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Sessions In A Changing Ireland


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Sessions in Today’s Ireland – One Man’s Take

 

It is a huge subject, the nature of sessions in Ireland. I can only talk about North Clare, and a very rural part of Clare at that. I seldom travel more than twenty miles to go to a session. I am not part of a session scene and I don’t think of myself as a session player per se. I seldom get paid for playing at pubs these days and I no longer seek gigs. I am an average player. Although I mostly play flute now I started on fiddle about forty years ago and concertina since about 1990. I am not an expert on sessions and can only write about North Clare. And what I say isn’t even necessarily the case in North Clare, not to mention holding for sessions in, say, Dublin or Galway or in other parts of rural Ireland. And what’s fun for one person can be misery for somebody else.

 

You have to make a distinction between public paid sessions, public unpaid sessions, and house sessions. Compared to twenty years ago, a public paid session in Ireland today is not always a friendly get together. A paid session is led by a small core of musicians – two or three – who are paid to play so that patrons will find the ambiance conducive to chat and drink. In Doolin for instance, the session are paid. Musicians are not there for the fun of it and only go because they are paid. If Christy Barry or Terry Bingham didn’t get paid to show up at O’Connor’s or McGann’s they wouldn’t show up. By and large musicians who come to play along with them are tourists or blow-ins.

 

At McDermott’s there are microphones on a small stage and the musicians sit in a line rather than in a circle. All Doolin sessions are miked. The session becomes a performance. This is becoming commonplace in modern Ireland. Most pubs can’t afford to pay musicians, who make about €50-60 a night. You have to sell a lot of drink to make a profit over that. The pubs that can afford to pay them are often crowded, noisy places and not much fun. Small country pubs are hurting. Social smoking in the pub is a thing of the past and drink-driving is dangerous, both health-wise and garda-wise. Many people stay at home now to smoke and watch television and to drink on the cheap.

 

But sometimes a paid session can be great fun. I went to a session at Matt Molloy’s Pub up in Westport last year. It was full of laughter and great tunes. We all sat in a circle and Matt played along and the paid musicians seemed to enjoy having the rest of us there. But they were tired and left before the rest of us- again pointing to session-gig exhaustion. Matt and the rest of us stayed and played until well after closing. It was a Monday night and the pub was packed with an appreciative, though loud, audience. The paid session at the Cobblestone (Dublin) can be like this on a Tuesday night. But I doubt this is typical of very many other pubs in Ireland and it couldn’t be called a friendly, intimate session. It was wild and raucous and fun if you were boozing but probably not otherwise.

 

At many festivals – such as the Ennis Trad Fest -- sessions are led by a tight core of paid professionals who sit together. Other musicians sit outside this circle and play as if they were playing along with a DVD. There is no input from the outside in. Those on the outside are never asked to play a tune. It is strictly business and it isn’t much fun- unless you’re one of the paid professionals. My friend John, from the U.S., has been disappointed on this visit that sessions weren’t the immediately friendly affairs he remembers from fifteen years ago. But other people, young or boozy or too starved for tunes to care, had a great time in Ennis this year.

 

Occasionally you find a public session where nobody gets paid and half the town comes to listen. It’s wonderful when that happens and when locals sing and participate. A Thursday night session in Miltown Malbay, at The Blonds (Cleary’s), can be like this. But go the next week and you might find fifteen musicians, with five loud boxes blazing away and nobody in tune, and the pub too crowded and too hot for comfort. I wrote about another occasion in Cree when there were eight (!) concertinas at the session. They didn’t all play at once, thank God, and although it was too hot and too crowded it was a great unpaid session that went on until 2 AM.

 

The ideal session is where people get together who just want to make music and have a bit of chat and a few drinks. They come together for the fun of it. They go because they want to and not because they are contractually bound to show up. It isn’t a place where elite musicians sit bonded together to the exclusion of other more moderately accomplished musicians. Everybody is accepted.

 

When it is good- when good musicians come together just for the fun of it all – then it can be great. But these sessions are seldom advertised and aren’t widely known. They aren’t for the benefit of the pub, except peripherally. Most of the musicians know each other. We get together in the pub because our homes might not accommodate all the people who come to play or listen, and because it is fun to play in public. We can come and go as we like and not have to worry about hosting a group that might stay all night. We sit in a circle and we face each other. Anybody can start a tune. Nobody has the responsibility to keep it together. Less accomplished musicians are welcome, and humility and modesty are virtues as highly regarded as musical accomplishment.

