Monday, September 1, 2014

Oldtime Jam and Irish Session - lessons in etiquette

While on a recent visit to Los Angeles I had the good fortune to attend both an oldtime jam and an Irish session.  There are some pretty major differences, and some subtle ones, between these two types of music gatherings so it's good to have a decent understanding of this.

The oldtime jam I attended is the once a month 4th Saturday jam at the Audubon Center at Debs Park led by fiddler (and guitarist and banjo player) Joe Wack from West VA.  I got to the jam a little early and was one of the first 3 people there, but I got the impression that I was expected to participate right off the bat.
Oldtime Jam at Debs Park (taken on a different day than when I attended)
One good thing about an oldtime jam is you almost always know where your tonal center is because instruments are tuned to a certain key.  We started in the key of G.  With oldtime even if you think you know the tune already (based on its name or version) it's best to listen for any unique aspects the lead player or group adds to an otherwise familiar tune before just jumping in with your rote version.

However, in oldtime what most people of a certain level of confidence do is start playing by the 2nd or 3rd time through the tune (even on a tune that was previously unfamiliar), adapting your interpretation as you go until you hopefully start to get it before the tune is finished.

At this jam the tunes were played several times through so you had an opportunity to really dig in, and I tried to not let my first impressions of a tune color my ability to adapt on further repetitions.  I felt more comfortable at least trying to play on unfamiliar tunes rather than just listening, unless a tune was really notey and I knew that I had no chance of actually playing anything resembling it!

Another characteristic of this oldtime jam, and most others I have attended, is that tune titles are clearly stated before the tune starts, and if you happen to miss the title you are free to ask about more information such as source, version, et cetera without risk of penalty or being labeled as a poser.  As a guest at this jam I was quickly asked if I had a tune I'd like to play and I came up with a suggestion and later had another opportunity to think of additional tunes.  It was a good time, even if some of the key members of the LA oldtime scene were absent on this day due to an out of town gig.

I approached the Irish session a little differently...trying to get there a little after it had started but due to lighter than expected traffic I walked in with my mandolin case just as they were getting set up.  This was the Tuesday night session at Timmy Nolan's in Toluca Lake hosted by Patrick D'Arcy and Dan Conroy and usually featuring fiddler Kira Ott.
Timmy Nolan's session 08/26/2014 (photo by Laura Fields)
Instead of instantly playing in the session I watched from nearby but was soon invited to take a chair around the table.  Sitting in on an unfamiliar Irish session is more intimidating than an oldtime jam, and this session in particular is very advanced.  It is an 'open' session, but then again not necessarily open to lowest common denominator players who would inadvertently take away from the craic.

I knew I wasn't at their level, but I also know that my mandolin is not as disruptive as some other instruments, which allows me to "noodle" more than what would normally be considered OK to do.  So I figured what the hell as I took a less than prominent seat.

With Irish music nobody expects you to play along if you don't know the tune.  I tend to break that rule somewhat if I can get a handle on the tonal center and/or overall shape of the tune, but I do so quietly and try to pay attention to any body language that indicates that I shouldn't be doing such a thing.  If I played rhythm guitar or bodhran, or a louder melody instrument like accordion or flute, I would not be allowed to take such liberties, but a discreetly played mandolin is drowned out anyway in this environment.  That said, I did a lot of listening and not playing along, which as I said is perfectly OK to do at an Irish session.

Tune titles are almost never given at an Irish session, and since you're not really ever in a certain key Irish sessions have a much looser feel than an oldtime jam (in some ways), requiring the participant to do a lot of reacting on the spot to what he or she is hearing as one tune segues into another.  I find that to be exhilarating.  It's alright to occasionally ask what that tune was, but it's best to bring along a recording device (if given the approval of the session leaders) and simply record the tunes and learn them by ear without worrying about the title of the tune.  You can find that out later in your journey.

Another cool thing at the Timmy Nolan's session, which is quite common at the more advanced Irish sessions, is that sets of tunes were not necessarily pre-determined and the lead melody players (Kira and Patrick) would kind of decide on the spot which tune was to be next in the set and say such things as "D mix" or "G" to the rhythm guitar player.  It doesn't always work - sometimes this impromptu approach fails even in the hands of professional players - but that's OK.  It's part of the fun.

Having a Guinness or two is part of the culture at an Irish pub session, but thankfully I kept my drinking to a minimum at the Timmy Nolan's session so that in hour three near the end of the night when I was finally called on to lead some tunes I had enough faculties intact - coupled with nerves (remember, Guinness gives you strength) - to lead on a couple of slides since the session had been noticeably absent of any jigs or slides.

The last thing I'll mention is that oldtime jams are both "complete" with just fiddle and clawhammer banjo and simultaneously never complete...meaning that each additional instrument, whether it's another fiddle, banjo, guitar, et cetera, is OK to participate even if you're the 20th person sitting in on a circle.  (Except for bass I suppose!)

However, a proper Irish session feels complete when the "right" assortment of instruments are present, although determining what that "right" assortment is open to many variations.  There can certainly be more than one fiddle in the circle, but if you are a rhythm player or a bodhran player, for example, you are kind of shit-out-of-luck if there's a better player there.  It doesn't mean you don't get to play at all, in most cases, but it does mean that you wait your turn and spend a lot of time listening!

I really value these opportunities to take part in unfamiliar sessions and jams.  They are nothing, if not, learning experiences that can make you a stronger, wiser and more confident player in the long run.

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