Found this interesting artice  at

The Irish “Session” (Part 2)
by Stewart Hendrickson

Irish Session - McGrory's

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.

Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus – University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; ).  Contact him at for questions, ideas or comments.


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Hi Terry. I kinda wear two hats on this. Generally if I attend a session that I am not familiar with I will simply listen and play along with the tunes I know. I will not try and start a set, nor if asked would I feel comfortable starting a set.

On the other hand I play with 5 other musicians and we all took the time to learn of the sets we play to the best of our ability, thus providing a nights entertainment as we do a paid session. There are of course times when we do tunes that we all don't know. From time to time other musicians join us. Some adopt the approach of playing what they know, and starting a set when asked. Others, sometime visiting musicians, in the city for the night, think it is their right to start their own set in between the sets we play. Depending on the tunes and whether we know them or not it can result in a very disjointed evening. This can be further compounded by their playing ability.

One of the aims of TradConnect is to connect players locally with each other so that they can get together to practice and learn their music, and start sessions if necessary. For many the local session can be too daunting an experience. By forming their own little group you can overcome some of the obstacles of joining big well established sessions. Thats the idea so hopefully it can go some way to gathering musicians together.

I paste this article by Pete Cooper in Fiddle On magazine from a few years ago for your consideration!


This aricle first appeared in FiddleOn magazine in 2003 as  ‘Cooper’s Fiddle Corner - 10’

Playing in a pub session with other musicians can seem a very distant goal to the beginning fiddler, learning the basics in relative isolation. I've also met highly trained violinists who are attracted to the idea of a session, but feel equally daunted. If, however, you can play, say, forty tunes or so by heart, with reasonable accuracy, speed and confidence, you could probably make a start and try a session out. So what are sessions all about? What is the etiquette that governs joining in? How do they work?

              What may not be apparent when you see a dozen assorted musicians playing around a pub table on a Saturday night, is that most sessions are to some extent hosted and led by an individual, or by a small core of regulars. They meet by arrangement with the landlord, perhaps playing for free drinks or, more rarely, cash, as well as for the crack. These host players determine the character of the session, whether, for example, it's Irish, or English, or some mixture of styles, that's played. This is worth finding out. While it is conceivable that a crowd of Scottish musicians, immersed in a great flow of strathspeys and reels, may be delighted by a newcomer's refreshing selection of Morris tunes played on the recorder, I wouldn't count on it. The aim is usually to play together, exploring common repertoire. So pick a session that's broadly in line with the kind of music you're into.

Session etiquette generally resembles the rules of conversation.               Someone who hogs the lead all the time, showing off flashy tunes that nobody else knows, can be annoying. Proving your musical superiority is really not the point. But equally, if you're a half-decent player, don't be bashful. Feel free to take the initiative once in a while. A session, like a good chat, is a friendly exchange and people will be curious to know what you have to contribute. Depending on the relative volume of your fiddle and the other instruments involved, it may be wise to join in only on tunes you actually know, or are pretty close to knowing. Busking along on the chords, however artistically, is not usually a good idea in a traditional session, especially if there's already a guitarist. (Even in Swedish music, where an improvised fiddle harmony can be part of the style, the basic rule is to learn to play the tune itself first.) Beyond ordinary courtesy and respect, the conventions of a session depend on the particular genre and idiom of the music.

In a typical Irish session, for example, each tune is played three times - in some sessions, only twice - through. One person, maybe at the invitation of the host musician, will start a set of reels, say, or jigs, or polkas. The two or three tunes that comprise the medley are usually in different keys, but don't mix up different tune-types, such as a reel and a jig, in one set. (In a Cape Breton session, by way of contrast, you could play an air, march, strathspey and reel, but all must be in the same key). As the end of the third time through approaches, the group's attention turns to whoever started the tune: what's coming next? Listeners at the bar may notice a momentary lull in the music, a brief pause until, having recognised the new tune, the players all join in again. If you're the person leading the set, you need to be very sure of the change. It's almost impossible to think of how one tune goes while you're playing another and most of us need to practice the connections as much as the tunes themselves. In playing tunes, as in plumbing, the straight bits are easy, it's the joins that require special skill.

If you haven't played all that long, sitting out tune after tune may start to feel a bit embarrassing, but listening is good, too, especially in the company of decent musicians. You can make a mental or written note of tunes you like, to track down and learn later, especially if they're evidently well known. Also, if nobody minds, you can record the session to play back at home, to help you get familiar with the session repertoire. Or are you really just out of your depth? Certainly in London there's a bit of a hierarchy among Irish sessions. While the meeting of highly experienced players with relative beginners is great in principle, it can feel uncomfortable in practice. You need to find a session at your own level of skill, so that you can succeed in a safe environment. Frankly, there's nothing worse than playing in a session where you ARE the weakest link. You'll play better - and learn more - among people with whom you can make mistakes without fear.

In American Old Time music, unlike the three-times-through-and-change of an Irish session, the same tune may be repeated as many as a dozen times, so that, provided you're discreet and play quietly, you can often learn the tune on the job. In the instrumental hierarchy the fiddle leads, the banjo gives melodic support, the guitar provides chords, the bass a rhythmic root. In top-notch sessions in America a second fiddler joining an existing four-piece band may be invited to 'C'mon in,' but you should check if it's OK with the banjo-player, since you'll be relegating them to a more basic rhythm job. In Old Time sessions everybody plays the tune all the time, while Bluegrass conventions are different again. Here the players will take turns to solo, the others easing off to provide back-up. In Bluegrass sessions in Yorkshire, I'm told, the solo lead passes round the circle in fairly strict rotation ('Northern Rules') and the musicians similarly take turns to select the next tune or song and lead it off.

