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Gail_Smith

dots in sessions

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I am wondering if its getting to be more socially acceptable to have the dots in front of you as an aide-memoire in sessions ?

 

This used to be a definite no-no. The Kingston Irish Tunebook  implies that you need to sit at the feet of the gurus for months, and get a nod from the guys in charge, before even daring to get an instrument out.   However,  I have "dropped in " on a small number of sessions in the last few years and found that people were happily reading off paper and tablets. Particularly people reading lyrics and strumming on guitars. The friendliest was in  Ulverstone, where  I was told "we mostly play the Furness Tradition here - if you can read these dots you can join in".

 

So - are dots more acceptable in some geographies than others, or is it all to do with the individual session involved ? 

Gail

 

 

 

 

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We've just moved up to Yorkshire from Norfolk.In Norfolk, we had a local session where people did bring music. It was frowned on because they were almost working as a band with arrangements. Some singers did use i-pads and other devices. Here in Yorkshire, we go to a U3A group which uses dots. The dots are borrowed from a session in Harrogate - http://www.crimple.demon.co.uk/sessions.htm

However, some of the versions are dire. This seems true of most tune books - some winners  and many losers. Eventually, you get a version you like or adapt a version based on somebody's playing.

 

Dots don't seem to be geographical but vary according to the session.

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When I were a lad in the 60s dots/word were streng verboten and our venues were lit by the warm, gentle glow of candles. Now it seems nearly universal that printed material and electronic devices are used and the venues glow with a blue tinge.

 

My preference is to learn from dots (I have a rotten ear) but only perform in public from memory. I do not think it is possible to give a proper rendition, especially of a song, if your nose is stuck to a hard copy of some sort. Expression, phrasing and entertainment value are lost. Unfortunately I have upset some performers at our local session by asking them to actually learn some songs by heart. One answer was " I am too busy to learn stuff ". To my mind not bothering to learn material is disrespectful of your audience, and that applies even in a session, and is just self-indulgent. I could go on but that too would be self-indulgent. However, the worst that I saw was a lass singing to iphone backing including a long instrumental break.

 

Back to the OP. Unfortunately, yes, yes and it depends on the session.

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While my session playing days are now over and I was never that good, I can say fairly that “using dots” is not just frowned on in many sessions, but it has the ability to ruin a session. There are several reasons. Unless you only play in a single session with just people who play the tune exactly as your dots represent it, your following the dots can leave you out of step with any changes or variations that arise. And what do you do when they switch to a second or third tune in a set? Do you madly flip pages? Irish music in sessions is, in most instances, fluid while dots are not. Following dots, you aren't able to adapt because you can’t listen, play, and read at the same time.

 

I imagine there are fixed sessions where Dots can find a place, but I would encourage you to develop your ear and learn as many tunes by ear as possible. Sit out for the tunes you don't know or are not yet comfortable with, and cheerfully join in on the tunes that are truly in your fingers. Then you can really sit in and enjoy participating in a session. 
 

Ross Schlabach

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Posted (edited)
4 hours ago, RP3 said:

...I imagine there are fixed sessions where Dots can find a place, but I would encourage you to develop your ear and

learn as many tunes by ear as possible. Sit out for the tunes you don't know or are not yet comfortable with, and

cheerfully join in on the tunes that are truly in your fingers. Then you can really sit in and enjoy participating in a session...

I think I know where you are coming from, though I can't quite decide what my position is.

 

The session I attend uses 'dots' as an integral part of the session - to the extent that we all

have a printed copy of the dots in front of us while playing. The tune book is organised in

'sets', so the problem of madly flipping through the book when a change is made doesn't

arise.

 

It is actually quite entertaining - the session 'head honcho' announces the shift from one tune

to another by hollering 'Change!' at the appropriate moment because some folks (most?) are not

sight-readers, and therefore find it difficult to change at the right moment. I'm not a sight-reader

myself, but I can at least follow the start/end and 1st and 2nd play marks in the score.

 

It seems to work - we are an 'attraction' in the pub', and folks come from miles around to listen

(so they claim). It's also a 'dog-friendly' pub, and they bring their dogs too - sometimes the dogs

join in - not too sure about that...

 

As I say, entertaining - which is what it's all about at the end of the day.

Edited by lachenal74693

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The Eurosession I go to uses dots (although off-piste is not discouraged) as this is a good way to allow people who aren’t that confident with the balfolk and Scandi repertoire to get involved and discover the joys of this music. This can lead to a bit of parallel playing rather than playing together, but usually works quite well.

