Last time we talked about jam sessions, we discussed how sessions might be organized and how to pick out tunes that would work well in that particular session. That’s a view from the top down, you might say. Now let’s think about the session from the bottom up—what’s YOUR particular role in the playing? What do you do to make the session (and your part in it) as successful as possible?
What you do will depend partly on your experience level. Some beginners are shy at first, but even for a rank beginner, few groups will mind if you hang around on the edge of the circle, playing the tune which the “inner circle” is passing around. In fact, many groups will welcome that, at least if you play quietly and in time with the group. And even if you’re on the edge of the session, occasionally you may be invited to lead off a tune for everyone to play, so keep one or two of your best tunes in mind. Even if the jam has already played that tune, sympathetic musicians will be willing to play it again.
As you develop your skills, you’ll be able to participate more in the group. It’s important just to spend time playing in sessions, so that you’ll gradually feel more and more comfortable with everyone, and will be able to do well when you take breaks on the songs. Experience really counts. THIS IS IMPORTANT, and many beginners overlook it. It’s one thing to have tunes worked up at home, where you’re in quiet, familiar surroundings and can play, sitting down, at your own speed. It’s another thing completely to be in your first few jams, in strange (to you) surroundings, in a fairly loud group of people who are playing a tune possibly much faster than you have practiced it, and often standing up at that.
We hear comments from students (and I read this on Banjo Hangout all the time) that someone could play a tune fine at home, but when he or she got into their first jam, “I just fell apart.” That’s natural, and it happens to everybody. It’s just because the jam is so different from your at-home practice situation. But jamming is something you can be ready for. For one thing, practice standing up! That’s a REALLY big help, not only because your right and left arm and hand positions change, but also because your instrument sounds different to you (it’s a lot farther from your ears) and it takes some getting used to. But once you’re used to it, it’s not a big deal.
When you begin taking breaks in the jam, sometimes you may have the chance to start the tune out yourself, and in that case you can play it at your regular practice speed. But often, the jam-session’s speed may be a challenge, and this is one place where the Murphy Method approach really helps. You probably aren’t going to play tunes in a jam at first without making some mistakes, but that’s not the point. The point is to KEEP THE TUNE IN YOUR HEAD, so that even if you do make a mistake, you can keep right on playing.
At home, if you mess up a lick, you can stop playing the tune and try that lick again if you want, but it’s not a good idea. When you practice, KEEP THE TUNE GOING in your head and if you make a mistake, keep going. At home, you can always pull out the difficult licks and work specifically on them over and over, but then when you put the whole tune back together, play it straight through and stay in time, even if you make a mistake. That’s how you need to play in jams, so that you and the jam session won’t lose each other’s rhythm and the tune will sound good. Everybody makes mistakes, but in a jam you have to stay in time with the group, so don’t stop. Just KEEP PLAYING!