Session Essentials

A few things you always wanted to know about sessions but were too sheepish to ask

Most of you already know about Irish sessions. They’re probably why you’re on this part of my site in the first place. You probably agree with me that playing tunes with a few musicians is one of the best parts of Irish music. Sitting down with other people who share a passion for something bigger and older than all of us–and sharing these tunes, and some conversation and jokes between the tunes–it’s pretty great!

And just in case you’d like a little primer (or you find it amusing to read about session basics), here’s a short post. Let’s call it SESSION 101…

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Sessions have been a big thing in Irish music since I started playing. But getting together with a group to play in a pub or house session is not an ancient practice. Modern-style “sessions” didn’t become a big part of the tradition until the ceili (KAY-lee) bands started forming to play for dances in the late 1920s. Before that, it was really just neighbors or family members sharing tunes with each other, maybe not all playing at the same time.

Some people call them “seisiúns” [say-SHOONS]. Somehow, this adds a sort of old-world quality to the concept, but really, it’s just a modern “Irish-ization” of the original English term. 

These days, public sessions often take place weekly. There can be a paid ringer or two leading the tunes. And if you’re visiting a session for the first time, you might feel a little uncomfortable when you first show up. It’s a social situation, and social dynamics can be tricky to navigate! 

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Here are some thoughts to keep in mind at your next session (whether it’s your first or your 300th):

  • A session is like any other social gathering, and it can take a while for everyone to figure out how to contribute. For starters, it’s always great to introduce yourself! And then listen to/read the room.
    My friend Steve told me he always tries to figure out where a session is heading, and then does what he can to help it get there by contributing a tune, a joke, or just settling in.
  • It is normal to NOT know all the tunes. There are thousands of them. And each player has a different collection. 
    But musicians who play together regularly have tunes in common. For example, our Virtual Guided Session has a common core tune list that Matt and I are mindful to rotate If you learn a few VGS common core tunes, you’re bound to encounter one of those tunes at a VGS livestream before too long.
  • If you don’t know a tune, it’s not weird to “just” sit and listen. 
    My friend Laurel said “to just sit and listen and be in a pub and watch the people and just absorb what’s happening.. we don’t think of that as a thing to do. And yet it is. And if you’re learning to play this music, it’s a really important thing to do.
  • Some people feel intimidated to learn tunes by ear. But friends, this is a social tradition. The music is learned and played by heart. Like, when you are hanging out with friends, you don’t read each other jokes and stories. You communicate directly, from the heart. Same with Irish music: we play these tunes together by heart. And even if you are a very slow aural learner, it’ll be “faster” (and better!) to just learn them by ear instead of trying to read them and then memorize them. 
    Learning a tune from a session is like learning a pop song off of the radio: the first few times you might get just the chorus. Next time you’ll grab a bit of the first verse. Over time, you’ll know the whole thing.
  • At a session someone may ask you to start a set. If you feel jittery (normal), humility is a good option.
    You could say, “I’m still a little new to the music, but I’ve been working on ‘Out on the Ocean’ and ‘Connaughtman’s Rambles.’ I’d like to try them out? Would you mind playing with me, just not too fast??” Say those sentences aloud, and you’ll hear how reasonable and courteous they sound.
  • Guitar players can also suggest tunes to play at sessions, even those who can’t flatpick the melodies up to speed. You could say “How about Out on the Ocean? You know… this one?” [Then play just the very beginning, not too fast.] Even if you then move to backing the tune, you’ll be ‘that backer who comes up with a few tunes!’
    Don’t be offended if your suggestions are not acknowledged—single notes on the guitar are not very loud and people don’t always expect backers to start tunes. Just try again at a quieter moment.

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A session is a lot like a party. It can help to have a host or a guide who knows where the pint glasses or tea cups are and can light the fire if it’s chilly (or open a window if things heat up). And the nicest guests aren’t necessarily (often) the loudest, fastest, or fanciest.

Being rich in repertoire isn’t imperative. Being eager to learn and being gracious will eventually lead you to more tunes! It’s really not (just) what you play. It’s (mostly) how you play it. 

So get comfy. Listen. Observe. Participate and chip in, in your way. And build your session, one tune at a time.

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