Bernard’s – Irsko, irské tance a něco navíc

Aktuality 11. 1. 2017

Irish music sessions v Česku

– Zatím se všechny sessions v Česku tváří jako otevřené tj, přístupné všem muzikantům. Jsme koneckonců malá komunita a všichni se v podstatě známe. Proto se tu nepraktikuje jinak dále popsaná zdvořilost, že se na možnost si zahrát ptá a nikomu zatím nebylo odepřeno se session zúčastnit aktivně. Je však si třeba uvědomit, že jsou tu velké rozdíly mezi muzikanty (osobně si je dělím na 1. a 2. ligu) a tak zejména muzikant, který nemá širší repertoárový rejstřík, by měl umět si najít takové místo mezi ostatními, aby na něho nemuselo být pohlížena jako na “the messer who ruined our session“ (Použito ze Session Etiquette)
– Účastník “sešny” hraje jen ty tunes, ve kterých “je doma”. Veškeré amatérské improvizace jsou pro ostatní rušivé.
– Pokud začínáš nový tune či set, pamatuj na to, že jde o společné hraní a nikoliv o sólovou exhibici. Proto vybírej takové melodie, o kterých předpokládáš, že si zahrají i ostatní zúčastnění.
– V některých pravidlech pro sessions regulují počet doprovodných (rytmických) nástrojů tzv. backers. Hudebníci na tyto nástroje se buď střídají a nebo nejsou připuštěni k hraní. Bohužel u nás nejsou řídké sestavy nástrojů na “sešně” takové, že na dva melodické nástroje jsou 2 kytary a 3 bubny. V takovém případě je na muzikantech, aby při vědomí tohoto nepoměru regulovali styl hraní na svůj nástroj.
– přenechání místa “prvoligovému” muzikantovi v jádru muzikantů je věcí citu. Když ale většinu času proposlouchám, bylo by tu slušné. Na druhé straně pamatuji sešny, kdy “první liga” nezahrála ani do hodiny od vyhlášeného času, což považuji za trochu nezdvořilé.

Tolik moje poznatky. Rád se seznámím s dalšími názory na toto téma a zajímají mě i zkušenosti z jiných měst (Plzeň, Brno, ?). A nyní ještě malá exkurze po pravidlech pro sessions z jiných oblastí:

Last month I wrote about how the traditional Irish pub session is a recent phenomenon, which became popular only after the folk craze of the 1960s. Prior to that time Irish music was played mainly at céilí (social gatherings, dance & music) houses where people would gather around the kitchen fire to entertain themselves with music, dancing, singing and story-telling. Only after Irish musicians emigrated to America and England in the 20th century did they gather at the local pub to play their music. This new “tradition” only became popular in Ireland after the 1960s.

So what is the nature of playing Irish music in pubs? What happens when Irish musicians get together and play? What are the preferred instruments? What is the proper session etiquette?

If you happen upon a pub session you might find musicians gathered in a circle, sometimes around a table, engaged with each other in their music, almost oblivious to other bar patrons. The instruments might include fiddles, flutes, whistles, uilleann pipes, concertinas, accordions, mandolins, banjos, a guitar or bouzouki, and bodhran.

The tunes played are mostly from a long tradition of Irish dance music in the form of jigs, reels, hornpipes, and polkas. Occasionally a slow air or waltz might be performed and someone might sing an unaccompanied song. Or someone might do a lively step dance to a fast jig or reel.

If you happen to be a musician, it is important to know the proper etiquette before joining in. Most sessions are open to anyone who wants to join, provided they know how to play traditional Irish music. However sessions may vary from place to place and have different unwritten guidelines and styles. It is best to first observe the session and try to understand how it operates. Common sense and a sensitivity for the music and musicians is most important.

If you would like to participate, you might ask the host or other musicians about joining with them. If you don’t know the tunes they are playing, just sit and listen, and only play the tunes that you do know. After all, you wouldn’t want to annoy both musicians and listeners by trying to play tunes that you don’t know. If you want to learn tunes played at a particular session, you could ask if it is okay to tape record the music for learning. That, and attentive listening, is the best way to learn.

It is most important not to disturb the flow of music. The purpose of the session is to have fun; when this is not the case, musicians tend to leave. Guitar, bouzouki, and bodhran players should approach a session very cautiously. These are not traditional Irish instruments, and need to be played with great skill and understanding of the music. If not played properly, they tend to throw off the rhythm and melody of the other players. Only one bodhran or guitar (or bouzouki) will be tolerated at any time; two guitars or bodhrans in a session are too many! This is because different rhythms or chords are possible, but should not occur at the same time.

As you observe the session it may not be obvious how tunes are started, and by whom. Some sessions operate by musicians taking turns around the circle to start tunes; in others, musicians seem to start tunes at random. In the latter case, a musician will start a new tune as he or she deems appropriate, but should not dominate the session. A good host will often encourage new players to lead a tune. A player who leads a tune may often follow it with another paired tune in the same key and form, or another player will follow with an appropriate paired tune.

Often the pub owner will reward the session players with free beer or other drinks, up to a limit of course. It is best to ask the local custom, and in any case tip the bar person (it improves the service!).

If you are not a musician but just a punter (non-musician listener), it is also important to know proper etiquette. If you provide a proper listening environment (talk quietly) the music will be heard and played better by the musicians. Don’t crowd the musicians, but give them ample room to play. If you want to be close to the music, try not to take up space that another musician might want to play in; ask a musician if it’s okay.