 

Last year in Tulla I played at a small, run-down country pub in a session that went on till four A.M. This past Sunday eight or so of us got together in the local in Kilshanny and played till after one o’clock. Nobody got paid in either place, no free pints were passed down, and nobody cared. Small country pubs are dead quiet during the week. We’d like them to survive. Such places are having a hard time of it. It’s lovely to see the old guys come together as they have for the past fifty years and more. And I’m catching up to them.

 

Sometimes an unpaid session is a weekly affair, held on the same day in the same pub. Often it’s a spontaneous get together with only a few days notice. I’m lucky now to have musical friends in the community. Some are great players and I know them well enough to be included as their friend. Some are more modestly accomplished, and that’s fun too. We like each other and that’s why we come together. A session is never any one thing. Sometimes it’s about the tunes, and other times it’s about the conversation, the stories and the craic.

 

Music at its best is a community thing and not a tourist attraction. Musicians here in Ireland pretty much agree that things are changing. Many of us don’t like the changes but there isn’t much that can be done about that. The young players today are very accomplished but many are learning their tunes in Ceoltas sessions that haven’t much conversation or craic. Accomplished, yes, but bloodless. Sessions aren’t what they used to be. Everything changes and nothing stays the same. You don’t have to be raised on a farm to be an authentic traditional musician. We all know more now than we knew twenty-five years ago. In time the hot young kids will become wise old men and women. I hope I’m still around and playing when that happens. Until then these are the good old days.

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Cocusflute, thank you for this very eloquent and nuanced account of your experiences. Much of what you have said confirms both my own impressions, and what I was told by clare musicians, on a few visits both during festivals and not during festivals. I put some of these questions to a couple of clare musicans tutoring a class i was in in the catskills a couple of years back. They exchanged very startled glances and then confirmed that such was the trend---i.e., the "exhausted gig" syndrome, the playing-in-private syndrome, and much more. It is all food for thought. Some of it sad, yet, as you said, change is inevitable. The tough part of it for those of us who are serious about learning about the Clare music and styles by listening, watching, and when appropriate playing with, local musicians, is that to a stranger, the only access IS a public session. I guess more time is needed, to come to know people and understandably to give them a chance to come to know you.....Thanks again. It was a compelling read.

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Cocusflute,

 

I find your observations fascinating. Thank you for sharing them with us (and me!).

 

They remind me of discussions of hunts I've had in the past with multi-generational groups where there were some very experienced hunters mixed in with some experienced and aggressive hunters and even a few 'young bucks' - pardon the pun. The experience mix within the group often led to some tensions that usually worked themselves out.

 

Perhaps there is a parallel development cycle in the session scene where (I'm going to apply it to Concertina players since that is the forum) you could label the players stages:

 

Acquisition Stage - Thrill and excitement arrive with the procurement of an instrument new to the player. Much time and energy gets devoted to beginning learning, familiarizing and playing the instrument.

 

Success Stage - Pride and Joy - the musician succeeds in playing a few tunes on the new box. Success breeds some more success and an aggressive attack on learning more tunes develops.

 

Performance Stage - Show it off - Said player develops deep enough repertoire, personal style and accomplishment to perform - even for money. And so he does.

 

Session Stage - Needing more - Maturing player starts to seek that which makes them happy. A good gig! Not necessarily for money. Seeking rather coherence and depth in the act of performing or playing. And sharing the experiences that go along with that.

 

Statesman (or Instructor) Stage - The point at which enough experience has been gleaned from a life of learning, developing, playing, performing and seeking quality in the experience that the player recognizes they enjoy the companionship the quality session and desire to share experiences, knowledge and expertise with those around them in the various stages that precede this one.

 

Now I am clearly ripping this off from Sociological studies of multi generational groups of hunters in the upper midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan) of the US. But I think the developmental model could apply given the time spanned by the participants and the complexity of the tasks at hand.

 

One of the features of relationships between members of the different stages is Stress. More importantly other features of these relationships include: mentoring, teaching, guiding. Pleasure from exposure to experts or even being noticed, encouraged or picked up and dusted off after a crash. Perhaps even recognition of common styles and past (rookie) mistakes made.

 

From what you have said I would guess you are in the latter stages of a model such as this. Given that - try to focus on what you like. Help us rookies whenever you can and don't let those 'Young Bucks' get under your skin.

