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Seisiún Etiquette

A few words about . . .

Seisiún Etiquette per request of past Gaelic Roots students

By Myron Bretholz

At Gaelic Roots, students have the opportunity to meet and play with musicians of their own level and experience. So, Seamus has asked me to put down a few words as a guide for those of you who have either never experienced a session at all or who have experienced any unpleasantness while involved in a session. You may hear, or have your own, divergent viewpoints about this admittedly volatile subject but allow me to pass on a few pointers which have stood me in good stead over the past two decades of my involvement in Irish traditional music sessions: It is always better to be asked to play than to ask to play, especially in a roomful of strangers.

Remember, it’s all in the timing. Don’t rush it – you’ve got all night! Which leads to the next pointer: If you come to a session in a hurry, then you shouldn’t be there in the first place. A session is not a race or a competition. It is a place to forget all of the cares of the day, play a few tunes, and catch up on the latest goings-on and gossip with your friends, play some more tunes, and just generally have a relaxing time, with little regard for the clock. It is not a place to trot out a dozen new tunes in an hour, play them at breakneck speed, and then march off like a victorious general to the next conquest. I’ve seen that phenomenon occur ― and there’s no quicker way to ruin the relaxed atmosphere of a session.

Use your ears first, then think about taking your instrument out. Unless you’re an accomplished listener, you’ll never be an accomplished player. When musicians want to pay one another a compliment.

They frequently refer to one’s possessing “a great ear.”

That’s no coincidence. As trite as it might seem, don’t play a tune that you don’t know. And that goes for accompanists as well.

Many’s the aspiring bodhran player or open-tuning guitar neophyte who has caused a session to crash and burn owing to their insensitivity or indifference to the sounds which are going on around them.

Even if you are playing a non-melodic instrument, keep your eyes and ears open for key and tune changes. If you see or hear the fiddler on your left calling out a change into an E minor tune, you can make yourself ever more indispensable by passing on that information to the accordionist on your right.

Accompanists beware! One guitar and one bodhran are usually enough ― some would argue more than enough ― to complement a session. Again, use your ears. If it sounds too chaotic already, then don’t add to the chaos. Just sit back, listen, and wait your turn. It will come. Even accompanists have to relieve themselves at some point.

If the music sounds or feels too fast, then it most likely is. If the music sounds or feels too slow, then it is probably just right.

Remember too that the best players (in any idiom, not just Irish music) have spent hours nay, lifetimes polishing their tunes to perfection in the privacy of their own homes. Sessions are certainly a place to trade tunes – and even the best players come armed with a portable tape recorder for just that purpose but they are not a place to keep everyone else waiting for the next group tune to begin while you work out the finer points of a tune you don’t quite have down yet. Finally: remember once again that it’s always much better to be asked to play than to have to ask. And, above all, knowing when not to play will make you all the more appreciated when you do decide to play. Silence, like music, is golden! Having said all of that. it also must be noted that you have paid for the privilege of spending a week surrounded by some of the best music you’re ever likely to encounter. So ― enjoy yourself! Play to your heart’s content! But always be considerate of your session mates. We at Gaelic Roots hope that you take your week-long immersion into this wondrous music with you throughout the coming year. and we wish you every success and enjoyment in any session in which you happen to find yourself participating.

Long Gold Braid

Some Reflections on Sessions: Session Etiquette

by George Keith

What is a “Session”?

An Irish “session” is a gathering of musicians (often taking place in a public venue) for the purpose of playing music together.

Playing in a good session can be fun, invaluable playing experience, and a great chance to improve your music–all at the same time. Good sessions can produce some of the best Irish music in the world, and they can do so for hours on end–under the right circumstances.

There is a popular misconception that “The Irish session” is meant to be an open forum, where anybody who can come in off the street is welcome to participate and learn to make music at the same time. In reality, while some sessions may be such open forums, this characteristic is not intrinsic to “the session” itself, and it can be a big mistake to incorrectly assume that it is.

In reality, Irish sessions are much more like other casual social gatherings than they are like open forums. Often, sessions are groups of friends getting together for a few tunes, and not as an open invitation to everyone to come and play. People who come in off the street will usually be welcomed, but they may be met with a certain amount of circumspection until they demonstrate their ability to “play well with others“.

Here are some of the bigger mistakes that will alienate your fellow musicians at a typical session (in no particular order):

  • Playing a percussive instrument poorly, out of turn, too loudly, or generally outside the taste of the other musicians. A good rule of thumb here is:   “one bodhrán and/or guitar/bouzouki at a time”. More than one will often clash, irritating the melody players. In Irish music, the melody is FAR more important than the backing, and backers who assume otherwise can quickly become session-pariahs.
  • Joining a group of unfamiliar musicians without asking, or without being invited. This is especially important if you think your presence might change the existing dynamic in a way that the musicians don’t want it changed. The quality of the music is often what determines how much fun people have. If you ruin their music, you are probably ruining their fun too.
  • Playing when you don’t really know the tune. It’s usually ok to do so very quietly, but… be careful! Your wrong notes may distract, and irritate, the person sitting next to you.
  • Starting too many tunes without consulting the other musicians. It’s generally a good idea (especially at an unfamiliar session) to ask the other musicians if they’d like to play a tune before you launch into it. This helps you make sure that you won’t be doing something antisocial by starting a tune that the other musicians don’t know or don’t want to play.

When someone does one of these things at a session, it makes everybody feel uncomfortable. While it might be nice (especially for beginners) if the other musicians would politely inform you, this is difficult to do tactfully, so this isn’t usually what happens. Instead, the other musicians are more likely to simply feel irritated and leave it at that.

In general, remember this: If you’re not organizing the session, you are a GUEST, and all the same social guidelines apply to your “visit” that would if you walked into someone else’s party. Just as you can alienate people by crashing a party and being rude, so too can you alienate them by crashing their session and being rude.

For a more extensive (and unapologetic!) look at the typical Irish session, see Barry Foy’s book: Field Guide to the Irish Music Session.

George Keith

Long Gold Braid

 More On Session Etiquette and Civility

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