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George Keiths Guide to Irish Session Etiquette PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marty Bostick   
Wednesday, 25 January 2006

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

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 25 January 2006 )
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