Last week I posted the first part of this article. The information below will be most useful if you read last week’s blog first.

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Sessions and Circles – Part 2:  Skills, Styles and Etiquette


Some newer musicians wonder how they’ll ever learn the skills they need to be able to join a session, since there are usually no classes or workshops on session skills. In the “old days” in most traditions, young musicians learned music at home from older ones, and listened or joined in weekly or nightly sessions until the music became part of who they were. These days, most people haven’t been lucky enough to have that kind of upbringing.

As an adult learner, it’s great when you can find a slow jam in which the tunes are taught and played many times through. If none are available in your area, get as many recordings as you can find in your chosen style, play them over and over again in the background as you go about your day, every day. By the time you find yourself humming along with them, you’re ready to teach yourself to play along with them.

Teach myself?” … I can hear the exclamations of disbelief already! As certain as you might be that this is a crazy idea, through eons of human history musicians have been able to teach themselves quite a lot, and you’re no exception. I’m not saying no one needs a teacher, but in the absence of one, or when your teacher can’t show you a specific skill you need, teaching it to yourself is a viable alternative. Sure, it might feel like a struggle at first, but don’t give up. Most of us have the ability to learn what we hear, and to play along, if we accept that part of the learning process involves a struggle. It’s actually the struggle that helps us learn better. When you feel you’ve accomplished what you hoped for, other musicians can help you fine-tune it.

Those who regularly attend song circles, sessions, and other group music-playing activities seem to know what the appropriate etiquette is. But if you didn’t grow up participating in sessions, how would you know unless someone tells you?

A session or circle at a music camp or festival is like a conversation at a party. If you saw two or more people engaged in conversation, you wouldn’t join in without knowing if you’re welcome and what they’re talking about. If you knew nothing about the subject of the conversation, or if it was clear that the people in the discussion knew a great deal more on the subject than you did, you’d just listen. But after a time, if the group welcomed your presence and you had something of interest to contribute, you’d probably join in. It’s unfortunate when someone doesn’t observe before joining a circle or session, or makes assumptions about its format; it can feel like a bulldozer just drove in.

Therefore, one can approach with consideration for the other participants:
• If the chairs are in a circle, it usually means the main participants are sitting in that circle.
• If no one outside the circle is playing but you sit there holding your instrument, hopefully someone will notice and ask you to join the circle.
• If they do notice but don’t ask you to join, that probably means it’s a private session.
• If there are available seats in the circle, it’s a good idea to observe on the sidelines first to determine whether you’d be welcome to sit there.
• If the chairs are set in a circle and the only people playing or taking turns are in that circle, then sitting outside of it can signal that you just want to listen.
• If there are people sitting outside the circle but playing along, chances are that’s all they want to do, and not lead any tunes.

I think the most obvious signal for joining or not joining a session is body language. If, say, a few people are playing together and they smile and beckon you over, it’s obvious you’re welcome. If they continue to focus on each other or ignore you totally, chances are they’re in the middle of a purpose-driven practice or for some other reason it’s best for you to just listen. (In a case like that, when they’re done with the tune they’d be polite to explain; i.e. “We’re practicing for tonight’s concert”).

Aside from sessions at music camps and festivals, a session that is its own event and is advertised to the music community at large is obviously meant to be open to all arrivals. In that case there’s no question about whether it’s OK to join in, but general etiquette still applies.
Pro Sessions

Sometimes a group of professionals will get together to enjoy each others’ skills; these might be friends who rarely see each other and for whom such a session is a rare treat, or if they tour a lot they might not often get a chance to jam with others of equal skill. A person can get hungry for the company of other musicians at their own skill level! These folks need that time together just as much as amateurs need the company of their own peers. So if you feel like you’re in high cotton, keep a low profile.

On the other hand, professionals can be bulldozers sometimes. One evening at a banjo retreat, a teacher was leading a jam for the students. He sat in the middle and the students sat dispersed around the room. After a while, a few other teachers came in, pulled up their chairs around the first teacher in a tight circle, and began playing tunes exclusively among themselves, not acknowledging the students and in complete defiance of the fact that they had just usurped an intermediate-level session. What surprised me even more is that the students didn’t get up and walk out en masse; they were so awed by their idols that they assumed it was OK for them to be unspeakably rude! But rudeness is never OK no matter who you are. Eventually the retreat organizer made a policy that all early-evening sessions had to be open to all participants. There are many amateur musicians for whom such a session may be the only chance they get to play music with other people. This is how skills are learned. So if your skill level is more advanced than the majority of those in a particular group, play quietly and simply and blend in. Otherwise, people can easily be so intimidated that they are discouraged from playing at all.

No matter who you are, it’s a good idea to refrain from ever telling a group they’re doing something wrong. I remember one fellow from New York who came to a camp in California and told us that we were all playing the wrong chords to our session tunes; that he knew the right chords because that’s how they do it in New York! It never occurred to him that perhaps we were doing it the right way for California, and he was the one who needed flexibility.

Before joining a circle or session, it’s important to determine what style of music is being played. Bluegrass? Old Time? Celtic? Songwriting? If it’s not a style you know, it may be a good idea to be a listener until you’re familiar with the nuances of the style. Each style has a personality all its own.

Additionally, certain styles of music are usually played on instruments specific to the style. For instance, a bluegrass banjo doesn’t fit into a Celtic session, an Irish flute isn’t right for bluegrass, a bagpipe just won’t work in an Old Time session, and so on. On the other hand, some groups welcome instruments that aren’t commonly used in the style, if the player blends in nicely. But it helps if the players know you first; just showing up with an out-of-the-style instrument to a group you’ve never met can be awkward.
Closing thoughts

If you’ve been observant and careful and still someone isn’t being welcoming, don’t worry about it. Some folks just have issues. Just have fun! Circles and sessions can be positive and amazing experiences, and ought to be stress-free. I enjoy them at least as much as formal performance, maybe more.