- General Introduction
- What is a session?
- About Session Sets
- What is a slow session?
- What should I call this music?
- Session Guidelines
General Introduction to Sessions
There are lots of kinds of sessions, so the word “session” will mean different things in different musical contexts. As I’m using it here it refers to an informal community event specifically focused on Irish traditional music (ITM) in the broad sense. In Irish the word is “seisiún” (pronounced Ses-Shoon), and refers to a music gathering where people play the music of Ireland and other stuff. In Scots Gaelic (Gàidhlig) the word is “seisean” (pronounced Sa-Shun), and refers to a music gathering where people play the music of Scotland and other stuff. See how important it is to use the right name! (Sometimes there are uninformed people who want to call what’s played “Celtic music,” but in addition to this being nothing more than a marketing scheme, see my note about that.)
The tunes played in sessions are traditional tunes (for the most part). Traditional tunes have been passed down by ear, played in regionally developed styles, resulting in melodic and stylistic variations. Some players will be very faithful to the way they learned a tune, others will not be so faithful (which I know from experience), and they will put their own mark on everyone’s experience. Over decades, some tunes evolve while others change very little. In some cases what started off as a variation becomes a separate tune. In other cases tunes that were once distinct become welded together over time. Listening to players of different generations can provide a massive amount of information on tunes, styles, and attitudes. The key, of course, is listening. Relying on the dots (i.e., notes on a staff) while somewhat useful at first, is a serious hindrance as you progress. The dots are, at best, merely a rough guideline, they offer a glimpse of an idea of a tune, at best, its dry bones. Don’t treat them as unquestionable and final, they are like a photograph of a person: useful for identification but not very helpful if you want to know who the person really is. The living, breathing music is what you want to connect with. You will hear different versions and settings in different sessions. Keep listening for differences. Pick them up. Try them out. Listen, for example to Céilí House, a show on RTÉ Radio, or the various sets played on Fiona Richie’s Thistle and Shamrock.
In an ITM session the tunes are usually played in sets (groups of two or more tunes). You will need to be able to distinguish these tunes, and so start playing the next tune when everyone else does. To do this you have to develop your ear. Just as with a foreign language which at first sounds like an undifferentiated string of sounds, it takes time to develop the ability to hear the phrases. Once you have learned ten or so tunes, start to think of how they might fit together. When you feel pretty good about stringing a few tunes together you will have your own sets. Introduce them to the session you play in. It is best to do this with others, and so cultivate your own session sets within your own session. If there is no ongoing session in your town or area, there is some advice on this website detailing how to get one started. I will also offer suggestions for improving your own playing, and some tricks for remembering tunes. Unfortunately, I have no useful suggestions for remembering tune names, as that’s just doiligh for me. Still, when you have done this, you will more easily hear the tunes others string together, and will be able to jump in sooner when the next tune is played.
All this slowplay website can do, really, is point you in the right direction. I touch on many topics here, including my opinions about playing music and about ITM. Still, this is just meant to be a resource, a conversation starter, something to look at to get your bearings. My general advice is to read what you will, and talk and listen to anyone who might know something, but follow your own path. None of what is here is meant to inhibit or codify your own creative spirit. Still, you can just skip all my writing, if you’re only interested da chunes.
A good seisiún can leave you walking on air, send you home happy and keep your mind filled with music for a whole week.
— Charlie Lennon (legendary Irish fiddler, pianist and composer)
So, what exactly is a session?
“A session that’s really humming along, with an unstoppable momentum that’s born of a combination of good musicianship, good intentions, and good humor, a session that gives full play to the riotousness, sweetness, sturdiness, sadnes and exultation that blend so uniquely in traditional Irish music, is about as exciting and rewarding an experience as one can have without needing to get up and draw the curtains.”
— Barry Foy, Field guide to the Irish music session (Frogchart Press, 2009)
If you want to know what a session is, then I’d advise you to get off your butt and go to one! Watch and listen, and after a while you’ll figure it out. If you want to read about what a session is then here’s a second best answer. An Irish session (or seisiún in Irish) is an informal gathering of musicians who play Irish Traditional Music, often in the presence of listeners who enjoy the music. Sessions happen in pubs, but can also happen in homes, parks, backyards, underpasses, doorways, and large closets. To say that sessions are informal is to say that they are not concerts or performances in any usual sense. If you were to accidentally come across one before it started you would see people just sitting around a table forming something close to a circle, and it might seem as if they were getting ready to have a friendly game of cards. Then they snap open the cases. The instruments that come out might include fiddles, flutes, accordions, uilleann pipes, concertinas, tin whistles, mandolins, banjos, bodhráns, Irish bouzoukis, guitars, harmonicas, and sometimes a harp or piano. You might then think that they look like a band; but you know also that looks are often deceiving.
Seisiúns are usually open to anyone who wants to join in provided they already know how to play Irish traditional music and can keep up. When this is true they are called “open sessions,” when it’s false they are called “closed sessions” (which means you can join in by invitation only). Regardless, the particular tunes are not decided in advance, and typically in open sessions it is unknown just who might show up (it may even be the first time the musicians have played some of these tunes together).
