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Chris Smith: Words & Music

Instruction: Session Dynamics--When NOT to play

(Chris Smith)
2005-10-03
What to do when the democratic ideal collides with the session's reality.

The problem with large-population sessions is that the music usually suffers, if for no other reason than that the good players, who most need to hear one another to take the music to a high level, are not able to. When good players can't hear the other good players, they get frustrated and stop showing up, and the music suffers a second way.

One of the wisest, most courageous, and let's-cut-out-the-bullsh*t actions I've ever seen in a session was one year at East Durham. In a posted session, Jack and Fr Charlie Coen were the designated staff leaders. Lots of folks wanted to play with Jack and Fr Charlie, and so pretty quickly there was an enormous circle of about 50 people. The two sides of the circle were a good 40 feet apart, and there is no way that people on one side could hear those on the other. The music was lousy, and you could see that Jack wasn't happy (after 50 years of keeping the music alive in adverse conditions, why should he subject himself to adverse conditions when he doesn't need to anymore?).

Anyway, the music was bad, because there was this single enormous circle. My sense was that no-one was willing to collapse the session more effectively into several concentric circles (strongest players in the innermost circle, where they can hear the best; weaker players and those with fewer tunes in outer circles, where they can still listen, but where they can give up their seats to others with more tunes). Billy McComiskey (button accordion virtuoso) walked in, assessed the situation, picked up a chair, walked out in the middle of the circle, set his chair down immediately facing Jack and Fr Charlie and with his back to the crowd, and started to play. The big circle immediately collapsed into several concentric circles, and suddenly the music got a *lot better*.

Maybe you need Billy's NY brass to do something like that, and maybe there were some in the circle who felt he was being "exclusive," but the musical improvement was worth it. The priority is the calibre of the music and one's own respect to the tradition, not "how many tunes did I have to sit out?"

The same thing people are describing in previous posts occurred in the Midwestern college town in which I used to live. There was a core of very strong senior players (6 CCE national champions, that kind of thing) and a large cadre of learning players who couldn't really hang with the strong ones. One of two things would occur at the public sessions: either the learning players would be intimidated and wouldn't attempt to play (and thus had little chance of improving) or the learning players would be obtuse and insist on playing, thereby (often) overpopulating the session, gumming up the music, frustrating the senior players, and generally bringing down the calibre of the music making.

My contribution was to start a teaching session, at a different day, time, and location to the pub session, at which I could teach people tunes (by ear, in the traditional manner) and inculcate in them some sensitivity and awareness of when *not* to play. 7 years later and 3 years after I moved away, that Midwestern "slow session" is still going strong, still turning out players with better skills, repertoire, and session understanding, and still (it's reported to me) keeping the pressure off the senior session while providing learners the tools to grow toward that senior session.

I had the chance to put this into practice at a summer workshop where I'm on staff. After a daytime class in which I had described the Billy McC anecdote above, and talked about how that was not arrogant but artistically rigorous, I walked into an impromptu pub session that same evening. There were a lot of people playing in a fashion that made it hard for the senior players in the middle to hear and play well, and the music was thus suffering. I waited at the back of the room. One of my slow session students, who was attending the workshop, looked up, saw me, and gestured for me to take his chair facing the flute player and fiddler who were leading. So I did, sat down (*even though that meant I turned my back to a bunch of other people*), and started playing. My student later volunteered "you taught me that in a session I should do what serves the music best," and I believe that his choice to offer me his chair did that. He also said "hell, I wanted to hear what you guys would do. That was more important to me than whether I got to play as many tunes myself."

Yet in the aftermath, people in the class confronted me and said what I had done was arrogant or inconsiderate--this despite the fact that my student had offered me his seat, and that we had all had a classroom conversation about how serving the music is even more important than comprehensive inclusion or the democratic process.

Another year, also at East Durham: I was in a session about 3 in the morning with Paddy O Brien, when Gearoid O hAllmhurain, Mary Bergin, James Kelly, Don Meade, Kathleen Loughnane and Tony Cuffe (RIP) arrived to take part. They had not publicized that they'd all be gathering at this one particular pub, because they knew darned well that if they'd done so, the place would have been inundated with people who wanted to be able to say the next day "I played in a session with Paddy, Mary, etc..." In sessions, Cuffe played guitar, as at that time I was doing. As soon as he walked in, I said to him, "hey, Tony, I was just packing up the guitar. Please, have this seat." I didn't feel inferior--I just knew damned well that I should think myself lucky even to be there, and that if I made the appropriate contribution--giving up my seat to a more senior player--the music would improve, and I'd be fortunate enough to hear it.

They played until 6:30 in the morning. I was lucky to be there, and even (with permission) to record it. Looking back, and particularly in the wake of Tony's premature death, I'm damned glad that I understood the dynamics of the situation well enough to make the useful contribution of bowing out.

Not everybody needs to play at every session in order to best serve the music.

[By the way, when I moved to Lubbock, TX--a place with pretty much zero Irish trad activity when I got here--I borrowed my Midwestern template, and started both a pub session, and a teaching session at a different day/location/time. Now, 5 years later, we have a pretty strong core of learning players, strong interest from younger musicians, multiple bands, good visibility throughout the community, a partnership with a local Irish dance school with whom we're doing a bunch of performing, and a local scene that folks from other, hipper places in TX like to visit because it's simultaneously friendly and also musically rigorous. Our pub session is full-tilt, hard-core trad music--I, with the other senior players, play the way I want to play (tempi, weird keys, obscure tunes) and thus maintain a high standard, while providing the teaching session as a logical conduit for those beginners who want to grow toward playing in the full-tilt session. Neither substitutes for the other; each helps sustain the other.]