When will we play a session again?
Like many of us, I went into 2021 with the feeling of wiping the slate clean, of new beginnings. Of maybe, just maybe, having the chance to pile into a cramped, sweaty pub for a session. I never thought I would miss the feeling of accidently elbowing the player next to me, or the anxiety of watching a pint bounce and dance ever so slightly to the edge of the table due to the driving percussion of tapping feet. At the moment, that seems just as unlikely as a reincarnated Freddie Mercury performing in my garden (a girl can dream). With Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2021 cancelled, it is very likely that other festivals will follow suit. Which therefore poses the question, when will we play a session again?
Going into the third lockdown, I have had time to reminisce and perhaps romanticise ‘the session’ as a concept. I will never forget locking myself in my room at 12 years old because my mother wouldn’t let me go to a local session (I made a sign and everything, it was embarrassing), or when being asked to start a tune, I would bury my head in my accordion because I was terrified. I think I had a strange understanding of the session at that stage, almost like it was a performance. I would make sure I had sets prepared beforehand and would only confidently play alone if these were practised to perfection. Naturally, I grew out of this belief as I’m sure many young traditional musicians do, when I realised that the main reason I was there in the first place, was for the music.
The ability to exchange tunes, meet new people and create an electric atmosphere isn’t unique to Irish traditional music sessions. In fact, it is simply a continuation of where and how this music was presented and passed on to others. An environment where it was born and continues to be reborn today. I know I am not alone in saying that playing in a session is where I feel most comfortable, as I can perform without a filter, without altering certain stylistic features to please others. Ultimately, every musician is there to enjoy themselves and play this music that they hold so dear. There is no session hierarchy (no matter what they tell you, it doesn’t exist), no adjudicator or trophy. Simply just a group of musicians, connecting and conversing through music. And probably one or two pints as well.
Unfortunately, this isn’t something that can be easily adapted for a virtual platform. I am yet to hear a ‘virtual session’ success story. I can imagine a very scripted Zoom call, where each person has their designated slot to perform while others chime in, with microphones muted. In theory, I suppose this could work, but is this a session? You cannot replicate the undeniable buzz through a computer screen, or the hush as the next tune in the set begins, and the scramble to jump in. Many events have been adapted for online consumption and have had to sacrifice certain elements, but I believe that the sacrificed elements here, the interaction, spontaneity and communal value, are too great to lose.
I asked a few friends to describe a session in one word, which included terms such as magic, exhilarating, explosive and uplifting. All reflective of the infectious energy created through a roaring session. Others described this event as a coming together, community and good company. This is what I believe we miss most about the session, not necessarily the tunes, the pints or the elevator-sized pub corners. The opportunity to interact with others in a musical environment, to admire another individual’s music without prejudice, that is the true beauty of an Irish traditional session. Genuinely, where else would you get tunes, tea and a raffle during the break?