session leader may have to play bad cop, but only for the sake of the group.  You don’t want to come down on an individual publicly; nobody likes to see that happen, so it’s counterproductive.  But you may have to talk to someone privately if they are insensitive to the others, and they might not feel good about it, or about you, but you don’t want to lose the whole group for the sake of the one person.  This can happen with someone who plays an instrument that has a big impact on everyone, such as drum or piano or pipes.  They really can’t be permitted to throw everyone else off for too long.  Although fiddles generally blend together, and one player won’t really affect a group, there are times when one player may be insensitive by trying to dominate, being anxious or impatient about other players, or trying to lead tunes inconsistently, with odd timings, skipped beats, etc., and you really have to take them aside.  Maybe ask them to get you a coffee from a shop across town (joking!)…

If you set a good example, have sociable food and drink, keep people involved, and keep the music going, you’ll get a ball rolling that nobody will want to stop.  Enjoy!

©2017 Ed Pearlman


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