“Slow Sessions”

Slow sessions are valuable, and a heck of a lot of fun. Sheet music should be avoided while actually at the session though. For a really slow session, “trading tunes” may be a more useful concept than “playing together”. But with a really qualified session leader, both goals can be attained.

Originally published 2001

Many “slow sessions” are getting started these days, for people who are new to traditional music, and just learning to play it. Slow sessions are a dynamite way to learn. They teach to play together, keep good tempo, and for instruments like the fiddle, they give you feedback on your intonation (how close is the note you fingered is to the one you wanted to play).

Sheet Music Considered Harmful

At many a slow session, though, the participants are reading from sheet music while they play. Now, sheet music can be an effective aid for learning a tune at home (you’ll be learning more about that presently). But I’d like to suggest in the strongest possible terms that the sheet music be left at home when you head off to such a session!

World-renowned mandolinist Radim Zenkl once told me that you never really *want* the tune “in your fingers”. He pointed out that when playing Jazz, every note is chosen mentally, before it is played — even when playing fast. (As a super fast bluegrass musician, he should know.)

Playing Irish music and varying your ornamentation has a lot in common with playing jazz. To do it, the tune has to be under “mental control”. If it’s an automatic fingering pattern, there just isn’t any way to insert interpretations and ornaments into the music.

In other words, you’ve got to play no faster than your ability to *choose* the next note. In the beginning stages, of course, that is very slowly indeed. It can be painfully slowly, at times. But playing in that manner is the *only* way to retain the ability to mentally choose your notes as your fingering speed increases.

Now, one problem with playing from sheet music (regularly) is that you can play a lot faster than your ability to think. The page is doing the thinking, in effect, and you only need to follow along.

In the process, you can develop lightning fast speed but lose the mental control — the ability to choose the note you want to play next.

The foregoing does not affect the *learning* of a tune, which can be accomplished by taking advantage of sheet music, as well as in other ways. But it does affect the way in which you *practice*, and the way in which you play a tune with others.

It can be astonishing, in fact, to go to a slow session where people are using sheet music, and see how fast the people are playing! (On the other hand, all the time they gain by playing fast, they lose by shuttling around trying to find the next tune!)

Then, give those same players the music for a new tune, and watch how much the tempo slows down. That is the tempo at which they are actually capable of playing *thoughtfully* — and that is the kind of tempo they should be using for most of their tunes. That slower speed is the speed at which they can “sight read”. So when they are playing a familiar tune more quickly, and reading from the page while they are doing it, it is fair to ask what is going on internally.

What is happening, I believe, is that the sheet music is acting as the “memory” for the tune. The player sees a familiar pattern of notes, and fires the automated fingering-sequence that corresponds to that pattern. In other words, the visual cue triggers a learned response. The “right” notes are produced with much greater frequency than if the music is not used, but the trigger is a visual cue, rather than the “aural” memory — the memory of the tune. In fact, one of the results of memorizing a tune that you’ve learned from sheet music is that you “see” the music when you’re playing it! When that happens, you are slavishly following the sheet music, even when it is not present in front of you.

You don’t have to reach very far to get an idea of what kind of handicap that can be. If you monitor your own mental processes during a conversation, you’ll find that your are hearing the words you intend to say (in your head) a few moments before you say them. Now imagine if, before you could say something, you had to see the words written out, either something on the page in front of you, or as something you had memorized. With your limited vocabulary, you would be a very poor conversationalist, indeed.

Well, music is just that — a conversation. A phrase is a musical idea that expresses a feeling, and when the craic (“crack”) is good, as they say in Ireland, there is an exchange of musical ideas, and an exchange of good feelings all around. Playing by ear, engenders the ability to carry on such a conversation. But learning to do that is hard — especially at the outset, when everything is slow! (And the necessity of keeping it slow is one reason that “playing with others” may not be the best goal for a slow session. More on that momentarily.)

Interestingly, when I’m writing, I hear the words in my head that’s I’m about to write. I don’t see them at all, until I put them on paper. To reverse the process strikes me as impossible — to somehow visualize the symbols that represent the sounds I want to make, and then “read” the symbols in my head to make the sounds. No. The wiring goes directly from thought to vocal chords, which produce the sound. The written symbols only reflect that wiring. So, too, in music. The wiring goes from thought to fingering, which makes the sound. Just as you can read a passage from Shakespeare eloquently, and even memorize it, that process (wonderful though it is) is not the same as creating your own speech and expressing your ideas. In musical forms that value improvisation then, like jazz and traditional Irish music, it is important to develop your ability to carry on a “musical conversation” with others.

The reason that playing by ear makes you play slowly is that, even for tunes you “know”, you are hearing the next note in your head, and having to “remember” the fingering necessary to reproduce it. In that recall process, you are liable to hit the wrong notes, too. That feedback gets incorporated into the process in one of two ways:

  1. Well, THAT was definitely wrong. (The most typical occurrence.)
  2. HEY! That WORKED! (As you quickly shift to the right note.)

Sometimes, those “mistakes” will have the product of fingering patterns learned in other tunes. And every so often, the added notes make a good variation! developed from That happens almost never, at first. Then, rarely, after a while. Maybe one day it may become a fairly regular occurrence. Eventually, you acquire the skill to pretty well always hit the note you want — and you have a wider canvas of variations to choose from, as a result of that early “experimentation”.