After a bit, fine, bouncy tunes with intricate melodies would be produced by the circle. These tunes played in a session are from a living tradition of Irish (and related) dance music that dates back about 300 years or more. Reels, jigs, hornpipes etc., are played with grace and agility, and occasionally a slow air or a waltz will be lovingly performed for everyone’s enjoyment. And if anyone sings Irish ballads or songs most hosts will be happy to try to shush the crowd so the songs can be heard. And you never know . . . dances might even break out from time to time.
Sessions are social musical events. They can now be found all over the globe. If it’s the one some musician regularly attends they’ll call it “the session.” If they’ve been going for a long while, it’s “the sesh” (which rhymes with “fresh”). Since the late 1990s a few people do call it “a seisiún,” using the Irish spelling and pronunciation: Ses-SHOON. This is not wide-spread, and to some may seem pretentious. Personally, I don’t care either way. Call it what you will, the music sounds as sweet. Sometimes the time and location for a session are set in advance, sometimes not. “As we met, we might as well have some tunes,” as they say. Either way, musicians will join in as they will, stay for a while, and then depart. Listeners are not actually essential, but when they appreciate the music they add to the ambiance, and may even leave tips or buy a round if they think the music is particularly good.
Now some sessions are small, with four or five people, others are large with many more musicians passing through in a single night, like the typical BOSS session (Boston’s Original Slow Session) which at its height in the early 2000s had over 40 players each Monday night. (Photo by Peter Duffy)
In truth, sessions are probably as various as the people who attend them. They have all the features of any weekly, fortnightly, or monthly social gathering. They sometimes require a great deal of care and feeding, and sometimes almost none. What holds them together is love of the music, and when you have music you have friends for life.
Just as with any social gathering, it’s important to be familiar with its structure and limits. In some ways a session is a unique form of participatory social music, unfamiliar enough to many to require an explicit discussion of its nature, the etiquette involved, and what constitutes proper style. This would be completely unnecessary if everyone had grown up where sessions were common and well-run. Since we didn’t, it isn’t. So a note on etiquette can be useful.
“Playing in a good session can be a fun 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.”
Julie Horner and Art Friedman
About Session Sets
In an ITM session the tunes are usually played in sets, groups of two or more tunes, and playing just one tune will be apt to disappoint some other sessioners. As for learning them, you will need to be able to distinguish these tunes and so start playing the next tune when everyone else does. To do this you have to develop your ear. Just as with a foreign language which at first sounds like an undifferentiated string of sounds, it takes time to develop the ability to hear the phrases, to distinguish them, and to understand what’s going on.
Once you have learned ten or so tunes, you might start to think of how they might fit together. Play them as a set. There are sets by well-known players and groups that are played in sessions all over. Well-known groups provide “ready-made” sets that others are likely to know already. When you feel pretty good about stringing a few tunes together you will have your own sets. Introduce them to the session you play in. It is best to work on this with others, and so cultivate your own session sets within your own session.
Now, just fyi, there are a few who will even find tune sets somewhat disrespectful to the tunes, and they will prefer to play one tune for a long period of time. Such folks refer to people who like to play tune sets as medley maniacs — though the use of “medley” in that phrase seems to me to be inaccurate as a medley is made up of only parts of tunes or songs. Now it might not matter all that much as you typically won’t run into such folks at a session. Though there’s not much chance of any melodic confrontation, it’s good to be informed.
If there is no ongoing session in your town or area, there is some advice on this website detailing how to get one started. I will also offer suggestions for improving your own playing, and some tricks for remembering tunes. Unfortunately, I have no useful suggestions for remembering tune names, as that’s just doiligh for me.
This website can’t do it all for you, but it can point you in the right direction. I touch on many topics here, including my opinions about playing music and about ITM. Still, this is just a slowplay website. It is meant to be a resource, a conversation starter, something to look at to get your bearings. My general advice is to read what you will, and talk and listen to anyone who might know something, but follow your own path. Still, skip the writing, if you’re only interested da chunes (the word “tunes” when pronounced by those with Erin’s accent often sounds like “chunes”).
So, what then is a Slow Play Seisiún?
Everyone who tries to learn these tunes has to play them more slowly than they are commonly played in sessions, at about half speed or less, before increasing the tempo to full speed. The result of playing tunes more slowly in a group is what is often called a “slow session” or what people like me call a “learning session.” A slow session is typically a congenial place where like-minded people (musically speaking) can get together to learn new tunes and improve on their ability to play well with others. Learning tunes this way, in a group, is an essential part of the music. To do it well you need to gain an understanding of the dynamics of a session, and you just can’t do that at home by yourself. Tape recorders are typically encouraged at slow sessions to assist in capturing interesting but elusive parts of a tune and to help with learning by ear. The overall goal of the learning session is to learn the tunes in a friendly and supportive environment which offers some challenges to motivate progress, and provides a place to have lots of fun doing it.
