Seisiún Terms

Aire – A slow, quiet tune.

Banjo – Four-stringed shorter cousin of its American cousin, the Irish banjo lacks the fifth drone string.

Bodhrán – Round wooden frame drum covered with the hide of a sheep or goat.  It is beaten with a stick called a tipper, and sometimes played with the knuckles or the hand. (Note: the knuckles and the hand should never completely penetrate the hide of the drum.)

Bouzouki – Round-bodied, long-necked Grecian guitar.

B.T.S.T. – Short for ‘Bunches of Tunes Strung Together’.  The term was immortalized by James Joyce in his stream o’consciousness work Finnegan’s Wake.

Céili – Pull out the chairs, roll up the rug and dance in lines and squares to jigs and reels and polkas at reasonable dance tempo all night long.  Not to be confused with step dancing which requires hard-soled shoes and has a lot of high kicks and jumps – not for the feint of heart or the high of blood pressure.  Occasionally at the céili, a step dancer or three will pull out their party piece, everyone will whoop and applaud, and then get back to the dancing.

ComplimentsIt is customary to whoop or call out compliments like “Good man!”  “That’s lovely!” “Brilliant!” both during and after a rousing tune or song when the rare song is heard.   In seisúin a “Whoop!” is often a signal to the players who closed their eyes and missed the foot in the air that signals “We’re changing tunes or ending now.” (See “Slagging” term below.)

Dampening – What happens when you play out in the rain, or when the bodhrán player places a hand on the back side of the drum hide to soften or mute the sound.

Fiddle – The same as a violin, but used to play Katy Bar the Door rather than Pacdhelbel’s Canon.

Flaffling – Striking the bodhrán on every friggin’ beat of the music; sloppy playing.

Flourishes – Also called grace notes.  Every tune has a basic melody.  Flourishes on the pipes are the tiny notes either before or after the melody note and often an octave or more away which embellish the melody without relying on harmony.  Flourishes on the bodhrán fall into the bin of anything shorter than a quarter note, and the shorter the better.

Flute – An Irish flute is made of wood (most are stained black) with holes…. no metal mechanical devices to allow the musician to finger in a lazyman’s fashion.

Horn Pipe – Played in 4/4 time.  Think of Popeye, the Sailorman’s theme song only slower. (Not the watzy I’m Popeye the Sailorman… piece… the OTHER one!)

Jig – Played in 6/8 time (DAH-da-da-DAH-da-da, DAH-da-da-DAH-da-da.)  Think of The Irish Washerwoman.  (If you can say “Watermelon, watermelon” to it, you’re not playing a jig.  You’re playing a reel.)

Lilting – Deedle idle teetle idle die dee doh sung in the place of an instrument.  Lilting is harder to do well than it sounds.

Noodling – What musicians do instead of biting their fingernails.  They get bored, they’re not sure what they want to play, or if they are in tune…. they noodle.  Not heard much in really fine seisiúns.

Party Piece – Every musician or singer has one piece they polish up brighter than any other and perform at every single gathering.  Their ‘party piece’ is called for by friends and family, often listened to with indulgence and sympathy.

Pint – What good bodhrán players have bought FOR them, and bad bodhrán players have thrown AT them.  Stout in the winter, ale in the summer.  And of greater alcoholic content and size in Ireland than you’ll find in the U.S.  A real pint hold a full (and I mean FULL, scrapin’ the foam off FULL) 16 fluid ounces.

Planxty – The title of a tune coupled with the name of the rich, landed gentry who commissioned it or earned it for being nice to an itinerant harper.

“Play nice” – The One Bodhrán Player Per Tune Rule requires some cooperation when more than one bodhrán player shows up at the seisiún.  Sharing… shaaaarrrriiiing.

Polka – A brisk piece played in 2/4 time.  Fine for dancing at a céili, but dancers usually don’t stop with just one polka.  They want two or three strung together, which can be hell on the poor bodhrán player’s arm.

