Mentoring in the world of hosting

All the best stuff I have learned about mentoring has been in the context of traditional culture, whether with indigenous Elders from Canada or in the traditional Irish music community.  Traditional Irish music is played and kept alive in a structure called a “sessiun.”  There is a repertoire of thousands of tunes, but most musicians who have played for a while will have a hundred or more in common, and that can easily make for a long evening of playing together.  Sessiuns are hosted by the most experienced musicians (traditionally a Fir a Ti, or Ban a Ti; the man or woman of the house).  These guys are responsible for inviting people in, inviting tunes, keeping a tempo that everyone can play with, resolving any conflicts…in short they are the hosts.

But the best ones are also the teachers and the mentors and they dispense wisdom, lessons, encouragement and direction during and between tune sets.  If you are smart and you are learning you try to sit near them in the circle to pick up teachings.
With Irish music, the best mentors I ever had always did a few things well:
  • They were better musicians themselves than I could ever imagine myself to be
  • They created space for me to play with them and gave me increasingly more responsibility from starting tune sets to perhaps playing a solo air to eventually sitting in for them if they couldn’t make it out to host a sessiun.  But they didn’t invite me to lead the session when I was just beginning.
  • When they knew I had a set of tunes down they invited me to lead that set.  If I had a slow air they knew I could play, they would invite me to play a solo.
  • They pointed out things that I could DO, rather than things not to do, and if they played flute (my instrument) they showed me on their instrument what they meant.  There was never any abstract conversations about the music or technique.  If I was doing something wrong, they would suggest an alternative (indigenous Elders, and especially Anichinaabe elders are very good at this.  There is something peculiar to traditional Anishinaabe culture that makes it very hard for an Elder to tell you NOT to do something.  They always point to doing something else.)
  • They protected me from “hot shots” who like to show off by playing tunes too fast for you to play with them.
  • And when I was ready I got invited into more and more responsibility with the sessions and was eventually invited to perform with them.  The day of becoming a colleague is a big deal, and I still feel that I can’t hold a candle to my teachers, even though they insist that we have moved into a co-mentoring relationship.
What was beautiful about all that was that, even when i became colleagues with my mentors I never lost the sense of gratitude of being able to play with them.  Even today 20 years later, it is a treat for me to play with those who taught me.
Mentoring in the art of hosting, of leadership of working with groups is the same.  It is a traditional practice.



  1. Music provides the perfect example of the type of “indirect control” we need to survive and thrive in our ever more complex relationships in business and community. So thank you for this beautiful explanation of the “cultivation” element of such coordinate-and-cultivate leadership.

    Likewise, the orchestral conductor provides a superb model of the “coordination” aspect of such a leadership role. Complexity scientists call this an “emergent attractor”.

    A rock band is small enough for its members to keep an eye on each other. But an orchestra needs a conductor because the number of musicians and the delay as music leaves a player make it hard to keep time precisely (this is sometimes called the “firing squad synchronization problem” in self-organization theory).

    The conductor’s job is not to lead the orchestra in the conventional sense of command-and-control, but to provide a single source of tempo to help members of the orchestra to synchronize their music making.

  2. Hiya Chris … I just love this post. It is a great reminder of who my own teachers are and how grateful I am to them. You also provide a glimpse of who I need to be when hosting and mentoring others. The example through music makes it all the more tangible.

  3. Awesome.