 

a standard English music session I would hope to work without dots to let the musicians interact with and listen to each other - the joy of a session for me is when the group works as one by listening and reacting to each other, rather than the dreaded parallel playing recital that so often happens.

 

So I’m literally in two minds on thsi one depending on context! 

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Posted (edited)

I attend +-18 sessions a year, English and Balfolk, some Scandinavian. The "common ground" here (as with Steve) is to allow as many people as possible to join in, and dots are one possibly way towards that end. Written music is also a good way to introduce new tunes; attendees are generally encouraged to bring 4-5 printed copies of tunes they like to play so the other ones can play along.

 

It's not a black-and-white thing, really. On big sessions (>= about 12 musicians) there is really no point whatsoever for everybody to play the melody in unison (in fact, that's rather boring) as 3-4 dominant instruments (violin, melodeon, bagpipe etc) are enough to carry the melody, so the other ones are free to chomp chords, fumble along with the melody, try to get into the tunes by ear, improvise etc. A lot of very interesting arrangements start out that way.

 

Of course, if there are only very few attendees, it's a good idea to step back on tunes one isn't too familiar with.

 

Also, the implication that dots imply perfect sight reading skills is also wrong. If the dots contain chords ("fake sheets"), they allow the musician to help with the accompaniment rather than the melody, and people like me who aren't very good sight readers can revert to skeletal melody playing. Of course, the same applies to people able to pick up tunes by ear; very good listeners may pick up a tune in any detail on the fly; others approximate the melody or revert to mere chord chomping. Dots or non dots don't really make a big difference here.

 

So it's rather undogmatic; as long as the goal is met (a satisfying musical experience for everyone), it doesn't really matter how everyone accomplishes that individually.

I've heard about "old style" sessions in which the leader is a lot like a corporal on whose mercy depends who is allowed to play what and when. I believe that's as elitarian as hard core classcal music in which people won't even look at you unless you carry a degree in music. Music - as Steve points out - should be for the fun of it and the enjoyment of the listeners as well as the musicians, and as long as there are at least one or two skilled enough to carry a tune, not a whole lot can go wrong.

 

Edit: In the Balfolk universe, many tunes are already set with mulitple voices (generally 2-4), so playing arranged versions of those tunes without the dots is practically impossible.
 

Edited by RAc
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I have this thing I do with a notepad app (Evernote) on my phone. I have the names of tunes with dots for the first four bars. Without that, when someone just calls out the name of a tune, I could never remember it.

 

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19 hours ago, Gail_Smith said:

I am wondering if its getting to be more socially acceptable to have the dots in front of you as an aide-memoire in sessions ?

 

If by "sessions" you mean Irish Traditional Music (ITM) sessions, then in my experience the answer is no. I don't think this is due to some idea of social hierarchy or an initiation requirement; it's just that fumbling around looking for sheet music and trying to read it at pace  is just not workable in that setting. In just about any ITM session I have every seen (many hundreds), the only requirement for instant participation is the ability to play the tunes by ear at pace. There are lots of other kinds of traditional music sessions, jams and gatherings of course, and as the previous comments suggest, dots can play a role.

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At sessions I attend in northeast England most players do not use notation.  Occasionally a new player will come along who does use dots, but eventually they become familiar with the tunes and the use of the printed material gradually falls away.   I've never seen anyone complain about dots being used.  I've been to session occasionally where there is a session book of tunes that people play which makes it a completely different experience.  Every session is different so all you can do is go along, or maybe ask some of the session members in advance.  My idea of a session is that it should be like a musical conversation between a group of friends.  If you keep that in mind you should be fine.

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On 3/1/2020 at 9:46 PM, DickT said:

When I were a lad in the 60s dots/word were streng verboten and our venues were lit by the warm, gentle glow of candles. Now it seems nearly universal that printed material and electronic devices are used and the venues glow with a blue tinge.

Well said!

As I see, you're from near Aberdeen. Just around 1960 (aged 13) , I left Fort William and moved back to my native Ireland. But what I took with me was a knowledge of tons of Scottish songs that I'd picked up at school, on the radio (BBC Scotland) and from classmates at school. Not because I was involved in some folk scene - just because, as a migrant child, I was eager to learn the music of my new surroundings. 

It seems to me that, nowadays, music has lost its regional identity. Americans try to play ITM; Germans try to play Bluegrass, and so on. The French have even coined the term "musique celtique" to align their Breton music with the more prestigious Irish and Scottish traditions. The Americns speak of "Celtic music" because they can't distinguish Irish from Scottish ...

