top tips for running a session...

Top Tips Top:

This page is an edited version of a discussion thread which I initiated on the newsgroup early in 1999. The original question was "What would be your top three tips for running a session?" and the discussion quickly expanded to include singarounds and straight musicians-only sessions, and how to behave at either. Thanks to all who contributed: you know who you are!

1. Tips on Venue:

1.1 Get the venue right : find a good pub, try the beer, get on good terms with the bar staff, and think about how best to use whatever space is available.

1.2 A good pub with good beer is ideal. A sympathetic landlord and some free beer and/or food for the players is better still. Good smoke filters help - not many players, and very few singers, smoke. The organiser can often improve the room by re-arranging the furniture so that people are sitting in a roughly circular layout and can see each other.

2. Tips on Organising a (Musicians') Session:

2.1 If one person is too prominently in charge, this can be a bit off-putting, but if no-one does anything to manage it at all, it can run into problems. Someone needs to see to publicity and reminders ( personal grapevine works much better, in my experience, than advertising). There also has to be someone to start the music off, and fill in if there's a lull, and to invite other people to start a tune if they need encouraging. I try to look out for new people, have a few words with them, and say I hope they'll come again.

2.2 Stay in charge, but with as light a touch as possible. If you get it right, the session will pretty well run itself.

2.3 Tell people about it - beg, cajole, nag, phone them up. Even people whose music you don't much like may bring friends. Keep reminding then every month. Advertise as well, if you can. Make people welcome when they do turn up.

2.4 I run an open session, mostly music, but with the occasional burst of song. Unlike a folk club, there are no guest performers and no taking of turns - people just start a tune whenever they like. I think it should also be understood that at a session you can't start minding if other people join in whatever you play or sing, in a way which might not be acceptable at a club "singaround".

2.5 Other customers:

2.5.1 It keeps the landlord happy if other people (not eligible for free beer) will come just to listen. Encourage friends to drop in . There may be problems with regulars who don't like folk music. It helps if there's another bar they can retreat to. Some may stay and make their own noise - this is not usually a problem with tune sessions but may upset singers. Tough.

2.5.2 In some sessions I go to, either all the musicians or the regular musicians get FREE BEER. The organiser's job is to arrange it with bar staff that the FREE BEER gets delivered on time and usually to load up a tray with the FREE BEER and bring it to the table, since no musician worth supplying with FREE BEER will actually put their instrument down to get it. Are sessions without FREE BEER actually worth going to?

2.6 "Session" means different things to different people. In the usage I'm used to, it's a generic term for a musical get-together; it might be a song-only sing-around, or it might be a players-only do with no singing and everyone playing together.

Other people use it to mean the second of these exclusively. The key thing is not to assume other people's understandings of these terms - include a brief description of the sort of event you're hoping for.

2.7 Choose your room well: the best sessions IMHO are ones in which the musicians can group so that they can all hear what each other are doing - so (obviously) a corner of a room is better than a long line of people. But it goes further than that, as some rooms are acoustically 'warm' and others not so good, meaning that (subjectively) a certain type of room feels more conducive to playing in than others - so, a better session.

2.8 Have a small core of musicians to get the ball rolling - but they should be prepared to sit back and let other players start tune sets. That way a session gets a life of its own, rather than a small group always playing the tunes that small group knows and effectively excluding new tunes and eventually people.

2.9 Find a pub that either doesn't have a juke box or is prepared to turn it off

2.10 Session Type:

2.10.1 From my experience when I see the term *singaround* I expect songs, with possibly the occasional tune; when I see *session* I expect tunes with the occasional song, unless otherwise stated. I realise a session can also be half and half.

2.10.2 To me the singer has the folk club as well as the singaround to exercise their talents; I guess that most folk club floor-spot nights feature solo singers more than solo musicians.

2.10.3 The musician ( I realise singers are also musicians:-)) has to rely very largely on the session scene to play with others and here it really comes down to competence/experience/practice/more practice/etc. etc.

2.11 I have come across singers who have had very little experience of performance and or practice but when they have been called upon to perform or have plucked up confidence to have a go have been VERY GOOD indeed.

For 99.9 per cent of instrument players (let's call them) this is impossible. Hours, days, weeks and years of learning the instrument may be required (let's keep off the bodhran for the moment!) to get to a competent enough level to play along positively in a session.

2.12 Unlike the solo singer, most instrumentalists I know depend upon the support of fellow musicians when starting out on a tune. In fact to carry a tune as a solo in a session is quite rare unless the player in very good/competent or (occasionally) a "show off".

