Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Jamming Etiquette- part three

My last post talked about good manners and thoughfulness when joining or starting up jam sessions.
If you already read the lists of jamming etiquette I posted in Part One of this subject, then you get the general idea.
I want to briefly reiterate a few of the items that I personally encounter frequently during gatherings and festivals. I speak mostly as an old-time banjo and dulcimer player. I happen to be married to an excellent old-time fiddler, so that in itself brings up additional 'etiquette situations' for both of us during jamming or session situations.

We're going on the assumption that you have already been welcomed to join the jam session, and let's assume there are maybe 5 players playing already, including a fiddler and a singer or two.

In no particular order then, some jam manners to practice...
---Please tune your instrument before joining the ongoing session especially if you are not in the same key as is currently being played. Stand way off to the side, use your electronic tuner if needed, and tune softly so as not to disturb those playing. Don't force them all to wait while you change keys or tune endlessly. Join in after you have gotten into tune with them.

---If you don't know the tune that's being played, please LISTEN to it once or twice through before playing along. This is especially important with old-time music, which has a goodly number of crooked or irregular tunes. Also if you are playing chords, old-time tunes often have unexpected chord changes that don't follow the usual folk pattern. LISTEN first! Play after! Old-time tunes typically get played many times through anyway, so there is plenty of time to listen once or twice through first. When in doubt, it is safest to stay on the tonic note or the tonic chord rather than take a chance with some other chord or note. Or better yet, stop playing and LISTEN until you 'get' it.

---If someone starts singing a verse- play VERY QUIETLY while they are singing.

---Do not doodle around on your instrument between songs! This is incredibly annoying to others, most of whom are trying to tune while you are cluelessly showing off all the tunes you know. This one really gets me steamed when I'm quietly trying to tune between songs and somebody starts strumming and doodling around. Another good reason not to doodle between tunes is that if there is a fiddler leading the session, they are likely trying to decide on what tune to play next and are trying to remember how it starts.

---Don't play louder than the other instruments (often a fault with bajo players, not so much with dulcimer players). If you are not sure whether you are playing too loudly or not, ASK the group! Just say between tunes "Hey, is my instrument too loud for anyone?" If you are too loud, someone will politely say "Yeah, it might be good to tone down your volume a little."...thank them! It's not always easy to gauge your own volume when you are not directly in front of, or 'on the receiving end' of your instrument's sound projection path. Especially true of banjos and guitars. Another solution to a volume problem is to change seats with someone in the circle- this often works well. Never be hurt by those who are trying to help you be more aware of what you are doing. They are trying to help you, and they have been in your shoes, they understand.

---It's considered very bad manners to go up to an ongoing jam and ask a particular person if they want to come and play in a session somewhere else. This is like kidnapping and is very impolite to the others already playing together.

---If the session is in someone's campsite, please be especially courteous about that and don't presume to ask for drinks and don't invite others over yourself. You are a guest in their camp.

---Be aware and sensitive to the fact that if there is already one or more of a particular instrument in a jam, they may not want additional instruments of the same type. It can get too overpowering to have three guitars, for example, or sometimes too much to have more than just one banjo! Be aware that there is a happy balance of instruments that will produce the most enjoyable results in a session. More and more is usually not better. Remember...it is seldom the goal of those present to have their session turn into a big mega-jam.

---Good steady rhythm is more important than playing all the right notes. A few wrong notes or a wrong chord once in a while are far less disruptive than bad rhythm. If you have trouble keeping a steady rhythm, then you'd best play softly and keep your eye on the fiddler's or the guitar player's right hand so you can see their rhythm. There is nothing worse while playing music than sitting near someone who drifts off the beat regularly. Far better to sit near someone who plays wrong notes! If you have trouble keeping to the beat then you need to seriously work on this before you continue to mess up other people's sessions. I can't emphasize this strongly enough. Playing off the beat is the ultimate crime.

---Lastly, when a session starts to become larger, consider moving on and giving up your seat to someone else for a while. Go have a snack, or go find some others to start a new jam! Mixing things up and shifting around are excellent ways of making new friends and of honing your music skills. You will learn some amazing new things just by playing with some people you might not have normally considered playing with before. There have been times when I've sat down to play with a beginner and had a fairly disastrous time musically speaking, but perhaps I have learned something truly wonderful about that person- something they shared with me that enriched my life in some way. I have met many surprising and amazing people this way. Music is more than a bunch of notes- music is about the connection with and celebration of the human spirit.

After making this 'mixing up' a habit for a while, you will be seen as a positive force and people will start to seek YOU out and want you to play with them! At that point you will seldom be at a loss for friends of various playing levels to play with.


  1. Whew! Sure am glad you got all that Jamiquette off our chest! Good job, BTW!

  2. Hi Ken,
    Yeah, WHEW is right- took long enough to get through it! ;)

    Our beloved kitty Lydia finally died peacefully yesterday at home with us, she fought as bravely as she could. It's terribly sad, but she would want us to be happy when thinking of her, so that's what we are trying to do.
    Lydia was a marvelous cat who radiated GOODNESS all around her like a golden aura.

  3. I'm sure Lydia was lucky to be your cat, Lisa! I'm sorry she died.

    Although I hope to play in jams some day, I need to watch and listen more, build a larger repertoire of tunes with which I'm familiar, and improve as a solid rhythm player.


  4. Hi Robin,
    Thanks so much. :)

    We all hope to improve musically...I don't think even the most professional musicians ever think they don't need to improve. At least all the ones I know!