Just Jammin’

By Don Depoy –
Most public jams have a variety of musician skill levels from beginner to professional. Music Jams serve as a viable way to encourage musicians to improve their instrumental skills, learn how to play well with others and most importantly respect their own journey and their fellow musician’s journey. Anyone young or old who picks up an instrument with a desire to learn how to play should be celebrated and encouraged every step of the way. I believe that musicians who attend jams want to play their instrument and perhaps lead a song or two. Some are reluctant to take their instruments out of the car, others out of the case, some, with encouragement, are willing to stand in the circle and some have found the way to play well with others.
Jam Hogs
A musician at a local music jam recently quipped to me, “The jam’s name should be changed to the Four Brothers Show.” He went on to explain that certain members of the jam monopolized about every song and it left little time for other musicians to play their songs. He’d even noticed that a number of regulars had stopped coming. So this month we felt it important to highlight some Music Jam Etiquette.
As the Jam leader, I do understand your concerns. When I lead a jam the intention is for it to be a circle jam, where everyone has the opportunity to play and/or sing a song in whatever key they choose. I believe a jam leader should be welcoming and supporting of everyone who is there as a musician and encouraging (asking) everyone to lead a song or two. If there is no designated leader with that mindset at the jam, then it can feel like a “show” to some of the more inexperienced musicians. A “show” can evolve if no one is willing to step up and play. The more seasoned jammers will just start playing songs they know. As the jam progresses, however, anyone should be able to ask the perceived leader to sing or play his or her particular song.
As a jammer, I encourage you to seize the moment. Have a song ready. State the name and key so everyone can hear and if you want someone to do a kick-off ask that person if they know the song. If it’s a standard song, they might ask, “how fast?”  Take a breath. Take a look around and make sure everyone is ready, (especially the banjo). This is your chance to perform! Put your fears away and let ‘er go! Sing to the person in the back of the room. This is your moment. Shine!
Banjo Jokes Aside
To my comment, “Wait for the banjo.” We all know the jokes about banjo tuning. However, there is a good reason why the banjo is hard to tune and here it is!  The difficulty with tuning comes in part with the constant key changes. A banjo has to re-tune with every key change.
So you might wonder why the banjo is so different. The piano, guitar, mandolin, and other fretted instruments and your electronic tuner are even-tempered scales. Banjos, Dobros and fretless instruments like the fiddle have an un-tempered scale and require time to tune the harmonic overtones to the fundamental first note of the song’s key. So changing keys from A to B to C back to G up to A, requires tuning time.  With more than one guitar slightly out of tune with the others or multiple banjos, the tuning quickly becomes a banjomare (nightmare on steroids).
Most seasoned jammers will typically, sing/play songs in one key as long as possible. And keep the circle going around until it arrives back to the one who choose the first song. Then perhaps play one more song and then move on to the next person and make a key change if necessary. (Having said that, sometimes it’s just time to change keys.)
All Inclusive
The Jam Leader is there to make sure that other singers and instrumentalists have equal time to play songs in “their” favorite key.  For example, when going around the circle and the fiddler asks to play the tune “Old Joe Clark,” everyone knows it’s in the key of A. I might ask the fiddler to, “Hold that tune until we get to A.” and we all play another song in “B”. The roll of the jam leader is not to forget the fiddler. For that matter, everyone should be encouraged to pick and play songs as the key moves around. If you play in a jam long enough you know the players and the singers and the songs they like to sing and play. As a jammer, you might even suggest a song you’d like to hear sung or played by someone else in the circle.
The bottom line, some musicians only get one chance a week to play/sing. The local circle jam is their life’s blood to learn to play well with others. Depending on the size of the circle, it may take a while to get back to your turn. So over the course of a two or three hour jam, jammers may only get a chance to lead four or five songs, (assuming there are no jam hogs.)
One final thought. If you can’t hear a singer clearly or a solo break from an instrument, someone is playing too loudly. Is that someone you? Sometimes it’s ok to just stand and listen to the unbroken circle.