How to become more confident playing in sessions

How to become more confident playing in sessions

At the start of this term, several people in the class said they would like to become more confident playing in sessions, particularly with starting tunes on their own. We started off by looking at some of the things that can get in the way of playing on your own in a session. Here’s the things we came up with:

  • Not remembering the start of the tune I want to play
  • No one else joins in with the tune
  • Other people speed the tune up when they join in, and it becomes too fast to play
  • Nerves!
  • Lack of confidence – what if I don’t play in time or in tune? What if my tone doesn’t sound good?
  • Not knowing what to play after the first tune
  • Not being able to think of a tune to play – lack of preparation
  • What will other people think of what I play? is the tune too simple? Too slow?…


Ultimately the best way to get confident with starting tunes is to do it, and the best way to feel confident about doing it is to reduce or eliminate as many of the problems as possible. So we took each of the points on this list in turn, and looked at things we could do to make it easier to take the plunge. We also talked briefly about session etiquette – each session will have its own character, and (often unspoken) rules regarding how the session functions. Having some understanding of the session you are joining and how it works, will make it easier to ‘fit in’.

Forgetting how a tune starts

One easy way around this is to carry a small notebook where you write down the first bar or two of tunes you know you might want to play in a session.

No one else joins in when you start a tune

Going to a session with another player, who has plenty of tunes in common with you, is an easy way around this. It’s also ok to ask another player in a session if they know the tune you’re about to play, before you launch into it. Understanding the way the session you are in functions is also useful – is there someone running the session, and if so, is it ok for anyone else in the group to start a tune any time? Breaking the unwritten ‘rules’ of the session may affect other people’s willingness to join in playing tunes with you.

Someone else speeds the tune up once you’ve started it

There are a few things you can do to become confident at dealing with this. Being able to control the speed you are playing at is key. Try learning to tap your foot when you’re playing, and practice using your foot tapping to slow your own tempo down. If you can do this when you’re playing alone, it will give you more confidence that you can control the tempo when a group is playing together. Often all it takes is to tap your foot with a little more confidence if the tempo in the session appears to be becoming unstable. when you play your tune, starting it with a really clear tempo and beat will also help – if your own tempo is unclear, it’s much more likely that another player will impose some other tempo on it that you didn’t intend. Practice staring tunes with real confidence and conviction. Get into the habit of thinking about what tempo you want to play a tune at, before you start playing it. Try humming the tune (out loud, or in your head) to get a tempo, then get your foot tapping at that tempo, then join in with playing at that speed.

In the class we tried out playing long open Ds on a down bow, concentrating on starting the note at exactly the point in time we intended. We started off by placing the bow on the string, waiting a moment, then starting the note. One we were all doing this in time, we turned this into a fluid movement, lifting the bow, placing it and playing the note immediately.


Reducing that nervous feeling before doing something new is all about doing as much preparation for an activity as you can, and then trying the activity out in the least stressful way possible to start with. We talked about steps we could take to make it as easy as possible to start a tune alone in a session for the first time:

  • Pick a tune that you feel really confident playing
  • Pick a tune that doesn’t get played very fast
  • Pick a tune that you know some others in the session will be familiar with
  • Get familiar with the session and how it functions, before you try starting a tune on your own

Lack of confidence

Feeling un-confident is likely to affect how you play – lacking confidence can create a downward spiral – you don’t play at your best, so your confidence goes down, and you play worse because you lack confidence. Starting a tune on your own for the first time in a session can feel really daunting. The scariest part is those first few bars at the start of the tune, when  no one else is playing along. It can feel very exposed. If you’re working on being able to start a tune on your own, this is where to focus your energy – if you can feel confident that you can play those first few bars well, it will make a huge difference. Work on your tone, tuning and timing.

In the class, we spent some time working on creating a full tone. We revisited the exercise in pairs where we felt the weight of our bowing arm, and worked on transferring that weight down the arm and into the bow. The we picked up our fiddles, and tried plucking a single open note, using the weight of the bowing arm to make the plucking action. Then we played long open Ds, focusing on engaging the bow with the string, and letting the instrument really resonate.

Not knowing what to play

Most sessions will have tunes that are commonly played most weeks. So if you’re in a session you’re familiar with, you’ll have an idea of what tunes other players are likely to know. You may also be familiar with some sets of tunes that are regularly played in the same order in that session. If you’re joining a session you’ve never been to before, it can be hard to know what tunes the other players might know. There are some tunes that seem to be pretty much universally known by session players, so it’s worth being aware of these if you are joining a session for the first time. Tunes such as Spootiskerry, The High Road to Linton, The Atholl Highlanders, and Midnight on the Water, are all a pretty safe bet to play in any session if you ant to be sure other folk will join in with you.

What will others think about what you chose to play

It’s very easy to assume that other people will be judgemental. One thing to remember is that every confident player you come across in a session will have been through the nerves of starting their first tune in a session at some point. Most people are really understanding, having been there themselves. If you’re concerned that a tune you want to play might not seem right for that particular session, take your time before starting tunes yourself. get used to the session, and the sort of tunes that are played there. Start with a tune that you have heard someone else play in a previous week.

It’s also helpful to think about what tunes you might want to play in a set together. It’s also fine to play a single tune on it’s own – doing this is anther way to simplify what you’re doing in the early stages of becoming more confident with playing in sessions.

At the end of the evening, several people in the class tried leading a session tune. We played through The Ale is Dear, Islay, The Sleeping Tune, and Shetland Times and Tatties.