Ten Suggestions For Music Jams

Music is a social thing. Music takes on a whole new dimension when two or more musicians get together. These days, I participate in two or three jams a week. And for a while, I organized a regular ukulele jam in Kingston. In this missive, I offer some advice on how best to take advantage of your musical jam opportunities, whether you’re organizing a jam or participating.

To clarify, I’m discussing the informal song circle style jam where a dozen or so musicians take turns singing songs. Not the large big city jams where fifty or sixty people cram into a room together.

1) Participate. That is, don’t just show up and strum along in the back. I mean, be sure to take your turn in leading the group in the songs of your choice. Song circles work best when everyone participates. They’re less fun when they’re dominated by the same three or four musicians.

2) Don’t be intimidated. There’s always going to be someone better than you. Or someone with a more expensive instrument. Don’t let your lack of skills or lack of confidence deter you from participating. We were all beginners once. Private lessons and practice can only go so far. A jam is the best way to improve your skills and confidence.

If you do feel lost, don’t sweat it. If you don’t understand something, ask questions. Remember that you’re with friends. Over time, you’ll get the hang of things.

And if you’re an experienced musician, do have patience with the beginners. Remember that you were in their position once yourself.

3) Pay attention to the leader. I’ve been to jams where everyone is looking down at their song sheets, plowing through regardless. Sometimes, at the end of the song, half the room is a couple of beats ahead of the other half. Don’t do that!

Pay attention to the person leading and follow their lead. Don’t start a verse or chorus until the leader starts. Sometimes they may want to add a bar or two. Or they may want to give others the opportunity to do an instrumental break. Or if the song is short, they may want to return to the bridge before finishing the song. There’s no right or wrong way to perform a song. Let the leader decide how they want to do it.

4) Don’t push the tempo. This is related to the previous point, but it’s worth emphasizing. I know from my own experience how annoying it can be when another musician tries to push the tempo faster than what you want. It can be a challenge to bring the tempo back down. Sometimes you can do it by just slowing down until the offender realizes that they’re off tempo. Sometimes, I’ve just had to stop the song, scold the offender, and start over.

5) If you can, bring copies of your songs. If possible, include chord diagrams of at least the less common chords, or chords with a non-standard fingering. Before diving into the song, explain the trickier elements of the song.

Don’t be surprised, though, if an experienced player simply introduces a song by saying “It’s a 4-chord song in the key of G”, and expects you to follow along. That’s fine for songs that everyone knows. But for unfamiliar songs, keeping up in that type of situation is a skill that takes a while to master. If in doubt, just look at what chords the other musicians are playing.

6) Develop a repertoire. We all like to try out new material. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we also like to play songs we know. As a general guideline, I’d recommend limiting new material to one new song per person per jam. Having a repertoire of familiar songs is also helpful if the group is called upon to perform publicly.

7) No key changes. When arranging songs for your jam, stick to one key. In addition, stick to keys that are easiest for your instrument. For example, in a ukulele jam, stick to C, G, D, or A.

8) Be prepared. When bringing your favorite songs, be sure to practice in advance. This should be an obvious piece of advice, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has seen others try out a song without any advance practice.

9) Allow for a variety of skill levels. I know ukulele players who primarily choose three-chord songs in the key of C. Those are easiest for beginners, but that can get boring for the more experienced players. When choosing songs to bring, choose one easy song along with more challenging songs. Most beginners gravitate to the easy stuff, but most still appreciate (albeit grudgingly sometimes) the need to get out of their comfort zone.

10) Finally, have fun! I think this goes without saying. I just wanted to pad out the list to ten suggestions.

Cheers! Hans

2 Replies to “Ten Suggestions For Music Jams”

  1. I agree with a lot of Hans points and offer some other tips from my experience in leading the Bytown Ukulele Group in Ottawa for the last 10 years. The most important tip for getting people excited is to find great songs for the group to play – songs that are well-known, easy to play for beginners, and easy to sing with a group. As you’ve already discovered, there are lots to choose from on our website http://www.bytownukulele.ca to get you started!