When all is said and done, every session's unique - and that is the beauty of it. Regular players come and go. Surprise visitors may drop in. The music is never quite the same from week to week, even when the same musicians turn up and, for many, the session represents the essence of traditional music-making. No disrespect to the performers we love and admire, but folk music is not only, and perhaps not even primarily, a spectator sport, though session players are, as it happens, often the most appreciative, as well as discerning, members of a gig audience. Many a professional music partnership, too, has started in a chance encounter at a session. It's a fluid, changeable, transitional space, where anything can happen. The loss of the opportunity to take part in sessions through ill-conceived legislation would be tragic.

Pete  Cooper © 2003

As I was re-reading the comments here, I was reminded of an article I wrote for my blog once upon a time...

I think you offer some good advice in your blog, Jenni, but I must say, it is one my major pet peeves when newbie players use a bodhran as a method of joining in when they don't know the tune.  If you're that new to it, I don't think you will be able to add anything positive in the way of percussion to the session and you will probably annoy the more experienced players.  I also think that a newbie player who is pounding his or her drum along to the tunes is unlikely to be really listening to the tunes, which is precisely what they should be doing at that stage. 

That said, the ethos of participation varies to session to session.  There are sessions where the intention of the players is to play decent tunes to the best of their ability, and if someone is strumming or thumping in an intrusive way, it's unlikely that those musicians are having fun. Slightly off accompaniment adds a level of mush and depending on how off it is, makes it hard work to play and keep yourself in time (I'm a grumpy git about this and have slammed on the brakes mid-tune if an accompanist's timing is really wonky). There are other sessions where the purpose is to be as musically inclusive as possible and to make sure everyone can contribute to the musical process.  If you visit a new session, it always pays to quietly sit in the background, suss it out, and adapt to the culture of *that* session, rather than relying on hard "rules" of session etiquette. 

What utter rubbish!    I particularly take exception to the bit about guitars and bodhrans.   We have all suffered at the hands of out of tune flutes, raspy fiddle playing, loud banjos etc, etc.    I find nowadays that most bodhran players are fully aware of the fact they might be regarded with suspicion.  There is nothing nicer than a good bodhran player accompanying a set of tunes and there are a lot of very good players around.   Most of the bodhran players I know will defer to each other and take turns in the session. This article is very clinical and I suspect they know nothing about real traditional sessions.   Our local session which has been on the go for many, many years welcomes everyone with open arms.   Yes there is a clear leader and everyone has a chance to start a set but nobody frowns on the odd bluegrass or even rock and roll song and tune.   Its a sharing experience and we should all tolerate each other, after all we are all just learning as we go along.    

I do agree however with the comment of not playing unless you know the tune.  There is nothing more annoying than someone beside you chancing their arm with a tune and putting you off your stride.

happy new year

I agree with Emily. I really dont think percussion should be for beginners. a great bodhran enhances a session marvelously, a crap one does not. bones played badly can destroy a session and i would hate to see a tamborine make an appearance.


that said if an instrument is played well then anything can work. at our session before christmas a lad turned up with a snare drum and was brilliant.


Id also disagree about waiting a few weeks to see if you can sing a song and that it should contrast with the tone of the session. id say just introduce yourself and ask if anyone would mind, then sing what you like.


finally, hate to point it out, but some of your pronunciations are wrong. Celtic is pronounce 'Keltic' with a harsh C, its only Sell-tick if your talking about the Glaswegian footbal team. Sláinte is pronounced SLAWN-cheh and only means to your health or cheers, you wouldnt really use if for hello or goodbye. Sean nós also wouldnt have a W sound, it would be Sha-nose. finally its a Bodhrán and pronounced Bow-rawn

This was a joke piece... every bit of advice was BAD advice...that was kind of the point.

You read this, and took any of it seriously?  This, if nothing else, means the internet world REALLY needs to develop the sarcasm font. 

Maybe there needs to be designated "Don't quite know this tune yet!" corner of the room.  I know if I've heard a tune enough times, I'll want to give it  a whirl (especially if I haven't been able to track it down to play with at home), but I'll generally step out of the circle and pull out my quietest whistle to tweedle on, just so I don't inadvertently throw people off.... because I've been next to that person too.  I'm embarassed that I was that person often enough when I first started, and I wish someone had told me how loud I was sooner.

Or one needs to develop their skills at communicating sarcasm via the internet.  ;-)

I have read such things written with all seriousness.

Well if I had to make a list of etiquette for sessions it would be

1: sing a song if you want, or dont if you dont.

2: have a drink, or not.

3: relax and enjoy yourself.

4: always comment on how hansome all the musicians are ;-)

5: Do not keep poking the banjo player asking him to play duelling banjos or he'll push you off your chair again Cormac.

So had I, and their sanctimonious tone always drove me nuts.  I guess in my blog, I must've nailed the style I was making fun of a little too well.  I'm sorry there was confusion, I should have clarified when I initially posted the link.  If you don't know me, my blog posts can come across as surreal, and I guess, I forgot people here don't all share my peculiar sense of humor.  Whoops, sorry.

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