Celtic Jams, Sessions, & Ceilis (part 1)

Sorry for the long wait between posts, I was away all this weekend visiting with old friends.

Since so many harpists are fans of Celtic music, a lot of them are interested in jams and ceilis – what they are, how a harpist can participate, and so on. So this will be the first in a series of posts about that very topic. I’ve already got a fairly detailed look at Celtic Jams and Sessions up on the Celtic Harp Page, but I will go into each in a bit more depth here. To start with….

What are Celtic jams, sessions (or “sesiuns”) and ceilis (or ceilidhes)? Aren’t they all the same thing?

Some people use the terms interchangeably (you’ve probably heard the term “jam session”), however some trad musicians distinguish between the various terms. To most of the trad musicians I know, a jam is more of a free-for-all, where new people may show up not already knowing the tunes, but willing to just pick out chords and such on the fly. Often someone will suggest (i.e. shout out) a tune or set, and launch right into it, and everyone who wants to join in does. Quiet instruments and beginners might find the pace a bit breathtaking, and may feel overwhelmed at first. Part of the problem is that you don’t always know what to expect – some days you might show up to find you’re competing with three fiddles, two guitars, an accordion and four bodhran players (of varying skill levels). Singers and harp players may only get to be heard while everyone else is taking a beer break. In these cases, it helps to attend a few jams just as observer, and if possible to find someone to write down a list of common tunes for you (if you’re really lucky, you might even get someone to copy some sheet music for you). Generally, jams are part of the true oral tradition, in that you play by ear (memory). However, at our Sunday Celtic Jam here in Peterborough, no one minds if people drag their music stand along, and it’s quite common to see several battered copies of the Fiddler’s FakeBook in use on any given Sunday. It’s usually best to talk to the local jam’s organizer first to get the lay of the land (we’ll be looking at jam/session “etiquette” later on.)

A session (or sessiun), on the other hand, may be somewhat more organized, or even more “elite”. Often it is an established group of players who all know the same tunes, and can play them consistently at or above a certain skill level. Session players may meet regularly to learn new tunes, but when performing are expected to be able to lead or follow without getting lost, and to be familiar with the types of sets typical for that group (e.g., for a reel set, someone may call out a familiar set of reels in G major; a “set” is just several tunes strung together, played one right after the other). If you want to join an established session group, likely there will be a group leader you can talk to. They may send you home with sheet music or a tape or CD to learn from, and expect you to show up at the next session (or practice) with at least some of the tunes already learned (generally, this means by memory – Celtic session musicians do not usually use sheet music for performing, although it may be used for learning the tunes initially). However, some people might refer to any impromptu gathering of musicians as a “session” (there can be other kinds of sessions too – bluegrass, blues, jazz, old-timey tunes, folk music, you name it). As above, it’s good to ask the local organizer or a veteran player if you’re not sure.

A ceili (or ceilidhe) differs notably from a jam or session in that it is often intended to accompany dancing (although some people will use the term “ceili” to mean a jam/session, or even just any party or get-together where music is played – just to confuse the issue!). In some ways, a ceili (the kind for dancing) is similar to a session, but may be even more restrictive in terms of who is allowed to play, and what they’re expected to know. If you want to play for a ceili, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with all the traditional time signatures and tune types – e.g. reel, jig, strathspey, slip jig, polka, waltz, etc. In a Ceili, usually the caller (the person calling out dances) will lead, and give indication to the band what tunes are needed. Often the tunes will be done in sets of 2 to 4 tunes at one time, sometimes in the same key, but often switching keys or going into relative minors or majors of that key. For a harp player, this can be a bit tricky, but usually you can get away with it by using, say, the first (“A”) part of a tune to flip levers, and coming in on the repeat. As a harp, keyboard, or guitar player, if you’re invited to play for a ceili even though you may not know all the tunes, you will be expected to have some proficiency in picking out chord patterns to accompany the tune. If you’re a drummer, you will be expected to know the typical rhythm patters, and you must be precise in your timing, so as not to throw off the dancers or the other musicians. Some local Ceilis happen on a regular basis (e.g. once a month), and are open to any local musician (with outsiders being considered guests; it’s usually best if you’re invited by a local). Just keep in mind, that while at jams you are just there to play music and have fun, at a dance ceili you’re actually performing a function – keeping the dancers happy and energized, as well as pleasing the audience. This doesn’t prevent it from being loads of fun, of course! But they will expect you to be in tune and know your stuff.

Here’s a short jam/session newbie checklist:

1. Know Your Chords – It really, really helps to know how to play basic chords, and to know your key signatures. To practice, FakeBooks or other collections of lead-sheet music (melody line and chord markings) are great. Playing along with CD’s or DVD’s can also be helpful, as it should give you an idea of what it’s like to play with people going full speed.

2. Have a Way to Tune Your Harp in a Loud, Crowded Room – You’ll want to tune your harp perfectly before you go to your local jam, but as we all know harps don’t always want to stay in tune, especially if they’ve gone from house to car to unfamiliar location. It helps to arrive early to let the harp get adjusted to its new environment. For tuning when there’s lots of background noise, bring an electronic tuner and a pickup. Tuning by ear is a great skill to have, but won’t help you much when you can’t hear yourself! If hearing yourself is really an issue (you should at least be able to hear yourself a little while playing), then you might want to ask if it’s okay to bring a small amp. Some groups are okay with this, but in some places it’s completely taboo, so check first!

