11 Tips To Enjoy An Authentic Irish Trad Session
Visiting Doolin, you’re never too far from the lyrical sounds of a fiddle or flute. But how can you ensure you experience the very best of Ireland’s beloved musical heritage in the home of Irish music?
First of all, we have to define what an “authentic Irish trad session” is. Here are a few key points about what makes an authentic Irish traditional music session:
- Stating the obvious here, but a traditional music session is made of… Irish traditional tunes and songs.
- Acoustic traditional instruments are the norm. Fiddles, flutes, accordions, concertinas, banjos, uilleann pipes, etc. There are some exceptions of course.
- A genuine session should be open to all musicians to join in because it is a space for sharing and learning music.
- A session is not a staged performance. It is a social gathering and having a chat between a set of tunes and songs is an important part of any session.
Now that you know what we mean by a trad session, here are a few tips on how to enjoy the experience to the fullest.
1. Realise that you are part of the experience
This is probably the most important thing and many people don’t realise it. In fact, a lot of the following tips are directly related to that. For a session to be great it needs to be helped by its audience. A session is like a mini-ecosystem and its surroundings has an effect on it. If you realise that you also have your part to play in making the session great you will enjoy it even more, simply because the session itself will be better!
2. Respect the musicians and listeners
Since you now know that you are part of the session if you are in its surroundings, make sure to respect the musicians and other listeners. It is ok to talk during a set of tunes, but be mindful that if the level of your voice interferes with the music it will distract both musicians and listeners. It is also very much encouraged to talk between sets of tunes, as silence can be awkward if musicians are having their own little conversation (remember, it’s normal for them to have a chat too!).
3. Listen actively
Listening to the session doesn’t mean being as quiet as possible or being afraid to move. Musicians love to hear the occasional “hup!” or “up ya boya!”, and it’s always great to see feet tapping and people feeling the music in general.
Be careful not to get carried away though, loud clapping for example (especially if your rhythmic skills aren’t the best (!), doesn’t necessarily add to the music).
4. Wait for the session to build up
Sessions are alive, and like any living thing, it needs to grow. A good session usually needs at least an hour to build up to its full potential. So don’t leave too early or else you might miss the best part of the session!
5. Remember that every session is different
Some sessions will rock the place, others are more laid back. Some have a lot of songs, others only the odd one. It depends on a lot of factors such as musicians’ personalities, styles, mood on a certain day, but it also depends on the audience and the atmosphere in the pub on any given day. If the session is not the kind you were hoping for, there is nothing you can do about it. Asking the musicians to play faster for example would be quite rude. Our advice: go with the flow.
6. Learn about Irish Traditional Music
Even before attending your first “trad session”, there’s no harm in doing a little bit of research. The more you know about Irish traditional music the more you will be able to enjoy the session, and it doesn’t take much! Learn about the traditional instruments such as fiddles, flutes, accordions, concertinas, tin whistles, and bodhrans, so at least you know what they look like and watch a few session videos online so you have some ideas of what to expect. You can also learn about the different types of tunes: reels, jigs, hornpipes, etc.
When you are actually at a session, it’s also good to talk about it, ask questions or make a comment to people at the table beside you. If there’s a specific tune or song you particularly like, you can even ask the musicians about it!
7. Keep your phone away (or at least use it sparingly)
We know that people want to keep a souvenir from their experience, but trust us, mobile phones can literally kill a session. As people tend to experience the music through their camera, they actually disconnect from the session and therefore aren’t part of it anymore.
If you feel that something special is happening and you really need to make a video, make sure that you’re discreet (don’t put the phone right beside the musician’s face or hands…) and don’t use the flash at all. It is very invasive for the musicians and can be pretty annoying and therefore it doesn’t help the session at all. Actually, if you want to take photos or make a video, a nice thing to do is to ask the musicians. They will appreciate your thoughtfulness and it will also help you be part of the session.
8. Feel free to make a request, maybe even sing a song or dance a few steps
Musicians are happy to take requests for tunes and songs (if there’s a singer, keep that in mind too!), but not all requests are equals. If you ask for a specific song, make sure it fits in with the session. “Sweet Home Alabama” for instance wouldn’t be a song that is part of the traditional session repertoire! Also, remember that some songs are requested very often, so don’t be offended if your request for “Whiskey in the Jar” doesn’t go through, it’s nothing personal. There are so many beautiful Irish songs out there.
If you are a singer and know a song that will fit with the atmosphere of the session, feel free to ask the musicians if you can give it a go. The same goes if you know how to dance a few steps or a set, make sure to let the musicians know as well, most Irish traditional tunes are made for dancing after all.
9. “I played the tin whistle once” – Don’t improvise
It seems pretty obvious that if you don’t know how to play Irish traditional music you won’t be able to join in with the musicians. However, the temptation to grab a pair of spoons or some other kind of improvised percussion seems to be irresistible for some people. All instruments take years of practice, and percussion is no different. It is very unlikely that you will suddenly become a great spoon player out of the blue. People can get carried away at times, especially during big and lively sessions, but the musicians can really hear you, even if you are sitting a few tables away. So unless you know what you are doing, it would be recommended to stick to foot-tapping!
10. Respect the silence for special pieces or songs
At times, some songs or a particular piece of music (usually a slow air, played by a single musician) requires special attention. Musicians and more experienced listeners will actually ask for silence specifically or might be “shushing” the crowd. When this happens, it is very important to respect it as these pieces are usually very special or might have a particular signification (typically a song or air in memory of someone who recently passed). It isn’t rude to ask the people beside you to be quiet if you feel they haven’t realised what is happening. Trust us, a busy pub or venue that goes silent during a piece of music is really an amazing experience that will give you goosebumps.
11. Sit back, relax and enjoy the craic!
A traditional session is really a social gathering above anything else, so make sure to socialise, make new friends with people around you, share a drink (or two!) and have a laugh. Simply be part of the experience, you have as much to give to the session and the atmosphere as to receive from it. Remember that you are a part of it.
Be sure to explore the rest of our website to find out more information, or to plan your next visit to beautiful Doolin in County Clare. Check out ’50 Things To Do In Doolin’, for more local knowledge and hidden gems!
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