Advice for Newcomers
Newcomers are always welcome at the Malta Session and you will find it’s a very friendly and supportive place in which to get involved in communal session music. Below is some advice aimed to help newcomers get the most from the session. Even experienced musicians may find some of this advice useful since the Malta Session has several features not commonly found in other sessions.
It’s a Session, not a Folk Club
The traditional folk club format is the “sing around” where members take it in turn to present a piece for the entertainment of the others. People generally spend a lot more time listening than performing. A session is quite different. Here the emphasis is on playing together as a group. Typically one member of a session will start up a tune and everyone else joins in.
If you are already an experienced session player, you may find the Malta Session format a little disconcerting at first with more gentle tunes (e.g. waltzes and polkas) than you would normally associate with a session. Hopefully you will enjoy this slightly different way of doing sessions.
If on the other hand you have more of a folk-club background, you might be misled into thinking that we are another form of folk club. This is not the case and you should take note of the “solos” section below.
Solos are welcome at the session. If you would like to do a solo or party piece you will find that people are happy to put their instruments down and be entertained for a little while. However you need to be sensitive to the overall needs of the session so that we don’t find ourselves sliding from “session mode” to “folk-club mode”.
A lot will depend on the circumstances of a particular evening. On a quiet night when there are not many attendees, a few solos will go down very well. On a busy night with 10 or more musicians in the room, there is less scope for solos. For example if all 10 did a solo piece there would be greatly reduced time for communal playing.
You should think carefully before doing more than one solo piece of an evening and if in any doubt, ask the advice of the Session Leader for the evening.
On the other hand, if you are a dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore session player for whom solos are anathema, you will need to be prepared to relax occasionally and just listen.
Tune sharing is different from solos in that the intention is not so much to entertain as to share. The idea is that other session members might be interested in the tune and want to learn to play it at home. If sufficient people find the tune of interest, and over time several members start to play it, it might eventually be adopted by the session as a whole. There are no rules or conventions covering this process, it just happens naturally.
As a newcomer you are welcome to do some tune sharing and indeed some newcomers do it unintentionally by starting a tune common in their neck of the woods but new to us. On the other hand you need to be sensitive not to overdo tune sharing so that it becomes another form of solo.
One of the features of the Malta Session is that we do a few (very few!) communal songs. You are very welcome to play and sing along with these songs. Where the song or verse is being carried by one individual, we try to be sensitive and not to overwhelm him or her with over-loud instrumental accompaniment, particularly during the verse - the chorus may be quite rowdy! Often the singer will call for an instrumental between verses and this is the time to let go and ramp up the volume.
“Three Times” Convention
In almost all sessions, the convention is that tunes are played twice through (including repeats) and many are played in conventional “sets” of two or more tunes, always played together, always in the same order without any pause between them.
Similarly, the convention at the Malta Session is also that tunes are normally played twice through (including repeats). However we occasionally call for "three times through", especially if the tune is relatively new to us. This is an important part of the ethos of our session. It gives beginners a chance to work themselves into a tune and it gives everyone a chance to explore the tune more fully.
If you are playing a solo which consists of a set of tunes, it would be courteous to limit yourself to the common convention of playing each twice through, so that the session isn’t kept waiting too long.
Playing speed at the Malta Session is best described as “variable”. Many of the session members have been playing these tunes for several years and can play them at quite a lick if they feel so inclined. But they don’t always choose to do so. A lot depends on the mood of the evening and on which musician starts off the tune.
Some Irish tunes are played “up to speed” (i.e. blindingly fast) but many are played more sedately.
If you are a beginner, you don’t need to be nervous about starting off a tune quite slowly. We have a strong tradition at the Malta Session that we try our best to play a tune at the speed of the player who started it off. This is one of the reasons the session seems so friendly and welcoming to newcomers, especially beginners and people trying a new instrument.
If you are used to “fast and furious” session playing, you will need to be sensitive to the mixture of experience in our session. In particular, try to take it easy on the simpler, common tunes which beginners will be hoping to join in.
Playing From Sheet Music
At many sessions, if you were to bring along sheet music, you would find a cool if not downright hostile reception. In the Malta Session we are more relaxed about the use of sheet music. If you can’t do without some dots or notes, nobody will mind. In particular, if you are a post beginner on your instrument, it’s quite normal to bring some music with you. However we would encourage you to leave the dots behind as soon as you can. Tunes in a session, or indeed in any folk music setting, are rarely played exactly as written and you’ll get a lot more from the session by playing the music as it’s really meant to sound.
Session music is full of spontaneity and life. If everybody was to play from sheet music then it would devolve into ensemble playing and the special session ambience would be lost. So shake off those sheet music shackles as soon as you can!
The session tradition is that all melody instruments play the melody and that second or third parts are unknown. In the Malta Session we have a few slower tunes which, for historical reasons have a second and possibly a third part. However the vast majority of our tunes are played "melody only".
There will usually be an informal session leader for each evening. Although the session generally freewheels along in a spontaneous way, the leader will occasionally intervene to help keep the balance and does his or her best to ensure that everyone feels included. If you have any questions or requests the session leader is the best person to ask. For example if you would like a particular tune played but don’t feel confident to start it off yourself, the leader will make sure it happens during the evening.
The session leader is also the formal interface between the session and the owner or landlord of the premises.
For a more detailed explanation of the etiquette and tradition surrounding Irish sessions in particular, see Barry Foy's Field Guide to the Irish Music Session. Barry provides a light-hearted insight into the workings of Irish sessions including lots of "Dos" and "Don'ts" for the newcomer. However you should also bear in mind that the Malta Session is not strictly an Irish session and we are quite relaxed about some of the "rules" that Barry treats as mandatory. For example we allow more than one guitar and we also cherish our bass player!