This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Fall 2012 issue

So, you’re playing in an Irish tune session and suddenly notice that the musicians sitting on the other side of the beer-strewn table are playing either an entirely different tempo or an entirely different tune.  Disorienting, isn’t it?  You were staring down at your fingers, weren’t you?  Well, you may not have been too surprised but, heck, this is supposed to be a social art form.  So let’s talk cultural perspective and how to make Celtic music more enjoyable.

Jigs and reels were, not so very long ago, only rolled out to accompany dancing.  For generations these tunes were never considered anything to just sit and listen to on their own merit, in spite of the fact that tunes and styles were passed from musician to musician in pubs while the rest of the neighborhood hung out and yakked.  It used to drive me crazy in Ireland that the hottest fiddler within miles could be tearing it up in one corner of a pub and thirty conversations would be trying to drown him out.  If someone began singing an unaccompanied ballad, silence would fall on the room until they were finished, then the din would return to drown out the instrumental music again.  I stopped fighting it after a while, and noted happily some years later that centuries of cultural behavior had apparently caught up with my outsider’s point of view.

So now we have jigs and reels as legitimate entertainment draws in non-dancing venues.  People go to pubs to actually hear the playing.  And people pony up real money in clubs and concert halls to hear fine musicians play fine Celtic music.  But back to my opening thought about losing track of what the other musicians are doing.

I love playing in sessions where everybody is locked together with the melody and the rhythm and that wonderful feeling of inevitability in a set of tunes that contains so much tension and emotional power.  Each musician comes in knowing the tunes and when a tune presents itself, off they all go for the ride, usually allowing one person to switch to another tune after three or four times through.  To switch, the session needs to listen to a cue at least briefly to all agree which new direction to launch off into.  The cue could be someone barking out a tune name or, more likely, everybody stopping while one musician kicks into the new tune.  Everybody else joins the instant they can identify it and we start the cycle all over again.

This session playing isn’t usually a formal performance, unless you count that you’re performing for the others in the musical circle.  But some aspects of performance need to be acknowledged and occasionally worked on in order for the simplest of pub sessions to really get crackling.  First and foremost is eye contact.  Any social music requires checking in with the others involved, and the more you watch your colleagues, the better you hear what’s going on, the more you enjoy what’s going on, and the better you’ll play.

This seems like an obvious idea, but you’d be surprised just how many musicians are either so shy, so unsure of themselves, or so plain cocky that they never look up from their fingerboards except between tunes or swallows of Guinness.  And as I see it, nothing good can come of this.

Mando brothers and sisters, believe me when I tell you that if you stop looking at your fingers, your frets will not slink off under the sofa cushions, your strings will not unravel, and the notes you played yesterday will be in exactly the same place where you left them.  If you fix your steely gaze on the fiddler or concertina player opposite you in the session, however, you will pick up all the rhythmic and ornamental cues of their playing and will much more easily lock in with their tempo, their lilt, their swing, their joy.

One aspect of American sessions that I can find tiresome is the tendency to play at bat-outta-hell speed, as often as not starting uncomfortably fast and then accellerating even more in the course of a tune set.  I think the cause of this may be two-fold.  The first is cultural, in that many American Celtic enthusiasts first learned their chops in bluegrass and old-time, traditions that can be delightfully caffeinated.  The Irish tunes are similar-enough shaped that they can be learned easily enough, but ninety percent of the way-cool Irish ornaments will be lost when playing in bluegrass top gear.

The other cause is players simply not watching or listening to each other.  A reel played solo can express one person’s view or mood. But a reel played by a group takes on multiple levels of communication and potential power.  Keying off another player’s intensity, you might quiet down for a time through a tune, to allow for an emotional build at the top again.  Watching a rhythm guitarist’s right hand while you play the melody can keep you landing the downbeats with conviction and strength.  Watching a fiddler’s ornament placement might give you cool ideas about how to ornament your own playing.  Failing to watch can trap you into trying to replace the emotional satisfaction of solid ensemble playing with an adrenaline rush of increased speed.

So, my simple advice is to make an effort to break out of your little shell and force yourself to look at the other musicians whenever you play socially.  I see and hear nearly instant changes for the better in my students’ playing when they do this after sweating through woodshedding the tunes by themselves.  And with this new mutual consciousness and acknowledgement that there is important communication going on in a Celtic session, we come culturally full circle.  Two hundred years ago, the village ceili dance was one of the most socially-charged events on the community calendar.  The musicians had to watch the dancers and each other to keep the tempos appropriate and to know just when to finish a dance.  It’s no different today… just usually without the dancers.

Here’s a peppy jig in G to learn and then teach to your friends while you watch them play.  “Paddy’s Resource” is tucked away in the O’Neill’s 1001 Gems collection and I learned it from the playing of Dublin mandolinist Paul Kelly.  Paul plays it on bouzouki and keeps his tempo fast enough to get the heart thumping happily and controlled enough to keep the ornaments clear.  I think this is just a perfect little jig that would make a wonderful set-ender.  Keep your eyes on the others.  They’ll all be grinning.

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