Sunday, January 28, 2007

Starting to Play in Sessions

Traditional Irish sessions are a social time when players meet, usually in Irish pubs, to play tunes together. This presumes they have many tunes in common. A newcomer to Irish music, particularly one with a classical background, can be pretty intimidated by session playing. At least that was the case with me.

My first two years were spent learning tunes and acquiring enough technical skill to approximate an acceptable tempo and sometimes even add a bit of conventional Irish ornamentation. I rarely played in sessions in 2003-2005. In 2006 I attended sessions maybe once every month or two. Until last Tuesday, I considered session attendance to be an exercise in humility. I listened more than I played. When familiar tunes were selected, I couldn’t play them up to speed. I was terrified of being asked to lead a tune. However, all Irish traditional players seem to think session playing is an essential part of musical life so I just keep dusting off my classical ego and hauling myself back to have another go at it.

This year I’ve decided to go as often as possible to the session at Dempsey’s Pub. It’s close to where I live. The age range of the players varies widely. (I like to see a few heads of gray hair so I won’t be discouraged by trying to keep up with gifted youth). The range of abilities among the players varies as well, which probably helps keep this group's tempos more moderate than some of the other sessions around NYC. The Dempsey’s session employs a “round robin” format; going around the circle, players take turns starting tunes. One advantage of this method is that you’re assured of getting to play at least a few familiar tunes at a comfortable speed. However, if you start a tune that nobody knows, you’re stuck playing a solo. That happens to me a lot, and I find these unintended solos quite unnerving. Once I totally blanked out and forgot the second half of the tune. Another time I started a tune in the wrong key. (Exercise in humility, remember?)

The last time I was at Dempsey's, however, I finally picked a pair of tunes that were more or less familiar to most people. I felt good about that. During the session I noticed how many tunes I actually do know, how often I could join in the playing, and that my fingers were finding familiar patterns and executing them more easily. Hmmmm, could it be I’m getting the hang of this?

At the end of the evening, one fellow played a waltz. Mostly what’s played in sessions are reels, jigs and maybe a few polkas. Hearing that waltz brought immediately to mind a waltz that Mike Rafferty taught me more than a year ago. He called it "The Old Man’s Waltz." I learned it really well – even played it on the whistle as a prelude in church once. Maybe it was the beer, but I decided to play Mike’s waltz for them on the whistle, knowing it would be a solo. For moral support I asked a guitar player to accompany me. Even though his chords were not always what I would have chosen, it worked. I remembered the tune accurately. I put in a few ornaments and even varied them a little on the repeated portions. (Something the more experienced players do as a matter of course.) The phrasing was nice but not overdone, and the upper octave was in tune. I was so pleased. (Allow me to brag just a little. I have suffered through so many embarrassing moments at sessions) Yessiree, I really nailed that waltz! For once I played Irish music like I want to – and not in my bedroom while practicing, not in church in a performance situation, but in an entirely Irish context, in a session. It was a glorious moment!

Besides gaining confidence, I’m seeing other advantages to attending sessions. I’ll get over my emotional block about playing fast. When playing along with the group, I can more easily keep my hands and arms relaxed during the faster tempos. I’ll become less self-conscious if I play in sessions regularly, and then I’ll be able to take more risks. And finally, session playing will help me learn tunes. Particularly if I go to the Dempsey's session regularly, I will learn the unfamiliar tunes of their repertoire as well as get a regular review of the tunes I already know.

I am realizing how different session playing is from classical performances. Competition and critique of others’ playing is much less prevalent; acceptance and sociability is much more prominent. I’ve heard people at Dempsey’s play one set of tunes really well, then fall apart the next time their turn comes around. I’ve heard beginners encouraged and accomplished players congratulated. And people look forward to seeing each other, having a beer, and sharing some music.

So now I’m telling myself to commit to one session each week if at all possible. And riding on my encouragement from Tuesday night, I think I’ll show a lot of improvement by the end of the year if I can do that. I’ll also have made some new friends and had a very good time. So that’s the goal. One session each week if at all possible. We shall see. . .

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement

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