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Chris Smith: Words & Music

Essay: Entering the music and its contexts

(Chris Smith)
Originates from a young player’s question about demographics and gender breakdowns in American sessions.

I can't speak for the "average session" but at the ones I regularly attend locally, and less frequently across the USA, I've found the ratio to be about 50%-50% male versus female. In my own local, the core band is 1/4 quarter female, while the balance amongst participants is also about 50%-50%; ages range approx 16-50.

Further to your implicit question: the fact of the matter is that much of the social atmosphere of this music (in the 21st century) occurs in environments in which men, women, and drink (and often tobacco, and sometimes cannabis or latex) intersect. This need not mean "anything bad" is likely to ensue--but if you're a person under 21 (in the States), and/or female, and/or unused to these situations, it can be a little alien. One needs to learn smart skills for coping with these environments.

We had a similar situation with our local over the past several years as a number of young people have begun participating. In the case of one person in particular, who was 16 when she became involved, she and her parents worked out the ground-rules in advance, and took things in stages.

They began by accompanying her to the Saturday teaching sessions and waiting while the session went on. Then, after a month or so, her parents would drop her off at beginning and pick her up at end of the session.

Then they began accompanying her to the pub session (which was not easy for them, as it involved a bar environment that's not really part of their social milieu). But they were very careful not to be invasive or over-protective: for example, her parents would *always* find a table at the other end of the room, well away from the session table, so as not to intrude or limit her participation..

After about 4 months of teaching session/pub session attendance, I mentioned to her parents, in her presence, that there was a summer trad-music workshop coming up in an adjacent state and that I thought it would be a "very good learning situation" for this young person. I and our flute player (who was brought up in a very conservative religious denomination and is sensitive to parents' concerns) encouraged her parents to think about whether they could make this work, and told them that we would be very willing to be this person's "safety net" in the absence of the parents.

In the event, this young person attended the workshop, had a great experience, impressed the bejeepers out of the fiddle faculty, and coped very well with the kinds of behaviors that go on at some American camps--massive beer-drinking, all-night sessions, black bears in the late-night woods, "old guys" who were incapable of distinguishing between 17- and 18-year-old females (a very significant legal distinction), incendiary red and green burrito sauces, various people smoking various substances, and so on.

Along about Thursday of the week, she and I had a nice breakfast conversation during which we talked about how, in order to really gain what can be gained from the music, people sometimes have to put themselves into environments, or put up with behaviors, of which they might separately disapprove. And we both agreed that it was worth the extra effort to find adequate coping mechanisms, for the sake of learning the music.

She's going off to college this fall [NB: 2004], still playing fiddle, with an ear like a bear-trap and a good-sized repertoire, and will probably do an overseas college semester in Ireland some time in the next couple of years.

[Update, added 2005]:

In the event, after beginning college in an innovative degree program that let her major in traditional music, she did a week-long summer workshop in County Roscommon in July 2004. She had a very positive experience, impressed her teachers with her ears, and learned a great of practical and behavioral skills for coping with, traveling within, and studying the music in Ireland. She will probably return in Spring 2006 as one of my student assistants with an overseas roaming seminar in Irish music and folklore.

I don't think she would have been able to develop so impressively had she avoided any and all "dubious" situations. Both she and her parents (GREAT parents) deserve a lot of credit.

Let me reiterate that I'm speaking only of one person, coming into the music in one particular situation, from one particular social background, in one particular (fairly conservative but musically very supportive) region of the USA.

The music emerges from specific contexts. Learning to cope with those concepts and to accept the presence, if not the necessity, of a range of behaviors is a good thing.