If you’re completely new to traditional music, there are a few aspects of sessions (or “jams”, or “jam sessions”) that might be confusing (or downright bewildering). If you’ve been around the traditional music scene for a while, you have probably observed that every group has its own style and patterns when it comes to sessions. In either case, this short introduction aims to make the SFSF sessions in particular a little less intimidating to the newcomer and less peculiar to the more experienced. It is also meant to serve as a reminder to those who are regulars at the SFSF sessions that a little extra care is necessary to make newcomers feel welcome, and in fact there are some points that we would all do well to keep in mind for everyone’s sake.
In some groups, sessions have a leader and a formal structure, such as a strict round-robin where each person gets a turn to start a tune or perhaps a pair of tunes that the group plays through twice and then moves on. SFSF sessions are nowhere near as formal. Generally there is no leader and little or no structure, and anyone who has a tune in mind will start it whenever there is a gap to jump into. This makes for a very relaxed and friendly session, and we hope a welcoming one. There are, however, pitfalls to be aware of.
One of those problems is a situation where one or two people monopolize the session and start tune after tune without leaving gaps for others. It’s perfectly fine to start a set of several tunes, but one should be aware of how many tune starting opportunities one has taken, and leave some space for the rest of the players to jump in.
At times, someone will have a tune in mind but has trouble remembering how it starts, and will ask if anyone else can start it. Sometimes someone else knows it and can start right off. Other times there follows a collective memory searching that sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails completely. This is all part of the fun, but it can get tiresome if it happens too much, so as a general rule you should know how a tune goes, or at least be able to get it started, if you want to play it.
Fairly commonly, two people on opposite sides of the room will try to start two different tunes at the same time. This is fine, and generally sorts itself out within a minute or so and one tune prevails. If you are on the losing end of one of these collisions, don’t take it personally. When this happens, after the prevailing tune is finished it is polite to go back to the other person and see if they would still like to start the other tune. This problem is particularly acute when a large group is crowded into a small, irregularly shaped space. In this situation there tends to be an inner circle of players facing each other, and many other players several rows back or stuck in far corners. It can be very difficult to start a tune from the back unless those at the center are particularly attentive and make sure to leave opportunities for those on the outskirts to be heard. If you find yourself in this situation, it is often effective to enlist one or two of your neighbors to jump in with you at the next opportunity.
Another point of etiquette concerns the tempo of a tune. The person starting the tune should set a tempo they are comfortable with, and the group should respect that and not speed it up. However, if a beginner starts a tune quite slowly, it is not unreasonable, after the tune has been played a few times at that tempo, to politely ask if they would mind if the group played it again a bit faster. Also bear in mind that a beginner may be nervous and tend to start the tune faster than is actually comfortable for them, and it is not amiss to suggest slowing it down a little if they seem to be struggling.
There is an almost universal urge to play fast, because it is exciting. Remember, though, that speed is a cheap high, and often it will be a more rewarding experience for all if things are slowed down just a bit and the quality of the playing is improved. Energy achieved through expressiveness is of a higher order than the thrill of lightning-fast sloppy playing.
Another point to keep in mind about tempo is that every session has its own ebb and flow, and if there is a groove going, go with it. If the mood seems to be for fast reels, perhaps it would be best to wait a bit before dropping in your favorite mournful air.
As a newcomer to this sort of session, you might be surprised when the group immediately dives into another tune or succession of tunes after the one you started. We often play tunes in sets as they have been arranged in past concerts or gigs. If you’ve been around the trad scene for a while, these sets may not be the same as the groupings you’re used to. There will often also be discussions along the lines of, “Wait, what did we play after (or before) that tune?” Think of this as an opportunity to pick up some of the lore and history of the club.
When playing a set, it is most common to play each tune two or three times before moving on to the next tune. Whether is a known set or a single tune, after a few times through there may creep in a collective uncertainty about whether to stop this time or go around again. A common stop signal is to hold up one foot, though of course this only works for those that can see it. Sometimes the person who started the tune, or anyone else, may manage to say, “One more time!” to keep it going. This works but can become tedious if it happens on every tune, especially if the same person is doing it every time. Often the best way to keep a tune going is to simply keep playing, and others will take the cue. When playing a set, if the number of repetitions of each tune isn’t commonly understood, people will use various facial gestures, nods, or a vocalized “Hup!” to indicate that it’s time to move on to the next tune at the end of this time through.
A distinctly different sort of session is one that is designated as a Slow Session. SFSF monthly meetings almost always incorporate a slow session concurrent with the unstructured open jam. The point of a slow session is to provide an environment where less experienced players can learn and practice tunes, often ones that would normally be played at alarming speeds, in a relaxed and convivial atmosphere. Unlike the anarchy of our open jams, the slow sessions generally have a designated leader who will have some particular ideas on how to structure the session. Printed music is not considered out of place at our slow sessions, whereas it is not likely to appear in the open jam. The danger that printed music brings with it is that the session can devolve into a tuneless trudge through the dots. If you find yourself at a slow session having come from the world of written music, look at it as your first step on a journey of liberation from the tyranny of the page. Use the dots, but don’t let the dots use you.
Doubtless there is much more that could be said about all of this, but by now the basic message should be clear. If you’re a newcomer, don’t be afraid to dive in, and if you’re unsure of the accepted ways, just ask. If you’re an old hand, budge up a bit and make room for another chair in the circle.