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What Is An Irish Session? - Milwaukee Irish Fest School of Music

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What Is An Irish Session?

March 1, 2016 by Jeff Ksiazek

Irish sessions are fun gatherings of musicians sharing tunes and conversations in a relaxed setting. They can be an important part of an area’s Irish music community, passing along tunes and the tradition. While sessions can and do exist in private homes, today many sessions take place in pubs and other public spaces.

It’s important to note that Irish sessions are not open jam sessions that musicians might encounter in other genres and styles. An Irish session’s focus is on the instrumental tunes (and sometimes songs) found within the Irish tradition – reels, jigs, hornpipes, polkas, slip jigs, and the like. To that end, improvising or “jamming” over the tunes played at an Irish session is not okay! Everyone is more than welcome to watch and listen to a session, but musicians from outside the Irish tradition should note that experience playing Irish music is an unwritten perquisite of joining the session.

For those who have been learning Irish music and are looking to play with others, what should you expect to find at a session? Newcomers to a session (regardless of how experienced you are playing Irish music) would do well to listen and observe before asking to join in. You’ll likely observe a few things similar to these at each session:

Session Leaders

Some sessions have experienced musicians in charge of starting sets of tunes or just keeping the music flowing. Sometimes sessions are more open and don’t have formal leaders. Either way, a general guideline is to musically follow whoever starts a set of tunes. If you start a set of tunes (see below), you’re in the drivers’ seat, so have a follow up tune in mind and stay strong during the transition!

Tune Sets

Multiple tunes are typically arranged in sets of like tune types. For example, instead of playing one jig, the leader of a set of tunes will likely pick three jigs to play together (usually repeating each tune up to three times before going into the next tune). Sometimes leaders will tell the other musicians which tunes will be played and sometimes not! Remember, listening is important.


Between sets of tunes, musicians will likely have a chat. These chats are just as important as the tunes! It’s okay to have some space between sets of tunes, so if you’re new to the session, take your cues from the session leaders before starting up music that might interrupt a good chat.

Session Etiquette

Each session might have unwritten house “rules” or guidelines on how the session operates. Some general rules of thumb to keep in mind:

  1. Sit out on tunes that you don’t know (don’t drone or noodle along)
  2. Chordal accompaniment and bodhran players should take turns
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for the name of a tune that you’d like to learn!
  4. Ask if you can record the session's tunes on your phone or device to learn tunes at home

Joining an Irish session is great fun and can build lifelong friendships. If you have any questions about sessions or learning Irish music, feel free to contact us!

Milwaukee Sessions

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