 

In short, if you have to use dots in a session, you're documenting the fact that you don't belong to the tradition involved!

 

Cheers,

John

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OK- I DID say "aide-memoire". 

 

My point wasn't to sight-read at speed (although i do try to do that with the 2-box-files-of-paper the longstanding group in the Irish Centre in Liverpool have as their repertoire - in the hope that eventually i will be able to play many more of the sets without referring to the notation)  

 

There are tunes i can happily play at home,  but cant necessarily remember how to start the second tune in the set when I am in public.  I  like to use  dots to get over that awful panic when you feel the B music approaching  and you  are so nervous that you cant be sure how it starts i.e. to use "dots as a comfort blanket"  

 

So, if i am travelling around- as i do - It seems from the responses so far (thanks everyone) that the only solution is my current one of sitting  in on the session hiding the box  and tablet in a shopping bag until I can see what the lie of the land is - thank goodness a concertina is easier to hide than a guitar! This sort of works - if you need to be so on-the-ball that dots are anathema,  then the evening is probably worth just listening to , But it is nice you feel a "part" of the process and not just an audience. 

 

Interesting that dots are seen as evidence of not belonging to the local tradition [bad thing]. But its obvious if you are a visitor that you are not from the local tradition. It seems to me that the "local tradition" for a lot of sessions is composed of the regulars' favourite tunes, which may be quite different to those played  10 miles down the road. So unless you play tunes from a genuine local tradition (e.g. Northumberland in Newcastle)  or the very familiar tunes that everyone loves/loves-to-hate such as Salmon Tails and the Blackthorn Stick  (in most of the UK)  the chances of joining in are low if you are just visiting. 

 

  

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Posted (edited)
2 hours ago, Gail_Smith said:

...Interesting that dots are seen as evidence of not belonging to the local tradition [bad thing]...

I don't see that 'dots' are evidence of not belonging to the local tradition. Folks use 'em or don't use

'em according to need (like when [the whole session is] learning a new tune)

Neither do I think that not belonging to the local tradition is necessarily a bad thing. It's a good thing

in some cases, I would think, (like when giving a 'tradition' a bit of a shake-up which might be over-due).

 

I will shortly be trying to modify at least one local tradition by suggesting that we add a few ????? tunes

to the repertoire - there aren't any there at the moment.

Edited by lachenal74693
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Posted (edited)

There are several problems with dots in sessions (I'm talking here about sessions which do not rely on a shared tunebook).  First is the time taken to find a tune - by the time someone has identified the tune being played and leafed through their folder to find the right page, the session is ready to move on to the next tune.  Secondly, the written version may not match the one actually being played - these are folk tunes and there is no definitive 'correct' version.  Perhaps most important, relying on dots is a barrier to learning the skills of listening and ear-playing which are essential to participate fully in a session.  As Theo has said, a session is like a conversation - imaging trying to join in a conversation if your every contribution had to be prepared beforehand and read out.  The skills required to participate fully go beyond simply being able to memorise tunes.

 

The only use for dots in this type of session is as an aide-memoire when choosing what tune to play.  My mind often goes blank and I can't think of a tune to play, so a list of titles or a few bars can be a handy prompt.  But once a choice has been made, the dots must be set aside.

 

Gatherings which work from tunebooks share many similarities with sessions but are more properly thought of a form of workshop, in my opinion.  Their dependence on written music prevents the spontaneity and interaction which is the hallmark of a live session.  That is not to say they do not serve a useful function, and for many people they provide their best opportunity to play along with others, but if those players want to move on to play in full-strength session they will need to break away from depending on dots.

 

 

 

 

Edited by hjcjones

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In my own experience Tablets are increasingly putting in an appearance at sessions. Indeed I have now succumbed myself but my embarrassment is tempered by a plea of advanced years and less reliable memory, not laziness in learning tunes.

 

The use of the excellent 'forScore' app facilitates extremely rapid tune finding (so long as you can recall the title !) and tunes can easily be organised in sequences regularly used. I also have typical individual  'Setlists' for local sessions eg 'Irish at .... ? pub' or ''English at ....? club' so that a tune 'aide-memoire' is provided for inspiration as well.

 

Yes completely agree, it is a hindrance to good satisfying traditional session playing for all the reasons mentioned above, and I do feel uncomfortable about it....... but needs must, it's better (for me) than staying at home  and luckily my fellow musicians are tolerant and kind.

 

For all that increasing use of Tablets by many seems a sad thing.

