As someone who loves the magical alignment of numbers, I find it satisfying that at Tip Jar Jam #40 we had 4 students. Fortieth jam, four students. A nice symmetry.
Adding me to the mix gave us the perfect number of people for a classic bluegrass band: Kristina on mandolin, Kathy on banjo or guitar, Bob A on guitar, and Bob Mc on banjo. I played guitar most of the time, banjo occasionally, and mandolin on Foggy Mountain Breakdown. (More on that later.)
For the first hour, we did our regular thing, with me calling the tunes and assigning the breaks. We did some G stuff and then moved up to C so Kathy and I could sing lead. Bob A, with his low voice, also sings some songs in C.
As the second hour approached, I said, "Since there are so few of us, let's make it more like a 'real' jam. We'll go around the circle and everyone can take a turn suggesting a song or tune."
I then took a moment to offer some points to keep in mind when selecting a song for a jam. The overall goal of a "real" jam is to keep the jam going! This is especially true of spontaneous jams, the kind you hope will develop where "two or three are gathered together" in the name of bluegrass. You want to choose songs that will contribute to the energy level--not suck energy away from the jam! Songs that suck energy are called "jam busters."
A "jam buster" can be:
A song that is too hard for that group to play (too many chords, too many odd chords)
A song that not enough people in the jam know
A song that YOU, the suggester, cannot play very well. Do NOT suggest songs that you are just learning. Okay, I'm gonna put that in BOLD: Do not suggest songs that you are just learning--and cannot play well. Do not suggest a song that you are having trouble with. Do not suggest a song that you have not played in a while. Suggest your bestest, most easiest material.
Except for teaching jams (like the Tip Jar Jam or an instructor-led camp jam), jams are NOT places to try out brand-new songs. Practice sessions (with band members or friends) are places to try out new material. Jams are places to experience playing old material with new people. As Bob A knows, I will not let him bring a new song into the jam until it has passed muster in his lesson with me.
You also need to be "key" and "capo" conscious. If the whole jam has just capoed up to C (five frets), then make sure your song selection stays in C--to avoid the tedium and energy-suck of retuning. And yes, as Bob A noted, it's the banjo players that are constantly having to tweak their tuning when they capo or uncapo. So it goes. Banjo players: learn to tune and retune as quickly as possible. Don't make the jam wait on you too long. They will start picking without you!
With all these things to keep in mind, I thought the students did well in choosing their tunes: Kristina chose Cripple Creek, Kathy chose Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Bob A chose Long Journey Home, Bob Mc chose John Henry (which took us to A where Bob A sings it), I chose Old Joe Clark (also in A), and Kristina got the last pick which turned out to be Boil Them Cabbage Down.
When Kathy suggested Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Bob A asked me, "Can you pick a guitar break to that?" Naturally, I said yes, because knew we wouldn't be playing too fast. But I said I didn't want to take a guitar break because I don't like to hear a guitar break in Foggy Mountain Breakdown. (Call me old school, but I don't think every song needs a break by every instrument!) Still, my Inner Showoff Imp was tempted--until I realized there was suspicious gleam in Bob's eye. Then I realized what was happening. I said, "I will only take a guitar break if you promise me you will never ask me to show you that break on the guitar!" Because he was definitely trying to trap me! Old habits die hard, don't they, counselor?
Since Bob had no interest in hearing the break since I was never (ever!) going to teach it to him, he then asked if I could play a break on the mandolin. Kristina offered me her mandolin (which I love the sound of!) so I played a break I mostly remembered from my Valley Dolls' days. (I was the mandolin player in the group! Lee Lenker, the banjo player, is on the cover of my new book, Pretty Good For a Girl.) Everyone was extremely complimentary, which, of course, made me swell up like a toad! (And yes, Kristina, I will be glad to show you that break!)
Bob's suggestion of Long Journey Home caused some mild confusion. Bob Mc said he would try to make up a break. I said, "You already play a break to this. It's Two-Dollar Bill." "Oh," he said, "I didn't know those were the same songs." Yes, they are. Well, Kathy didn't hear that little exchange so when it came time for her break, she was madly making up something (and doing a good job) when it finally dawned on her: "Oh, this is Two-Dollar Bill! Duh!" So, in bluegrass, not only do you have to know the chords, the words, the break (or how to make one up), but you also have to know alternate titles! I'm telling you, this music is not easy!
As we closed out the jam, I told the pickers that the next time we had a small number of students we would start working on another aspect of "real" jamming: nodding to the next player when it's time for her or his break. Right now, I designate the breaks. To be aware of the possibility of an upcoming break and to actually look up at someone so they can nod at you requires quite a bit of concentration and alertness. Both parties have to be on their toes, the nodder and the noddee. (I love making up words!) I'll keep you posted.
In the meantime, the big IBMA World of Bluegrass is coming up in Raleigh, September 24-28. I will be there with books, T-shirts ("Pick Like A Girl"), and DVDs galore. If you are in the area, be sure to stop by and say howdy!