Playing At Sessions & Getting Along With Others

Recently, whilst perusing the pages of, I ran across a post by a gentleman named Tony Becker. His post was basically a link to this article. which he himself wrote, and in which a few people of note in the Irish traditional music community comment on session etiquette.

field guide sessionBarry Foy, in his book “Feild Guide to the Irish Music Session,” whilst poking fun at session noobs and veterans alike, ruminates on the peculiarities of sessions and exposes some of the underlying social mechanisms that make them tick. Among other things. It’s a great read, very funny–I highly recommend it. In this article he says:

It’s worth asking where anyone gets the notion that he can saunter in on a spell of music making by devoted, diligent players of a particular music and essentially try to remake it in his own image, on the spot. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to answer that question. The fact is, Irish music, like any handed-down music, is full of strictures and borders and prohibitions, and it signals its distinctive identity by treading a finite number of well-worn paths. That scenario won’t appeal to everyone; some may find it inhibiting, a threat to their self-expressive impulse. Luckily, the world is large, and there’s likely some other form of music that would suit those people better. If so, the players of Irish trad welcome them to pursue that other music, and we promise not to impose our own standards on it. In the meantime, we’ll try to make the most of our sometimes limited opportunities to play this music in the way we learned to play it, and have a good time doing it.

I guess if I had to pick one sentence from Field Guide to the Irish Music Session that matters most, it would be this, from page 52: ‘The fact that you are holding a musical instrument in your hands at a session does not automatically entitle you to play it.’

(See also this discussion of the Field Guide from

Now, the Lower Valley Beginner Irish Session, as you know, is not at this time catering to accompaniment instruments–that includes bodhrán for starters, and also guitar, bouzouki, and mandolin unless they are being used for melody only. These instruments bring alot of controversy with them to sessions–many feel that they are unnecessary for the music, as they are not “traditional” as far as Irish music is concerned. Others enjoy and encourage their tasteful use. But I think one thing everyone can agree on is that any one of these instruments can pull the rug out from under a session if poorly played.

Shay Black 2013In today’s featured article, Shay Black, who leads the Sunday session at the Starry Plough in Berkeley, CA, quotes Jack Gilder, member of the Irish trad band “The Tipsy House” and host of sessions at the Plough and Stars Irish pub in San Francisco. He says, of guitars in particular:

Many people have the misconception that these instruments are the easiest to play. What they fail to realize is that the effect of these instruments on a seisiún is profound. The rhythm and tonal landscape of the music is what everyone is riding on, and if you’re playing an instrument that is the essence of this then you need to be spot on or you’ll throw everyone off. . . Also, two guitars or bodhrans in a seisiun are too many. If you are an experienced player on these instruments try taking turns rather than playing over each other. Do your part to protect the integrity of instruments that are actually fine contributors to the music.

Mr. Black goes on to say that

Experienced musicians eventually vote with their feet and remove themselves to other sessions because they don’t want to play alongside a noodler or a thumping bodhran or guitar.

So add Mr. Foy’s revelation that Irish music is often perceived as “easy to play” to Mr. Guilder’s assertion that guitar and bodhrán in particular are also thought of as easy to play, mix them together and you have a recipe for disaster at your session. These instruments are not usually considered essential to a good session (and they, indeed, are not.) It’s all about the melody, really. This makes it all the more frustrating when a sub-par player of one of these instruments comes to the session banging away without regard to how they sound. The result of the above recipe may well be Mr. Black’s observation that many good players will simply not tolerate the bad playing, and might well leave rather than muddle through if something is not said.  I’m not saying that these instruments can never be good for a session–they can. They can give it more lift and pulse if played tastefully, but in order for this to happen the musician needs to pay attention and drop the assumption that it’s easy.

This all comes off, perhaps, as somewhat random thinking on the subject, and I certainly don’t mean this to sound like I’m picking on accompanists in particular. These rules apply to all musicians. In my mind the core of it all is that I believe that everything we do we should strive to do mindfully. I believe that those who blindly stumble through life manage to poke, jab and generally irritate others along their way. In a session, a bunch of people have come together to create something transcendent, something outside of time and place, if only for a brief moment. (That’s why they meet weekly!) When someone comes in blindly poking and elbowing everyone musically, it’s annoying and can destroy a good experience for many. Fortunately the folks who get it outnumber the folks who don’t!

(PS: All reference to Tony Becker’s artical used by permission of Tony himself, thanks, good sir!)

(PPS: Please be sure to visit! AmeriCeltic is a non-profit organization that celebrates and preserves the culture and history of Americans of Celtic descent.)


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