 

Rob

 

 

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1 hour ago, hjcjones said:

There are several problems with dots in sessions (I'm talking here about sessions which do not rely on a shared tunebook).  First is the time taken to find a tune - by the time someone has identified the tune being played and leafed through their folder to find the right page, the session is ready to move on to the next tune.  Secondly, the written version may not match the one actually being played - these are folk tunes and there is no definitive 'correct' version.  Perhaps most important, relying on dots is a barrier to learning the skills of listening and ear-playing which are essential to participate fully in a session.  As Theo has said, a session is like a conversation - imaging trying to join in a conversation if your every contribution had to be prepared beforehand and read out.  The skills required to participate fully go beyond simply being able to memorise tunes.

 

The only use for dots in this type of session is as an aide-memoire when choosing what tune to play.  My mind often goes blank and I can't think of a tune to play, so a list of titles or a few bars can be a handy prompt.  But once a choice has been made, the dots must be set aside.

 

 

Those are all valid points, but they disregard the fact that the only place to gain ensemble/session skills IS a session. If you expect all session attendees to be fully capable of playing every tune known to the session group by heart, you need to explain how to solve the chicken-egg problem arising from that expectation.

 

I believe the misconception here is that you imply that musicians work either exclusively by dots or exclusively by ear. Although there is the occassional musician who is lost without written music in front of him/her (and conversely the occassional musician that has never read music in his or her life), most are somewhere in between. As I said before, I'm neither a good sight reader nor an experienced by ear player, so having access to written music gives me a chance to contribute something to a piece I'm not familiar with (again, this is only a safe thing to do if my contribution isn't crucial, for example in larger session groups) - and thus improve my session playing skills.

 

Something I do frequently in a session context where there are enough instruments to owerpower me, for example, is to use the written music briefly, then force my eyes away from the sheet and try to follow up by ear and memory - somewhat similar to when I learnt to bicycle without my hands; you're always close enough to your handle bar to jump it if need be but try to do it freely as long as possible without it. It's certainly not the only way to learn to fly and not necessarily applicable to everyone, but it suits me well, and for myself I don't see many other strategies to get to where I would like to (and which also corresponds to your ideal of session playing).

 

And there is also the idea brought forward several times that a session also needs fresh material every once in a while. Although it is true that most tunes can be taught by ear (I've both learnt and introduced several new tunes this way), it's not to everybody's liking, so banning written music flatly excludes a number of people with a different musical socialisation.

 

In short, it shouldn't be looked at in terms of black or white. I'll happily agree that musical gatherings in which everbody hides behind his or her music stand and plays more or less individually are  generally unpleasant musical experiences, but I do see valid places for written music in sessions. Very rarely I stumble into sessions where the expectation IS that you either know the material inside out already or not even unpack your instrument. In those cases, I normally do the latter, leave immediately and look for a better way to spend the evening.

 

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Dots have their uses, and a tablet is a great way to organise them, far better than a multitude of folders with paper falling out of them.  I use MobileSheets for Android which appears to be very similar to forScore.  However I use it as a prompt to help me choose something to play, but I don't then refer to it while playing. I sometimes use it on stage (with the tablet attached to to mic stand, and which also serves as a digital mixer) to remind me of a band arrangement, but it requires only a brief glance occasionally and does not interfere with my playing or how I engage with the audience and fellow band-members.

 

Memory is like a muscle, if you don't use it then it becomes weak.  If you habitually play from dots you don't need to exercise your memory for music, so of course it becomes more difficult to remember tunes.  Try humming tunes to yourself without an instrument in hand whenever you get a moment, so that the tunes become embedded in your head rather than your fingers.

 

The only way to break the dependence on dots is to put them to one side and try to manage without.  Start with tunes you know well and can play confidently from music, and know well enough to hum without music. It will be difficult at first, but remember that you don't have to join in with everything that's played, and you don't have to play every note in a tune, it's more important to keep up with the other players even if you have to fudge tricky phrases or bits of the tine you can't remember.  In the heat of a session most mistakes will pass unnoticed, and even glaringly obvious ones which turn you purple with embarrassment are gone in a moment, and are forgotten by the end of the set.  The reward will be to be able to participate fully in a  "good satisfying traditional session".

 

 

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On 3/2/2020 at 8:26 AM, Theo said:

Every session is different so all you can do is go along, or maybe ask some of the session members in advance.

 

I think Theo makes an important point, unless you're creating your own session and can set your own rules/expectations. 

 

In my own experience (mostly in my own area in the northern half of California), written music is frowned on in the Irish and American old-time sessions I've been in, and more accepted in sessions of English, Quebecois, and Swedish tunes.

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