Irish tune sessions
Musicians start filing into Ceol Irish Pub around 7 on Tuesday evenings. But the stage at the back of the long building remains empty.
In preparation for their weekly Irish tune session, players gather in a circle of chairs facing one another. It’s a setup that might seem odd, until one understands the motivation behind it.
“It’s the desire to play the music, but not perform,” said session host Peter Grant. “So this group is playing for and with each other, and, if people are enjoying it, then we’re thrilled, but it’s not a performance per se.”
Tune sessions like this one are a tradition in Ireland and, according to Grant, are commonplace in the states as well.
At Ceol, the gatherings are fairly informal. While many of the same musicians attend every week, others make less frequent visits, and their musical influences are more Celtic than strictly Irish.
On a given night, there might be 10 or more players on instruments ranging from the mandolin and guitar to the bodhran, a traditional Irish drum. Now and again, the group even has a Galician bagpipe, called a gaita. And there’s pretty much always an abundance of fiddles—often as many as six. Grant is among the fiddle players, though an ongoing battle with tendonitis has led him to take up the Irish whistle on occasion.
“We also cover a lot of ground in terms of experience,” Grant said. “Like I’ve been playing for most of my life, as have some of the folks here, and then others are just learning. We make room for them, and they’re part of the group.”
According to Grant, sessions at Ceol are structured a bit differently than most in Ireland—in part to accommodate those less experienced players.
“In a lot of sessions it tends to be more organic, in that when someone thinks of a tune—if it’s quiet—they launch into it, and those people that know it play along,” he said. “In this session … we pass the pick, as it were, around the circle.”
When it’s a player’s turn to pick, he or she chooses the tune and how fast it will be played. Those who don’t know it, or can’t keep up, can sit it out. Some take the opportunity to learn new tunes by ear, while others choose to give it a go by sight-reading on tablets or sheet music.
“To me, it makes it more inclusive,” Grant said. “It makes it more everybody’s session. When you have a traditional session … it tends to get dominated more by a core few. From the beginning, that just didn’t feel quite right to me. And so that’s a twist that we have—we’ve always done it this way.”
Grant and his fellow musicians have held their weekly sessions at Ceol for about four years. It’s the third place they’ve called home, and according to Grant, it’s been the best fit. The players certainly seem right at home—often taking breaks to chat among themselves—which, according to Grant, is very much in keeping with Irish tradition.
“That’s part of the scene … and it makes us feel like we’re not just there to play,” he said. “We’re playing with friends.”
And new friends are welcome.
“We’re just always looking for people that enjoy traditional Celtic music and like to play it,” Grant said.