Tuesday, 4 August 2009

What is a Session?

In the Irish, it's called a seisún, in English a “session” and it's a lot different from what most Americans would call a jam session. In a jam session, everyone brings their piece to the table, and everyone else contributes something to it, until the cooperative whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. An Irish music session has some similarities, but it's not quite so spontaneous. There is an accepted corpus of session tunes and traditional ways of playing them, and even a code of conduct that governs session behavior.

Dana Lusk did a seminar on Irish session etiquette at the recent Colorado Irish Festival, admitting that she, like many of the audience members, regularly broke the rules she laid down. But even if the rules are followed more in the breach than by their observance, you'll find yourself ruffling feathers if you don't at least know what they are. That's why one of the first rules of the Irish session is to sit and listen at first, and try to get yourself invited, rather than just jumping right in, as you might at a jam session.

There are two types of sessions in this sense, open and closed. A closed session is limited to those participants who have played together for some time already, while anyone may play at an open session, provided they get permission, explicitly or tacitly from the session leader.

Even audience members can commit faux pas at an Irish session if they're not careful. While it's completely acceptable (and even welcomed) to cheer and applaud at the end of a tune set, and buy drinks for the musicians, conversation should be kept fairly quiet while the music is playing, and it's not OK to shout out requests, especially for “Free Bird,” or its Irish music equivalent “Danny Boy.” Unlike the American bar scene, where the music is so loud you have to shout to have a conversation, an Irish pub, where most sessions occur, is a community gathering place where a quiet conversation is part of the craic (pronounced “crack,” it means fun, conversation and fellowship)

Community is really at the core of pub life, and a key to the session experience. In an American bar or tavern, the main objective is to drink and meet people of the opposite sex. In a pub, Irish, Scottish, British, or the like, the regulars form sort of a community, and you can make lifelong friends in a pub. The best pubs are part of the neighborhood, an extension of village or community life. Back home in Ireland, a few locals who had grown up together would gather at the pub to play a few tunes and have a few pints together. From this came the seisún, and it bears the marks of its origins even today.

Session music was traditionally learned by ear, passed along from one musician to another. Because of this some very strict sessions frown on the use of sheet music to learn the tunes, though others are very open to that practice. If you're a musician who wants to get into session music, be sure to learn the local custom before bringing your tune book to a session. And really, there are intricacies in traditional Irish music that cannot be expressed in standard notation, so even if you learn the tune from a written source, listen to how others play it for the enhancements they can supply. Of course, each session is different, and they may a tune slightly differently from the way other session players do it, so keep that in mind if you play in more than one session.

Certain instruments are common to session music, such as the fiddle, Irish flute, tin whistle, mandolin, Irish bouzouki, Uilleann pipes, and bodhrán. Others come up from time to time as well, such as the tenor banjo, guitar, accordian, hammered dulcimer and others. Many session players would frown on the use of non-traditional instruments in a session, but there are talented players who have made them work and gained acceptance. But this music is largely governed by tradition, (It's often called TRAD by devotees.) and innovators have to work hard if they want to overcome the habits of decades.

It's a common misconception that the bodhrán, an Irish frame drum, is easy to play and thus the perfect introduction to session playing. It's easy enough to keep a steady beat if you have enough rhythm, but the instrument has subtleties that are not apparent to the casual observer, and experienced session musicians will spot you for an outsider in a flat minute. The same might be said of guitar players who don't know Irish session music. The chord patterns can be quite simple, but how to integrate your guitar with other session musicians can be tricky. It's also traditional for only one percussionist or one guitarist to play at a time, as these rhythm instruments can easily overcome the melody, and that's never good.

Getting into session music, or even attending one, can be a tricky adventure, but a rewarding one. There's something about Irish music that reaches the soul, no matter what your background. Check the list on the right hand side of this page for some local sessions, stop by and see what's up. Maybe you'll be hooked too.
For more info: Check out Field Guide to the Irish Session by Barry Foy. Its rules are too legalistic for some people, but it's a great general introduction to the subject.