When a song is called for, it is essential that everyone be absolutely quiet. Most singing is unaccompanied and solo. If everyone is quiet you will be delighted with the beautiful melodies and interesting stories that make Irish songs so great.

If you want to photograph, video, or record a session, it is proper to first ask permission. Clapping or “whooping” is appropriate, but only at the end of a set of tunes. Musicians appreciate this because it means that you are listening and enjoying their music. But don’t clap or “whoop” during a tune as this may tend to throw them off or worse, scare them. Just enjoy the “craic” (general conversation and ambiance) and have a good time.

General Session Etiquette
Etiquette is simply a French word meaning “the practices and forms prescribed by social convention or
authority.” Using this definition, there are definitely some conventions followed by most sessions.
Some of these might include:
1. It is considered polite when first visiting a session to wait to be invited to play, if you are not an
expert player (most expert players don’t need this list). If you walk into a session with an instrument in a
case, the musicians will notice, even if you don’t think they do. Strike up a conversation with one of the
musicians between tunes. (If you’re a beginner in a new area, asking after teachers is a good way to
start.) Nine times out of ten, you’ll be invited to play a tune or two.
2. If you are not a regular visitor of a session, expect to spend at least half of your time listening at first. The tunes may not be the same ones regular to your home session. Pay attention to what’s going on
around you. This session might play tunes in a different key or wildly different setting from what you’re
used to.
3. Keep your instrument in tune. If there is a piper or a non-tunable instrument (a box, for instance),
usually you’re expected to tune to that instrument. Otherwise, use a tuner or tune to the session leader – and tune quietly, especially when others are playing. Check your tune every now and again, especially if you tuned to a piper.
4. Be aware of who the session leader(s) is/are, and defer to that person (especially where it comes to
tempo and choices of tunes). Even when there’s not a designated session leader, someone is usually
filling that role. Far better to be first seen as humble or quiet than first seen as rude to the session leader. If you are an accompanist, be sensitive. If there is more than one guitar or other accompanying
instrument, play quietly so as not to drown out the melody instruments, or clash with another’s choices
of chords.
5. If it’s noisy, you might even sit it out until it’s your turn. There should never be more than one
bodhran player playing at one time in a regular session of average size (under 10 players). If you’re a
beginning piper, make sure that you don’t over-use your drones, especially when there are accompanists.
6. Never “twiddle” during a tune unless this appears to be something everyone likes, nay, even expects.
Irish traditional music rarely incorporates lovely harmonies and lush orchestration. An occasional foray
into this won’t get you banned, but a lot of it will get you jokes and insults behind your back.
7. Don’t mix types of tunes (a hornpipe with a reel with a slip jig). This is fine in a performance, but
usually not at a session. Also, if it’s an Irish session, discuss tunes of other countries with the other
players before launching them. Some sessions (especially those in the US) are Irish-only sessions.
Miscellany: If a singer starts a song, stay very quiet. Ask before you record, and to be safe, don’t bring a
video camera.
8. In general, sensitivity goes a long way. Every session is different depending on the players in it, so
you must be aware of what’s going on around you and adjust accordingly. In middling to desperate
cases, asking a friendly musician about whatever is puzzling you might be your best avenue. We highly
recommend Barry Foy’s book, “A Field Guide to the Irish Music Session” for a look at Irish session
etiquette that’s so complete some people think it’s total bosh.
9. So what is the nature of playing Irish music in pubs? What happens when Irish musicians get together
and play? What are the preferred instruments? What is the proper session etiquette?
10. If you happen upon a pub session you might find musicians gathered in a circle, sometimes around a
table, engaged with each other in their music, almost oblivious to other bar patrons. The instruments
might include fiddles, flutes, whistles, uilleann pipes, concertinas, accordions, mandolins, banjos, a
guitar or bouzouki, and bodhran.
11. The tunes played are mostly from a long tradition of Irish dance music in the form of jigs, reels,
hornpipes, and polkas. Occasionally a slow air or waltz might be performed and someone might sing an
unaccompanied song. Or someone might do a lively step dance to a fast jig or reel.
12. If you happen to be a musician, it is important to know the proper etiquette before joining in. Most
sessions are open to anyone who wants to join, provided they know how to play traditional Irish music.
However sessions may vary from place to place and have different unwritten guidelines and styles. It is
best to first observe the session and try to understand how it operates. Common sense and a sensitivity
for the music and musicians is most important.
13. If you would like to participate, you might ask the host or other musicians about joining with them.
If you don’t know the tunes they are playing, just sit and listen, and only play the tunes that you do
know. After all, you wouldn’t want to annoy both musicians and listeners by trying to play tunes that
you don’t know. If you want to learn tunes played at a particular session, you could ask if it is okay to
tape record the music for learning. That, and attentive listening, is the best way to learn.
14. It is most important not to disturb the flow of music. The purpose of the session is to have fun; when
this is not the case, musicians tend to leave. Guitar, bouzouki, and bodhran players should approach a
session very cautiously.
15. As you observe the session it may not be obvious how tunes are started, and by whom. Some
sessions operate by musicians taking turns around the circle to start tunes; in others, musicians seem to
start tunes at random. In the latter case, a musician will start a new tune, as he or she deems appropriate, but should not dominate the session. A good host will often encourage new players to lead a tune. A player who leads a tune may often follow it with another paired tune in the same key and form, or another player will follow with an appropriate paired tune.
16. Often the pub owner will reward the session players with free beer or other drinks, up to a limit of
course. It is best to ask the local custom, and in any case tip the bar person (it improves the service!).
17. If you are not a musician but just a punter (non-musician listener), it is also important to know
proper etiquette. If you provide a proper listening environment (talk quietly) the music will be heard and played better by the musicians. Don’t crowd the musicians, but give them ample room to play. If you want to be close to the music, try not to take up space that another musician might want to play in; ask a musician if it’s okay.
18. When a song is called for, it is essential that everyone be absolutely quiet. Most singing is
unaccompanied and solo. If everyone is quiet you will be delighted with the beautiful melodies and
interesting stories that make Irish songs so great.
19. If you want to photograph, video, or record a session, it is proper to first ask permission. Clapping or
“whooping” is appropriate, but only at the end of a set of tunes. Musicians appreciate this because it
means that you are listening and enjoying their music. But don’t clap or “whoop” during a tune as this
may tend to throw them off or worse, scare them. Just enjoy the “craic” (general conversation and
ambiance) and have a good time.

