What is a Seisiún?

Seisiúns (sessions) are informal gatherings of Irish traditional musicians that happen mostly in pubs. They are wonderful, spontaneous musical events that now can be found all around the world. If you were to come across one you would find musicians sitting around a table usually engaged with each other in a way that you might expect them to be having a friendly game of cards. You might even think that they're a "band" but looks would be deceiving. Lovely bouncy tunes would be coming out of the circle and everyone that's playing them knows the intricate melodies. And sometimes a song is called for and the room becomes quiet so the song can be heard.

The tunes played are from a living tradition of Irish dance music that dates back about 300 years. Reels, jigs, hornpipes etc. are played with grace and agility, and

occasionally a slow air or a waltze will be lovingly performed for everyone's enjoyment. The instruments might include fiddles, flutes, accordions, uilleann pipes, concertinas, tin whistles, mandolins, banjos, bodhráns, guitars and sometimes piano.

Seisiúns are usually open to anyone that wants to join in provided they already know how to play Irish traditional music. And if anyone sings Irish ballads or songs most hosts will be happy to "shush" the crowd so the song can be heard. And you never know... dances might even break out from time to time.

Charlie Lennon said, "A good seisiún can leave you walking on air, send you home happy and keep your mind filled with music for a whole week."

Seisiún Etiquette
(For musicians)

Seisiúns vary from place to place and have different unwritten guidelines and styles. If you find a seisiún that you would like to participate in you might want to observe it first to try to understand how it operates. It might have hosts who are for the most part leading the tunes and calling for songs and such. If this is the case you might want to ask this person or persons that are the hosts about the possibility of joining in with them. If they seem to be playing tunes you don't know, you might want to just listen and enjoy the music, there's certainly nothing wrong with that. And if you don't know the tunes that are being played you wouldn't want to try to play them anyway, as this would not win you many friends among the musicians. If you want to learn the tunes that are played at a particular session you can ask the musicians if it's ok to tape the music for learning purposes. Trying to learn the tunes at the same time others are trying to play them can be very annoying to musicians and listeners alike.

You would also want to be careful when joining a session not to start tunes without being asked unless it's clear that everyone else is, and the hosts don't seem to mind. The most important thing to remember is to try to not disturb the way that the music flows. Common sense and good manners will get you as far as you need to go in most seisiúns.

Bodhrán, guitar, bouzouki and piano players would benefit greatly by approaching seisiúns very cautiously. These instruments have been given a bad name by insensitive hackers. Many people have the misconception that these instruments are the easiest to play. What they fail to realize is that the affect 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. You might think you sound great when you're at home playing with your CDs but keep in mind that the CDs can't hear you.

The understanding of how to "back up" Irish traditional music isn't anything that comes overnight. If you're interested in these instruments the best thing to do is find folks that do know how to play them well, then listen and watch. Also, two guitars or bodhráns in a seisiún 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.

And of course the most important part of joining in with a seisiún is to have fun. If everyone there isn't having fun, what's the point? Treat the seisiún the same way you would if you were a guest at a dinner party, or joining a conversation and you can't go wrong.

Seisiún Etiquette
(For listeners)

Punters (listeners) are almost as important to the success of a seisiún as the musicians themselves. If you talk quietly and try not to howl when you laugh the music will be heard and played better by the musicians. You wouldn't want to crowd out the musicians either, give them ample room to play and openings enough for the music to carry well so everyone can hear. If you enjoy being close to the musicians be certain that you aren't taking up space that a musician might want to play in. You can usually determine this by asking the musicians if it's ok. And if you are sitting close, please please keep your conversation as quiet as possible. Non musicians have a hard time understanding how difficult it is to play in a noisy environment.

If a song is called for it is essential to be absolutely silent. This is very difficult for Americans to understand and comply with. Some Irish people who aren't fans of Irish traditional music (diddly-di they call it) also have been known to be very rude on this point. But when the room is silent everyone, (including the pool players who also should stop for the song,) will be delighted with the beautiful melodies and stories that make Irish songs so great. Then they can get back to whatever it was they were doing... hopefully not too loudly.

If you want to film, record or take snap shots of a seisiún the proper thing would be to ask first. And of course you can arrange to buy a round of drinks for the musicians with the bartender and it will be very much appreciated. If you do this though don't make the mistake of thinking that it means the musicians have to play what you want. You can suggest favorite tunes you might have to the musicians, but don't expect them to know it.

Clapping and "whooping" are perfectly ok as long as you clap when they're at the end of the set of tunes, and don't scare them or throw them off with your "whoops". Musicians usually appreciate these displays because it means you are listening and enjoying the music.

And if you want to make great friends with the musicians, and you have extraordinary diplomatic skills, when you notice someone near you is being loud and obnoxious very politely ask them if they wouldn't mind talking quietly so that the music can be heard. And don't worry, musicians will understand if you fail in your attempt to quiet the offender. And be careful not to do anything that will get yourself in trouble. Just enjoy the "craic" and you'll be helping to ensure the success of the seisiún.

Books that have pages about Seisiún Etiquette

Irish Traditional Music by Ciaran Carson - Appletree Press 1986

Musical Memories (volume 1) by Charlie Lennon - Worldmusic Publications 1993

This page was created by Jack Gilder on April 29, 2002