Posted by: laurie689 | June 6, 2012

Sessions and Circles: Styles, Formats and Etiquette – Part 1

For eons in every culture, musicians have gathered to play together. In some communities, regular music sessions and circles provide entertainment and growth opportunities for musicians of all ages and skill levels, a tradition that is worth nurturing. What I love about them is that we get to hear music made by everyone and anyone, straight from the heart. They’re a great opportunity to test  new material before performing it, to play things one might never perform for one reason or another, to practice playing in front of people, or just to play or sing along with our favorite tunes. Most of all, they’re a wonderful way to enjoy our fellow musicians.

Since sessions and circles have many different formats and styles, it can be a bit confusing – not just for the less experienced, but for any musician. Here are some clarifying details gleaned from 45+ years as a group/session/circle player (geez, I don’t feel that old). These are my own observations; and since I’m not the Music Police, this information is meant only to inform and assist.


Circle Format:
There is usually no leader. Turns progress around a circle, with each person either choosing and leading a tune or doing a solo. (Occasionally turns are random, but that is a less common format and might be due to someone not being observant.) Observe whether all tunes are participatory or not, before doing any solos.

Session Format:
Usually, a session leader chooses and starts all the tunes. The leader might nod to certain musicians to take “breaks” within tunes. He or she might also ask certain other musicians to choose and start some of the tunes. I’ve been interested to observe in the last several years that a few session groups use printed music rather than following the venerable tradition of ear-playing/memorizing. (In this day of electronic recording gadgets I find that surprising, since making and learning from a recording is so easy to do.) To me, it shifts the focus from hearing and enjoying the whole group to concentrating on the printed page. It also prevents spontaneity in tune-choosing.

Bluegrass Sessions:
Often there’s a group leader, or maybe two or three, who choose and start the tunes. They set the tempo, and they decide when the tunes will end. If there are lyrics, the leaders often sing the verses but everyone can join on the choruses. Sometimes turns are taken for instrumental “breaks” (interludes), and sometimes for vocal verses. Instrumentals have set keys, which prevents wasting time deciding what key to play them in. Vocals, however, are keyed according to the singers’ voices.

Old Time Sessions:
Same as bluegrass format but often a little more relaxed, and the tunes may run into each other without stopping, creating long medleys. Participants have to listen carefully to hear when a new tune is starting. Sometimes the leader nods when a new tune begins. Instrumentals have set keys, which prevents wasting time deciding what key to play them in. Vocals, however, are keyed according to the singers’ voices.

Folk Singing Circles:
Usually songs are participatory, done in turns around a circle. Some circles welcome solos and some frown on them. There is usually no leader. The person who starts the tune determines the tempo, key, and rhythm.

Songwriting Circles:
Sharing solo compositions, usually in turns.

Irish/Scottish/Celtic Sessions:
• A session may include both Irish and Scottish and/or other Celtic style tunes, and some are strictly adherent to one culture only. Usually there is a leader, who is often a fiddler. The leader chooses and starts all the tunes and determines the tempos. He or she may occasionally ask someone to start a tune or even do a solo.
• Celtic tunes have set keys, but those can vary from region to region or even group to group. Vocals are keyed to the singer’s voice.
• If you’re in Ireland it’s polite, when first asked to play something, to say, “Next time around”, and not to seem too eager. But if you’re in the U.S., you may have to be more outspoken.
• In Ireland and Scotland, tempos tend to be more humane than in the U.S, where for some reason everything is played as fast as possible. (A good rule of thumb, really, is never to play dance tunes faster than dancers can dance, even if there aren’t any dancers present.)
• Each tune is played twice (though a few groups will play a tune three times) and will usually segue into another tune without stopping; therefore two or more tunes with the same or close tempos and compatible keys are done as medleys that can be quite lengthy.
• In Scottish sessions, a medley might begin with one kind of tune and segue to another kind, such as air/strathspey/jig/reel.
• If a player is not yet skilled enough to keep up, it’s their responsibility to sit out the tunes they can’t play, rather than expecting the group to cater to them. This is a good reason to bring a recording device and then learn/practice the tunes at home between sessions.
• In sessions of mixed instruments, if a harpist joins your session please don’t assume that you then have to play all slow tunes or all O’Carolan tunes. In the hands of skilled players, harps are just as versatile as any other instrument, and sound as well on jigs, reels, hornpipes and such as they do on slow tunes.

Harp Circles:
• Each one is different. Some are strictly group play-alongs, often using sheet music, either with or without a leader. Some are “show us your newest material or favorite tune” where turns are taken doing solos. Some are a mixture of both.
• Some harp groups learn ensemble tunes for fun or for informal performances.
• Some are geared toward a specific skill level, some are mixed.
• Occasionally at harp conferences and retreats, several professionals will start a high-powered session; usually others are welcome to play along, but the core group should be respected, allowing them to choose the tunes and take the solo breaks.


In some sessions or circles, turns are taken not just from tune to tune, but also within each tune. The person who starts the tune gives the cues, such as tempo, and at certain points will nod to one player or another to take a “break” (an instrumental interlude). During these breaks, the others play more quietly so the featured person can be heard. When it’s your turn, accept the challenge if you are confident. If you don’t know the piece or don’t know your instrument well enough to do a pretty good job, you can politely shake your head “no”, with a smile, and let the next person do it. If, however, it is a beginner session or it is clear that those who aren’t totally sure of themselves are welcome to try taking a break, go ahead and do it. After all, how else will you learn?

At a recent music camp I attended, there were several different sessions happening concurrently in different rooms, with a variety of styles and formats which morphed from hour to hour. One circle was comprised of professionals who were reveling in each others’ sublime instrumentals and harmonies. Another circle was centered around a very good swing singer/guitarist whom everyone seemed to be enjoying playing along with, but they were content that he did all the singing. Another was a group of newly-learning musicians playing songs for each other. And in another there were two cowboy music singers trading songs between them, with some other folks picking along as accompaniment. Late at night there was a circle in which participants of every skill level took turns.

Specific groups might not always use the same format each time they sit down together. You may have to observe before joining every new session if you don’t know the group well.

In all cases where the tunes are participatory, the idea is for each person to blend in, not to stand out (except when given a solo interlude within a tune). The joy of making music in a group is to be part of something that sounds good as a whole, and this requires restraint on the part of each musician so that no one instrument is too loud or omnipresent.

Ending the Tunes:
How do you know when a tune is going to end? It may seem astounding when an entire group of people, who may never have played together before, ends at precisely the same moment. That’s because sometime during the last chorus or part, the leader has stuck his or her leg out for a moment. That’s the sign that the tune will stop at the end of the current chorus or part. (Why the leg? Because the hands are busy, and verbal cues might not be heard.) If it’s a song with a set number of verses and choruses, the song will usually end after the last chorus and no signal is necessary.


Next week: Session and Circle Styles (Bluegrass, Old Time, Celtic, Songwriting, etc.) and Etiquette


  1. This is fascinating! What a wonderful post. As an observer, the etiquette of sessions is difficult to decipher – thanks for demystifying it!

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