Session at Dempsey’s, Manhattan

dempseysHiya fellow sesioneers! I am in Manhattan this week for a few days, and I managed to catch the session at Dempsey’s pub, 61 2nd Ave. in the east Village. ( I first learned of the existence of the session at (

Dempsey’s is one of those pubs that has outdoor seating at street level, while the bar itself is half underground. It’s not a huge place but not cramped either. The session takes up all the space between the end of the bar and the front windows. there were about 20 or so musicians in attendance, of varying levels of competence (myself being among the lowest.) When I arrived, they were in the midst of a round-robin where everyone in the circle was expected to start a set. After a few brief introductions to the people immediately next to me (and one from a concertina player named Doug who made a point of coming over to say hi) I settled on the idea that I’d play Na Ceannabhain Bána/Whinny Hills of Leitrim set. Well, that concertina player ended up doing Ceannabhain, the rascal, so I panicked. Hard. But not for long. I remembered my intense LVBIS training, and decided I’d surprise them all with The star Above the Garter followed by the Lisheen.

That went well–until I got to the Lisheen, which NO ONE ELSE KNEW OR PLAYED. So I played it twice, eyes closed and teeth clenched. Upon finishing I received copious applause, which surprised and delighted me. What a genuinely nice group of folks.

Here’s a video I found on youtube, taken at Depsey’s back a few year, to give you the idea what it was like. I recognized a few of the people at the session from this video, crappy quality notwithstanding.

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