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Harmonizing At Sessions


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#1 stevejay

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Posted 15 March 2008 - 11:19 PM

I've once heard you shouldn't really harmonize with tunes you don't really know because it's not session decorum..true to your knowledge? I can harmonize well, that's not the problem, I think some traditional players feel it's against some scripture they have hidden in an attic.. what do you think?

#2 Paul Read

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Posted 15 March 2008 - 11:52 PM

I've once heard you shouldn't really harmonize with tunes you don't really know because it's not session decorum..true to your knowledge? I can harmonize well, that's not the problem, I think some traditional players feel it's against some scripture they have hidden in an attic.. what do you think?

I think it is generally encouraged in English sessions and discouraged in Irish sessions. It'll be interesting to see what others think.

#3 Phantom Button

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 12:12 AM

If you were asking if it's cool to harmonize with Irish music, I'd say yes and refer to recordings I like where this is arranged nicely and done quite well. But you're asking about sessions -- completely different. If you showed up and started playing harmonies on tunes you didn't know, most people would think you were noodling -- something that annoys a lot of session players. To do it here and there on tunes you already know is ok, but only on tunes you know and can play without doing harmonies as well.

Irish folk music is traditionally played in unison at sessions and any harmonies will be incidental and usually unintended as a result of variations within the tune or the mingling of different versions. If there's accompaniment it will create a harmonic landscape, but that's usually as far as session players are willing to go as far as harmonies are concerned.

I've been in sessions where "harmonizers" will demonstrate their skill, (sometimes they’re quite delusional,) and the result typically muddies up and confuses the tune rather than enhancing it. As with anything, there are exceptions, but you'd have to be pretty damned exceptional before most sessioneers would tolerate it. The people I've seen who attempt this are rarely, if ever, encouraged.

#4 Chris Timson

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 02:38 AM

I think it is generally encouraged in English sessions and discouraged in Irish sessions.

Can't speak for Irish sessions, but widely done in English, to the great enrichment of the overall sound. I love it.

Chris

#5 Phantom Button

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 03:06 AM

The Brits love pasta evidentially. Posted Image

#6 Alan Day

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 04:00 AM

Well I agree with Chris, anybody is welcome to play along at sessions,it is a bit of fun and players should be welcomed providing they do not go out of their way to be annoying. For example speeding up,overpowering the tune so that their harmonizing is not louder than the actual tune. I cannot understand however people playing along with a tune they have never heard before,joining in and trying to harmonize with a tune that they do not even know what is happening next. A musician I noticed played along with everything,even new tunes and I made a point of going over to listen to what she was actually doing and her playing bore no resemblance to the tune at all.
I tolerate pasta as well.
Al

#7 Mark Evans

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 07:58 AM

Well, Irish tradition does dictate heterophony. It is the goal I keep before me. Sometimes I ask for the session to play a set with a new tune Ièm working on. For me always it seems the A or B part will be better under my fingers during the early stages. When I reach the sticky spot, I drop out and listen, or struggle on a bit longer with the instrument close to my good ear. If it is a no go, I join our backers...maybe. It is a dicey thing with a concertina. It may not seem loud to you, but the cat at the other end of the bar most likely hears you above the rest.

In my case a warning to ones chums that you are on shakey ground keeps suprised looks down to a minimum. :unsure:

#8 Chris Timson

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 08:20 AM

The Brits love pasta evidentially. Posted Image

Yep!

Chris

#9 hjcjones

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 09:05 AM

Part of the skill of playing in sessions is to listen to what's being played, and to pick up on ideas which seem to work, and quietly drop those which don't. The best sessions are those where the musicians have the talent to develop the basic tune, and sufficient awareness and lack of ego to do it sensitively. If you have this skill, then playing a harmony can be a valid way of contributing to a tune you don't know.

Unfortunately, some people seem to have cloth ears and are quite incapable of hearing that what they are doing doesn't bear any relationship to what the rest of the session is playing. I find those who appear incapable of picking out the right key, or distinguishing between major and minor, particularly annoying!

Personally, I'm fairly good at picking up tunes and can usually play along with new ones without much difficulty, although I may have to quietly fudge any difficult phrases! In fact, there are a lot of tunes which I can only play in sessions, but can't remember if I try to play them on my own.

English music sessions tend to be fairly easy-going, and taking liberties with the melody, rhythm and harmony is positively encouraged, provided the result sounds good. Some Irish sessions are the same, but most in my experience are less receptive to this.

