Traditional music is casual music. I love to drink a pint of ale and wear jeans while playing Irish tunes — it’s much better than being stuffed into a tuxedo on a stage, where drinking would be frowned on. But the music’s casual approach can give a false impression that it lacks rules. Outsiders sometimes misinterpret the music’s relaxed informality and approach me while I’m on stage and talk to me when I’m playing.
Musicians new to traditional music should also understand that the music is not a free-for-all. Like any social gathering, the music has rules, and like any social group, learning the etiquette is part of learning the music. These rules for Celtic music sessions can help everyone.
First, acquaint yourself with the session’s basics:
The style of music. It irritates Celtic musicians to no end when someone plays bluegrass music at a Celtic session or tries to graft rock guitar onto traditional tunes, which have their own rhythm and chordal structure, and Celtic music itself is divided into separate styles. A teacher at a Scottish session once reprimanded a fiddler who played an Irish tune.
Playing level: Musicians like to play with musicians of like caliber; simple tunes are boring to advanced musicians, and advanced tunes leave a beginner in the dust.
Be sure you are welcome. Sessions are often private music parties held in public places. It’s wise to attend several times before joining and wise to play only after being asked if you don’t know the players.
Instrumentation: Celtic musicians favor certain instruments and frown on others. Don’t bring a trumpet, for example, to an Irish session.
Tunes: It’s not outlawed, but playing a tune no one else knows defeats the purpose of a session. Sessions are not concerts; they are group communion. Fellow players may occasionally request a solo from another musician, but in general it’s best to play tunes in the common stock. If you have a specific tune that you just have to play, distribute sheet music or recordings for next time. If you don’t know a tune, don’t play. Sitting out is better than mangling the music. You can listen and appreciate, get a drink, or talk (in the back of the room) to another listener or musician.
Don’t hog the session. Some sessions center on a core group that leads all the tunes, and some go around the circle. When I led sessions I gave everyone, even the drum players, a chance to request a tune because I have seen too many people completely dominate sessions, starting every tune before anyone else has a chance. Often a moment’s pause follows the end of a tune as a person chooses a tune or players tune or discuss the tune just played, and domineering players will use that pause to launch into a rip-roaring tune designed to demonstrate their prowess. I enforced the circle rule to avoid that. If a person needs a minute to choose, he was assured of not losing his chance.
Talking: Don’t sit at the center of the session and talk loudly. The musicians want to play, and talking can easily drown out the notes. This goes for concert attendance too; listening manners are sadly lacking these days. Talking at a session should be quiet and short. Extended conversations should move elsewhere.
Don’t play when others are tuning. Let them finish before starting a tune.
If you play bodhran (the Irish drum), do so tastefully. Many bodhran players play on every tune, including slow airs and Turlough O’Carolan’s Baroque-style pieces. Bodhran just doesn’t sound right on some tunes. Too much rhythm is also a problem at some sessions. Celtic music centers on melody, with guitar, octave mandolin and bodhran supporting fiddle, flute, whistle, mandolin and pipes. If you drown out the melody, you lose the tune.
Most important: Never, ever touch or play another person’s instrument without being invited. I played in a fiddle demonstration workshop at the Kent State Folk Festival one year, my mandolin in the case at my feet while I played violin. A fellow workshop fiddler, whom I had never met before, picked up my mandolin and started playing along with my fiddle tune. I was shocked but too nice to stop and voice my thoughts, which ranged from shock to outrage to “put it down or I’ll belt you.” Ever since, I’ve closed my mandolin case when I’m not playing and often rest a foot on the lid.
Listeners are often welcome and appreciated, although the musicians, sitting in a circle, may not acknowledge their presence. Listeners, however, should be aware of the style of music and should keep the talking down. Don’t ask an Irish musician to play “Orange Blossom Special,” and don’t request “Danny Boy.”