2.13 We've been doing a 'slow session' - that is, a session for musicians who have been playing their instruments for a couple of years and want an entry-level environment in which to flex their muscles for a couple of years... check out the Discovery page on the website. We meet once a month, Sunday lunchtimes at the Miskin Arms in Miskin Village, just a couple of minutes from M4 junc 34.

It started because we had lots of people who were becoming interested in instruments but needed to gain confidence and a little bit of knowledge before they would ever sit in on the edge of a session, which can be a very intimidating environment.

They range from 50+ people right down to nine and ten year olds who had started to learn 'violin' in school but wanted to play fiddle the way they heard it in the folk club. Needless to say, the fruits are starting to show with some of the younger ones now.

We concentrated on a little bit of musical theory, teaching beginners how to listen for the relationship between basic chord changes, so they could use a drone note at the very least.

And we kept the speed right down; it's challenging if you're used to playing at a reasonable lick, I can tell you! We're learning just as much as the learners.

The good news is that we're getting more and more people in all the time, all at different stages of development. Having worked up a basic repertoire of Welsh, European, Irish, American and English tunes, we usually leave it to the group to decide what they'd like to play or learn.

It seems to be working, and the Discovery Band even opened Friday night at Pontardawe Festival last year. The atmosphere is always excellent, because everybody comes away having achieved something.

Every town should have one!

2.14 I have never run a session, but after Easter I'm planning to start a 'slow session' - that is, a session for musicians who have been playing their instruments for a couple of years and want an entry-level environment in which to flex their muscles.

2.15 Strike a balance between the whizz-kid and the improver, between the popular and the obscure, the arrogant and the reserved.

2.16 Encourage consideration over conceit, participation over elitism, controlled measure over blustering haste.

2.17 Aim to have fun.

2.18 One thing about starting a new session though - it takes time ( usually months)to build up a regular following. We started a weekly session in Stourbridge on Sundays and it took about six months to establish.

2.19 Whose session is it anyway? I missed one of "my" sessions when I was on holiday. I asked a couple of the regulars to keep an eye on things and look out for new people. Everyone said it was an excellent session - this is my proof that the session now has a life of its own, and to me, this means it's a success.

2.20 'How to Promote Effectively'.

Appropriate advertising is a continuing problem for us, out in a very rural area of the North Pennines, at the junction of Northumberland, Cumberland and Durham, and is very time-consuming as well. Obviously, we want to put on good shows for the community's enjoyment as well as ourselves, and ensure that we make our expenses vis-a-vis the artistes and other hire costs.

We advertise by various means:

(1) regular weekly ads in the What's On section of our local newspaper, usually indicating the gig for the weekend the paper comes out, as well as next week's and the week following.

(2) regular bi-monthly (moving towards monthly) mailshots to a mailing list now of some 600 names, presenting all upcoming gigs.

(3) Folk RoundAbout is a lovely little magazine up in the north which takes free listings and seems to be well read by folkies all around the area: we try to make the advanced deadline for copy.

(4) Folkwords, FolkWorks' newsletter comes out bi-monthly to a very large mailing list in the region, and does free listings of local clubs' offerings: this newsletter really does bring out an audience.

(5) Posters in about 30 newsagents and community bulletin boards around the local area.

(6) We send our gig list to Henry Ayrton for his Radio 2 slot.

(7) We're not so good on getting a gig list out to PA Listings, which does the TeleText gig guide, but we're going to get better at that.

(8) All our ads carry a www URL, as noted below, and sometimes we do an ANNOUNCE here in this news group.

(9) Word-of-mouth is often good; surprisingly after all this promotion work, you might meet somebody at the newsagent and ask them if they're coming to the gig tonight, and you're met with 'What gig?'

3. Organising a Sing-a-round

3.1 Make sure *everyone* get a chance to perform, not just those that the organiser knows do so. If it's not strictly song, encourage people to do *something* - anything - a tune, a poem, a story, a joke.

3.2 Discourage those with instruments from accompanying someone else's song - at best it can be annoying: at worst, it can be *very* off-putting.

3.3 Unless it's a strict singaround, place unknown quantities or weak performers in between known good or strong ones - then no-one gets bored or put off by a string of poor performances.

3.4 In Folk Clubs the organiser had the power to set singers and musicians upon the audience, who had paid money. In sessions nobody pays or is paid, so it's a bit different!