 

i really appreciate your comments and insights. i've been to a few of those pubs you mention and experienced the ITM in its different forms and it does help to have the session types clarified so succinctly!

 

Dan

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Cocusflute - thank you for an eloquent observation.

 

The whole session/ceilidh story is part of the sad, century-long transition from home-made music to 'professional' and recorded music - and the dwindling of musical skills amongst the general public. I observed some of this transition years ago when I lived in a remote Northwest Highlands village.

 

Before electric power reached the Northwest Highlands, people had to make their own entertainment and there were musical instruments in almost every home. The long, dark winter nights were passed at the fireside with friends and neighbors. Everyone was expected to contribute a song, a story, a tune - and all contributions were warmly welcomed, regardless of age or level of skill. Everyone's 'party piece' - no matter how often heard, or how ineptly performed - was met with approval, for it helped pass the hours of darkness. Pub sessions were usually spontaneous, and when 'Last Call' came, the music naturally spilled over into someone's home.

 

With the advent of electric power, radios began to displace home-made entertainment; then television all but obliterated it. Why labor away at learning a tune, when you can hear better ones at the touch of a button? Where once there was a friendly and supportive continuum from beginner to expert, now a gulf began to appear. The less skilled players blushed and tucked their instruments up in the rafters; the more dedicated continued to hone their skills. Music-makers - which once included almost everyone - became a smaller and smaller segment of the population.

 

These days, beginning players feel unwelcome in many if not most pub sessions. Celtic music seems almost competitive, and in the concentration on reel-to-reel playing the dictum "speed kills" is almost forgotten. The lovely slow airs have been relegated to CDs. 'Professionals' are displacing the old informal sessions. While the technical quality of pub music has gone 'way up, the natural, neighborly quality is dwindling.

 

I suppose this is the price we pay for "progress." <_<

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Guest Peter Laban
Cocusflute - thank you for an eloquent observation.

 

The whole session/ceilidh story is part of the sad, century-long transition from home-made music to 'professional' and recorded music - and the dwindling of musical skills amongst the general public. I observed some of this transition years ago when I lived in a remote Northwest Highlands village.

 

 

Well it's a sad image you sketch there but it is wholly untrue in the Irish situation: more people play traditional music than ever before. Locally there are hundreds of children playing, they get together and play like there's no tomorrow, lovely music including beautiful slow airs. Music is still handed on in Clare and it more alive than it has been for at least a century.

 

At the Willie Clancy summerschool well over 200 under 15 concertina players are likely to turn up for classes and you can spot the same at other festivals. A lot of young players aren't just very good players, they are quite often also proficient on at least one other instrument.

 

While some trends David describe exist, some of the conclusions drawn from them are indeed his own: the view of one man and they apply to sessions, not music in general. As he said in his starting caveat.

Edited by Peter Laban
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Well it's a sad image you sketch there but it is wholly untrue in the Irish situation: more people play traditional music than ever before. Locally there are hundreds of children playing, they get together and play like there's no tomorrow, lovely music.

 

While some trends David describe exist, some of the conclusions drawn from them are indeed his own: the view of one man and they apply to sessions, not music in general. As he said in his starting caveat.

Of course, we can only draw from our own experiences and observations. To me, organized schools, paid sessions, summer camps, mods, concerts and CDs are admirable efforts to sustain the music and transition it into modern times. And a very high level of musicianship they are attaining. But they are different in nature from the everyday, uncritical, indigenous music that was 'everyman's' entertainment in times before recordings and electronic media obviated the need for personal effort. If some corners of some countries are still nurturing that natural, informal music, I applaud them - but around the world, while the quality of music continues to improve, the ratio of instrumentalists to iPod players is dwindling.

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but around the world, while the quality of music continues to improve, the ratio of instrumentalists to iPod players is dwindling.

 

Wish I could dissagree, but from the little plot of land I inhabit this would seem to be the case. Hearing music should take a little effort perhaps. In general it has never been more available and sadly taken for granted.

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but around the world, while the quality of music continues to improve, the ratio of instrumentalists to iPod players is dwindling.

Don't ignore the possibility that there might be people -- especially young ones -- who are both. On a bus or train, or even walking down the street, listening is both more acceptable and far easier than playing an instrument. But what they do indoors can be quite different. A couple of years back, the independent music school for youth (they won't let me take classes there, because I'm over 25 ;)) here in Helsingør expanded into a much larger building. Admittedly, they have more kids studying percussion and electric guitar than folk fiddle, but I've been told that there are enough cello students to require more than one class, and I heard some really fine classic rock and jazz from some 10-to-14-year-olds at a recital a few months back.

