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.