No comments:


accordion achill activities Affiliate Program Alan Kelly Alan Shatter Alasdair Roberts Alison Krauss All Ireland Fleadh Altan Andy Irvine antrim archive armagh Arthur McBride Arts Arts and Entertainment Arts Council Arty McGlynn Athlone Baltimore band banjo Bantry Barney McKenna Baroque music Bill Whelan Bluegrass music bodhran Bodhrán bouzouki brendan begley Brendan Dolan brian boru Brian Conway Brian Cunningham Brock McGuire Band bunsatty Caoimhin O Raghallaigh Cape Breton Castlebar Cathy Davey Cavan cd ceili Céilí Band Céilidh celtic Celtic music Celtic rock ceol charlie lennon Chicago chieftains christmas Christmas music Christy Moore ciorras clancy Clancy Brothers classes classical music comhaltas Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Compact Disc Compass Records concert concertina Concerts and Events Connemara Conradh na Gaeilge Cootehill cork Cork County Council Cork University Press Cormac De Barra County Clare County Leitrim Dáithí Sproule Damien Dempsey Dán Dance Dancing at Lughnasa Danny Boy danu Dave Swarbrick De Dannan Declan Sinnott Deezer Derry dervish dkit Dolores Keane Dónal Lunny Donegal Donegal Fiddle Tradition Donnacha Dennehy doolin drisheen Drogheda Drumkeeran drums Drumshanbo dublin Dubliners dun uladh Dundalk early music East Clare Ed Reavy Education Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin Eileen Ivers Eleanor McEvoy Electric Picnic emer mayock ennis European Union Fairytale of New York Feakle feis Feis Ceoil felix dolan festival Festivals fidde fiddle Fiddling Film festival Fleadh Fleadh Cheoil Fleadh Cheoil Competition Céilí Band Jig Comhaltas Fleadh Cheoil fleadh nua flute Folk music Folk music of Ireland folklore france outdoors Francis O'Neill Frank Harte Frankie Gavin frankie kennedy free download Gaeilge gael-linn Gaelic galway Galway Arts Festival galway bay George Bernard Shaw gig glor goodman manuscripts Grammy Award Green Linnet Records group Grouse Lodge Guinness guitar harp hinse history holidays hornpipe Iarla Ó Lionáird iPhone Ireland irish Irish American irish arts centre irish dance irish flute Irish language irish music Irish people Irish Recorded Music Association irish times irish traditional music Irish Traditional Music Archive irish whistle IrishCentral IrishTimes irishtune.info Israel itma Ivan Goff jack coen JAMES JOYCE James Joyce Centre Jig jigs Joanie Madden Joe Derrane John Carty John Doyle John McCusker John McKenna John McSherry john spillane John Wynne Julie Fowlis Junior Crehan Karan Casey Karen Matheson Kathleen MacInnes Kevin Crawford Kilfenora Kilfenora Céilí Band Latin America Le Vent du Nord learn Len Graham Leopold Bloom Lieutenant of Inishmore Literature Liz Carroll London London Irish Centre Lord of the Dance louisburgh lunasa Lúnasa MacTalla Mor Maggie MacInnes Máirtín Ó Direáin mairtin o'connor Máirtín O'Connor Malawi Mandolin Margaret Bennett Martin Carthy martin fay Martin Hayes Martin McDonagh Martin Quinn Mary Bergin Mary Black Maryland Massachusetts Matt Molloy mayo McMahon Merry Sisters of Fate Michael Flatley Michael Rooney Michael Tubridy Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin Micho Russell Mick Moloney mick o'brien milwaukee Monaghan Moya Brennan mp3 Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh music Music festival Music of Ireland Musical composition Natasha McShane Neil Young New York Noel Hill Northern Ireland npu NUIG o'carolan omagh Orkney Paddy Fahey paddy keenan paddy moloney paddy o'brien Padraig Rynne passionfruit theatre Paul Brady penny whistle pennywhistle Peter Horan Philadelphia Philip Duffy piano pipes Planxty podcast Poetry Pogues Quebec radio radisson Raidió Teilifís Éireann recording reel reels riverdance Robert Downey Jr Ronan Browne Ronnie Drew Roscommon rose of tralee rowsome Royal Irish Academy of Music RTÉ Concert Orchestra Ryan Molloy Saint Patrick's Day school scoil acla Scoil Éigse scotland Seachtain na Gaeilge Sean Nós Seán Ó Ríordáin Séan O'Riada séan potts sean tyrell Sean-nós song session Set dancing Shanachie Records shannon shannonside Sharon Shannon shetland show singer Singing Skara Brae Sliabh Luachra sligo solas Sorley MacLean st.patrick stephen ducke Streaming media Stuart MacRae summer school teada teetotallers tg4 the forge theatre Tin whistle Tommy McCarthy Tommy Peoples Tommy Sands Toner Quinn Town Hall Theatre trad trad music traditional Traditional Folk and Celtic Traditional music tradmusiconline.com tradschool trocaire Tulla Tulla Céilí Band tune makers tunepal tutorial tv uilleann pipes Ulysses University of Limerick vallely Van Morrison venue Vermont video Violin W. B. Yeats Waterford westmeath whistle willie Willie Clancy Willie Walsh workshop workshops world fleadh