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Navigating Eclectic Jam Sessions | Jam Etiquette

At their best, Jam sessions are melting pots of creativity, collaboration, and artistic expression. The term ‘jam session’ can mean everything from communal practice sessions to high-level performances. They can include acoustic genres like bluegrass, Irish, old-time, and country and amplified realms of blues, R&B, rock, Jazz, and more. Good Jam sessions offer an opportunity to get noticed, connect with fellow musicians, share ideas, and make magic. Not all jams are created equal. 

To make the most of these experiences, here’s a guide to navigating the etiquette of playing in diverse jams, as well as tips for running your own session.

What to Do Before Joining the Jam

The cornerstone of any successful jam session is rooted in active listening. Before jumping up on stage, acquaint yourself with the session’s people, repertoire, and vibe of the session. Each genre possesses its unique essence, and each community adheres to different rules.

 Three Levels of Difference in Jams

  • Expectations related to the genre(s) within that session,
  • Differences between “pro” and community jams, 
  • Eccentricities of the personalities of each Jam leader. Some are cool and welcoming, and some might be hard to deal with.

 

In some community-focused or educational sessions, large groups of musicians may join in the background, and you can do whatever you want and blend into a sea of players. 

 

In jam sessions focused on the pro or experienced amateur level, there is rarely a time to “do whatever you want.” The musicians and audience are not there strictly to serve you. A jam can be an opportunity to showcase yourself, but always bear in mind the importance of respecting the musicians, audience, and music 

 

When attending pro jam sessions, or if you feel anxious, refrain from attempting tunes you haven’t practiced. It’s generally better to bow out gracefully from a tune that’s too fast or intricate for your current proficiency level than disrupt the flow of the session.

 

You’ll better elevate the collective curiosity and energy by aligning your playing with your capabilities.

 

How to prepare for success when you play at a Jam Session

 

If you’re not a seasoned pro or you haven’t attended a particular Jam session, I recommend you do all of these things before you play the first time:

 

  • Check out a set and introduce yourself to the leader or member of the house band.
  • Ask if they have any general rules you should know. 
  • Write names of the songs played at the session and the keys they were played in. If the Jam session features a song one week, they’ll probably be open to play it another week. You could prepare those songs for a future session.
  • Ask the bandleader if it’s ok for you to come back and give him/her a list of tunes you might want to play (with preferred keys and tempo or style). Ask how many songs it would be appropriate to prepare/play and at what time of the night (or during which set) it would be best for you to join.
  • Sus out the sound situation, especially if it’s an amplified setting. Speak with the sound person and ask if they recommend bringing your amp and preamp. If they have direct output boxes, ask if they think you could plug your instrument (and preamp) directly in. You’ll probably be fine playing into a mic if it’s a semi-acoustic jam (no drums).
  • Practice for your visit. A great way is to try this useful tool: play-along lessons by style.

 

Humility is Key

Ego has no place at a Jam. Regardless of your skill level, approach the session with humility and an open mind. Collaborate rather than compete. Every musician has something unique to bring to the table, and the collective energy of a jam session thrives on this diversity. People don’t care how much you know; they want to know how much you care. Show support for others; this will inevitably draw people to you. This is all equally true for professional musicians.

 

Join In, But Don’t Overstep: 

 

Participation may be encouraged, but knowing when to join and hold back is an art. During your first moments in the session, observe the dynamics.  Wait for someone else to take the first solo to understand the duration. when other soloists are playing, don’t step on them. (Err on the side of playing quiet or leaving space .)

 

Communicate Verbally AND Non-Verbally: 

 

I’m a fan of using our voices on stage to ask, cue, and tell people what we want.  This can include counting a tune off, saying “tag” or “bridge” or “repeat”, “Vamp”, etc… In the absence of verbal cues, non-verbal communication is paramount. Pay attention to eye contact, nods, and subtle cues from fellow musicians. These gestures can help convey changes in tempo, transitions between sections, or shifts in dynamics. Watch nonverbal cues and body language.

Be Responsible for Your Sound

 

Not all sessions are created equal, but crowded spaces and varying volume levels are expected. Be mindful of your surroundings and ensure you’re not overpowering other musicians. Don’t play too much. Ask if you’re not sure.

Adjust your volume and technique accordingly. A delicate touch can make all the difference in intimate settings, while in louder sessions, you need to be in control of your amplification. 