If people haven't got the nous to realise they shouldn't ruin someone else's performance they should be politely asked to refrain from whatever it is they're doing.

3.5 Don't assume that people who've never sung before won't sing tonight - we all sang for the first time somewhere!

3.6 Strict singarounds are much easier to control because you don't have to remember who's sung, and people know when their turn is coming up.

3.7 In mixed sessions, say in pubs, it's best to let the instrumentalists have a go, and then the singers. Confident singers can jump into the gaps - the only problem comes if you get a non-stop diddler, so if you are controlling such a session bring in the singers in particular.

I agree that even if you are an experienced singer, having an unlooked-for accompaniment is quite off-putting.

4. Behaviour at a (Musicians') Session

4.1 Repertoire (Tunes): I suppose the organiser sets the tone, but it's really up to the rest of the musicians to decide what to play. I think there's a place for occasional show-off solo pieces as well as lowest-common-denominator tunes we can all play.

4.2 Etiquette - if different people have different ideas of what is polite, then no one person will be able to impose their idea of it on the others (that's impolite, surely ?). Whereas if there is a general consensus, there will be less breaches. So if someone does want to be an organiser, maybe there is a job that could be done of getting people talking about this and trying to build a general idea of what's regarded as polite ?

I think generally a consensus is eventually reached by the regulars themselves, by their example, by how they respond to each other, by jokes and sarcasm etc etc. On the whole there are social pressures which all but the most thick-skinned become aware of. One of the most common breaches of 'etiquette' that I've seen at sessions is when 1 person comes along and tries to 'organise' everybody into following their ideas ... Yes, and I don't want to do that. I think a singaround need much more skilful management, but a session should really run itself.

4.3 Most have the sessions I've been to have not had much of an 'organiser'. After all, what do you need ? People turn up with instruments and/or voices, people play and sing, it takes care of itself. Maybe an organisers role is to find a place for it to happen, make sure people know about it and then stand back.

4.4 Etiquette - if different people have different ideas of what is polite, then no one person will be able to impose their idea of it on the others (that's impolite, surely ?). Whereas if there is a general consensus, there will be less breaches. So if someone does want to be an organiser, maybe there is a job that could be done of getting people talking about this and trying to build a general idea of what's regarded as polite ? One of the most common breaches of 'etiquette' that I've seen at sessions is when 1 person comes along and tries to 'organise' everybody into following their ideas ... But it depends whether we are talking about a regular local session, same people week after week, getting to know each others' tunes (which is what I'm talking about above), or a once-off at a festival, say, where it can't be expected that anyone will have any idea of what tunes anyone else might know. In this latter case, it can help to break the ice if there is someone 'in charge' who has a fund of (reasonably well-known) tunes to come up with when everyone else is humming and ha-ing. But again, a vital part of doing the job with sensitivity is to be able to stand back and give people their head when they're playing, instead of trying to 'lead' unnecessarily all the time.

4.5 a session *is* practise. Learning to play an instrument on your own is one thing, learning to play with other people is something else again. People have to learn to listen to what others are doing while also playing themselves (and listening to that). It's difficult, at first; needs practise.

4.6 Nerves cause the "beginner" to play fast. I recognised that fault when I started. In fact I believe in most cases it is harder to "hold back" the tune than it is to play it fast. Only the best can play fast AND maintain a good rhythmic sense

4.7 never, ever lead off a tune so quietly that other people can't follow it, just because you aren't very confident with it. If you can't play it fast, that's fine; just start it SLOWLY and LOUDLY.

4.8 One my pet infuriations is a local player who is in fact very much better than almost everybody else in the session but who most of the time noodles away well-nigh inaudibly. The result of which is that anyone else with any taste will (a) not want to play over the top of him and (b) not be able to follow him either. The session disintegrates into mumbling incoherence until some accordiosaurus feels it's time to bellow out a mating call.

4.9 IMO the collaboration in a song session comes from the chorus singing - plenty of opportunities for spontaneous harmonies etc., but when someone sings unaccompanied, there may be all sorts of changes in the rhythm - their creativity - and, in my experience, instrumentalists in these sessions tend to force a rhythm on them that they may not want. I think it is better manners to just listen to a singer's own interpretation of a song, as I would hope they would do for any other singer, or instrumentalist for that matter. How often, for instance, does one get a chance to just listen to an individual musician's interpretation of a tune? Personally, I quite frequently find myself frustrated in musicians' sessions for that very reason. In sessions which are made up of mainly singers, which I have run, I welcome musicians, and the same listening courtesy is extended by all concerned to them as would be accorded to singers - and I have the comment on more than one occasion, 'Oh, no-one's ever *listened* to my playing before!'

