Session Etiquette

What is an Irish session?

An Irish (music) session is a social gathering of musicians to play traditional instrumental music on traditional acoustic instruments. If you are new to Irish Traditional Music (ITM), you have hundreds of tunes to learn, but it will be great fun for you.

A Little History

The Halifax Slower Sessions (HSS) arose from two pre-existing groups of musicians who for many years gathered at house sessions in the Halifax/Dartmouth area to play Irish Traditional Music. The HSS strive to provide a welcoming environment for those who enjoy playing this style of music.

General Session Etiquette

from the Small Circle Tune Learning Session (SCTLS) website

Editor’s note: don’t be frightened by all the rules. So long as you show up with a desire to learn and play Irish traditional music and do your best to fit in, you are more than welcome.

There are some conventions followed by most sessions. Some of these might include:

  • It is considered polite when first visiting a session to wait to be invited to play, if you are not an expert player (most expert players don’t need this list). If you walk into a session with an instrument in a case, the musicians will notice, even if you don’t think they do. Strike up a conversation with one of the musicians between tunes. (If you’re a beginner in a new area, asking after teachers is a good way to start.) Nine times out of ten, you’ll be invited to play a tune or two.
  • If you are not a habitué of a session, expect to spend at least half of your time listening at first. The tunes may not be the same ones regular to your home session. Pay attention to what’s going on around you. This session might play tunes in a different key or wildly different setting from what you’re used to.
  • Keep your instrument in tune. If there is a piper or a non-tunable instrument (a box, for instance), usually you’re expected to tune to that instrument. Otherwise, use a tuner or tune to the session leader — and tune quietly, especially when others are playing. Check your tune every now and again, especially if you tuned to a piper.
  • Be aware of who the session leader(s) is/are, and defer to that person (especially where it comes to tempo and choices of tunes). Even when there’s not a designated session leader, someone is usually filling that role. Far better to be first seen as humble or quiet than first seen as rude to the session leader.
  • If you are an accompanist, be sensitive. If there is more than one guitar or other accompanying instrument, play quietly so as not to drown out the melody instruments, or clash with another’s choices of chords. If it’s noisy, you might even sit it out until it’s your turn. There should never be more than one bodhran player playing at one time in a regular session of average size (under 10 players). If you’re a beginning piper, make sure that you don’t over-use your drones, especially when there are accompanists.
  • Never “twiddle” during a tune unless this appears to be something everyone likes, nay, even expects. Irish traditional music rarely incorporates lovely harmonies and lush orchestration. An occasional foray into this won’t get you banned, but a lot of it will get you jokes and insults behind your back.
  • Don’t mix types of tunes (a hornpipe with a reel with a slip jig). This is fine in a performance, but usually not at a session. Also, if it’s an Irish session, discuss tunes of other countries with the other players before launching them. Some sessions are Irish-only sessions.
  • Ask before you record, and to be safe, don’t bring a video camera.

In general, sensitivity goes a long way. Every session is different depending on the players in it, so you must be aware of what’s going on around you and adjust accordingly. In middling to desperate cases, asking a friendly musician about whatever is puzzling you might be your best avenue..

Halifax Slow Session Etiquette

here are some additional points of etiquette…


An Irish session in this region of the country, where there are other very strong musical traditions, can be overwhelmed by those styles unless new members are aware that the intent of these sessions is to play mostly Irish tunes.


We are lucky to have, on occasion, a sean nos singer. This type of singing is usually unaccompanied, so do not noodle on your instrument while the singer is performing. Singers have to maintain their pitch in their heads, so if you play a bad note or chord, it can spell disaster for the singer. Only accompany a singer if requested to do so by the singer. The singer will choose the musicians she/he would like to accompany her/him.


The tempo for a tune is set by the musician who leads the tune. Do not speed up a tune beyond the set tempo. This is easy to do, especially if there is a large number of players present and the group is spread out, so listen carefully to the other musicians and be aware of how your playing is adhering to (or not adhering to) the set tempo.

If you find the tempo set for a tune too fast for you to maintain, stop playing and listen. When the tune or set is finished, you are welcome to ask that the tune be played again more slowly, and the group will be glad to oblige you by starting again at about ¾ speed.


If a fellow musician plays a new tune that impresses you or if a singer sings a song that you enjoy, please let them know how you feel. We want to encourage each other in the playing of this music.

Have fun!

This is the most important point of all. We’re here to enjoy our music, and to build musical friendships that will last for years.


1 Response to Etiquette

  1. John Kacur says:

    What doe you mean by twiddle?

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