THE SESSION:
The session is the life-blood of traditional music, and with the session goes the associated notion of
craic.
What is a “Session”?
Source: http://groups.msn.com/traditionalirishmusic
An Irish “session” is a gathering of musicians (often taking place in a public venue) for the purpose of
playing music together.
Playing in a good session can be fun, invaluable playing experience, and a great chance to improve your
music–all at the same time. Good sessions can produce some of the best Irish music in the world, and
they can do so for hours on end–under the right circumstances.
There is a popular misconception that “The Irish session” is meant to be an open forum, where anybody
who can come in off the street is welcome to participate and learn to make music at the same time. In
reality, while some sessions may be such open forums, this characteristic is not intrinsic to “the session”
itself, and it can be a big mistake to incorrectly assume that it is.
In reality, Irish sessions are much more like other casual social gatherings than they are like open
forums. Often, sessions are groups of friends getting together for a few tunes, and not as an open
invitation to everyone to come and play. People who come in off the street will usually be welcomed,
but they may be met with a certain amount of circumspection until they demonstrate their ability to
“play well with others”.
Here are some of the bigger mistakes that will alienate your fellow musicians at a typical session (in no
particular order):
Playing a percussive instrument poorly, out of turn, too loudly, or generally outside the taste of the other musicians. A good rule of thumb here is: “one bodhrán and/or guitar/bouzouki at a time”. More than one will often clash, irritating the melody players. In Irish music, the melody is FAR more important than the backing, and backers who assume otherwise can quickly become session-pariahs.
Joining a group of unfamiliar musicians without asking, or without being invited. This is especially
important if you think your presence might change the existing dynamic in a way that the musicians
don’t want it changed. The quality of the music is often what determines how much fun people have. If
you ruin their music, you are probably ruining their fun too.
Playing when you don’t really know the tune. It’s usually ok to do so very quietly, but… be careful! Your
wrong notes may distract, and irritate, the person sitting next to you.
Starting too many tunes without consulting the other musicians. It’s generally a good idea (especially at
an unfamiliar session) to ask the other musicians if they’d like to play a tune before you launch into it.
This helps you make sure that you won’t be doing something antisocial by starting a tune that the other
musicians don’t know or don’t want to play.
When someone does one of these things at a session, it makes everybody feel uncomfortable. While it
might be nice (especially for beginners) if the other musicians would politely inform you, this is difficult
to do tactfully, so this isn’t usually what happens. Instead, the other musicians are more likely to simply
feel irritated and leave it at that.
In general, remember this: If you’re not organizing the session, you are a GUEST, and all the same
social guidelines apply to your “visit” that would if you walked into someone else’s party. Just as you
can alienate people by crashing a party and being rude, so too can you alienate them by crashing their
session and being rude.

THE WORLD OF THE SESSION can be extremely daunting for the uninitiated. Sessions often exude an air of elitism, only for those who know a mysterious repertoire of tunes, or those who can play tunes at a very fast pace. Those who do not know the unwritten rules can either be nervous of joining a session, or insensitive to its aims and purpose.
The trouble with session etiquette is that there are possibly as many opinions about this delicate subject as there are participants in sessions, and nobody can give you hard and fast rules about it. I have attempted to give advice about some aspects of the session, and hopefully you can use these comments as guidelines. In general, the watchwords are courtesy, consideration, sensitivity and patience.
In talking about sessions, I have divided the playing standard into three main types:
• Advanced: The session appears to be going at warp speed, with long strings of tunes played by all those there. There is an inner circle of experienced musicians who prefer the company of others of the same skill level.
• Intermediate: There’s a lot of stopping and starting, and the skill levels of the musicians appear to vary. Less serious, more welcoming.
• Beginners: Participants have been playing a year or two and are just building up their skills and repertoire. It may be acceptable to use books or sheet music. It’s usually led by one more experienced player who calls the tunes and sets the pace.
Of course, in reality, the standard of a session may fall anywhere between these definitions.
________________________________________
Advice for Session-Goers
Joining the Session
“If you’re new to the session and don’t know what you’re doing, wait and watch”
You can learn a lot from a good session, just sitting right outside the session circle and paying attention. Don’t barge in and start showing off – that’s one way to annoy the regulars. If it’s a small session, ask someone who seems to know what’s going on if you may join them. In larger sessions, it’s probably OK just to join in.
“Be aware of the skill level”
In an advanced session (it’s very crowded, the music is fast and furious and everyone looks very earnest), if you are new to it, do not sit down in the circle. The circle will frequently open up to a familiar or respected musician who turns up, but don’t you expect such behaviour. An intermediate session will be more tolerant, but it might still have an inner core, which is why it’s best to watch and wait at the beginning.
“Only sit IN the session if you’re going to PLAY in the session. “
If you’re there only to listen, be considerate and let those that want to play sit next to each other.
Tunes
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.
Requesting a tune
If you have a tune you’d like played, don’t yell out “Play such-and-such!”; simply ask “Does anyone know such-and-such?”.
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.
General
“Don’t start playing a tune while everyone else is tuning.”
It’s more difficult to tune while a tune is being played, so be considerate and wait until everyone is done tuning before starting to play. Try not to tune your instrument excessively while everyone else is playing. It’s distracting. A good time to tune is when a break occurs. If no break seems to be coming soon, try to tune quietly, or at a short distance from those playing, so as not to disturb.
“Don’t talk loudly while everyone else is playing.”
Musicians are concentrating when they’re playing tunes, so don’t walk up and start talking to them. It’s distracting, rude, and shows ignorance. Wait until they’ve stopped playing for any chatter.
“Ask before recording a session”
Tape recording a session is common, but it is always appreciated when you ask first. It’s unlikely that you’ll be told “no”, and it is also a good way to preserve a tune for later learning by ear. Be polite, and discrete – don’t shove tape recorders or microphones in the musicians’ faces, even if permission was granted. In beginners sessions, it is expected that people will record many of the tunes.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions”
…but wait until there’s a break in the playing. Once a musician has put their instrument down, they may be open to questions – otherwise, they may be waiting to play, so don’t interrupt them with a question. Common courtesy and decency almost always win out, and a quick question or comment during a lull wouldn’t seem inappropriate.
Wait until a set is finished before asking for tune names.
“Handling others’ instruments: Don’t!”
NEVER, ever, handle, play, touch or move another musician’s instrument without asking them first. An instrument is of great importance to its owner, and should be approached as a precious object.
Summary
“Every session has its unique unspoken rules…”
…or lack of them, as you’ll learn as you attend more. As a newbie, the less noticeable you make yourself, the less chance there is of your being embarrassed or annoying people.

