An excerpt from Musical Memories, Traditional Irish Music, Volume 1, by Charlie Lennon
I am often asked, usually by people from abroad who take more of an interest than the locals in such things, what a session is and how it works. They cannot understand how a gathering of musicians can sit down and play together, switch keys and tunes, change speed and finish together – all without direction! Others can't count in blocks of 8 and 16, never get the structure of a tune sorted out and never know when it's likely to end. There are yet others who cannot differentiate between tunes.
A great insight can be gleaned from a Cockney man's description of a session. As told by my good friend Pat Finn, the Cockney had been brought to a session in London by his Irish girlfriend and enjoyed the atmosphere very much. Commenting afterwards he said: “It was a great night, but one thing I could not understand. The musicians played the same tune all night and at the end everybody stood up and they played it all over again! Cor blimey!”.
A session is usually comprised of the participating musicians, listeners and onlookers and a third group who neither listen nor look. The importance of good listeners positioned around the musicians cannot be overstated as they help to bring the best out of the musicians and make the session a success.
A session by its nature is unrehearsed and spontaneous and it is not possible to say in advance whether it will be very good, fair or mediocre. There are also certain unwritten rules which everybody should respect.
The fact that you are a musician, a bodhrán player or a bones beater doesn't give you the right to join an existing session. If the players want you to share in the session for whatever reason then they will invite you to join them.
A session is usually controlled by one person, sometimes aided and abetted by one or two others. Between them they decide on the tunes, the repeats, when to start, when to stop and when to call for a song. With gentle movements, unnoticed by those outside the circle, the leader fashions and weaves the entertainment for the benefit and enjoyment of everyone around.
A good session can leave you walking on air, send you home happy and keep your mind filled with music for a whole week. New tunes, old tunes, new settings, old settings, all are there to be enjoyed, captured and stored in the treasure box of the mind, to be recalled in a period of quiet reflection or at the next session.