Playing fiddle in a traditional folk session

Do you want to start playing fiddle in a traditional folk session? If you are learning to play the fiddle in a traditional style, you may be aspiring to play with other people in informal groups. And with good reason – group playing is great fun! Whether that’s Irish, Scottish, English, Scandinavian, Breton, bluegrass, klezmer or any other style.

These events, where people gather to play tunes together in a relaxed environment are often called ‘sessions’. The information below is about playing fiddle in a traditional Irish session, but much the same applies to other types of session too.

Some tips for playing fiddle in a session

Playing fiddle in a traditional Irish folk session
A traditional Irish session (yes, that’s me on the right there!). Photo: @hensonvisuals

Before you jump right in and join a session, it’s important to understand a little more about how they work, and the etiquette that goes along with playing in one. All sessions have slightly different unwritten rules, but the following will help.

The first to understand is that playing in a session is not the same as a jam. There is improvisation, but on a micro level – at an important level, the players are all playing the same tune. This means in most sessions, you should only play a tune if you know the tune and can confidently play along with it at the speed it is being played. Anything else will ‘muddy’ the sound of the session. (There are ‘beginner’ sessions where you can learn or work out tunes as they are played, but these are slightly different).

So, if you want to join a session, sit and listen for a while first. Do you know any of the tunes? What sort of standard are the other players?

Joining a traditional folk session

All sessions have slightly different cultures and rules. Many sessions are extremely welcoming of new players! But if you want to join, for example, a traditional irish session, don’t just sit down with your instrument and expect to play along. First, ask someone who is already playing if it would be alright to join in. The musicians you are joining may have played together for years, or even decades, so sometimes they are wary of new people who may not know the ropes.

If you are invited to join the session, wait until a tune comes along that you know before playing – this will help to show the other musicians you understand the etiquette. If you think you of a similar standard to the other players – great! But if you less confident than the other players, listen to what they are doing, play quietly, don’t dominate the session by playing loudly. When other people are playing sets of tunes, listen to them – you will learn more about the music like this way than in any other way. Don’t, whatever you do, continue a loud conversation over the top the music when you are not playing.

Playing in a session

If you play a rhythm instrument (especially guitar, or bodhrán), you may need to take turns with any other rhythm players in the session. Too many rhythm players in a session can overwhelm the melody, which is the core of the session. In a small or medium session (anything up to 6 or 7 players) one rhythm instrument is normally ideal. So if there is already someone else playing guitar, wait until they go to the bar to join in, or take turns with them.

You may be asked to ‘lead a set’, in other words to start a group of tunes which others will join in with. But if you are not invited to, continue to join in with the tunes you already know. If you keep coming back to a session you will very likely be invited to lead a set of tunes. When you are, start the tunes at a speed you know you can maintain – playing slowly is better than rushing or stumbling.

Above all, until you are a regular, realise that you are joining someone else’s session – so be polite and friendly!

How do you find a traditional Irish folk session to join?

So maybe you are ready to start playing fiddle in a traditional Irish session, but how do you find one you can join? If you have a fiddle teacher, they should be able to tell you where your local sessions are. Maybe your teacher even runs some local sessions.

Otherwise, you can look on TheSession to see whether there are any session listed locally to you. These listings aren’t always kept up to date, but it is a good place to start.