There are some conventions followed by most sessions. Some of these might include:
? It is considered polite when first visiting a session to wait to be invited to play, if you are not an expert player (most expert players don’t need this list). If you walk into a session with an instrument in a case, the musicians will notice, even if you don’t think they do. Strike up a conversation with one of the musicians between tunes. (If you’re a beginner in a new area, asking after teachers is a good way to start.) Nine times out of ten, you’ll be invited to play a tune or two.
? If you are not a habitué of a session, expect to spend at least half of your time listening at first. The tunes may not be the same ones regular to your home session. Pay attention to what’s going on around you. This session might play tunes in a different key or wildly different setting from what you’re used to.
? Keep your instrument in tune. If there is a piper or a non-tunable instrument (a box, for instance), usually you’re expected to tune to that instrument. Otherwise, use a tuner or tune to the session leader — and tune quietly, especially when others are playing. Check your tune every now and again, especially if you tuned to a piper.
? Be aware of who the session leader(s) is/are, and defer to that person (especially where it comes to tempo and choices of tunes). Even when there’s not a designated session leader, someone is usually filling that role. Far better to be first seen as humble or quiet than first seen as rude to the session leader.
? If you are an accompanist, be sensitive. If there is more than one guitar or other accompanying instrument, play quietly so as not to drown out the melody instruments, or clash with another’s choices of chords. If it’s noisy, you might even sit it out until it’s your turn. There should never be more than one bodhran player playing at one time in a regular session of average size (under 10 players). If you’re a beginning piper, make sure that you don’t over-use your drones, especially when there are accompanists.
? Never “twiddle” during a tune unless this appears to be something everyone likes, nay, even expects. Irish traditional music rarely incorporates lovely harmonies and lush orchestration. An occasional foray into this won’t get you banned, but a lot of it will get you jokes and insults behind your back.
? Don’t mix types of tunes (a hornpipe with a reel with a slip jig). This is fine in a performance, but usually not at a session. Also, if it’s an Irish session, discuss tunes of other countries with the other players before launching them. Some sessions are Irish-only sessions.
? Ask before you record, and to be safe, don’t bring a video camera.
In general, sensitivity goes a long way. Every session is different depending on the players in it, so you must be aware of what’s going on around you and adjust accordingly. In middling to desperate cases, asking a friendly musician about whatever is puzzling you might be your best avenue..
Halifax Slow Session Etiquette
here are some additional points of etiquette…
“Irishness”
An Irish session in this region of the country, where there are other very strong musical traditions, can be overwhelmed by those styles unless new members are aware that the intent of these sessions is to play mostly Irish tunes.
Singers
We are lucky to have, on occasion, a sean nos singer. This type of singing is usually unaccompanied, so do not noodle on your instrument while the singer is performing. Singers have to maintain their pitch in their heads, so if you play a bad note or chord, it can spell disaster for the singer. Only accompany a singer if requested to do so by the singer. The singer will choose the musicians she/he would like to accompany her/him.
Tempo
The tempo for a tune is set by the musician who leads the tune. Do not speed up a tune beyond the set tempo. This is easy to do, especially if there is a large number of players present and the group is spread out, so listen carefully to the other musicians and be aware of how your playing is adhering to (or not adhering to) the set tempo.
If you find the tempo set for a tune too fast for you to maintain, stop playing and listen. When the tune or set is finished, you are welcome to ask that the tune be played again more slowly, and the group will be glad to oblige you by starting again at about ? speed.
Encouragement
If a fellow musician plays a new tune that impresses you or if a singer sings a song that you enjoy, please let them know how you feel. We want to encourage each other in the playing of this music.
Have fun!
This is the most important point of all. We’re here to enjoy our music, and to build musical friendships that will last for years.
Session Etiquette
As not all musicians are aware of “unspoken rules,” it has become necessary to post such rules for everyone to see.
• Only tunes or songs which are old enough to be free of copyright law (90 years or older) will be played.
• The tunes and songs which are frequently played at this session are listed on this website. Practice that list of tunes and songs first. Play along with the YouTube playlist on the front page as well. Don’t start a tune that the other session players have not become accustomed to.
• The musicians with a melody instrument who have been playing here for years are those who will start a set of tunes. Follow them.
• The musicians who have been playing the longest might introduce a “new” [90+ years old, of course] tune every now and then. That doesn’t mean that you should do the same, if you’re new to the session.
• When the lead musician who started the set of tunes is about to change from one tune to another, they will generally lift one of their feet for a few seconds. This is also the gesture shown right before they end the set, so be prepared for either a transition to another tune, or the end of the set.
• Don’t play your instrument louder than the lead musician. If it’s a song, be sure that you play quietly enough so that everyone behind you can hear the words.
• Percussion instruments should match the lead musician. Their purpose is to assist the other melody instruments in following the lead musician.
• Guitars, mandolins, and other stringed instruments that are playing chords, and not the melody, are considered percussion instruments, and should… match the lead musician.
• If it’s a crowded session, with many musicians showing up, give up the middle of the circle for the lead musicians. It’s best that everyone is close enough to hear the melody being played.
• Bodhrans which are not being played to the same beat as the lead instrument are forbidden. See the next checklist.
• Djembes, congas, tambourines, and other non-Irish percussion instruments which are played too loud (or sometimes being played at all) or aren’t being played to sound like an Irish instrument are also shunned.
• End the sets gracefully. It can sound bad when the lead melody instrument is ending slowly or quietly, while the percussion instruments are still going at the same pace… or going at all.
• Anticipate the end of a tune in the set after two times around. It might go three times, but two is the norm.
• Near the end of the second time around in a tune, keep an eye out on the lead musician for a clue as to whether they’re ending the tune, ending the set, or continuing.
• Don’t touch someone else’s instrument without first asking them, even to move it.
• When someone gets up temporarily (ordering another beverage; going to the restroom; going outside for a smoke…), that doesn’t mean that their seat is now available. And remember the previous rule about moving their instrument.
Bodhrán Etiquette
As this website is managed by a bodhrán player, I feel it is appropriate to include etiquette specifically for bodhrán players here.
• If the tune is not fast enough to warrant playing a bodhrán, put… the tipper… down.
• If you can’t play the rhythm yet, practice using my bodhrán practice guide until you’re able to keep pace with every tune that you hear.
• If you’re off rhythm, you’ll mess everyone up… including the lead musician.
• If you’re too loud, other musicians near you won’t be able to hear the lead musician. “A quiet, peripheral role is always appreciated by experience musicians.” –
• Make sure your bodhrán is loosened up enough, and that it isn’t leaving a metallic, ringing noise after each beat.
• If a musician can hear two bodhráns, and they’re played slightly differently, it can be distracting. It’s best to have only one bodhrán being played per tune.
• If you’re sitting right by an experienced bodhrán player, are matching their rhythm exactly, and are playing very quietly, then there might be an exception to the previous rule… as it would sound like one bodhrán. But if you can’t anticipate and match the silences being played on the other bodhrán, sit the set out.
• The same rules apply as with other musicians at the session. If you don’t already know a tune, don’t join in. Practice it on this website, so you’ll be ready next time.

