Closed vs Open Sessions

357410-closedThere’s a session I go to monthly that is held in a public place, but in order to play you need to be invited. Seems kinda exclusive, right? Well, it is, really. See, there are two kinds of Irish sessions–“open,” and “closed.” Ok–not entirely true, but read on…

At an open session, anyone can play. That’s not to say that there aren’t rules around playing. There’s an etiquette in place to guide the behavior of the musicians who play at an open session to help insure that everyone gets along, and more importantly, that the music is honored and that the quality of the music remains as high as possible. You’re going to get folks who can play very well at an open session, but you’re also going to get those who play only passably, sometimes poorly. As long as the poor players follow the rules–only playing tunes they know well enough to play without too many horrible mistakes, not noodling* during tunes they don’t know–then they probably will avoid irritating their fellow sessioners, and will be welcome to return. There’s a great potential for unexpected wonderfulness at open sessions, as new players might introduce new tunes to the group that they hadn’t heard before, or new sets, or stories. It can also bring in players with no respect or knowledge of the tradition, much less skill at playing. God forbid a cocky bones or tuba player should show up. But that’s why the etiquette is in place, and hopefully folks are mature enough to enforce it without being insulting–except when absolutely necessary!

A closed session is one at which musicians may play by invitation only. There’s probably a leader, or organizer, who wants to keep the quality of the music from falling below a certain point, so they invite only those who they know who can play well. Those invited to a closed session have usually already demonstrated that they respect the tradition of the music, as well as the rules of conduct, so there’s no worry that there will be any unexpected friction. I suppose there’s some variation in leading style from various organizers, and from session to session, but that’s to be expected.

That said, some sessions are more closed than others. For example, trusted invitees can sometimes invite others who they feel can play well enough to attend–sometimes those players are further vetted by the organizer, sometimes not. Around here, in western Massachusetts, the “closed” sessions I have attended have most often been house sessions. There is one closed session I attend currently, and I think that regardless of my place as one of the least skilled musicians (my own opinion) in the group, the fact that I respect the tradition, the music, and the rules goes a long way toward making me welcome. And that is a result of the very important social aspect of sessions–it’s a place where both music AND friends are made. In fact, it’s a lot like college–you’re all interested in the same subject, and you get together periodically to practice and study. Birds of a feather, and all that.

Regardless whether the session is “open” or “closed,” or something in between, the rules apply. The music is played. Friendships are made.

Do you have experiences with closed or open sessions? Share them in the comments!

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.)

The Pub Session is a Socially Complex Critter

did ANYONE remember their instrument?

Did NONE of us bring an instrument?

I’ve been thinking lately about a local pub session that I try to catch about once or twice a month. It’s in a nice pub, with a nice atmosphere–perfect for getting together for a quick drink or a bit of food with friends. This session has been going on weekly for some time now, so there has been plenty of opportunity for the group dynamic to solidify and change a few times. As it stands now, there is a line that can be drawn, almost literally, between two main groups of musicians who seem to have very different motives and goals as related to Irish music.

One group–who I’ll call “The Traditionalists,” are very interested in the music for its own sake. They generally go for “the pure drop,” that is, the music played in a traditional style without so much flash. In other words–they just want to play, and make the music sound authentic, the way it might sound in Ireland herself. They listen to the music very carefully, they are interested in improving their playing, and they are interested in encouraging and teaching anyone who feels the same. They take inspiration from other, older players who are well known for their virtuosity in the music. They know how to listen. These folks have been very welcoming to me, and I consider myself pretty much solidly in this group.

The other group I’ll call “The Performers” this group seems not to be interested  as much in the music itself as are the Traditionalists. When I started attending this session some months ago, I sensed right away that there was something different about some of these folks. It’s hard to put one’s finger on it, but when one fiddler decides to play tunes outside the genre, and string five, even six such tunes together in a set, one realizes that they are not like the Traditionalists. They are performing. Their style of playing screams “WATCH ME!!! I’M PLAYING!!!”  When one sees how a particular bodhrán “player” (ahem) really just isn’t any good at all, and furthermore uses other objects to inject “rhythm” (ahem) into the tunes, such as glasses, beer bottles, and using the tacks on the side of the bodhrán like a jug band washboard, one realizes that they are less than interested in the music. There are other examples, but I will not go into more detail.

On any given evening, the number of Traditionalists about equals the number of Performers. The Trads form one half of the circle, the Performers form the other. One Trad pointed out to me, only half-jokingly, that you could build a wall between the two and everyone would be happier. The tension between individual session members can be palpable at times, though mostly everyone coexists in an attitude of tolerance that the Dalai Lama himself would be proud of. That all-out war doesn’t erupt, especially given some of the stories I have heard, is nothing short of a miracle.

The questions that pop into my head are numerous–how did this dysfunctionality happen? What can be done about it? What are the “Performers” doing there to begin with? Why don’t the “Traditionalists” leave and start their own session elsewhere? Is this common at pub sessions? Why don’t they openly talk about what they all want the session to be, like adults?

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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