At a Slow Play Session (or simply Slow Session, or even Learning Session) the tunes are played at half speed or less to better facilitate learning by both the individuals and the group as a whole. As the tunes become more familiar and players become more comfortable with them, the tempo picks up to full speed (or nearly so). This may take some time, of course, but that’s not a problem. The goal of the Slow Play Seisiún is to learn the tunes in a friendly and supportive environment with others who are close to the same skill level. Usually, a slow session (made up of a single group of folks) will last from three to five years. After that time, the players have gained a large enough repertoire and attained a sufficient degree of facility to be able to play in some existing regular session, or to start a session of their own. So, in short, a slow session is a step toward playing in a full-speed session. It is also just a great place to spend time with others learning tunes!
Session Etiquette: A Note
Summary: Some basic rules can make any session run more smoothly. Irish Traditional Music Sessions are acoustic sessions, and so no amplification is used. As a basic rule of etiquette it is always advisable to play only when you know the tune or song. An Irish session is not like a jam session where excessive noodling is acceptable. Instead, an Irish session requires that each player comes to the session with not only a great deal of enthusiasm, but also with practiced restraint. The point of providing tunes and sets is for musicians to know some of the tunes prior to entering the session. There are a number of books that discuss other points of etiquette at a traditional Irish session, but my favorite by far is the little book by Barry Foy’s Field Guide to the Irish Music Session (2008). You can find it for under $10 at either Amazon, or Frogchart Press.
Session Guidelines: It should go without saying that not every session will embody the same rules, but every session will embody some rules. Every session has, and needs, guidelines. That’s really all that etiquette is, just a set of guidelines. Now, what this means is that, first, sessions are as different as people, and second, just like people, there is often quite a bit they have in common. For many reasons a session is a singular form of participatory social music, unfamiliar enough to many to require an explicit discussion etiquette and proper style. What’s needed, then, is something to start with, some default guidelines to have in mind when showing up at an unfamiliar session. In other words, if you do not know the particular rules of a session you are thinking of attending, then you can use the following guidelines as a starting point. Some sessions can run smoothly on these rules alone, others require more in order to deal with what I might call “unique personalities.” Some sessions may reject one or more of the guidelines below, or introduce many others. The decision as to what guidelines apply to a specific session will ultimately be up to those who run the session, and if you pay attention, you will be able to fit in fairly quickly. This would be completely unnecessary if everyone had grown up where sessions were common and well-run. Since we didn’t, it isn’t. Of course, if you know the session and sessioners, or have observed the session for a while, you probably don’t need any of these guidelines . . . well, unless you plan on traveling to another session at any point in your musical life.
Default Guidelines for any ITM Session:
- Treat all musicians with respect.
- Be civil. Well, the watchwords are courtesy, consideration, sensitivity, and patience. These will keep you from becoming the brunt of jokes and barbs at future sessions.
- Before you come to a session, PRACTICE. All the other musicians have spent many years practicing on their instruments to be able to play. If you don’t have the same level of commitment then respect them and listen, don’t just show up and play like a hack. 😉
- Warm up before playing. Maybe a bit of yoga — this ain’t no joke!
- Tune your instrument to the group standard, but don’t start playing while others are tuning. (A=440 most often)
- The musician who starts the tune will set the tempo, and it should not falter until the set is over.
- Don’t play at a speed above your skill level. It’s better to play a tune slowly and well than quickly and badly.
- Don’t take a seat in the session circle unless you are going to play.
- Do NOT, whatever you do, bring sheet music to a regular session. If you don’t know the tunes well enough to play them without sheet music, you shouldn’t be trying to play tunes in a regular session.
- Sessions are social & musical events. Be cognizant of how others are responding to your behavior. For instance, watch your tempo: don’t play everything so fast that hardly anyone else can keep up. If that makes you unhappy, then start your own fast session. Don’t hijack someone else’s session just to show off. Also, don’t be a tune hog. Everyone at the session has their favorite tunes, and many want a chance to play theirs. Share the tune choice with others.
- Only one percussion instrument (bodhrán, bones, etc.) at a time, so take turns. Bones and bodhrán can sometimes work together, but not every time. [does not apply to learning session gatherings]
- Only one rhythm instrument (guitar, bouzouki, etc.) at a time, so take turns. A bass and rhythm instrument (e.g., mando-bass and guitar) can work together. [does not apply to learning session gatherings]
- If your instrument is much louder than the other instruments at the session, then you should play it so that all the melody instruments at the session can be heard clearly by everyone.
- The more popular tunes, which every musician is likely to know, are often played early in the session, so if you want to play these tunes, get to the session early.
- If you arrive later in the session, ask whether it’s been played already before you start playing one of the popular tunes.
- Before you start a tune, listen to be sure that another tune has not already started.
- Irish traditional music sessions are acoustic sessions, and so no amplification is used.
- Playing great music is serious business, but it helps to have a good sense of humor.
Need more on session etiquette, or just want some different points of view? Read on grasshopper! You will find that having some manners and a bit of respect for other musicians goes a long way, and that there is considerable agreement about basic etiquette across sessions.
- Seisiún Etiquette per request of past Gaelic Roots students By Myron Bretholz
- Small Circle Notes on Etiquette by SCTLS
- The Scottish Session: Session Etiquette by Nigel Gatherer
- Some Reflections on Sessions: Session Etiquette by George Keith
- Spokane Session Etiquette