As a conjecture, it may be that the Irish style of ornamentation, with its taps, cuts, and rolls, developed from exactly this process, as countless musicians learned by ear over the centuries. (For more about Irish ornamentation, see Introducing Irish Music.)

The important thing about that process is that it is building musical skill — the ability to think of what you want to say, and then say it; the ability to express yourself; the ability to transform the music into a personal expression of your feelings, and reproduce those feelings within others. In that process, the “trigger” for the fingering response is an aural cue — a sound you hear in your head. And that skill is fundamental to your ability to ornament, improvise, and interpret. Don’t short-circuit that process!

The bottom line: When you go to a session, leave your sheet music at home and encourage others to do the same! My favorite slow session, organized by JoAnn Rees, is one in which sheet music is barred (pun alert). It’s a grand time.

For more information on the subject of sheet music, see Using Sheet Music Effectively. For more on the subject of hearing what you are playing before you play it, see Learning to Play By Ear.

“Trading Tunes” at a Slow Session

It may well be that the concept of “playing together” is drastically over emphasized in slow sessions — or at what should be a “slow” session. The concept of “trading tunes” may make a lot more sense.

With that concept, you think of a slow session as a place where you can trade tunes, like kids trade baseball cards. The nice thing about trading tunes is that it occurs at a speed almost anyone can handle!

Even as a slow beginner, I can teach someone a tune I know, a phrase at a time, playing slowly. And even an experienced musician can get something from it. (I, on the other hand, am frequently astonished by how quickly they learn!) And as a way slow beginner, I can still acquire a new tune, a phrase a time, when it is played slowly.

Or again, the trading can take place when people simply play a tune they know that others don’t. In such a situation, there is no need to rush the pace. And after having heard the tune, the people who like it may well go off and learn it, and join in the next time.

The “tune trading” process makes sense in 3 ways:

  1. Everyone benefits from the exchange.
  2. Beginners can have fun and even contribute.
  3. Reducing the emphasis on “playing with others” places less of a premium on speed.

In fact, in Ireland, it is rare to see a session go very long before someone sings an unaccompanied ballad or plays a beautiful slow air, with everyone else listening respectively and enjoying the music. Even when someone plays a cranking, rock-your-world reel, the good musicians will generally start off by playing it very slowly, so you hear the beauty in the tune. In the process, they warm up the tune and get it “under their fingers” before they take off and burn the house down with it.

Accelerating the Tempo

I first saw that style of teaching at Lark Music Camp, in a session run by Jeremy Kammerer. There, he passed on tune after tune he learned from Kevin Keagan, using the same method that Kevin used to teach the group Jeremy was in. The method goes like this:

  1. He plays the tune at speed (solo) so you can hear how it goes.
    In other words, you can teach any tune you can play reasonably fast, so your listeners can get the sense of it. Or you can cheat, as I have been known to do, and play your pocket recording made from the person who gave you the tune! (But only after you after struggled through it at least once!)
  2. He teaches the tune a phrase at time, using the call and response technique and building up as he goes:
    • 1st phrase (call and response)
    • 2nd phrase (call and response)
    • 1st & 2nd together (all play together)
    • 3rd (call and response)
    • 1st + 2nd + 3rd (all play together) — etc.
  3. He plays the tune a couple of times, DEAD slow.
    • A big foot going up and down sets the tempo.
    • It’s important not to increase the tempo during the piece. That’s a natural tendency that has to be controlled.
    • In drumming, you have to discipline yourself to do it.
    • In a session, it takes a strong, well-respected session leader to do it.
  4. He picks up the tempo, and plays it a couple more times.
  5. He picks it up again, for a couple more repeats.
  6. He wails away at full speed a couple of times, and anyone who can keep up goes along for the ride.

He may get in one other tune that way before the hour is up. The next session, he reviews. The first review generally works like this:

  1. He plays the tune at speed (solo) so you recall how it goes.
  2. He plays the tune a couple of times, DEAD slow. A big foot going up and down sets the tempo.
  3. He picks up the tempo, and plays it a couple more times.
  4. He picks it up again, for a couple more repeats.
  5. He wails away at full speed a couple of times, and anyone who can keep up goes along for the ride.

Subsequent reviews are generally more condensed:

  1.  He plays enough of the tune so you remember it.
  2.  He plays it a moderate tempo a couple times.
  3.  He picks it up again, for a couple more repeats
  4. He wails away at full speed a couple of times, and anyone who can keep up goes along for the ride.

The whole process is flexible of course. What he’s doing depends on who is in the group and on how they are doing. But it is extremely effective, and it is a grand way to learn. When the pace gets too fast, you sit back and listen. When it’s too slow, you wait it out for a bit until it picks up to a level you like.

The result is that really good musicians can learn tunes without being bored. At the same time, rank beginners can learn, and no one is left sitting out in the cold for too long. And since good musicians get something out of it, you have the advantage of getting subtle nuances of tempo, timing, phrasing, and intonation from people who are a lot more expert than the folks you would normally expect to be able to play with.

For more great ideas on running a slow session, see Chris Smith’s booklet on the subject (published at cost). Chris can be contacted at christopher.smith@ttu.edu.

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