ITM Repertoire: Quantity or Quality?

A good friend of mine has been struggling. He's been working on tunes for the last year or more, practicing daily, and slowly adding to his repertoire. He regularly attends a "slow session," a learning session that plays a finite number of tunes, all at a comfortable pace. Still, despite all his work, he feels like he still knows practically nothing. He shows up, plays his twenty tunes at different times of the night, and the rest of the session, he just sits there. He's frustrated. He's not learning the tunes at the same pace as the others. Is he just taking up a seat? Should he take up the bodhran to fill in the gaps and at least play along to the tunes he can't do on whistle?

I hear the cry arise from legions of experienced ITM musicians: No! Not the bodhran!!!! The world does need dedicated bodhran players who are willing to work hard at perfecting the rhythm and the music, but it doesn't need part-timers. Frankly, it also doesn't need more whistlers, fluters, or fiddlers. It doesn't need much of anything, actually. (It may need a few more uilleann pipers, but if you're having a patience problem, this is NOT the instrument to take up.)

What it does need is honest, good spirited people that are dedicated to making great music, and that have the patience and the will to put the time and the work in on their instrument to make a beautiful sound. That's all.

Easy, right? No. Wrong. Not easy. We're going to need to explore this answer in several parts.

Part I: The Session.

A wonderful social experience to which we can escape to play music with others, release our doldrums, get out of ourselves by participating in a communal experience. The session is not a performance. Session musicians are not playing for an audience. Session musicians are not playing for themselves. Session musicians are playing with each other.

A fascinating animal is our auld session. It is a social environment determined by those who frequent it. Every session has a unique character, and unique goals. There are sessions leaders who, when you join, will hand you a list of the tunes played in that session, with a CD, and you are expected to learn those tunes if you're going to participate. Sometimes you're even warned not to stray from that selection.
Then there are sessions that allow their repertoire to be guided by the
varied repertoires of those that attend. Different every week. Some days the session will be great. Other days you'll arrive and a domineering musician will arrive and only play tunes that you don't know or don't like. Some weeks everyone will drink too much and will sound horrible and start fighting at the end of the night. Some weeks you won't know any of the tunes at all. Much more unpredictable, but... welcome to real life.

When I was writing See You at the Hall, an older musician told me that back in the old days, most musicians only knew maybe ten or twenty tunes. They learned their tunes from the people around them, and played with people they knew and liked. There weren't thousands of new tunes coming at them every day from scores of tune books, thousands of Irish CDs, websites, Celtic radio stations, satellite stations, and television. They weren't obsessed with learning all the tunes. He seemed to be suggesting that at one time, it was more about quality than quantity.

So, yes, maybe a session somewhere has concocted a list of 250 tunes that it will play in regular rotation, and when they see that you want to come regularly, they will provide you with a CD and sheet music. That, to me, sounds like an invitation to join their party, and that's kind. It's a warm, extended hand. One of the best ways to learn tunes is to get them in your head, and if you go to a session that plays the same tunes every week, then you can really get those tunes in your head and you can learn them on your own.

Just be mindful of whether the group is serving the repertoire or the music. Is it just a group of people going through the motions, or are they really making music? Is it group calistenics or is each person making an artistic contribution to a greater whole? It's not this, right?

I've become more of a performer than a session musician, partly because I find that it's possible to get deeper and more connected to music in a performance. I'd rather learn fewer tunes and play them as well as possible than be able to "play along" with hundreds of tunes at a session... but never truly learn any one of them. Still, half playing can be a blast, too. You can't beat a night of tune after tune. You get caught up in the momentum, your mojo's workin', and it just feels great. It's like being in fabulous shape and sprinting your way into the sunshine. But of course, we can't sprint until we're in shape, and getting in shape takes time.

(Did I mention the word "patience" yet?)

Martin Hayes wrote an article titled "Tradition and Aspiration," in the Journal of Music a few years back. He said,

"It is important that what is offered from a performance is something that truly reaches the heart of people, that it moves people in a deep way.

That is performance. Traditional music ‘sessions’ are another thing. I don’t turn up at sessions very often, usually because I’m afraid I won’t like it, and that people will expect me to play all night! I did organise sessions in Chicago when I lived there. I found out that it wasn’t always about making good music.

I would get people together to play at whatever level suited them, and usually I found that the lowest level was the best level to play at. I got people into a kind of communion, and I became very engaged in the concept of community, in the concept of people feeling united in their music. I was very concerned that we didn’t get too caught up in trying to make it the highest musical experience possible. It could get there. Sometimes it would get there for just five minutes a night."

So, to return to the original question, are you just taking up space if you're only playing a few tunes a night, I respond again with an emphatic "NO." You're doing the second most important thing: being there. Now take it up a notch and do the very most important thing: listen actively while you're at it. And strive for those fabulous five minutes that Martin talked about. If you can get to those five minutes, do you really need anything else?

If the session is truly an open learning session, they'll welcome you every week because they'll recognize your patience and dedication. If you start playing the bodhran, it may suggest that you're not so patient and you're looking for the universal session shortcut. If you're already a great bodhran player, then go for it. But contrary to popular belief, being a great bodhran player requires as much work as being a great whistle player.

So what do you do in the meantime, when you're just sitting there? Listen actively.

Stay tuned for Part II: an exploration of active listening.