It’s easy to assume that there’s one definition for musical skill, but in fact there are different sets of skills for different musical situations, and each needs to be defined separately. Some people shine in one skill and some in another, and some are adept at more than one.
Let’s look at the most general skill sets: session skills and performance skills. Each requires a different focus. (Of course in either genre there are subsets of skills, such as improvisation, sight-reading, ear-playing, memorizing, etc. I’ve written about those in past posts, so I’ll focus here just on the difference between session skills and performance skills.)
As you probably know, sessions are also called jams, depending on the genre. There is a slight difference in the two terms, however, because jamming often implies some degree of improvisation, while in a session it’s OK to just play the tune straight. For both jamming and sessions, you need a large repertoire, or at least a really good ear and improvisational/accompaniment skills, but whether you play the tunes well is of less importance than being able to keep up with the gang.
Playing on the beat, and being able to play either the chords or the melody (or both) to a recognizable degree, are what one must focus on for sessions and jams. Usually no one really knows how accurately you’re playing because there are many instruments playing at the same time, and imperfections are therefore fairly well hidden, as long as you’re not the loudest instrument in the group. (That doesn’t mean you should play softly – if you can’t be heard at all, what’s the point?.)
Ideally it would be great to build a big repertoire and also pay attention to technique, accuracy, nuance and expression. But ultimately, unless an audience has paid to hear you play, music is for the player’s enjoyment, so what you do with your repertoire is your call.
Session playing is good practice for ensemble playing, and can also increase your performance skills, since you’re forced to play at the accepted tempo for each piece, to keep it consistent, and to keep playing when you make a mistake, without pausing or repeating. It can also be excellent for alleviating “stage fright” issues.
Session playing can be a bit frustrating no matter how well you do or don’t play, due to the exclusive nature of some groups. It’s not appropriate to snub anyone at a session or jam, for any reason and no matter their skill level, but some groups do. (I’ve seen session musicians treat someone as though they were a dilettante because they didn’t know all the tunes being played, only to find out later that they had just snubbed someone famous.) Of course if a player doesn’t follow good etiquette, there can be repercussions, but participants should be kind to newcomers and explain the rules to them.
I’ve written before about session etiquette (Blog #1 in the archives), but to reiterate just a few points:
- Before joining in, listen first for a while and observe how the players are deporting themselves. Follow their lead and their format.
- Don’t pull up a chair into the main circle unless asked. Sit on the edge of the group until you get to know them.
- Don’t play solos or expect people to know obscure pieces.
- Don’t talk excessively between tunes. Don’t talk at all during tunes.
- Stick with the genre being played.
- Don’t assume turns are being taken. There might be a tune leader or a pecking order.
A performer needs to play concert repertoire in a clean, accurate and polished way. Some professional performers don’t do jam sessions well because they’ve spent all their time perfecting their concert repertoire instead, which often does not contain many of the commonly heard session pieces. And some jammers don’t do well in performance because they’ve spent their time learning as much repertoire as possible without necessarily having to pay attention to how well they actually play it. Of course there are many professionals who do well in both settings.
Concerts of folk or traditional music usually only require about 90 minutes of material – maybe 15 pieces, or fewer if some are very long. But the focus and the time it takes to keep those pieces concert-ready is significant. The pieces a concert performer may choose are not necessarily ones audiences will recognize, because a few familiar tunes are fun, but not a whole concert of them. So it can be hard to develop a large session repertoire when you’re a full-time career musician. And if you do go for a large repertoire you may never develop the finesse and expression and perfection you need for performance.
In either case, session players and performers have no reason to judge each other for having a difference in focus. It can greatly benefit any musician to be adventurous enough to develop both skill sets if possible. Time can be a limiting factor in either case, since getting really good at one skill set can take a great deal of concentration and persistence. But don’t make the mistake of interpreting the purposeful development of one skill set over another as inadequacy. It’s all good.