 

And the old Elværket (Electric Works) building is a music coop, where local musicians hang out together and share their development, and hold concerts in the big main hall. Some of us may quibble about the quality or even the "music" label, but it's definitely do-it-yourself. And last year at a festival event there with an open stage, I was invited up to do a few numbers. I brought with me a Russian busker I had met earlier in the day, and for about half an we ad libbed some Irish tunes and a couple of traditional songs. The audience was enthusiastic.

 

Another tradition here in Helsingør -- and in many other Danish towns -- is the "pigegard", or girls' marching band. Membership is competitive and the group is a source of great pride for both its members and the town. The girls don't just march in Helsingør, but travel elsewhere to perform... even out of the country, I'm told. It may not have the same ambience as an Irish session, but it's musical, it's traditional, and it's participatory.

 

Cultural differences can also be extreme even over short distances. E.g., the session culture can vary significantly between sessions in the same town. But differences can be deeper than that. Though there are significant exceptions, most Danes in my area (the island which includes Copenhagen) seem to pay little attention to Danish folk music and will even say that it's "boring". But just across the water in southern Sweden -- beginning about 4 km from me, -- the traditional music culture is alive and well, and folks of all ages -- yes, even teenagers -- are excited and proud to be playing the music. And it's definitely a living, growing tradition, not an attempt to create museum pieces. Today (it's after midnight as I write this) is "an entire day with Swedish folk music" -- with workshops and concerts -- at Dunkers Kulturhus ("Dunker's Culture House", which I can see from my balcony), a modern (completed in 2002) culture center in Helsingborg. (Check the link for a description of the "culture" it provides.)

 

I don't mean to say that the attitudes that some of us find discouraging don't exist at all. In fact, I think they are discouragingly common. But they are still not universal, and I don't think they ever will be.

 

Wish I could disagree, but from the little plot of land I inhabit this would seem to be the case. Hearing music should take a little effort perhaps. In general it has never been more available and sadly taken for granted.

The same was said with the advent of both the phonograph (gramophone) and the radio. There's some truth to it, but it's not the whole truth.

 

I'll conclude with a little bit of "preaching":

If we want things to be different, it's up to us to make a difference. And the best way is not to preach or complain, but to simply be an example that will excite and inspire others.

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I'll conclude with a little bit of "preaching":

If we want things to be different, it's up to us to make a difference. And the best way is not to preach or complain, but to simply be an example that will excite and inspire others.

 

Good advice Jim, which I think most members here do because they have no other personal choice.

 

The bit about the phonograph and radio to our current age is perhaps a stretch? At their advent they were available to the few and when encountered were considered a wonder. Neighbors would come is some cases considerable distances to hear a particular program or a lucky owners new recording.

 

My charges each semester are actually quite well versed in an amazingly wide range of musical genre that proceeding generations simply would not have had access to. Germain to this topic, not a one of them is the least bit in the dark as to what traditional Irish music is. However, as a group they are reluctant to attend a live music encounter even if it is their own cleaved to musical identity. The very wonders of our modern age have made music as accessable and in a way as mundane as turning on an electric light. To the six or seven I have in a class of Thirty-plus that cannot seem to get enough of music and the sometimes heated conversations that can erupt are a delight to me and the reason I continue to overload my schedule by teaching a music appreciation course. It saddens me that this ratio is lower than it used to be and conversations with area colleagues confirm a similar experience.

 

To bring my wandering back on topic; I applaude the efforts in Ireland to keep their traditional culture alive. It is not a panacia and can be administered with a heavy hand, but certainly there have been fields sown and crops reaped.

Edited by Mark Evans
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Just lucky, I guess. My kids (15 and 17) have been playing fiddle since the age of 4. They love playing for sessions, performances, dances, etc. They also love dancing (mostly contra). They've been hearing mom and dad's sadly deficient (compared to their own) playing all their lives, and they've been active members for a number of years in a wonderful organization that fosters a real dance and music community, the Baltimore Folk Music society. They do play in several genres, although Irish is their favorite. I already mentioned contra, and my older daughter also plays for English Country dances and is a member of a Klezmer band called the Klezbians. To celebrate her recent birthday, she took a few of her friends to a contra dance.