4.10 advice for session instrumentalists, starting out:

4.10.1 Make sure, as far as possible, that your instrument is in tune with everyone else (or at least with, the accordion player)

4.10.2 Never have more than one banjo playing at once

4.10.3 when asked the name of the tune that you have just played always reply "Pigeon on the Gate"

4.10.4 I knew someone who when asked the name of the tune that you have just played always reply "Pigeon on the Gate" - not very helpful to those struggling to learn tunes

5. Behaviour at a Sing-a-round

5.1 Singing:

5.1.1 People need to know what's expected. One local session round here has no singing. Most have the occasional song, usually from someone who's also a musician, maybe accompanied. In my sessions, I do a song or two during the evening, and so do a few others, usually. People that come just to sing don't tend to come regularly; although their songs are welcome, I can see that they get fed-up listening to music if they're not participating, and sometimes they get unnerved if no-one pays much attention to them. I think if it's a bar-room session, singers can't expect a politely attentive audience and have to take it as it comes. I don't like it if someone tries to go over to shoosh the other customers. (spellcheck suggests "shoot" the other customers...)

5.1.2 Repertoire (Songs): It's nice to do a song which allows accompaniment and sing it in an accessible key, and chorus songs and shanties go down well. There is the perennial problem of how to respond to the drunk at the bar who wants you to sing the Wild Rover. Maybe you just have to give in and do it. Especially if he happens to be the barman.

5.2 "Discourage those with instruments from accompanying someone else's song - at best it can be annoying: at worst, it can be *very* off-putting."

So, no collaboration, then? I thought we were talking about a session?

5.3 Interesting point, if the "accompaniment" is chorus singing as has been suggested, when does that become intrusive and unacceptable? Harmony is a very debatable topic.

Intrusive is when someone comes in right from the first chorus, and you know they've never heard the song before because you wrote it and you've never sung it in public before..... Yes, this -is- bitter experience speaking.

5.4 I have learnt when to leave my guitar behind, though. And I've learnt to stay behind with it. That's another story, though.

5.5 Session vs. Sing-A-round:

5.5.1 I 'm a singer and also a "musician" , and chose to set up a session rather than a singaround, partly because it's in a public bar where unaccompanied singing might not always fit in, and partly because it's easier - with the right people there it almost runs itself. It's basically music with the occasional song.

5.5.2 I think the issue of "collaborating" is (as implied above) is to do with the difference between sessions and singarounds. At a session I really don't think you can be too picky about who joins in with you, whether you're playing or singing. Joining in is what it's all about. In any situation, a singer who really doesn't want accompaniment can shake off most musicians by choosing a tricky pitch, but I never mind if other singers join in or (better still) harmonise. A noisy, too-rhythmic instrumental accompaniment is another matter. But there's not much an organiser can do to prevent breaches of etiquette.

5.6 If you don't know the song, don't try and learn it by singing along with the singer. I know of one person who has a habit of trying to work out 'harmony' lines loudly, on-the-fly, to songs she has never heard before. It is, at the very least, 'interesting'

5.7 Collaboration usually means working *together*. Any *instrument* player who feels constrained to accompany *any* singer or singers is often well-meaning but misguided and realises after the first few bars that he/she should shut up. Most times they do so. At a wonderful session in Rugby on New years Eve, I deliberately pitched "January Man" in a key I knew the resident bass player would find difficult. He still worked at it till March, then, thankfully, he shut up. Really the message to players should be to let the singer get on with it, unless you know the song, the arrangement or you're John Kirkpatrick, shut UP!

5.8 By definition, choruses are where the rest of the community comes in, and they're essentially free to do whatever they fancy. It's polite to make sure that the chorus being sung is the version the singer intended, but beyond that the session can enjoy itself. If some people do things on the chorus that others don't like, you're in exactly the same position as with an errant player in an instrumental session.

5.9 Collaboration is fine and welcome - but 'collaboration' implies that all parties have agreed in advance to what is going on. If I'm expecting to do an unaccompanied song, I would find unexpected accompaniment to be very off-putting; if I were singing at a session where it is usual for players to chip in on songs, or if I've suggested in advance that anyone fancying playing is welcome to do so, then there's clearly no problem (whether I find it off-putting or not!).

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page created 11th September 1999