    We always prepare 25 to 30 songs for a BUG night but our sessions run for almost 3 hours. You can generally run through 12 songs in an hour but always have extras at the ready. I would suggest just having your session once a month to start – on an organized level it’s way too much work to do it weekly plus people figure “oh well…it doesn’t matter if I miss this week…”, especially if it’s free. But when it’s on a monthly level – people make it more important – it’s an event they don’t want to miss. Plus initially, you’ll likely be doing all of the organization, song preparation, and song leading yourself and it can be very time consuming. To give you an idea, as well as working full-time, Mark and I together spend up to 180 hours a month on BUG related stuff.

    Here’s some things that might help (based on our experience):

    You need an enthusiastic leader for the group – someone to guide the session and, especially in the beginning, lead the songs. Be well prepared and know the songs. Over the years I’ve managed to get some other people to start contributing some songs and leading them but it took a long, long time. Most people are incredibly shy and don’t think they’re good enough. You don’t have to be an outstanding singer or player to lead the group – just organized and enthusiastic! I am definitely NOT the best singer or player in the group BUT I am the best song leader and organizer!

    Put up posters about the jam in the local music stores, library, etc.

    Create buzz – we created the website where we post all our music, events, etc. and a Facebook group which we use for interacting with members. Other groups I know use Meet-up.

    At first we used to print out songsheets and bring them in binders for people to share. As the group has grown we’ve done away with paper. We project all our songs on screens using an iPad and an app called OnSong, and I also create a PDF songbook with all the songs for the night that people can download onto their tablets, IPads, etc.

    Our jam sessions generally run like this:
    5:30: We meet beforehand in our room at the pub to have dinner, drinks, etc. and socialize. It’s become a great time to share tips, techniques, try out different ukes, and connect etc.
    7:00 we share announcements and start singing
    8:30 break
    8:40 – 10:00 more group singing interspersed with a few open mic spots where individuals can sing a song, share a technique they’ve learned, etc.

    No matter what size of group – the key in my opinion is to have enough well-known, easy sing-a-long songs prepared in advance and led by someone who has practised the song and is not afraid to sing out (no matter how good a singer they are or aren’t!).

    Even if you post songs in advance, the majority of people will not practise them beforehand – they will play/sing them for the first time at the jam so the songs have to be simple, easy to sing, mostly well-known so that they can be sung with enthusiasm the first time through.

    Include songs from all eras if you’d like to attract people of all ages. Some groups get stuck in a rut of playing 60’s folk songs and end up with only seniors. We have people ranging in age from 8 to 90 in our group and they all enjoy classics like Five Foot Two or playing Shape of You by Ed Sheerhan! It’s wonderful to have all sorts of songs.

    The formatting of the songs (i.e. how they’re displayed) should be easy for beginners to read so they can sing and chord easily. I spend the majority of my time each month, creating songsheets that are easy to read and understand, and easy for a large group to play together well, first time through – sight unseen, really well. Many songsheets you’ll pull off of different websites have wrong chords, chords in the wrong places, and don’t have good starts and finishes. Those are stoppers to enjoying playing the song, and it will be very hard to lead a group successfully with those types of songsheets. There are lots of great, well-formatted songs on our website to get you started and you can also check out other song websites like Ukulele Wednesdays, Richard G’s Ukulele, and Jim’s Ukulele Songbook. I would definitely discourage the group buying a ukulele songbook, like The Daily Ukulele Songbook – you’d be stuck with singing whatever key the songsheet is in, and you’ll get bored really quick.
    Name stickers are wonderful – that way people get to know each other’s names – makes a big difference!

    Make sure as the organizer that you try to engage with as many people at the jam as you can – especially first timers. Personally introduce newcomers to regulars and make sure they’re seated with someone so they feel part of the gang right from the get go.

    I would highly recommend NOT workshopping songs. Some groups just work on a song or two at each jam and don’t just have fun belting out songs. From our experience and what we’ve heard from others – just enjoy belting out a bunch of songs.

    Kazoos – your trumpet section for instrumentals. Encourage them!

