Has this happened to you?: You walk into a session, put your pint down, and just barely get the instrument out of the case, and before you even get a chance to sip that first creamy pint, someone says, "Give us a tune."
I happened to me once in Donegal, and I was floored. In my case, I'd already sipped a couple of pints while standing at the edge the session observing, before jumping in.
I'm not a ham. It's not my normal mode to just jump right in and start playing. I often suffer from a bit of stage fright (though much much less now). But in the past, my usual response was: freeze for a moment. Heartrate goes up.
You'll be in a similar situation, or perhaps you've been in this situation a million times. The best solution: Reach back into your recesses, find the tune that you play most easily, the one you can play with your eyes closed and both hands tied between your back (I'm not sure how you would then play the tune, but let's move on), and do a beautiful, clean job of it. Don't pick the fancy one just yet. Don't try to impress. Pick the one with no speedbumps. And from my perspective, don't worry if it's a tune they've played already. If it's a nice session that you want to be in, no one will stop you and say, "But we've already done that one!" (See pt. 3)
Here are some tips for navigating session entry:
1) When asked to start a tune, pick the one you know best.
2) Pick a tempo that is very reasonable. Don't try to rush it to meet the group's speed, because you simply can't play a tune faster than you can play it. I'm not a mathemetician, but I think that is true.
3) Don't worry about picking a tune that they've already played, if it's the only tune that you are sure you can play well. If in doubt, ask. There's nothing wrong with asking, "Is it alright if we play 'The Sally Gardens' again?" Kind session leaders will say yes. If they say no, then think about it...maybe that's not the right session for you as a learner.
4) Nerves will almost always make you play faster.
5) Too much beer will almost always make you play worse. You just won't realize it and no one will probably tell you. Except maybe your husband.
6) Own your skill level, but, GOD, please don't start your tune with a four-minute apology. If you're new, it seems perfectly reasonable to say, "I'm just learning, but here goes..." and leave it at that. Nerves may drive you to one of those long, "Well, um... toot... tweet... let me just... I am really not good at this.. .Hey, can you play The Merry Blacksmith, or maybe it's the Silver Spear or maybe it's Galway Rambler, I'm not sure what key it's in... Um, man I think I had too much beer... toot... tweet... um" Oh, goodness, is that annoying. Just be yourself, don't apologize, and play. Dammit. People will know your skill level within ten seconds of hearing you, even if they don't make eye contact. Believe me, they're listening, and if they've asked you for a tune, then by God, play it with confidence.
7) Know what key your tune is in, and say it out loud before you start, if you think it will help the guitar player. But beware that experience tune backers can figure out the key easily, and some may get insulted if you tell them the key.
8) Determine if this is a session that will welcome you to do a "solo" or if you're better to play something everyone knows. Usually, sessions are about group participation, so it might be best to pick one everyone can join you on. Showing off right from the start is not the best policy, particularly in the Irish world.
9) No matter how much you rehearse, you still may mess up your tune.
10) It's likely that you're not messing it up as badly as you think.
11) When asked to start a tune, only play tunes you REALLY know. If you really can't get through a tune without losing the rhythm, or stopping and starting over from the beginning, or you just started working on it yesterday, then you probably don't know it well enough to bring out to a session. If you're like this with ALL tunes, then maybe you're not quite ready to fully participate in a session--unless the session clearly is comfortable with that, and keeps encouraging you to play. Then it's a learning session, and that's a great place to be for you at this time. Hooray! Embrace those people. You'll probably become great friends over the years.
12) It's not about you, it's about the music. If you suffer from stage fright, chances are it's because you're thinking more about yourself than the music. What will I play like? What will they think of me? Will I impress them? Can I do this? Etc. Instead, focus on the tune, and being a vehicle for delivering it. You're just the messenger, so forget about you. Just think about the message.
No matter how much prep, one normal result you can count on for a while is this: You've been going to the same session for about a month now, and they have a round robin style, going around the circle so that each person gets a shot at selecting a tune. You've been working on a set for the last month, you can play it pretty well, and so you start playing it... and crash and burn. Ugh!
Well, don't worry. It happens. Go home, practice it some more, and try again next time. Just keep having fun while you're at it.