It's all to do with the culture and expectations of that particular session. Picking up on these is another session skill, because they are usually unspoken, but it's nevertheless essential to understand them if you're going to participate. If you're joining in a session for the first time you need to hold back at first, until you understand how the session operates, what styles of music and approach are likely to be accepted, which individuals dominate, and so on. Then you can start to assert yourself without getting up the regulars' noses.

#10 JimLucas

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 12:15 PM

I've once heard you shouldn't really harmonize with tunes you don't really know because it's not session decorum..true to your knowledge? I can harmonize well, that's not the problem, I think some traditional players feel it's against some scripture they have hidden in an attic.. what do you think?

Such persons certainly do exist, though I think it's more often latecomers to the "tradition" who feel they have an obligation to decree to others what is and isn't "right".

I think it is generally encouraged in English sessions and discouraged in Irish sessions. It'll be interesting to see what others think.

With respect to Irish sessions, I think the question is oversimplified. Of course, it depends to some extent on the session and the others participating in the session, but in general I find that whether and how much harmony is considered acceptable or reasonable depends on the type of tune, and sometimes even on the particular tune:
  • I find that harmony is common on Planxties and other airs that might double as song tunes or waltzes.
  • A nice harmony against one of the slower slow airs can be breathtaking, and I've yet to hear anyone object to such harmonizing per se. But here clumsy harmonizing, or too much (too many people trying it at the same time) can be deadly, and so will be the looks it evokes.
  • When it comes to faster dance music, simple harmonies on polkas aren't the rule, but they're generally accepted and even welcomed if they're done well.
  • Harmonizing seems to work well (and be generally enjoyed) on some jigs and hornpipes, but not all of them, and often not throughout the entire tune.
  • Harmonies on reels seem to be rarer, and less "acceptable", though I suspect this may be due partly to a high failure rate on the pleasantness of attempts to ad lib harmonies when the notes are changing rapidly.
I would like to point out, though, that chords are a kind of harmony -- multi-voice harmony, in fact. Why is it that some people cannot accept a single instrument playing a single harmony line, yet they find equally intolerable a melody by itself, without any backup chords? :unsure:

#11 Phantom Button

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 05:49 PM

Personally, I'm fairly good at picking up tunes and can usually play along with new ones without much difficulty, although I may have to quietly fudge any difficult phrases!

I do not doubt you, but I have heard people make this claim with no proof when the pudding was served. I think the best instruments for attempting this are the mandolin and fiddle. The fiddle can be played quiet and it's up near the player's ear, and the mandolin can be played quiet as well and sounds like accompaniment on the "difficult phrases." But the concertina is a different story. For the player to hear what he's doing the sound has to reach his ears. What other players nearby hear is often louder than what the player hears and it becomes an Emperor's New Clothes sort of affair.

#12 hjcjones

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 06:20 PM

Personally, I'm fairly good at picking up tunes and can usually play along with new ones without much difficulty, although I may have to quietly fudge any difficult phrases!

I do not doubt you, but I have heard people make this claim with no proof when the pudding was served. I think the best instruments for attempting this are the mandolin and fiddle. The fiddle can be played quiet and it's up near the player's ear, and the mandolin can be played quiet as well and sounds like accompaniment on the "difficult phrases." But the concertina is a different story. For the player to hear what he's doing the sound has to reach his ears. What other players nearby hear is often louder than what the player hears and it becomes an Emperor's New Clothes sort of affair.


Most folk tunes, those from the British Isles anyway, break down into three or four phrases, with slight variations. They mostly stick to the key they're written in, without too many accidentals. When you understand the structure, and have a good repertoire of the "stock phrases" that crop up regularly, it's not difficult to pick up a tune.

Some tunes have a distinctive phrase which doesn't fit into the usual pattern, which can take a bit longer to pin down. They usually last only a bar or two, so it's quite easy to just hold the chord through that bit and then pick up the tune when it gets back to "normal".

As I've just posted on melodeon.net, in a slightly different context, bluffing is an important musical skill :)

#13 Phantom Button

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 06:47 PM

Most folk tunes, those from the British Isles anyway, break down into three or four phrases, with slight variations. They mostly stick to the key they're written in, without too many accidentals. When you understand the structure, and have a good repertoire of the "stock phrases" that crop up regularly, it's not difficult to pick up a tune.