    Don’t make a whole bunch of rules, avoid committees (make it a benevolent dictatorship led by you), have fun, and when mistakes happen, have a good laugh! Encourage others to submit songs and try leading a song along with you if they’re nervous to do it themselves.

    We like to think our jam is like we’ve invited a bunch of good friends over to our place for a sing-a-long! We’ve kept it all free, people don’t have to do anything but show up and enjoy!

    Hope that gives you some additional ideas! Have fun! Please don’t hesitate to email me if you have any questions. Below are also some additional resources for you about starting a uke group.

    Best of luck! And whenever you’re in Ottawa, you know BUG Jams happen on the 3rd Wednesday of every month!

    Sue Rogers

    Starting a ukulele group:

    UE #73 How to Lead an Awesome Singalong!
    To simply sing with others is a basic human need as essential to our social lives as eating and drinking. But, although they were once as natural as the afternoon nap, singalongs don’t happen by themselves. They require a special person: someone to organize and motivate a group of wary screen gazers and transform them from being habitually passive observers into shining pillars of song. If you think you might be one such person here are some hints to help you get it right:
    1) Attract willing people. Ideally folks should know ahead of time that they are going to be singing. That way they can bow out gracefully if they so wish. If your crowd contains too many arm-folded non-participants then you’ll be fighting an uphill battle.
    2) Be a leader. Being a leader means several things. Its up to you to put across the idea that singing in a group is a completely natural and acceptable thing to do. Be confident and enthusiastic. Be more outrageous and silly than you normally are. If others see you letting go perhaps they’ll be more willing to unshackle their spirits and free their voices. A good leader is there to serve the group by keeping things fun and flowing. This means creating a plan but also having the flexibility to stray from the plan when inspiration takes the group in unexpected directions. Avoid being over-controlling and pushy.
    3) A singalong is not a performance. In our world where everything musical is presented as something to be observed by others, the philosophy of unwatched group singing can seem a very foreign concept. The listeners are the same people making the music so there should be no fear of outside judgment. As a leader it is up to you to find every way you can to make the singers understand this. Whenever anyone comments that they will sing quietly because their voice is no good, firmly and kindly tell them that there are no bad voices. Nothing matters except to do your best and have fun doing it.
    4) Get others to lead. Spot the stronger singers in the group and offer them the chance to lead one song or more. This is an especially good idea if you are a better organizer than you are a song leader.
    5) Choose well known songs and stay close to the original. Your singalong will be a very quiet one if people don’t know the words or the tunes. I recommend you pick songs that are known by at least a slim majority of your fellows (say 60%.) Popular songs have famous recorded versions that most people know. It can be helpful for cohesiveness to keep reasonably close to these arrangements. Fancy phrasing and stylizing make it harder for others to follow. This is not a fast rule however. It can be a lot of fun to play a song completely outside the genre in which it is usually heard. I recently led my group in a high speed rendition of Amazing Grace that clipped along at breakneck pace while still suiting the song.
    6) Know your material. Practice the songs before venturing to lead them. Make sure you know the beginnings, endings and the starting note. You’ll make mistakes as you go but keep remembering the mantra: do your best and have fun.
    7) Include variety. Most songs are repetitious and singing a song the same way twice can get boring. Find ways to vary the music: Get the crowd to sing sections by themselves. Change the strumming style and the volume level. Play with the phrasing a little. Do what you can to make the same words and chords seem interesting all over again. If you have several short songs that are fun but which don’t bear repetition then make them into medleys.
    8) Encourage without compliments and critiques. Offering words of encouragement like, “sing louder!” and “oh yeah, you got it now!” loosens up voices without inflating and deflating personal egos that individual remarks can do. Conversely, pay close attention to what the group is telling you. React to their comments and gestures. They may provide wonderful inspiration that you can draw on to make the experience spontaneous and exciting.
    9) The singalong is made and enjoyed in the immediate moment. It is never the same way twice. It is timeless. Compared with such a reality, the production values of even a space age high-definition 3-D holographic camera are as empty and worthless as dry dust. It’s a precious time. Be fully present and remember, because it can’t be said too much: do your best and have fun!

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