We just spent four days playing music for fun with family and friends in Hiawassee, Georgia. (That's way up next to the North Carolina line, and the country is beautiful.) During the long weekend, along with gazing at the scenery, I took part in a lot of jam sessions, and I thought about how there are lots of kinds of jams.
Now, many folks who become interested in bluegrass music may think that getting together with friends and picking is the best part of the music, and from my point of view, they are right. l like picking by myself, teaching, and performing too, but somehow it's hard to beat getting together with people and making music together. But since there's a lot of variation in people's experience levels and personalities, there are lots of different jam situations.
Sometimes you're picking with people you've known for a long time. With advanced players in a situation like that, even with several people in the jam, you might not need a leader, or any organization at all. If everyone there is familiar with the others and their favorite songs, then the music can happen naturally. You might say it's automatically organized. One person can "call a tune" to start things off, or just start playing a melody everybody knows, and then one tune will lead to another and everybody's favorite songs can be played and enjoyed by everyone.
But that's really rare. It can ONLY happen when the players are well acquainted and wanting to hear each other's music, and nobody's trying to dominate the jam. Most of the time things are different from that, and you need a good 'people person' to be gently in charge of the jam, or at least some system to determine who gets to call the next tune. Often it's good policy to go around the picking circle, letting each person call a tune when it's their turn. This has a lot of fairness about it, and everyone gets to participate. It can, however, lead to some of the pickers having to wait out tunes they don't know, so this is where my next subject comes in.
It's good policy (and manners) before kicking off a tune with pickers you don't know well, to make sure that all (or nearly all) of the pickers know the tune first. Sometimes if there are adventurous pickers there, even if they don't know the proposed tune they may say, "Go ahead and play it, and I'll try to pick it up." That's good, but if too many of the pickers don't know the tune, it may not turn out well in the jam, and anyway it's not polite to leave a lot of people out. They deserve to have a good time too. So here are few good guidelines when it's your turn to call a tune:
1. Think of a tune you like that most of the pickers probably already know and will enjoy playing. Don't propose your favorite tune with strange chords, even if it does sound cool, if most of the others aren't going to be able to play it. Think of how long the song took YOU to learn the tune after you first heard it.
2. Do ONE TUNE IN A ROW and pass it on!
3. Have an alternate choice in mind in case you don't get much positive response to your first choice. It's better to play your second choice, and have everybody playing together (that's what you're there for, right?) than to play your favorite number and have it fall flat.
4. If you can't think of a tune you'd like to play at that instant, just pass on your turn, or else request that someone else there play a particular song you'd like to hear them do. Sometimes jams can go for a long time with pickers requesting tunes from each other!
...and in case you're in a session with someone who hasn't read guideline #1, #2, #3, or #4, or wants to dominate the session, turn it into a performance, or only play their own favorite songs, then just sit out for a while, or find another circle. You're there to have a good time, so find a situation you like!