Bodhrán Etiquette

The seisiún is fairly cookin’ with hot, wild, wonderful music. The door opens and heads turn to see who is entering the pub. In walks (ominous low background music….) an unknown bodhrán player.

The rest of the musicians and many of the listeners roll their eyes heavenward in a silent prayer. ‘Please, Lord, let it be someone who knows what they’re doing.’ A shadow of tension and despair creeps under every table and stool as this new bodhrán player opens the case and draws out the dreaded instrument and tipper.
Here comes the test…

The First Test – The musicians switch to a slow aire. Does the new bodhrán player sit there patiently? Or is this someone who thinks that bodhrán should be an integral part of every tune? If the new bodhrán player smiles and then orders a pint, there’s still hope.

When the tempo picks up, the rest of the musicians judge the new player’s skill at rhythms, dampening, flourishes, rim shots, switching, side work, etc. Does this bodhrán player really know how to handle the instrument? Or is this some tourist who recently purchased a bodhrán (read: decorative wall ornament) and thinks that anyone can beat a drum?

The Second Test – will be one of volume. Even if the bodhrán player isn’t adept at the drum, the label of pariah isn’t applied automatically if he/she isn’t drowning out the other musicians. (It IS possible to play the bodhrán at a reasonable or even relatively quiet level. Beginning bodhrán players should pay close attention the volume level of the tune. The bodhrán is not the main melody instrument here… it is a foundation and backing instrument.) If you are unsure of your abilities, to try to pick up tips from more experienced seisiún musicians, but for a general rule of thumb:

  • Practice at home
  • Play at sessiun, and…
  • Pay attention to the Slag-O-Meter (see the terms page).

The Third Test – Then the door to the pub opens and in walks (ominous low background music….) ANOTHER bodhrán player! (see light bulb joke) Aaaaugh! How much can one sessiun be expected to endure?

The bodhrán players smile at each other and tense a bit. Will this new person “play nice”? Note the unwritten and very often unspoken rule in seisiún: ONE BODHRÁN PLAYER PER TUNE!

The very good reason for this piece of etiquette is simple: there are only so many beats in a measure of music. The flourishes and emphasis of down and up beats depend entirely upon the silences… the unplayed beats. You can sometimes fall into the same rhythm patterns as another drummer. But, no matter how talented you may be at playing the bodhrán, you cannot anticipate where another drummer will place their silences. Two bodhrán players on the same tune start striking every beat of the measure. The result? A messy, “flaffling” din that destroys the tune and ruins the seisiún.

This doesn’t mean that two or more bodhrán players can’t “play nice” with each other. It requires a degree of maturity and grace to work out a system of sharing the seisiún by switching players. Sometimes nobody but the bodhrán players themselves notice the unspoken negotiation.

A reel ends, and Bodhrán Player #1 puts the instrument down, reaches for a pint rather than a new tipper, and nods at the Bodhrán Player #2 who is probably already moving into the new series of tunes. Oh, my… it’s a very fast polka that moves without pause straight into… another very fast polka. There’s usually only three tunes in a BTST (bunches tunes strung together), but if it’s late in the seisiún and the beer is flowing, then who’s counting?

The drinking Bodhrán Player #1 listens carefully and watches the face of the tiring Bodhrán Player #2. How’s the arm doing there? Feeling the burn? Tuckering out?

Ah, there it is! That look of desperation that says, “If you don’t leap in when this lot switches to the next (and likely faster) polka, my arm is going to fall off!”

There’s a nod or a wink, and Bodhrán Player #1 puts the pint down and picks up the drum and tipper. The now exhausted and thirsty Bodhrán Player #2 gives a sigh of relief as the tune switches and the exchange of bodhrán players takes place. With no considerable difference in the bodhrán players’ skill level, the other musicians and listeners may not even notice the switch.

Note: Some seisiúns not only allow but encourage more than one bodhrán player banging away at a time.  This occasionally happens in larger seisiúns.  If they are smart, the drummers won’t cluster together, but station themselves around the room.  It truly depends on what the room will bear and what the history of the seisiún has been as to how many bodhrán players it too many.  When there’s more drummers than all the other instruments combined, it might be time to break out your guitar or play the bones or sing if you’re able.

The thing to always keep in mind is that everyone comes together to make good music.  As long as the music is good, you’re probably doing okay.