3. Know Your Local Group – Every regional group operates in its own, unique way. Talk to the organizer, talk to some regular participants. Most regular session players are friendly and helpful, and should be able to tell you all you need to know (such as, what playing level they expect you to be at, how fast it goes, how big the group is, if it’s okay to bring music and/or amplification, and so on).

4. Bring Your Own Stuff to Play! – People actually like taking a break from the rousing jigs and reels to listen to an occasional slow air. Bring a few favourites already memorized, and your audience will usually love it. The fast players can use this as an excuse to grab a beer or go out for a smoke, but you may be surprised at how many people stick around to listen. Harps are enchanting after all, and have an old, rich tradition in Celtic culture.

5. Don’t Give Up! – It may seem fast and furious at first, but don’t worry – if you get good at chording along to tunes, you should be able to start by picking out simple bass lines, then progress to more elabourate chords and rythms, and then on to counter melodies and harmonies. If the regulars don’t mind, you can bring a tape or digital recorder and record each session, then practice playing along at home. If you can find a tune list and sheet music, or if you’re good at picking up stuff by ear, you can gradually learn to play along with the melody lines as well. Consistent fingering helps to play those really fast tunes.

Learning to Read Music – Why It’s Easier Than You Think

With Notes on Modern Notation Vs. Tablature
by Tanah Haney

I have, in my perusal of many method and repertoire books for harp, come across several books that use tablature prominently or even exclusively. This is presumably because the arrangers feel that tablature is easier for a new musician to learn than notation. There are also some teaching methods that focus exclusively on aural learning and imitation with beginning students, especially young children. While I would never argue that one approach was superior to another, or that one way would work best for all musicians (hence the “versus” in the sub-title is a bit misleading), I prefer teaching beginners note-reading early on for a number of reasons.

I should point out that my students always start with hand position, exercises, and fun things to do with the harp, all done by imitation and by ear, before venturing into note-reading. Ear training, memorization, active listening, interpretation, and other essential musical skills also remain a central part of the learning process throughout. However, I usually introduce note-reading fairly early on, with all ages, for reasons which I will outline below. In essence, I would argue that reading modern notation is not nearly as difficult as many people think, and can in fact be quite intuitive – the key, as it were, is all in the approach.

First of all, I would like to challenge a central myth or stereotype that has developed around note-reading. While the basic structure of modern notation might seem very mechanical, even mathematical, reading modern notation is neither a “cold” nor “unnatural” experience, and need not be approached mechanically. Rather, in its best form it is a learned intuitive process whereby one can get a sense of a piece of music by learning to recognize patterns. Pattern recognition is hard-wired into the human brain (ever see a face or other picture in the grain of a piece of wood, or a wallpaper pattern, or a cloud?), and musical notation is one of the many ways that we can use this instinct to our advantage.

There is a lot of relative information that can be gained instantly by looking at modern notation, even if you don’t know the exact name of every note. When the sounds go “up”, the notes go “up” too; when the sounds go down, the notes go down. When there is a gap between notes on the stave, it represents a gap between strings or keys. Intervals such as thirds, fifths and octaves are recognizable on sight after a bit of practice. Young children can learn very quickly to recognize repeated patterns in written music, especially if they are first taught relative sight-reading. Relative sight-reading is a skill that can be attained well before the student has memorized all the different keys, or even all the note letter-names. Particularly helpful are beginner harp books that start off by colouring the C’s red and the F’s blue. (Some modern methods have even gone so far as to develop a colour for every note, an approach which can be used with a wide variety of instruments. )


The Ergonomic Harpist

If I were asked to describe my approach to harp technique in one word, it would be “ergonomic”. It’s a term that many people think of being applied to computers and other things normally found around the office: keyboards, chairs, and so on. But it’s also an essential component of playing a musical instrument without doing damage to your health.

Most non-musicians don’t realize what a demanding physical experience playing an instrument can be. But those of us who’ve been doing it for a while know all too well how easy it is to overdo it. My first rule of harping, and probably the only one that I will not yeild on, is this: If it hurts, don’t do it! No matter how accomplished and confident your teacher may seem, they should never force you to do something that causes you pain or noticeable discomfort. Everyone’s hands and bodies are different, and not all techniques work for all people. The two most widely recognized pioneers of harp technique, Salzedo and Grandjany, both had unusually proportioned hands and fingers. What was right for them might not be right for you. Any good technique should be adaptable to different physical shapes and abilities.

I have met one-handed harpists, harpists living with Multiple Sclerosis, and harpists suffering from arthristis. I have taught harpists from as young as eight to as old as sixty-eight, all with different levels of strength and stamina, size of hand, length of fingers, and so on. So if you feel like you may not be “made for the harp”, take heart! Find a teacher willing to be flexible. Keep in mind that “flexible” does not equal “lazy” – you will still have to practice regularly, and be willing to make changes if they will help to improve your playing.

More advice for avoiding injury can be found in the .beginner’s tips section of the Celtic Harp Page. I would also highly recommend checking out Laurie Riley’s books: “The Harper’s Handbook” and “Your Hands, Your Music“. If you’re self-taught, be sure to pick up a good method book or instructional video. However, keep in mind that nothing can replace having a teacher. Teachers can point out your mistakes, provide encouragement, and generally keep you on the right track where books and DVD’s cannot.

If you know of any helpful pages regarding harp technique, ergonomics, repetetive strain injuries, or other related topics, feel free to let us know if the comments, below.