Polyphony – Music with two or more independent melodic lines sounded together.  Irish seisiún music is NOT polyphonic.  All the melody instruments play the same melody line.

Pub – The place where you’ll do most of your playing and some of your drinking.  Not the place where you’ll do most of your practicing.  No, that would be your home when nobody’s there, or a wild and lonely field.

Reel – The tune goes really fast, and you can say “Watermelon, watermelon” to it.

Rhythms – The number of beats per measure along with the stressed and unstressed beats.

Rim Shots – Striking the tipper on the wooden rim of the bodhrán.

Seisiún – (Or Sessions) are live, acoustic, traditional Irish music played in the corner of the pub with no amplification, few if any lyrics sung, all the strings and whistles playing the same melody with little to no harmony.

Instruments welcome at seisiún include the fiddle, Irish flute (black with no keys) also called the feadóg mhór, Uilleann pipes (1 set), tin whistles in the key of D, A, and G, button accordion, concertina and bodhrán (1 per tune).

Instruments permitted but not overly so are the guitar (1- 2), the Irish tenor banjo – shorter than its American cousin, with four strings and no drone (1), mandolin (1), bouzouki (if there is no mandolin, banjo or guitar), piano (1) or piano accordion (if there’s no button accordion or piano), chromatic harmonica, bones and spoons (only one or the other – never played in pairs) and another bodhrán if the players agree to “play nice”.  Sometimes you’ll see a harp (wire, more often than nylon strung) but it can be awfully hard to hear harps in loud pubs.

Instruments definitely not welcome at seisiún include the electric guitar, bass (electric or acoustic), hammered dulcimer, doumbec, bongos, shakers and tambourines of all types, the American five-string banjo, recorder, and all the rest of the woodwind, brass, and string sections.  Are we clear on this?  Good.

Side Work – Playing the wooden side of the bodhrán instead of the skin for a few measures.

Slagging – Musicians insulting musicians.  A great slag artist can say your performance is “Brilliant!”  in such a way that the audience (and the inexperienced musician) thinks it is a compliment.  The trick is in knowing the difference between a slag and a compliment.

Slipjig – Played in 9/8 time.  Very difficult to tell where it starts and when it stops.

Silences – The unplayed beats.  Any fool can play on every beat of the measure.  The soul of the bodhrán’s music resides in the silences.

Song – Take a tune and add lyrics.  Now you have a song.  Songs are only rarely done during seisiún, and most are unaccompanied.

Strathspey – A Scottish form that comes from the word ”strath’ that mean a wide, flat river.  The Strathspey is similar to a reel, but slower.

Switching – Long, sustained polka-playing requires switching bodhrán players in mid-medley.

Tempo – The speed of the tune.

Tin Whistles – A rolled piece of metal or plastic with six holes punched in it, sometimes with a tunable mouthpiece (preferable) and other times with a wedge of wood in a stationary mouthpiece.  In the hands of an artist… a wondrous simple instrument.  In the hands of a beginner (like every other instrument), a device of torture.  Key of C, key of D, key of G.  All others – unnecessary.  Sometimes called a penny whistle (though good ones cost a LOT of pennies) or a simple whistle.

Tipper – The stick used to beat the bodhrán.  Tippers come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes.

Tune – The melody of the piece.  Take away the lyrics…. what’s left is the tune.  Tunes are the staple of seisiún music.

Uilleann Pipes – A smaller series of bellows-driven pipes that must be played sitting down.  The word uileann means ‘elbow’, from the action of the musician who unlike his Highland piping Scottish brother pumps rather than blows air into the bladder of the dead goat.  The uileann pipes are a reasonable instrument that, also unlike the Highland pipes, can be played indoors without causing serious damage to the eardrums of the player and listeners.

Volume – How LOUD is it?  What?

Waltz – A tune of moderate to slow tempo played in 3/4 time.  Move it to 6/8 time and throw it into high gear, and what do you have?  A jig.