Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jamming etiquette- part two

In continuing this subject, I'd like to suggest you first re-read my post titled "A Race to the Finish, Part Two" from April 9, 2009. That post gives the background on how the way in which we learn music has radically changed over the past several decades. Most of us now learn to play music in larger groups as opposed to learning from nearby family or community members in a one-on-one method. Now we pay money and travel to camps and workshops and clubs, or attend local jam sessions filled with others like ourselves, all striving to hone our playing skills and get better. We learn in big classroom type settings and in big beginner jam sessions.
When people are used to paying for music camps and workshops, they naturally expect to join in on the large group jam sessions these events usually offer. In these big sessions, all levels are welcome and everyone is expected to pull up a chair and join in the fun. There is a general agreement that the bigger the jam, the more fun it is and the more beginners can feel safe in playing along. This is a good and encouraging thing for beginners at these learning camps and workshops. it helps remove that initial fear of joining in and of having your first scary notes heard by others.
However- the consequence of this 'training' and removal of joining-in fear is that you wind up with legions of beginner players going out into the real world and attending festivals and gatherings who just naturally assume they are welcome in any ongoing session and that the more the merrier in jam sessions... This naive innocence is rudely dashed when the beginner begins to sense resentment from people in a small intense session when they walk up, plunk their folding chair down, and start to play along. They don't understand the negative vibes they are sensing, and they conclude that those people are simply a rude, arrogant, and non-welcoming bunch. If this happens several times they begin to think that most musicians who play better than they do are unfriendly snobs.

What they are failing to realize is that in those workshops, clubs, and music camps where they learned this automatic join-in behavior, they were PAYING for all those jam sessions as part of the overall music learning package they signed up for.
How can I clarify this further?- well, it's sort of like paying for a Caribbean cruise where you belly up to the buffet table several times a day and eat whatever and as much as you want ...and then going home, walking in the public park and going up to any family having a picnic, grabbing a chair and wordlessly helping yourself to a drumstick and a beer.

On the other side of the fence, the people who were having a nice jam session with a few friends have mixed feelings about this problem. You can rest assured that it comes up often these days. On one hand, they sincerely want to encourage new players and they want to help them have a positive experience with their early jamming attempts. On the other hand, they may well have arranged in advance to sit down and play with 2 or 3 favorite friends that they might see only perhaps once a year, and once they start playing first one, then two, then before you know it 6 or 7 beginner players have all set up their chairs around them, effectively completely changing the tone of the session and making it pretty impossible to hear well or have an intimate musical conversation with the people they had made special arrangements to play with.
They don't want to appear rude by saying anything to prevent the beginner from sitting down, so instead they just keep playing and secretly getting peeved as more and more jam joiners pull up chairs.
This scene occurs over and over at festivals I go to. It used to be that beginners would stand aside politely and listen to the session of more advanced players, and sometimes one of the players would invite them to sit and play to the side. If no invitation came, the beginner correctly assumed they wanted to keep their session small and moved on after a while or continued to learn by listening. But I have watched this standard change over the past ten years. Nowadays, the beginner is much more likely to simply set up their chair, listen for a while (fake-out move!), and then pull out their instrument during the middle of a tune and start playing along. I'm convinced the music camp/workshop environment has caused this change in behavior.

I don't wish to make it seem like beginners are inconsiderate- usually they are simply clueless....or else willing to bet that no one will be rude enough to ask them to stop playing if they just pull out their instruments rather than ask. And most of the more experienced players choose to secretly put up with this 'jam busting' rather than have to say anything that might hurt someone's feelings. In that case once 4 or 5 beginners start crowding in, the original friends may feel compelled to just slowly leave their own session (!), to reform elsewhere in order to try again. This is particularly annoying when you are in your own campsite and your own session gets 'taken over' by total strangers! I have actually had to be politely frank with some people who start setting themselves up in my campsite to play in my session without asking- one guy even had the nerve to ask for a beer! A campsite is like someone's 'house' at a festival and you really shouldn't just walk in and plop yourself on their couch without a word or help yourself to their fridge.

Sometimes beginners will actually ask first if they might join in the session. This presents another interesting etiquette 'situation'. Then the original session playing friends can either welcome them in (which does happen frequently) or one of them might say something like "Well actually we are practicing for a gig right now, but maybe later we can get together and play." or...."Well please don't take it the wrong way, but we've been looking forward to just us four old friends getting to play together for a whole year now, so we'd rather keep it with just us playing for now- but maybe catch one of us later and we could play a couple of tunes with you!"
It is important for the beginner to not allow their feelings to be hurt by these responses, and it's important for them to show the courtesy of asking before joining in a smallish session.

So are there any other choices for beginners when they are wandering about a festival looking to play with others? The answer is YES! There are two excellent ways of getting jamming experience without 'hijacking' someone else's intimate music session.
First- look for a mega-jam that's already going on. A mega, or monster jam will have 10 or more people already playing- they tend to be playing rather boisterously as well, and there can be seen several hesitant beginners already playing around the fringe of the center. If people all look like they are having a great time and are playing exuberantly, then you can bet this is a perfect mixed level jam to join up with. People will join in or wander away freely without necessarily needing to ask, and nobody thinks anything of it. It's sort of similar to a music camp jam in tone.
The second choice is for the beginner to take the initiative and seek out one or two other players who are on a somewhat similar musical level as themselves and just ASK them if they'd like to sit down together and play a tune or two. Wow, what a concept! I can't tell you how often I have seen beginner or hesitant intermediate players just standing around forlornly with their instrument cases, obviously yearning to play but too afraid to ask...when they could easily and successfully start their own little session together if they simply asked!
Unfortunately many beginners feel they can only learn to play well if they are following along with a group of skilled players. This is simply not true. Players of any level can learn all kinds of things from playing together! Again, this idea that advanced players should be deliriously happy to lead a group of beginners is a result of the abundance of music camps and workshops churning out beginners at a high rate. Though it certainly IS true on occasion that advanced players enjoy playing with beginners, it is not the standard norm. People tend to want to play with others they can best interact with musically.
I remember when I was starting out, forcing myself to ask other beginners if they wanted to play with me. It was scary, but OH WELL. Asking strangers if they would like to play with you opens up the possibility of rejection, and it brings up all our old childhood playground hurts and fears. Oh, the HORROR!
But you know what?- we must get over that and take responsibility for ourselves. We can't expect others to always humor and baby us. If we want to play music with strangers of any level, we have to be open and honest and thoughtful. Learning the consideration/thoughtfulness part of playing with others is just as important as the 'getting' of musical experience under our belts.
As an intermediate player now, I make it a point to sit down and play with at least a couple of beginners at some point during any festival I attend. We all need to help educate each other, pass around the good vibes, not feel hurt or overly sensitive about hearing a 'No thanks' once in a while, and think more about others', not only about ourselves. That applies to everyone on every level, from beginners to advanced.


  1. Well worth the wait, hanging by my fingertips! You've said it just right: Do look for others to jam with. Don't be a Jam Pest and jump in uninvited. Don't be hurt if the "Big Boys" un-invite you politely. Don't be afraid to ask an Experienced Stranger with an instrument to share a song or two with you. Pay forward your good experiences by making a point of seeking out newbies and inviting them to play with you.

  2. Lisa

    This is a very very informative posting. Sometimes you'd think people would get the hint and sometimes they do, but a lot of times they do not. I do not mind if someone say asks to join an outside jam that I may be doing with a friend, but am offended if someone just butts in without asking. Just my 2 cents worth for whatever it's worth.

  3. THANKS! I'm about to attend my first festival, and this is really a big help.