Session etiquette

Fiddlers playing in an informal pub session in Edinburgh

Session etiquette

If you’ve never played in a session before, and would like to try joining in, it’s useful to have an idea of how a session ‘works’. Most sessions are welcoming, relaxed, and very sociable events. Playing together with other musicians is a really fun thing to do. But how do you get started with going along and joining in? In general musicians are delighted to see a new face joining their session. But not all sessions are the same, and the ‘rules’ of any particular session tend to be unspoken. So how can you find out what’s expected of musicians who want to join in?

Here’s a few thoughts:

  • Firstly, every session is different. The way any session runs can evolve and change over time, depending on the people who are regularly involved.
  • A session may be ‘open’ (anyone can join in) or ‘closed’ (the session is limited to a few named musicians). It’s helpful if you’re not sure, to ask one of the session members if it’s ok for you to join in, before whipping out your instrument and striking up a tune.
  • Sessions may be purely instrumental, made up entirely of singers, or a mix of both. It’s not likely you’ll be welcomed if you hog a singers’ session by playing endless sets of tunes. Some singers sessions welcome instrumentalists who are able to accompany the singing.
  • Sessions may be structured so that each person around a circle takes a turn to lead a set of tunes or a song, or they may appear like a musical free for all. Even in these less structured sessions, there are usually some patterns that emerge, regarding who is playing, and who is leading sets of tunes.
  • Often whoever starts a tune is expected to ‘take charge’ of the entire set. If someone starts a reel that you know well, and you’re itching to play another tune that you know goes well after it, you might be treading on their toes if you do so. Once you’ve been playing in a particular session for a while, you’ll get a sense of this. Often someone might start their favoured  ‘next’ tune very quietly, and if the person who started the set doesn’t play anything else, it’s fine to play it out.
    Fiddlers playing in an informal pub session in Edinburgh
    Photo ©Ros Gasson
  • Some sessions have one or two people who are taking a lead with what is played during the session. Sometimes these musicians are paid to ensure the session doesn’t flag. It’s a good idea to check out (either by watching/listening, or by asking someone else in the session) how a session is being run, before you start any tunes yourself.
  • The musicians in a session are often able to play at a similar standard, so some sessions will focus on playing tunes more slowly, if most of the musicians are finding their way with playing together. Where the majority of the musicians are more competent, the tunes will often be played at a much faster pace.
  • If you’re feeling unsure about starting a tune on your own, often other players are very happy to help out by playing with you. If you’re feeling daunted, aim to play a tune that’s really well known, or ask one of the people near you if they know the tune, before you start playing it.
  • Sessions generally work best when there is a good balance of instruments. It can be helpful for your confidence to go to a session with a friend who’s also taking the first steps to joining in. If you turn up with a class of 20 other guitarists/fiddlers/bodhran players or whatever, it’s likely to be pretty disruptive of an existing session, and may have an effect on the welcome you receive!

There are plenty of different sessions in pubs around Scotland. Find out more about sessions in Edinburgh