How to make the most of a Traditional Music Session

Top tips to enjoy a trad session - Gus O'Connor's Pub - Irish Traditional Music Pub

Before giving you our tips on how to enjoy a Irish Traditional Music session as much as possible, we must agree on what we mean by “trad session”?

Here at Gus O’Connor’s Pub we believe that we know a bit about having good sessions and here are a few key points about what makes an authentic Irish traditional music session.

Irish Traditional Music Session
  • Stating the obvious here, but a traditional music session is made of… Irish traditional tunes and songs obviously.
  • Acoustic traditional instruments are the norm. Fiddles, flutes, accordions, concertinas, banjos, uilleann pipes, etc. There are some exceptions of course (we have some great memories of weird and wonderful instruments joining in with the others!).
  • A genuine session should be open to all musicians to join in, because it is a space for sharing and learning music. Individual microphones should therefore not be used. For our part, we only use one microphone that just sits on the table in the middle of the session, which we forget to turn on most of the time anyways (!).
  • A session is not a staged performance. It is a social gathering and having a chat between set of tunes and songs is an important part of any session.

​Now that you know what we mean by a trad session, you can read our few tips on how to enjoy the experience to the fullest below.

11 Tips to Enjoy a Trad Session as a Listener

1) Realise that you are part of the session

This is probably the most important thing and many people don’t realise it. In fact, a lot of the following tips are directly related to that. For a session to be great it needs to be helped by its audience. A session is like a mini ecosystem and its surrounding has an effect on it. If you realise that you also have your part to play in making the session great you will enjoy it even more, simply because the session itself will be better!

2) Respect the musicians and listeners

Since you know now that you are part of the session if you are in its surrounding, make sure to respect the musicians and other listeners. It is ok to talk during a set of tunes, but be mindful that if the level of your voice interferes with the music it will distract both musicians and listeners. It is also very much encouraged to talk between sets of tunes, as silence can be awkward if musicians are having their own little conversation (remember, it’s normal for them to have a chat too!).
We are lucky here at Gus O’Connor’s because the pub is made of separate rooms so to speak, so if you feel like having a loud conversation, or that your conversation is more important that the session, you can simply move a bit further away from the music. You will still be able to hear it but you won’t disturb it.

Gus O'Connor's Pub - Irish Traditional Music Pub in Doolin, Co. Clare
3) Listen actively

​Listening to the session doesn’t mean being as quiet as possible or being afraid to move. Musicians love to hear the occasional “hup!” or “up ya boya!” and it’s always great to see feet tapping and people feeling the music in general.
Be careful not to get carried away though, loud clapping for example (especially if your rhythmic skills aren’t the best (!), doesn’t necessarily add to the music).

4) Wait for the session to build up

Sessions are alive, and like any living thing it needs to grow. A good session usually needs a bit of time to build up to its full potential. So don’t leave too early or else you might miss the best part of the session!

5) Remember that every session is different

Some sessions will rock the place, others are more laid back. Some have a lot of songs, others only the odd one, etc. It depends on a lot of factors such as musicians personalities, styles, mood on a certain day, but it also depends on the audience and the atmosphere in the pub at a given time. If the session is not the kind you were hoping for, there is nothing you can do about it. Asking the musicians to play faster for example would be quite rude. Our advice : go with the flow.

6) Learn about Irish Traditional Music

Even before attending your first “trad session”, there’s no harm doing a little bit of research. The more you know about Irish traditional music the more you will be able to enjoy the session, and it doesn’t take much! Learn about the traditional instruments such as fiddles, flutes, accordions, concertinas, tin whistles, bodhrans etc, so at least you know what they look like. Watch a few session videos online so you have some ideas of what to expect (check out our YouTube playlist) and you can also learn about the different types of tunes : reels, jigs, hornpipes, etc.
When you are actually at a session, it’s also good to talk about it, ask questions or make a comment to people at the table beside you. If there’s a specific tune or song you particularly like, you can even ask the musicians about it.

7) Keep your phone away (or at least use it sparingly)

We know that people want to keep a souvenir from their experience, but trust us, mobile phones can literally kill a session. As people tend to experience the music through their camera, they actually disconnect from the session and therefore aren’t part of it anymore.
If you feel that something special is happening and you really need to make a video, make sure that you’re discreet (don’t put the phone right beside the musicians face or hands…) and don’t use the flash at all. It is very invasive for the musicians and can be pretty annoying, and therefore it doesn’t help the session at all. Actually, if you want to take photos or make a video, a nice thing to do is to ask the musicians. They will appreciate your thoughtfulness and it will also help you be part of the session.

Gus O'Connor's Pub - Mobile Phones
8) Feel free to make a request, maybe even sing a song or dance a few steps

Musicians are happy to take requests for tunes and songs (if there’s a singer obviously, keep that in mind too!), but not all requests are equals. If you ask for a specific song, make sure it fits in with the session. “Sweet Home Alabama” for instance wouldn’t be a song that is part of the traditional session repertoire! Also remember that some songs are requested very often, so don’t be offended if your request for “Whiskey in the Jar” doesn’t go through, it’s nothing personal. There a so many beautiful Irish songs out there!
If you are a singer and know a song that will fit with the atmosphere of the session, feel free to ask the musicians if you can give it a go. The same goes if you know how to dance a few steps or a set, make sure to let the musicians know, most Irish traditional tunes are made for dancing after all!

9) If you're not a musician...
It seems pretty obvious that if you don’t know how to play Irish traditional music you won’t be able to join in with the musicians. However, the temptation to grab a pair of spoons or some other kind of improvised percussion seems to be irresistible for some people. All instruments take years of practice and percussion is no different. It is very unlikely that you will suddenly become a great spoon player out of the blue. People can get carried away at times, especially during big and lively sessions, but the musicians can really hear you, even if you are sitting a few tables away. So unless you know what you are doing, it would be recommended to stick to foot tapping!
Gus O'Connor's Pub - Christy Barry Spoons - Doolin co. Clare
Only play the spoons if you know how to, like Christy Barry ! Photo by Kirsten Alana
10) Respect the silence during special pieces or songs
At times, some songs or a particular piece of music (usually a slow air, played by a single musician) requires special attention. Musicians and more experienced listeners will actually ask for silence specifically or might be “shushing” the crowd. When this happens, it is very important to respect it as these pieces are usually very special or might have a particular signification (typically a song or air in memory of someone who recently passed). It also isn’t rude to ask the people beside you to be quiet if you feel they haven’t realised what is happening. And you can trust us, a busy pub that goes silent during a piece of music is really an amazing experience that will give you goosebumps.
11) Sit back, relax and enjoy
A traditional session is really a social gathering above anything else, so make sure to socialise, make new friends with people around you, share a drink (or two!) and have a laugh. Simply be part of the experience, you have as much to give to the session and the atmosphere than to receive from it. Remember that you are a part of it!

"The true beauty of music is that it connects people."

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Gus O'Connor's Pub
Gus O'Connor's Pub

Home of Irish Traditional Music, serving great food every day all year round in Doolin, co. Clare, on Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way.

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