Ag Teannadh ar Dhuine–Putting on the Pressure.

The craic is mighty!

I’ve been attending a local session at a pub called The Harp, a great place to get a pint and have some tunes (though I skip the pint–but that’s another story.) There’s two sessions a week, Thursday at 4 and Friday at 9:30 or so. I go every other week, as time allows–since it’s very close to where I work it’s pretty much perfect.

So here’s the thing. The more I get to know the folks there, and the more comfortable I get with them, the more friendly pressure they put on me to start tunes. Really they’re being encouraging. And fair. They want everyone to have a chance, really. But for me, as a beginner, that sets up a cascade of nerve wracking dilemmas.

So, I know a bunch of tunes, none so well that I can play them at speed without messing up a little. The messing up part isn’t a big deal–the other musicians support you there once you get rolling. But the tunes I know are not in the forefront of my mind at all times. Especially when I’m nervous. Which I definitely am at the session. I can’t think of a damned one unless there’s one I’ve been practicing alot recently.

Now, the person who starts the tune usually gets first dibs on picking the second. But I’m so nervous I can’t think about the second–my main goal is to live through the first one. I get distracted by thinking so hard about playing the tune well, that I lose track of how many times through the tune has been played anyway.

After that, I more or less black out.

I know that the etiquette around this whole issue varies from session to session. I did find this, though, regarding Scottish sessions (I think it applies equally to Irish, though):

Starting a Tune in a Session

Advanced sessions are often led by a small group of good musicians who are being paid by the pub. If you are new to the session, let others start the tunes. If you eventually become a regular, nobody will think it odd if you start a set. It will be easier to start a tune in intermediate sessions, but wait until there is a break in the music. Be aware of the response from others; if they appear disinterested, they are.

What Tunes?

Don’t play any tune unless you can play it through several times without faltering. If you have started a tune which few people know, try to follow it with a popular tune which will then bring people back into the session (this informs folk that you’re aware of them and want them to be playing with you). It is often expected that if you start a tune, you will be choosing what follows, so make sure you have a group of two or three tunes which go together well.

In beginners sessions, there will probably be fixed sets of tunes which everyone knows. Sometimes there will be copies of the tunes in music notation so that if you don’t know the tune you can still join in. The leader will usually call the tunes, but probably will be open to suggestions.

How many times?

In Irish sessions, the convention is usually to play a tune three times. This gives anyone trying to learn the tune or more chance to pick it up. In Scotland, however, the custom is to play tunes twice through. You will have to listen to each session and work out what their usual convention is. In beginners sessions, the tune can be played three times or more. Four-part tunes would be played fewer times.

Speed of Tunes

Never Speed Up Or Slow Down! The musician who started the tune sets the tempo, and it should never vary or falter until the set is over. Don’t play at a speed above your skill level. Remember that it’s better to play a tune slowly and well than quickly and badly.


Now, I don’t think anyone is getting paid by the pub for this session. Not that they don’t deserve it. But the second section, “What Tunes?” is really what I’m interested in. I think starting tunes, moving to the next one, etc., is something that takes practice, just like the individual tunes do. So I’m going to do that–Practice sets of tunes that I can pull out should the pressure ever be put on again, which I have no doubt it will!

See the calendar tab of this site for the session schedule at the Harp


5 thoughts on “Ag Teannadh ar Dhuine–Putting on the Pressure.

  1. I wouldn’t worry about it, Mark. You could always say, “I’ll play the first tune but then someone else has to take on the second.” Or, simply put the people off by saying, “Thanks for the offer but I’m holding off for now.” Another technique is to think of a tune and ask, “Does anyone know ?” If someone does, ask them to play it. This could also get you out of playing a tune.

  2. Even very experienced players who know lots of tunes blank when asked to start something!

    People at the Harp (and perhaps elsewhere) often bring little notebooks or other note taking devices to write down the names of tunes they like, or other info, such as tune sets, chord ideas, websites, etc. I like to have a list of tunes and songs I know nearby, so I can glance at it if need be….

    It would be great to have more discussion on creating tune sets….

      • I agree that’s a great way to do it. Tried and true. I have heard sets like that at the Harp, in fact–possibly they fell that way by chance, but who knows. The only caveat being that your fellow sessioners may not know all the tunes, and you’ll be stuck playing by yourself. For experienced sessioners like Jonathan that isn’t much of a problem, but for a beginner like me that’s rather too daunting.

        I would prefer to know what tunes are played in the session, or what tunes are likely to be known–so, common session tunes–and pick from those. One way is to create a set with such tunes, practice it at home, and pull it out when you’re asked for a tune. The downside there may be that one or more of the tunes may have been played already. I suppose dropping the played tune (if it’s just the one) is the solution there.

        It’s fine to defer to others, ask someone “do you know…?” or “could you start…?”, but I personally would like to contribute to the session more meaningfully by being able to offer tunes and sets without worrying about it. I suppose it’s all time and experience in the end.

      • Thiocfadh liom a bheith ag scríobh i nGaeilge, más maith leat. Cé go bhfuil taithí leathan agam i dtaca leis na seisiúin, ní ceoltóir seisiúin maith atá ionam. Má tá suim agaibh sa cheol coitianta, thiocfadh libh eisteacht le taifeadadh ar bith ó Bothy Band, Planxty, Séamus Ennis, Willy Clancy, Tony Linnane, Noel Hill, nó na ceoltóirí mar sin. Agus, tá ceart agat a Mhairc, níl ach taithí agus am de dhíth ort.

        I could write this in Irish, if you like. Although I have wide experience in connection with the sessions, I’m not a good session musician. If you have an interest in common tunes, you could listen to any of the recordings from the Bothy Band, Planxty, Séamus Ennis, Willie Clancy, tony Linnane, Neol Hill, or any of those musicians. And, you’re spot-on, Mark: it’s nothing but time and experience.

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