Amplified Settings

It never hurts to bring an amp or preamp and research the sound reinforcement resources in advance (by speaking with a sound technician or observing) if you don’t have an amp. I like to go up on the break and set up my amp (and my effects pedals and preamps if needed). This way, once I’m called, I have my sound dialed in. Elevate your amp on a chair and point it at your ear, and make sure you either have a volume pedal, or you can reach your amp volume knob easily. If someone else is blaring on the monitor next to you, move away from the monitor, move the monitor, or ask the sound person if they can turn the monitor down. 

Know When to Leave Room

 

Leaving space is equally important as getting your licks in. Allow for breathing room between phrases and solos. Don’t play too long. Avoid new tunes if you’re nervous.  If you’re comfortable, a session is a great place to try new tunes Err on the side of shorter solos unless the length is predetermined. 

People will almost always appreciate you more when you play less. However, also don’t pass on playing just to be polite. If you are prepared to do your thing, do it unapologetically.

 

Remember, these sessions are about more than just playing for each other; they’re about connecting, sharing, and collectively creating something beautiful. 

 

Genre-Specific Jam Session Etiquettes

This section is an abbreviated guide for musicians exploring different style bands and jam session communities. It is not intended to be comprehensive. Various communities may have different definitions of popular songs.

Irish Traditional Sessions

Irish traditional sessions are well-known for their community-centered approach. Participants are expected to play the same melody simultaneously. Improvised solos are not typically part of the Irish tradition, and new participants are often encouraged to listen and understand the standard tunes before joining in.

Bluegrass Sessions

Contrary to Irish sessions, Bluegrass jam sessions often encourage individual solos. Players will take turns leading a tune, and others will play backup. In amateur or community jams ( as opposed to pro jams), you can often opt out of solos and blend into the background. You could follow along with lead sheets to learn the chord progressions. You may get cross-eyed glances from purists, but I wouldn’t worry. 

Oldtime Sessions

Oldtime sessions, like Irish sessions, focus on ensemble playing. However, the structure may vary, with some musicians playing lead while others support with chords and rhythm. Solos aren’t typical, and the performance relies on a solid knowledge of the melody. Knowing the tunes, or being able to pick them up quickly, is essential.

Blues and R&B Sessions

Blues and R&B jam sessions often allow improvisation within a well-defined structure. Communication is vital here, with visual cues and signals helping musicians know when it’s their turn to solo or switch to a different part of the song. The different keys favored often depend on instrumentalists and personalities. For example, a guitarist may ask people to play in E or A.  A harmonica or Sax player or singer may request other different keys.

Jazz Sessions

In Jazz jam sessions, soloing is a defining characteristic, often with each musician taking turns improvising over the chord changes. Understanding complex harmonies, knowing standard tunes, and respecting the other players’ space becomes critical. Due to the technical demands, jazz sessions may be less forgiving to newcomers.

Rock Sessions

Rock jam sessions can be flexible and wide-ranging. The structure may be more loosely defined, and improvisation is often welcomed. Respect for each musician’s space and taking turns with solos is vital, but there may be more room for spontaneity than in other genres. (You may enjoy this post on how to play a rock  solo.)

Navigating Latin Jam Sessions

Latin music is a kaleidoscope of styles and traditions. I don’t pretend to know all the intricacies of every style, but here are some general points.

Salsa Sessions

With its strong roots in Cuba, Salsa is characterized by infectious rhythms and energetic playing. Musicians in these sessions must be attuned to clave patterns and the cues from lead percussion instruments. Cuban Salsa, in particular, emphasizes a call-and-response structure, where understanding when to take the lead and when to follow is crucial.

Bossa Nova, Samba and Choro Sessions (Brazil)

Bossa Nova is a common influence of music in North America, while Samba is typically faster and less commonly known. Both styles require mastery of distinct rhythms. 

Choro has been gaining renewed attention among musicians and enthusiasts alike. Here’s what you need to know about Choro jam sessions:

Instrumentation and Ensemble Playing

Choro is historically performed by a small ensemble. Instruments such as the cavaquinho (a small stringed instrument), flute, guitar, clarinet, and pandeiro (tambourine) take the lead. Each musician takes turns with the melody while others provide rhythmic and harmonic support. I’ve seen Choro jams include mandolin players, bowed strings, and a Jazz rhythm section.

Improvisation and Creativity

While traditional Choro (standard) pieces provide a structured foundation, improvisation is essential to the genre. Musicians embellish melodies, add ornamentation, and create spontaneous solos while maintaining the tune’s structure.