Session Etiquette
Advice for Newcomers
Newcomers are always welcome at the Malta Session and you will find it’s a very friendly and supportive place in which to get involved in communal session music. Below is some advice aimed to help newcomers get the most from the session. Even experienced musicians may find some of this advice useful since the Malta Session has several features not commonly found in other sessions.
It’s a Session, not a Folk Club
The traditional folk club format is the “sing around” where members take it in turn to present a piece for the entertainment of the others. People generally spend a lot more time listening than performing. A session is quite different. Here the emphasis is on playing together as a group. Typically one member of a session will start up a tune and everyone else joins in.
If you are already an experienced session player, you may find the Malta Session format a little disconcerting at first with more gentle tunes (e.g. waltzes and polkas) you would normally associate with a session. Hopefully you will enjoy this slightly different way of doing sessions.
If on the other hand you have more of a folk-club background, you might be misled into thinking that we are another form of folk club. This is not the case and you should take note of the “solos” section below.
Solos
Solos are welcome at the session. If you would like to do a solo or party piece you will find that people are happy to put their instruments down and be entertained for a little while. However you need to be sensitive to the overall needs of the session so that we don’t find ourselves sliding from “session mode” to “folk-club mode”.
A lot will depend on the circumstances of a particular evening. On a quiet night when there are not many attendees, a few solos will go down very well. On a busy night with 10 or more musicians in the room, there is less scope for solos. For example if all 10 did a solo piece there would be greatly reduced time for communal playing.
You should think carefully before doing more than one solo piece of an evening and if in any doubt, ask the advice of the Session Leader for the evening.
On the other hand, if you are a dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore session player for whom solos are anathema, you will need to be prepared to relax occasionally and just listen.
Tune Sharing
Tune sharing is different from solos in that the intention is not so much to entertain as to share. The idea is that other session members might be interested in the tune and want to learn to play it at home. If sufficient people find the tune of interest, and over time several members start to play it, it might eventually be adopted by the session as a whole. There are no rules or conventions covering this process, it just happens naturally.
As a newcomer you are welcome to do some tune sharing and indeed some newcomers do it unintentionally by starting a tune common in their neck of the woods but new to us. On the other hand you need to be sensitive not to overdo tune sharing so that it becomes another form of solo.
Communal Songs
One of the features of the Malta Session is that we do a few (very few!) communal songs. You are very welcome to play and sing along with these songs. Where the song or verse is being carried by one individual, we try to be sensitive and not to overwhelm him or her with over-loud instrumental accompaniment, particularly during the verse – the chorus may be quite rowdy! Often the singer will call for an instrumental between verses and this is the time to let go and ramp up the volume.
“Three Times” Convention
In almost all sessions, the convention is that tunes are played twice through (including repeats) and many are played in conventional “sets” of two or more tunes, always played together, always in the same order without any pause between them.
Similarly, the convention at the Malta Session is also that tunes are normally played twice through (including repeats). However we occasionally call for “three times through”, especially if the tune is relatively new to us. This is an important part of the ethos of our session. It gives beginners a chance to work themselves into a tune and it gives everyone a chance to explore the tune more fully.
If you are playing a solo which consists of a set of tunes, it would be courteous to limit yourself to the common convention of playing each twice through, so that the session isn’t kept waiting too long.
Playing Speed
Playing speed at the Malta Session is best described as “variable”. Many of the session members have been playing these tunes for several years and can play them at quite a lick if they feel so inclined. But they don’t always choose to do so. A lot depends on the mood of the evening and on which musician starts off the tune.
Some Irish tunes are played “up to speed” (i.e. blindingly fast) but many are played more sedately.
If you are a beginner, you don’t need to be nervous about starting off a tune quite slowly. We have a strong tradition at the Malta Session that we try our best to play a tune at the speed of the player who started it off. This is one of the reasons the session seems so friendly and welcoming to newcomers, especially beginners and people trying a new instrument.
If you are used to “fast and furious” session playing, you will need to be sensitive to the mixture of experience in our session. In particular, try to take it easy on the simpler, common tunes which beginners will be hoping to join in.
Playing From Sheet Music
At many sessions, if you were to bring along sheet music, you would find a cool if not downright hostile reception. In the Malta Session we are more relaxed about the use of sheet music. If you can’t do without some dots or notes, nobody will mind. In particular, if you are a post beginner on your instrument, it’s quite normal to bring some music with you. However we would encourage you to leave the dots behind as soon as you can. Tunes in a session, or indeed in any folk music setting, are rarely played exactly as written and you’ll get a lot more from the session by playing the music as it’s really meant to sound.
