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.

continue reading the rest of this post here...

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.

continue reading the rest of this post here...