Study and Respect for Tradition

With the current trend of musicians studying Choro, the importance of understanding its roots and forms is recognized. Learning traditional Choro compositions and absorbing the rhythmic feel are crucial steps in immersing oneself in the style. 

Participation and Community

Choro jam sessions, known as ‘rodas de choro,’ are often inclusive and community-oriented gatherings. Experienced players may lead, but there’s typically a welcoming atmosphere for those learning the genre. The communal aspect of playing, listening, and learning together is significant to Choro’s appeal.

Current Trends and Revival

Choro’s resurgence is seen not only in Brazil but also internationally. Schools, music workshops, and festivals increasingly focus on Choro, allowing musicians from various backgrounds to explore and contribute to this lively tradition.

Tango Sessions (Argentina)

Sessions focus on the interplay between instruments like the bandoneon and violin, with clear communication and understanding of rhythm essential to capturing the essence of the Tango.

Venezuelan Music Sessions

Venezuelan music, including styles like Joropo and Merengue, requires understanding complex rhythms and specific instruments like the cuatro (a four-stringed guitar). Joropo, for example, relies on a blend of harp, maracas, and bandola, with musicians often improvising within a well-defined structure. Respect for these traditions and the unique blend of indigenous, African, and European influences is essential for Venezuelan jam sessions.

 

Mexican Music Sessions

Mexican jam sessions may include styles like Mariachi, Norteño, or Ranchera. Mariachi, for example, focuses on ensemble playing with instruments like the violin, trumpet, and guitarón. Knowing the songs, respecting traditional structures, and following the lead vocalist are key.

Flamenco

A genre with deep cultural roots in Spain and a significant presence in Latin music.

With its connection to the Andalusian region of Spain, Flamenco is more than just a musical genre; it’s an intricate blend of music, dance, and emotion. In Flamenco jam sessions or ‘juergas,’ musicians, singers, and dancers create an intense and immersive experience.

Jam Session Musicians

Guitarists and Instrumentalists

In Flamenco, the guitar is often the central instrument, laying the rhythmic foundation and supporting the cante (singing). Guitarists must be adept at techniques like rasgueado (strumming) and alzapúa (thumb technique). Other instruments, such as the cajón (percussion box), may be included, but the guitar typically leads.

Cante (Singing)

Cante is the soul of Flamenco, expressing deep emotions like joy, sorrow, and longing. Singers must have a profound understanding of the traditional song forms, known as ‘palos,’ and be able to improvise within these structures. The singer often leads the performance, with musicians and dancers following their emotional cues.

Baile (Dance)

Flamenco dance is powerful and expressive. Dancers respond to the music’s subtle shifts. Footwork and hand claps (palmas) add to the rhythm.

Communication and Respect

Respect for the tradition, the forms, and the other musicians is paramount.

Understanding the Palos

Flamenco includes various palos or specific song forms, such as Soleá, Bulerías, and Fandangos. Each has its rhythm, melody, and emotional content. Knowing these forms is essential for anyone participating in a Flamenco jam session.

 

General Considerations for Latin Sessions

  • Know the Style: Understanding the specific genre’s rhythm, melody, and structure is vital.
  • Cultural Sensitivity: Respect the cultural context and honor the traditions.
  • Communication and Collaboration: Active listening, visual cues, and collaboration guide the  interplay
  • Respect for Instruments: Awareness of traditional instruments and their roles.

 

Latin Music in North American and Jazz Context

 

The approach might differ when Latin styles are incorporated into North American jazz sessions.  Musicians must balance respect for traditional Latin forms with the expression typical of jazz. Knowledge of both Latin rhythms and jazz structures can be vital here. As always, it depends on the vibe of the session, whether it is intended to allow free improvisation from anyone or it is more of a pro session. You can find an example in my album Southern Exposure.

 

World Music Sessions

“World Music” can vary significantly, reflecting the cultural diversity of the music itself. The rules and expectations can differ widely. Understanding the specific tradition, the instruments involved, and the social norms is essential. Like Irish and Oldtime sessions, a communal approach may be emphasized, though it can vary significantly based on the community. Many community drum circles welcome participation. Again, whenever you attend something like this, ask someone to explain the parameters to you if possible and ensure you comply with the protocols.