 

I'm sure many of you have similar stories. If you create an environment where music and dance are an expected part of life, the rest will follow. Not a lot one can do on a large social scale, but locally my kids have plenty of people of all ages to play and dance with. Of course, turning off the TV and banning video games didn't hurt either.

 

Jeff

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Klezbians

 

You gotta love it!

 

The link doesn't work.

I have another idea for why traditional music is perhabs dying, despite some local efforts to revive it.

It may be the result of division of labor. Interersting it was to observe some guides here in San Francisco Marytime Museum to explain how to hoist a life boat to a group of teenagers. The song apparently was there not for entertainment, nor it was random. From what I gathered (and expected before seen a few programs on the sailing ship, docked in the harbor), professionalism of a sailor included knowing what songs accompany the work processes. Same can be said about every aspect of sustenance life. They sang together and they worked together to the rhythms of their singing. Same goes with the dancing. Poetry is the result of necessity to memorize loads of texts in the absence of literacy, and the long ballads are not necessarily an art form, but history lessons.

As some traveler, studying communities of Kuku_Kuku in the mountains of Papua / New Guinea noted, the IQ levels in remote villages are unusually high. This should come to no surprize, as these people are multi-tasked.

Which leads me to worrysome comclusions:

Despite increased education we are getting more stupid.

Traditional spheres of activity, music and dance, that used to guide our lives and, sort of, skewer it together, became lose forms of useless entertainment, further loosening traditional social institutions of religion, family, work and rest.

I think the advance of "throw-back" ideologies is to be expected, as natural process of "filling in the vacum".

And no amount of artificial support for traditions will fix it. Delay - yes, and I'm all for this delay, but fix? - No.

I'm sure we'll see the rise of fascism in our time, and it will be welcomed by art communities, as it will support the Arts and Traditions, as one of the most important aspects of Patriotism.

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Which leads me to worrysome comclusions:

Despite increased education we are getting more stupid.

Traditional spheres of activity, music and dance, that used to guide our lives and, sort of, skewer it together, became lose forms of useless entertainment, further loosening traditional social institutions of religion, family, work and rest.

 

More wisdom there than I am sure a lot of folks would want to admit.

 

Dad always said most folks went to university because they weren't bright enough to work construction.

 

I look at the next generation and regret the skills that Dad taught us are going to be mostly lost. Admittedly, the fieldcraft, woodscraft, stockmanship, horsemanship and butchering skills he carefully taught us aren't relevant to the lives they are living. Having no children myself doesn't help. The other sad part of it is that we had to spend time with our folks to learn those things, and I spent far more time with my father than a lot of my peers, though I didn't figure that out till I was in college and afterwards.

 

Alan

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Despite increased education we are getting more stupid.

Traditional spheres of activity, music and dance, that used to guide our lives and, sort of, skewer it together, became lose forms of useless entertainment, further loosening traditional social institutions of religion, family, work and rest.

I think the advance of "throw-back" ideologies is to be expected, as natural process of "filling in the vacum".

And no amount of artificial support for traditions will fix it. Delay - yes, and I'm all for this delay, but fix? - No.

 

Well said Misha. I don't like it, not one bit.

 

Last night we made a treck out to West Cummington, MA to visit a shepherdess friend of Dominique. They were having a house party and asked for me to bring along the concertina. This area of Massachusetts is the boonies for townies like me darlin' an' me. We of course got lost after dark and being the mountians with spotty cell phone reception really on our own. Finally ended up in a farmers front yard wondering why the road ran out. Cell phone fleetingly worked, shepherdess was called and we were guided in. That dirt road, the dark spruce forest and fianlly the lights of our destination (welcome sight indeed for my thoughts had turned to childhood fears of ravinous wolves).

 

Those folks in that warm farmhouse were having a great time. I was quickly intorduced to a mandolin player and a guitarist. We tuned up and started to to play. The esemblage did not sip wine or politley nurse pints and munch cheese as they listened but started dancing right away! My heart nearly leapt out of my chest. It was beautiful to watch and feel and be the music that fullfilled its function. Reels, polkas and waltzes in a large farmhouse kitchen that transported me away from that freakin' cell phone, the concerns of the job-site or some musician at an urban session with their shorts in a wad about something or other that means nothing.

 

The rather large cache of beer we had drug along dissapeared satisfactorly quinching thirsts honestly come by from setting in the nails of that hardwood floor with their stomping feet! If these be the end days, I'll endevor to enjoy them and continue to tout their importance at those foolish enough to endulge my ramblings.

Edited by Mark Evans
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