Piping the sounds of Ireland

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September 15, 2011

9:46 PM

On Monday nights, the College of William and Mary’s bookstore cafe becomes a pub. But don’t think Guinness or fish and chips. Instead, it’s the fiddle, the banjo and even the bagpipes that allows the popular study spot to adopt a new, unique tone.

The musicians filter in at seven p.m. and settle into their chosen spots. They are in no hurry to get started, reflecting the relaxed atmospheres these sessions have adopted since developing in Ireland.

“A session is basically a bunch of musicians getting together and playing tunes, learning tunes, and everyone is trying to get better but there’s nothing really riding on it so there’s less pressure — only what you put on yourself,” Tracy Jenkins ’12 said.

Eventually, the instruments make appearances. Each musician carefully prepares their chosen instrument, tuning and plucking strings. The sessions can incorporate any number of players, ranging from the Irish flute to the bodhran, an Irish frame drum.

As the music grows louder, some of the students trickle out, leaving room for spectators to trickle in, such as Kathy Duncan ’90, who studied in Cork during her time at the College.

“In Ireland every third person plays an instrument,” she said. “They gather together and play all the time, it’s really popular as a social activity.”

Musician Dan Jackson has been organizing musical sessions for the past five or six years, though they have been at the bookstore for the past two years, making it their longest run so far.

The players have various backgrounds, reflecting the ranging levels that Jackson’s sessions welcome. Fiddle player Bernard Joseph Farrell has been playing music for 35 years, while retired army officer and author Victor Rosello, who plays the bodhran, has only about six months of musical experience.

Jenkins has been playing traditional music since he was thirteen. His favorite part of the experience is simply the sound of the music. Among other instruments, he plays the dulcimer, Great Highland Bagpipes and Scottish Smallpipes.

“I love the sound of the pipes,” Jenkins said. “Since I play them, I get to hear them whenever I want. Just like any art, it’s a form of expression and I play the music I like to hear.”

Having started playing in sessions during high school, Jenkins started attending Jackson’s sessions at the end of his freshman year.

“In addition to the music, we all share a camaraderie that comes from shared enthusiasm for the traditions,” he said. “It’s part of our identity and I think we all play this kind of music because it speaks to that identity.”

The tradition is the most prominent features of these Monday night sessions. While listening to the Irish flutes, bodhran, fiddle, banjo and smallpipes, you can hardly stop yourself from tapping your foot, and it seems wholly appropriate to jump up and do a jig before ordering a Guinness at the cafe.

In the British Isles, of course, there are differences between the traditions of each region. As sessions grow in popularity in other parts of the world, those different traditions intermingle.

“I’m a Scottish-American and traditional Scottish music really moves me,” Jenkins said. “I think it’s like that with a lot of Irish musicians as well. We identify with each other as musicians but also as traditional musicians. I’ve been to sessions wherever I’ve traveled for the past few years and I’m really glad there’s a session right here in town.”

Jackson has set up the designated evenings at the bookstore so that they accommodate all types of players.
Slow sessions are on the first, third and fifth Mondays of every month and are geared towards beginner musicians, while the second and fourth Mondays are faster, meant for more advanced players. According to Ken Shields, who plays the Irish Flute, fast sessions can get up to 12 players and are generally very lively.

“Music is a great way for Irish people to come together,” Duncan said. “There, pubs are like their living room, so if people start playing then others can just jump right in. It’s a great way to learn new music and improve.”

Even at the bookstore, especially during slow sessions, there will be pauses in the music so Jackson can help the other musicians perfect their performances.

“Every session I’ve gone to has had a mix of more experienced players and less experienced players, though of course some sessions have higher-quality musicians than others,” Jenkins said. “Newcomers are nearly always welcomed and encouraged, so long as they exhibit some courtesy.”

Rules for sessions are pretty self-explanatory: play on the beat, in tune and not too loud. Oftentimes players will sit quietly and listen if they do not know the specific song being played, some even bringing recording devices for improving later on. Ultimately, the goal is to play well while having a great time.

“We all want to sound good, but we’re not getting paid,” Jenkins said. “We just do it because we love it. At a lot of others sessions, which are in pubs, folks will have a drink or two while they play. It’s totally relaxed: you can come late, leave early, miss a few weeks or even months and when you get back everyone’s happy to see you again.”

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