No. 8 Stuff I Learned in Ireland: Seisiúns and Survival


Bruce, Marla and friends at Newry's Railway Bar at the 2019 Iúr Cinn Fleadh

(Photo: Columba O'Hare)


Journey to Ireland, and you’re quite likely to stumble upon an Irish music seisiún. In fact, there’s likely one happening in some pub on many nights of the week in most cities and many towns – that is, before Covid closed them all down temporarily. You’ll know it when you do – you’ll walk in and see a klatch of musicians playing together – not on a stage for an audience – but huddled around a cluttered table enjoying the tunes and the chat.


The intensity of my desire to understand the seisiún in more depth impelled me to trek….all the way around the coffee table in our living room to the couch where my wife, Marla Fibish, (who has played in seisiúns for the past 40 years and teaches Irish music on the mandolin) was sitting.


'The seisiún is about the shared love of the music'

From Marla, then: ‘The seisiún is about the shared love of the music, not about the prowess of the players…there is the shared sensitivity to the values of the tradition, the love of the melodies and the collective generation of the pulse of the music which enables a shared experience.’

The ultimate function of the seisiún, then, is for the musicians to connect with one another, not to create a sensory or psychological event to be consumed by an audience.


What a novel concept!


Except it isn’t.


According to Jon Hawkes, the director of Community Music Victoria in Australia, the original purpose of music was, indeed, to connect the players with each other, not to render an impressive performance for an audience.


According to Mr Hawkes: ‘Music is more essentially made rather than witnessed…(it) developed as a form of being able to learn to collaborate…. it was a connecting form, so in forgetting that that was what music was about, which is what I think we have done, we have lost the primary method of learning to be able to cooperate with each other…’ (interview with Jon Hawkes by Lucy O’Grady).


Marla demonstrates the collaborative spirit of the seisiún extending beyond species...

The loss – or, at least, underutilization -- of such a profound training ground for collaboration such as what exists in Irish music seisiúns has profound consequences for a planet with a populace with a relative overdrive of a fight-or-flight response.


‘What a piece of work is man…how noble in reason’…nice sentiment, Prince Hamlet. But there is a mistaken assumption that the cultivation of ‘reason’ will, in and of itself, lead to a kinder and gentler collective living experience. To quote Albert Szent-Gyorgi, MD, PhD, Nobel Prize winner: ‘the brain... is another organ of survival like fangs or claws..(it) does not search for truth, but for advantage...'


It is, therefore, not axiomatic that the most closely reasoned among us, or those most capable of cerebral pyrotechnics will use their talents to ensure survival for all. Perhaps analogous to the misplaced emphasis on performance in music, the cultivation of skills that lead to high grades and SAT scores will not necessarily lend themselves to feelings of consanguinity, empathy, or compassion, that in turn would provide the substrate for mutual support and conflict resolution so desperately needed in today's world.

Collaborative music-making, as exemplified by Seisiúns, may well result in the cultivation of qualities that may be more instrumental in saving both the planet and its inhabitants.

The tweeded Apostles of the Frontal Lobes might dismount from their equally tweeded steeds, and, in the manner of the Pedants of Yore, throw down their gauntlets, and bellow ‘show me thy empirically-based studies that demonstrate that musical training actually enhances empathy!’


With triumphant sanctimony, I unsheath my compendium of dog-eared journals and bellow right back: 'Stand down, ye Tyrants of Misplaced Logical Positivism, for the battle is mine!' Multiple studies performed at the Center of Music and Science at University of Cambridge showed that when children are randomized to groups where synchronized music is taught to one group and not another, the former group show statistically significant elevations in measurements of empathy and ‘pro-social' behavior.’


Seen in this light, a renewed emphasis on collaborative music-making, as so wonderfully exemplified by seisiúns, may well result in the cultivation of qualities that may be more instrumental (so to speak) in saving both the planet and its inhabitants.

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