Session music is full of spontaneity and life. If everybody was to play from sheet music then it would devolve into ensemble playing and the special session ambience would be lost. So shake off those sheet music shackles as soon as you can!
The session tradition is that all melody instruments play the melody and that second or third parts are unknown. In the Malta Session we have a few slower tunes which, for historical reasons have a second and possibly a third part. However the vast majority of our tunes are played “melody only”.
Session Leader
There will usually be an informal session leader for each evening. Although the session generally freewheels along in a spontaneous way, the leader will occasionally intervene to help keep the balance and does his or her best to ensure that everyone feels included. If you have any questions or requests the session leader is the best person to ask. For example if you would like a particular tune played but don’t feel confident to start it off yourself, the leader will make sure it happens during the evening.
The session leader is also the formal interface between the session and the owner or landlord of the premises.
Here are some of the bigger mistakes that will alienate your fellow musicians at a typical session (in no particular order):
• Playing a percussive instrument poorly, out of turn, too loudly, or generally outside the taste of the other musicians. A good rule of thumb here is: “one bodhrán and/or guitar/bouzouki at a time”. More than one will often clash, irritating the melody players. In Irish music, the melody is FAR more important than the backing, and backers who assume otherwise can quickly become session-pariahs.
• Joining a group of unfamiliar musicians without asking, or without being invited. This is especially important if you think your presence might change the existing dynamic in a way that the musicians don’t want it changed. The quality of the music is often what determines how much fun people have. If you ruin their music, you are probably ruining their fun too.
• Playing when you don’t really know the tune. It’s usually ok to do so very quietly, but… be careful! Your wrong notes may distract, and irritate, the person sitting next to you.
• Starting too many tunes without consulting the other musicians. It’s generally a good idea (especially at an unfamiliar session) to ask the other musicians if they’d like to play a tune before you launch into it. This helps you make sure that you won’t be doing something antisocial by starting a tune that the other musicians don’t know or don’t want to play.
When someone does one of these things at a session, it makes everybody feel uncomfortable. While it might be nice (especially for beginners) if the other musicians would politely inform you, this is difficult to do tactfully, so this isn’t usually what happens. Instead, the other musicians are more likely to simply feel irritated and leave it at that.
In general, remember this: If you’re not organizing the session, you are a GUEST, and all the same social guidelines apply to your “visit” that would if you walked into someone else’s party. Just as you can alienate people by crashing a party and being rude, so too can you alienate them by crashing their session and being rude.
Default General Session Etiquette
“Etiquette” is a French word. Roughly, it refers to the practices and forms of behavior prescribed and proscribed by social convention. That is, the dos and don’ts of social interaction. Here are basic guidelines a novice should consider whenever going to an unfamiliar session — most, but not all, expert players don’t really need this list.
• Treat all musicians with respect. <– that’s a period!
• Quietly tune your instrument and periodically check to be sure that you are in tune with the group. Pipes are non-tunable, like a box, so tune to them. Otherwise, use a tuner or tune to the session leader.
• The musician who starts the tune sets the tempo, and it should not falter until the set is over.
• Don’t play at a speed above your skill level. It’s better to play a tune slowly and well than quickly and badly.
• Don’t start playing a tune while others are tuning (unless they’re just way too slow!).
• When first visiting a session you should wait to be invited to play, particularly if you are not an expert player. Walking into a session with an instrument case will be noticed. Nine times out of ten, you’ll be invited to play a tune or two at some point. However, as a newbie, expect to spend at least half of your time listening. If you come often, and orient yourself to the settings, then you’ll play more.
• At any session under ten players, only one percussion instrument (bodhrán, bones, etc.) at a time, so take turns. Bones and bodhrán can sometimes work together, but not every time.
• At any session under ten players, only one rhythm instrument (guitar, bouzouki, etc.) at a time, so take turns. A bass and rhythm instrument (e.g., mando-bass and guitar) can work together. Accompanists MUST be sensitive. Insensitive accompanists, no matter how big their ego, will be regarded as a pariah, and jokes about them will abound!
• If you’re a beginning piper, make sure that you don’t over-use your drones, especially when there are accompanists. Just play the tune until you know the instrument better.
• If your instrument is much louder than the other instruments at the session, then you should play it so that all the melody instruments at the session can be heard clearly by everyone. (see the first point above)
• The more popular tunes, which every musician knows, are often played early in the session, so if you want to play these tunes, get to the session early. If you arrive later in the session, ask before you start playing one of the popular tunes.
