Group Session Etiquette
by Sarah Nagell
The Hardanger fiddle is traditionally a solo instrument, played by a single player with no accompanying instruments. This accounts for the great deal of individual variation in the form and melodies of similar tunes as well as for the many accepted tunings and pitches possible on the Hardanger fiddle. However, there are situations where more than one Hardanger fiddle will be played at the same time or with other instruments. The Norwegian words for this are samspel or gruppespel, meaning together-play or group-play. Many Norwegian cities and towns will have a local spelemannslag, or group of players who meet regularly and play together.
In the US and Canada, when groups of Hardanger fiddle players meet, there is often a great emphasis placed on session playing or group playing, so that all can participate and feel welcome. Also, when there are teaching workshops, there are almost always many students who wish to learn from a single teacher. This causes us to put more time into group learning environments than private one-on-one lessons.
This being the case, there are certain rules of etiquette that will help the group player get the most out of his or her educational time and contribute well to the sound of the group. Some of this advice is contrary to the advice that I would give to solo players, so please be sure to take into account your particular situation before putting the suggestions into practice. Most of these tips come from common sense, but some of them are actually learned behaviors that need to be shared. I write this because I have made a lot of my own mistakes in this department and would like to help others to have an easier time of it.
Tuning: Come to the group with a tuned instrument (usually the A-string on the Hardanger fiddle is tuned to the pitch B). This will save time. If you do not have time to do this, you must be able to tune effectively once there or to ask someone else for help. When entering a group late, tune your instrument to the group while sitting with them only if they are paused between songs and not while they are in the middle of playing a tune. If there are no breaks allowing you to tune, get the right pitch on your A-string and exit the room to tune by yourself and enter again with a correctly tuned instrument. If the group is in the middle of playing a tune and you realize that one of your strings is horribly out of tune, air-bow on that string (do not put the bow on the string, but simply make the motion above the strings), rather than playing it. This will keep your out-of-tune string from disrupting the sound of the group. Then, in the pause between tunes, tune the string correctly. Sometimes, for the sake of brevity, the group leader will only check the tuning of the top strings of all the Hardanger fiddles. While this may be OK for group learning, in performance it is always wise to tune all of the strings perfectly.
Following the Leader: There is usually a leader of the tune, whether formal or informal. If the leader is you, play out strongly and confidently so that others can follow. If you are not an experienced player or feel unsure about how the tune should be played, find a person who plays the tune well and copy their rhythm and their bowing whenever possible. If your bow is with the leader’s bow, you will never be out of synch. Try to watch the other musicians in the group rather than watching your own fingers or strings. Eye contact amongst musicians and a collective understanding of the physical movements and rhythms will help to keep the group together. Sometimes the role of leader will change. If, for example, you have a solo in the group, you are the leader for the entire time your solo lasts. If you are in a workshop setting, do not play your fiddle, pluck, or practice while the leader is giving instructions or demonstrating the tune. Sit quietly, listen, and absorb the information while waiting for the appropriate time to play. While the teacher is demonstrating a tune, you may follow by putting the fingers of your left hand on the fingerboard at the same time and you may also air-bow, making no noise, so that everyone has a chance to hear.
Air Bowing: There are several ways to air bow: holding the bow above the strings without touching them, keeping the bow in your lap and simply moving your hand as if you had a bow in it, or turning the bow upside down and placing it in the crook of your elbow (wood side down) under the fiddle and bowing that way. This is a very polite way to learn because it allows both you and the other players in the workshop setting to clearly hear the sounds that the leader is making and not to obscure the sound of the teacher with your own playing. Even in a group of two Hardanger fiddles, it can be difficult to discern individual sounds. If everyone bows loudly all the time, and many people are unsure of how the tune actually goes, the resulting cacophonous sound can be very hard on the ears. Also, if the instruments are slightly out of tune with each other, the players may become accustomed to that sound and unused to the correct in-tune sound. Air bowing makes it easier to get the correct sound into your head and helps when you practice privately later, comparing your sound with the leader’s sound that you remember from the workshop. Rather than air bowing, you may play quietly, "listening louder than you play", but be careful not to get into the physical habit of playing timidly because it will affect your solo playing. In my opinion, it is preferable to air bow and mimic the leader’s confident long or short bow strokes than to play timidly.
Recording: The purpose of making a recording of a session or workshop is to save it for later use as a practice tool. In a workshop environment, be sure to ask the teacher if it is alright to record them before proceeding. You should also ask if video recording is OK or if they would prefer only audio. In an informal playing session, it is often wise to turn on the recording device and simply let it run. Turning on the recording device (if it is not a video camera) and allowing it to simply record the entire session or workshop is a great tool for the beginner. When you listen to it later, you will hear not only the tune, but also the teacher’s advice and the small fragments of the tune that were broken down. If, however, you are a more advanced player, making one simple recording of the tune should suffice. You can rewind it many times on your own if you need to review. Set a time to record (at the beginning or end of the class period) and use the rest of the time to simply sit and absorb the tune the natural way.
When it comes right down to it, every group that you play in will be different and will most likely have different rules of etiquette, whether spoken or tacit. Most of it is a matter of gut instinct and timing, so trust your instincts! The golden rule applies here as well: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The more you take the time to observe the behavior patterns in the group, the easier it will be to contribute your musical talent appropriately and efficiently, bringing your own unique style into a friendly musical dialogue with others.