Kerri Coombs

tunebook 13 tunes.

Hello, I’m Kerri Coombs and I play the fiddle. Guitar too, and bodhran. I have a whole bunch of other instruments, but I think, rather than go on and on about myself, I’d like to share my musical philosophy:

In ITM, I think it’s really important to try, especially if you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing. Bring a bodhran for your first few sessions, or if you can’t afford one, borrow some spoons from the bar. Eventually you’ll be ready to start playing the tin whistle. At ten bucks, it’s a great way to join the fun without spending any money. Or time, even. There’s only six different holes, so it’s tough to screw up.

Or you could bring a guitar! You can see how welcoming a session is to guitar players by counting how many guitar players are already there. (The more guitar players there are, the more welcome they obviously are.) Most of the chords you learned around the campfire in your Bob Dylan / Simon and Garfunkel days will work just fine, as long as you’re random about the order you play them in and don’t get stuck in any predictable rhythm structure. That’s boring!

Your First Session:

Here are a few ideas on how to get yourself "in" with the session crowd the first time you decide to take the plunge. Once you’ve flipped through your local entertainment rag and discovered there is a session (NB! Adverts may not say "session" outright. It will usually be more along the lines of "live traditional Irish music", or if the pub has been permitted to place the ad themselves and is located in North America, "Celtic Jam Night". Just remember, anything with the word "Celtic" or "Irish" combined in any way with the words "live" and "music" means everybody is welcome.)

When you first arrive, check to see if there are any pitchers of beer sitting around before you order yourself a drink. If there are, they are probably provided by the bar. So just get yourself an empty glass, hit the musicians’ table (preferably while everyone is playing and their hands are busy, or they’ll feel guilty for not pouring it for you) and fill ‘er up! (Make sure they see that you have a musical case of some kind.)

Remember, it’s bad manners at a session to speak unless you have been spoken to, so the best approach is to pull a chair up right behind one of the central players so that you’re *right there* should he / she decide to strike up a conversation. It’s possible you might not be noticed and the hoped-for conversation won’t happen, so try the following strategies to improve your odds of making friends:

1) Play loudly and continuously.
2) Start a set of tunes the instant the regulars finish playing.
3) Make sure your tunes are unusual enough to impress.
4) Tap your foot against the chair of the musician in front of you.
5) If you get a chance (let’s say, for example someone stands up to pass a cigarette across the table), shuffle the chair of the person in front of you over to the side little by little to make room for yourself within the central group, where you are much more likely to be noticed.

And remember the Golden Rule: Never introduce yourself. Talking to all the newcomers and making them feel welcome is the responsibility of the regulars. If you speak to them directly, they will be terribly embarassed by their failure to live up to their obligations. If you’ve really tried everything and they still haven’t said Word One to you, you will have to come back the next week, and the next, and the next, until finally they notice you are there and draw you into the big happy family that is the Irish Traditional Music Session.

Once you decide to get serious about playing a melody instrument (like the recorder, Boehm system flute, viola, mandolin, G-sharp Latvian ankle-pipes or piano accordion), you’re going to need a copy of O’Neill’s and you’re going to need to learn how to read music. Once you’ve figured out how to hit a few of the notes at full speed while scanning the page, bring the book to the session. Ask people who aren’t playing what the name of the tune is and if they don’t know, interrupt the set leader. Ask them to keep playing until you find the right page, then you can play along! If they aren’t playing the notes right, play a little louder to give them a helpful reminder. After all, you have the sheet music. They probably just forgot how the tune really goes, or maybe they can’t read music, so they got it all screwed up. Some people might play tunes that aren’t in your book. If that happens, give them hell! If it isn’t in O’Neill’s, it’s not Irish. (Or if it is, it’s an unreasonably obscure tune and the person playing it is a show-off.)

Now, everybody knows tune after tune of ITM is dull and it all sounds the same, so try to spice it up by playing lots of songs, especially things like "Danny Boy" and "Spancil Hill". The audience loves it. If they aren’t responding, open it up to requests, and it wouldn’t hurt to play a bit of Van Morrison and U2.

About dancing: If you’re really getting into the music while you’re playing, it can be a lot of fun for everyone if you stand right up and gyrate around like an inflatable punching-clown. This way, if you’re playing the fiddle or flute, you have the added advantage of keeping the punters at bay by threatening to poke out their eyes with your instrument. If you happen to *be* a punter, don’t get discouraged, you can join in the fun by dancing yourself. The traditional dance step for excited audience members at a session is three up-and-down jumps followed by an airplane-arm 360 degree spin (and repeat). Grab the other folks in the pub by the elbow and swing them around too, if you can get away with it. If you’re tired or maybe just crippled, you can still thump your foot loudly on the floor, or, if you don’t have working legs, thump on the table, in a rhythm of some kind. Don’t worry if it isn’t the same rhythm as the musicians are playing (or even the other thumping, tapping audience members), they are just going to be delighted to know you’re listening and having a good time.

The main thing is, just dive in and go nuts. Don’t worry about what other people think, sessions are about showing off, alcohol abuse and churning out a constant stream of music! Don’t be shy and don’t let your glass run dry is my motto.

There’s my two bits. If you happen to drop into my session at the (uuuuhhh…) O’Malley Guiness Emporium in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala come on up and introduce yourself! I’m the four and a half foot tall pygmy fiddler in the buttless chaps.