• Don’t “noodle” during a tune. It is really disturbing.
• Play the tune, not the harmony. An occasional foray into harmony won’t get you banned, but a lot of it will result in jokes and insults behind your back.
• Before you start a tune, listen to be sure that another tune has not already started.
• Irish traditional music sessions are acoustic sessions, and so no amplification is used.
• Playing great music is serious business, but it helps to have a good sense of humor.
• Be aware of who the session leader(s) is/are, and defer to that person (especially where it comes to tempo and choices of tunes). Even when there’s not a designated session leader, someone is usually filling that role. Far better to be first seen as humble or quiet than first seen as a rude person to the session leader.
• Don’t mix types of tunes. Unless you’re well ensconced in the session don’t play a jig with a hornpipe with a reel with a slip jig. A band can do this, but it’s rude in a session since you’re just trying to make people feel silly.
• If it’s an Irish session, discuss tunes of other countries with the other players before launching them. Some sessions (especially those in the US) are Irish-only sessions.
• If a singer starts a song, stay very quiet. Ask before you record, and to be safe, don’t bring a video camera. Also, don’t start up a conversation while the singer sings as that is just plain rude.
KCITMS Etiquette
In general, sensitivity goes a long way. Sessions differ, as do the players in them. Be aware of what’s going on around you and adjust accordingly. In middling to desperate cases, asking a friendly musician about whatever is puzzling you might be your best avenue. We highly recommend Barry Foy’s book A Field Guide to the Irish Music Session, though it’s a humorous look at session etiquette.
Here’s the basic KCITMS session etiquette at present:
• Respect all musicians and be helpful to each other, though feel free to slag away if you know the player.
• Don’t bring sheet music.
• Don’t play at lightening speed all the time.
• Everyone is making a contribution to the session, so be generous with your time, help, and encouragement.
• We welcome beginners right now, so sit down and play if you know the tune and start a tune at whatever speed you like and we’ll follow along.
• Feel free to experiment with variations, but be cognizant of what others are doing.
• If you bring an instrument, be it a guitar or bodhrán, then you MUST play it, no matter how many others are doing the same thing. If it gets to be be too much for the melody players, we’ll let you know. We won’t take offense, so you shouldn’t either. All we ask is that you try not to clash with each other with chord choices or pulse or such, so please pay attention.
So now it’s up to you. What are you waiting for? Come and play!
Henrik Norbeck’s Tips on Backing Irish Music
Here are some tips (or maybe rules) for musicians who wish to participate in Irish traditional music sessions as backers on guitar, bouzouki, bass, etc.
I’ve often met less-than-sensitive backers (some would qualify as clueless or even ghastly) at sessions, and their lack of understanding of the music has more or less ruined the session. This has prompted me to write these tips, so that both melody players, backers and listeners may enjoy future sessions more.
Session Etiquette
A lot of this applies not only to backers, but also to melody players.
1. A session is often open to other musicians who play Irish traditional music, but there are also closed sessions.
2. If you wish to join in a session and have not been invited, ask one of the musicians first if it’s ok! Don’t be disappointed if they say no, but sit down and listen to the good music instead. You can sometimes learn more from listening than from playing.
3. If there is already another backer present in the session, it’s usually not a good idea to join in as a backer. Two backers can cause havoc if they play different chords due to different interpretations of the melody. Sometimes it might work well though, especially with two different backing instruments, e.g. guitar + bouzouki or guitar + bass. For a session to work well with two backers, they either have to know each other’s playing well enough so as not to “clash”, or be very competent musicians.
4. Another alternative if there is more than one backer is to take turns backing the tunes.
5. Don’t play louder than the melody instruments! Remember that the melody is the main element of Irish traditional music.
6. If you don’t know a tune, don’t play along, unless it’s easy enough to follow. In this case it’s better to sit back and listen and afterwards maybe ask where you could find the tune, so you can go back home and learn it.
7. If you’re a proficient backer, you might be able to play along with an unknown tune the second time around, but don’t do that if you risk ruining the tune by playing “bum chords”.
8. Most tunes are played in “sets” of two or more tunes linked together. Keep a lookout for cues that the melody players (usually the one that started the set of tunes) are going to change tune. If they haven’t said before the set which tune comes next, stop playing until you know which tune it is.
9. Good backing can lift the tunes in an Irish session, bad backing detracts from the musical enjoyment.
10. You don’t want to be known to the melody players as “the messer who ruined our session” (probably expressed in a more rude way). They might not say this directly to you, but they definitely will say it to each other when you’re not there.
11. Specifically, if you don’t know what key (mode) a tune is in, don’t just ask and then start banging along in the key you get as an answer. If you can’t hear what key a tune is in, it means you have to practice more listening to tunes and figuring out the key.
