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Tips on Etiquette, Terminology, Types of Music Played, etc.

(Meant as a general guideline only; for etiquette specific to your local area, ask a regular session attendee before participating)

Topics: Jams & Sessions   Ceilis   Etiquette   More Tips   "Quiet Session"

1. What is a Celtic Jam? Is a Session another name for the same thing?
Some people use the terms interchangeably (you may have heard the term "jam session"), however many trad musicians recognize some differences. (for those really new on the scene, "trad" just means traditional, and can refer to any number of traditions: folk, Celtic, bluegrass, etc.)
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).
A session (or sessiun), on the other hand, is usually somewhat more organized. 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).

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2. What is a Ceili (or celidhe)?
A Ceili differs notably from a jam or session in that it is intended to accompany dancing (some people will use the term "ceili" to mean a jam/session, or even just any party or get-together where music is played, so ask if you're not sure). In some ways, a ceili 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.

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3. Notes on Session Etiquette
Jams, Sessions and Ceilis all share one thing in common - they are not a solo performance. They are all group performances, of varying degrees of organized (or chaotic). Naturally, the stronger players will usually take the lead - depending on the egos present, this can be a good thing or a not-so-good thing. Having strong players covering the tunes at all times is beneficial for everyone, including beginners, and the audience. But you may find that some people try to monopolize a jam or session. Hopefully, there will be a few old timers and/or a group leader who will know when to quietly remind that person about the whole "group performance" thing. Whatever your initial impression of a group, it is very bad form to start pointing out things you don't like, without even getting to know people first. If you hang around for a while, you'll find there's a certain rhythm and unique regional etiquette to every group. If you're confused, ask one of the veteran players for advice on your particular local scenario. If, after attending a few sessions, you find the way that group is run is not to your liking, there are two options: find another group more suited to your style, or politely mention your concerns to someone (a positive statement, i.e. in the form of constructive critcism, and sweetly worded, will get you much farther; a snarky or negative complaint might just get you ostracized). Again, when in doubt, ask one of the regulars. If you just can't find a group that suits you - start your own! Just be sure not to schedule it in direct competition with another established session, or you might find yourself short on participants.

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4. A Few Extra Tips For the Un-Initiated
Celtic tunes are often divided into 2 or 3 parts - these will usually be referred to by the letters A, B, C, etc. (A being the first part, and so on). So if someone says, "let's start again at the B part", they mean to start at the beginning of the second section of the piece. Usually one or more of the parts is repeated (so some common patterns would be: AABB, ABB, AAB, etc.)
The best way to get the feel for Celtic music is to listen to it - often! Get yourself a handful of CD's, preferably from different groups, different regions, different instruments. Listen to fast dance tunes, slow airs, songs, whatever you can find. Best of all, attend as many live performances as you can. Listen in on jams and sessions in your area. Even excellent sight readers will not be able to capture the "feel" of Celtic music without hearing it first.
Some common time signatures:

  • Jig = 6/8, usually two groups of three eighth-notes, with more emphasis on the first note of each group (so, "ONE two three, TWO two three, etc.)
  • Slip Jig = 9/8, usually three groups of three eighth-notes
  • Reel = 4/4
  • Polka = 2/4 (or 4/4)
  • Hornpipe = usually 4/4, often written in even eighth-notes, but meant to be played more like dotted-eighth-sixteenths
  • Waltz = 3/4
  • March = 2/4 or 3/4, depending on the rhythm - it will be obvious by the regular "walking beat" feel to it
  • Air = usually a slower piece; this is one of the few that may be treated "tempo rubato", or more freely with regards to rhythm and timing; often it is based on a song, and thus played in a very lyrical fashion
  • Set Dance = often a longer piece, designed to accompany a particular dance; the musical cues will tell the dancers which part is coming up next, so it's important to know exactly how many times to play each part through, and in what order

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5. What's a "Quiet Session", and why have one?
For our purposes, a "quiet session" is in contrast to the usual rowdy Celtic jam. It's a session for all the singers and quiet instruments, where they can be heard, without having to compete with numerous loud instruments all played at breakneck speed. The "session" part (see above) may be a long-term goal, i.e. getting to a stage where a group of regulars all know many of the same tunes, and can play them from memory. For the first few practice sessions, it's helpful to dedicate some time to sight-reading music and trading tunes, taking time to start slowly, repeat as necessary, and then work up to speed.
To cap off a quiet session, you can set aside time at the end for a "slow jam", with people suggesting tunes and everyone joining in, at whatever speed is comfortable for the group, with space given for suggestions and pauses for shy and inexperienced people to gather their wits before going into the next set or tune.
If you're wondering what defines a "quiet" instrument, think of it this way - could you play with a harp or recorder, and that instrument would still be clearly heard? Often times in the standard rough and ready jam, singers and quiet instruments get lost by the wayside. Whistles, flutes, & guitars are all okay at a quiet session, if you can play with subtlety! Whereas you'd probably want to draw the line at accordions and bagpipes. There are always exceptions to any rule - i.e., you might be a fiddle player who can wait your turn, play nice background harmonies and counter-melodies, etc. (if you're the type of fiddle player who always has to play the tune, and always wants to go fast, then a quiet session probably isn't for you). There are also smaller, quieter cousins to the traditional loud instruments, e.g. concertinas (small button accordians) and shuttle pipes or uillean pipes (small indoor pipes - really!).
An extra note for harp players - think of this as a "harp circle plus" - a chance to play with all your harp friends, and other instruments too. This is a great opportunity to practice your chording, rhythmic drones, and other accompaniment patterns.
Finally, an extra note for singers: Some quiet sessions may be strictly instrumental, so ask ahead. When we did this in Peterborough, we planned on the first (sight-reading) half of the session being primarily instrumental, and allowed for the singers to go off in a separate room and trade songs during that time. What actually happened, was that we ran through a bunch of group performance pieces, many of which had lyrics, and people just joined in on the words, many of them improvising harmonies (so we had a veritable Celtic choir and symphony!) If you want to share your songs with folks, consider bringing copies of lyrics or songbooks with you. For the "jam" part, keep in mind that this won't be like a bardic circle, where the focus is on solo performances of ballads and poems - rather it will probably be an everyone-joining-in kind of thing. While singing may be welcome at some quiet sessions, you'll want to avoid long ballads or extended solos (see above for descriptions of jams and sessions).

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