I have a similar theory on Irish trad tunes, and I apply them in a similar way when I'm learning tunes at home. Have you ever interviewed your session mates and received an honest assessment of you skills at picking tunes up on the fly in sessions? I haven't asked my session mates directly, but we have discussed this and the consensus seems to be that this practice makes the experience less enjoyable for the other people who are actually trying to play the tune. If the session's big enough and most people already know the tune and are playing, your efforts may go unnoticed. But if there are only one or two people actually playing the tune it can get tedious and sound clumsy and muddy. I rarely if ever attempt playing tunes I don’t already know. The only times I did is when I had heard the tune played in many previous occasions and was familiar enough to know where it was going.

As for the topic of the thread, I have worked up harmonies for waltzes and planxties, as someone already mentioned, but I rarely improvise them because I want the people actually playing them to enjoy the experience, (as well as anyone else who happens to be listening.) Some people seem to take the session too casually and consider it their chance to experiment and noodle around, but I have a lot of respect for the session and see it as a valid venue for Irish trad. In other words, the music doesn’t have to be presented as a stage performance to gain my reverence.

#14 hjcjones

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 07:24 PM

[Have you ever interviewed your session mates and received an honest assessment of you skills at picking tunes up on the fly in sessions?


Not "interviewed" them, no, but I think I'd soon realise if they didn't like what I was doing. I've had no complaints, and my contributions usually seem to be appreciated. Without wishing to appear boastful, I think I'm good enough, and experienced enough, to get away with it.

I'll also freely admit that I don't always get it right, but that's sessions for you. What makes sessions special is the unrehearsed, spontaneous interaction between musicians. Sometimes it can go horribly wrong, but when it works you can get the most marvellous results that hours of rehearsal couldn't produce.

If the session's big enough and most people already know the tune and are playing, your efforts may go unnoticed. But if there are only one or two people actually playing the tune it can get tedious and sound clumsy and muddy. I rarely if ever attempt playing tunes I don’t already know. The only times I did is when I had heard the tune played in many previous occasions and was familiar enough to know where it was going.


Well, yes, if only one or two people are playing then will be very obvious if you to try to busk a tune you don't know, and if you attempt harmonies your efforts will be very exposed. But if the session is in full swing then it is possible, and I believe permissible, to join in.

As for trying to improvise a harmony or counter-melody to a tune you don't know, it depends on how skilful you are at it. If you have a grasp of the tune's structure then it might be easier to find harmonies that fit than to try to play the melody without making mistakes. Above all, as I mentioned in my original reply, it's about the culture of the session in which you're playing. Some take things very seriously (not necessarily a criticism) while others welcome the opportunity to "experiment and noodle around", as you put it.

My local session is a fairly eclectic mix, but often contains quite a few players of Irish music. Last week, they weren't there. A 5-string banjo started "Man of the House". It's a popular tune at the session, and usually played fairly straight. His style of playing gave a slightly different emphasis to the rhythm, which the others picked up on, and it soon turned into a syncopated version which really had some swing to it. I thought it was great, but had any of the "Irish purists" been there I think they would have been horrified.

#15 meltzer

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 07:35 PM

Personally, I'm fairly good at picking up tunes and can usually play along with new ones without much difficulty, although I may have to quietly fudge any difficult phrases!

I do not doubt you, but I have heard people make this claim with no proof when the pudding was served. I think the best instruments for attempting this are the mandolin and fiddle.

I think you're right. This said, one of the best harmonisers I've ever played alongside was (wait for it......) a trumpet player. :o :o :o Not only did she have a fantastic ear, but she could play quietly. To the extent that she could play countermelodies to otherwise unaccompanied singing*, and not be obtrusive. A truly amazing musician. B)

* And help keep me in the same key. ;)

#16 Phantom Button

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 07:53 PM

Was this "amazing" trumpeter playing harmonies on jigs and reels in a session? Posted Image

#17 meltzer

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 08:13 PM

Was this "amazing" trumpeter playing harmonies on jigs and reels in a session? Posted Image

No, just English/Flemish and song accompaniment. I suppose it's not proper amazing unless you can play authentic ITM as played by Americans the world over. :P

#18 Phantom Button

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Posted 16 March 2008 - 08:21 PM

I suppose it's not proper amazing unless you can play authentic ITM as played by Americans the world over. :P

I was just asking... but us yanks aren't the only ones playing Irish trad you know. I believe there's a few people in Ireland who are still into it. Posted Image




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