Electronic Music Sessions

Musicians may use synthesizers, drum machines, laptops, and other electronic devices in electronic music jam sessions. Collaborative kind of play may be more about building soundscapes and textures than following a strict musical form. Understanding the technology involved and being open to experimental sounds is part of etiquette. “Electronic Dance Music” is a genre that is accessible . here are some strategies for improvising on electronic dance music. 

Playing Free

If you go to a place and people say, “Do whatever you want; play free improvisation”, that’s awesome. If you get a solo spot, ask how long they want you to play, and go for it. If it’s a duo or larger collaboration with people you don’t know, maybe discuss it with them before launching into it. The players may have expectations even If it’s a Free Improvisation situation.  Asking questions like, “Is this only for experienced players, or is it cool to jump in if I am new to this?” 

General Etiquette Across Sessions

For all jam sessions, there are some universal etiquettes to consider:

  • Listen First: Understand the flow, the tunes, and the dynamics before jumping in.
  • Respect Others: Know when to lead and when to follow, and give others a chance to shine.
  • Communicate: Whether through spoken word, eye contact, or musical cues, clear communication helps create a more satisfying jam session.
  • Know the Material: If there’s a setlist or standard tunes, familiarizing yourself with them shows respect for the group’s norms.
  • Enjoy the Process: Jam sessions involve collaboration, experimentation, and enjoyment. Approach them with an open mind and a willingness to learn from others.

By respecting these unspoken rules, you’ll find a welcoming community ready to embrace your participation, regardless of the musical style.

Creating Your Own Jam: Benefits, Guidelines, and Venue Pitching

Beyond participating, you can initiate jam sessions. Starting a session jam allows you to curate the musical experience to your liking. 

Here are steps to consider:

Choosing a Theme: Choose a genre or theme that resonates with you. A clear theme can play an important role in attracting like-minded musicians.

Inviting Musicians: Gather a group of musicians who share your passion. Contact friends or post invitations on social media and local music forums. Be clear whether or not you want to be inclusive and open to musicians of varying skill levels.

Setting Clear Communication: Share essential information such as date, time, location, and musical expectations. To keep everyone informed, utilize digital tools like social media events or email lists. 

Rotating Leadership: Consider implementing a rotation. Different musicians can take turns selecting tunes, leading the session, or introducing new ideas. 

Fostering Camaraderie: Set the tone for inclusivity, collaboration, and respect. Encourage musicians to listen and communicate.

Where to Host the Jam

Depending on your goals, you could host at someone’s house, a nonprofit community center, church, or park, or partner with a business such as a bar, restaurant, or coffee shop (or anywhere if you want to get creative!).

Pitching to Venues: Sharing Your Vision

Here are tips for pitching your community jam session:

Research: Identify venues that align with your session’s vibe. Consider factors like the space’s size, existing musical offerings, and patron demographics.

Craft a Compelling Pitch: Draft a persuasive proposal outlining the benefits of hosting your jam session. Highlight the potential increase in foot traffic, your unique musical experience, and the community-building aspect.

Highlight Mutual Gains: Emphasize how hosting your jam session sometime can be mutually beneficial. Mention how the event could attract a new audience to the venue and boost its reputation as a hub for live music. 

**Pro Tip—Tell the venue they’ll gain free advertising in the local “Entertainment Listings” (radio/print/digital). Most cities have multiple media sources for any venue that submits “Live Music Listings.” The best way to entice many venues is to show them the financial benefits. 

 

Demonstrate Flexibility: Be open to negotiation and compromise. Venues might have specific requirements or scheduling limitations. Show that you’re adaptable and willing to work together to make the event successful. Play for the long term.

 

Promotion and Monetization: Making It a Success

How to spread the word and potentially generate revenue:

Social Media: Utilize platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to create event pages, share photos and videos from past sessions, and engage with potential participants.

Local Partnerships: Collaborate with local music shops, cafes, or cultural centers. They might be interested in co-hosting or promoting your jam session to their clientele.

Donations or Cover Charges: Consider implementing a donation-based model or a modest cover charge to help cover costs such as venue fees or promotional materials. Be transparent about how the funds will be used.

Merchandising: Create merchandise like branded stickers, T-shirts, or tote bags that participants can purchase. This not only promotes the jam bands but also provides a revenue stream. 

****ProTip – If you’re playing at a bar that doesn’t sell food, you might be able to sell slices of pizza or bags of popcorn and sweets to patrons. I’ve done it, and it worked pretty well:)

 

Following these guidelines, you can create a jam session jam that nurtures connections, generates paid work, or shows people a good time. 

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