12. Before joining in any session, you must learn how Irish traditional music tunes are built, see the sections below on melody, chords and rhythms.
The Music
Melody and Chords
1. The main element in Irish traditional music is the melody, which makes it different from many other genres of music, e.g. jazz or rock. This means that the melody players lead the tune, and any backers should follow the tune, and not the other way around.
2. Irish traditional music often does not follow the chord progressions you would be used to from other musical genres. Most of the tunes are in a major key, but even then there are often quirks such as a tune in D major beginning on a G major chord (e.g. The Virginia). Some people prefer using the word “modes” instead of “keys” for Irish music.
3. Most Irish tunes that are perceived to be in a “minor” key are not in a “standard minor key”, but rather in a type of dorian minor mode, with a sharp sixth of the scale (e.g. A B C D E F# G). In addition, many “dorian” tunes don’t include the third note of the scale (e.g. A B D E F# G), which means that they often sound better when backed with open chords (without the third), at least for the “tonic” of the tune.
4. There are however quite a number of “minor” tunes that are in the natural minor (aeolian) mode (e.g. E F# G A B C D). Learn to hear the difference between the different “minor” modes.
5. There are many Irish tunes that are in the mixolydian mode (e.g. D E F# G A B C). Learn how to accompany that mode with appropriate chords.
6. There are many tunes that are ambiguous in their modality (e.g. The Old Bush) and tunes might switch modes between the parts.
7. Many tunes don’t end on the “tonic”, e.g. a tune in D major might end on a B minor.
8. Most tunes have two parts. However, there are quite a number of tunes with three, four or even more parts. There are also tunes where one part is longer (often the second part is double the length of the first part). Furthermore, tunes may have 4-bar parts (called singled) or 8-bar parts (called doubled).
9. There are often several ways to interpret the harmonies for any given tune, which means that every backer probably comes up with a different set of chords for it.
10. A key element of Irish traditional music is variation, which for melody players means that they usually don’t play the tune identically twice around, and different melody players interpret the tune in different ways.
11. For backers, variation ideally means that they also vary their backing the second (third etc) time around a tune. This could include chords substitutions.
12. Since the melody is the main element, most tunes have slightly different chord progressions, even though they might be similar. Learn each tune separately and find good chords for it.
13. Backers should ideally know each tune they wish to play along with at least in their head.
14. Irish traditional music can appear deceptively easy, but it is a highly evolved form of music with nuances that are lost when the musicians don’t know it properly. Melody playing in Irish music takes time to learn and an even longer time to master. The same applies to backing.
Rhythm
1. Irish tunes come in some different basic rhythms, which you must learn if you wish to participate in a session.
2. The most common rhythm is the reel, which is in cut-common time (diddle duddle diddle duddle), and mostly with a bit of swing to it. Don’t over-emphasise the downbeats, which will deaden the rhythm of the tune. Often it is more appropriate to emphasise the backbeats, but don’t overdo that.
3. The second rhythm is the jig (or double jig) in 6/8 time (diddely diddely). Here you should also not over-emphasise the downbeats, but also place some emphasis on the last of every group of three notes (diddeLY), which of course also should not be overdone.
4. There are also single jigs and slides, which are in a faster (especially slides) 6/8 or 12/8 time, and have more of a “humpty dumpty” rhythm.
5. Then there are slip jigs in 9/8 time (diddely diddely diddely). Here the same rules apply as for double jigs.
6. Hornpipes are also in cut-common time, but slower than reels and with a marked bounce. Learn the rhythmical difference between a slow reel and a fast hornpipe.
7. Polkas are in a straight 2/4 time. Don’t place too much emphasis on the downbeat here either.
8. Strathspeys, highlands and flings are also in cut-common time, but with a different rhythmisation (closer to 4/4 (common) time). They also often feature a “backward” rhythmic device sometimes called a “scotch snap”.
9. These are the main rhythms. Then there might occur the odd march, mazurka, waltz, barndance or Carolan tune at a session, or even free-rhythm slow airs.
10. There might of course also be songs sung at sessions.
And finally, good luck to you, and I hope you’ll have many years of fun ahead of you together with other musicians, now that you’ve taken up playing Irish traditional music!
Session Etiquette
Session etiquette is nothing more than exhibiting common courtesy and sensitivity to others.
A few key points are:
• If you are new to a session it is advised that you introduce yourself and ask the session leader for permission to sit in.
• If you’re not familiar with a tune being played or are trying to learn it, either sit that one out or try to play very quietly so as not to be disruptive.
The use of recording devices is encouraged as a method for learning new tunes at home.
• Use of sheet music during the session is discouraged.
• Playing in an incorrect key or improvisation (noodling) is highly frowned upon.
• Only one bodhran and/or guitar/bouzouki playing at a time, switching off if there is more than one. More than one will often clash with each other, disrupting the melody.
• At times a song may be sung or a slow air played by a single musician between sets. Unless invited, these are generally unaccompanied by the other instruments.

Václav Bernard

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