Jam Sessions: Benefits and Etiquette

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Leah Kruszewski
Jam Sessions: Benefits and Etiquette

Do you go to jam sessions in your area?  What style of music do you play and what are jam sessions in that genre like?  Why do you go and what do you get out of the experience? Do you go to listen, to be heard, to learn, or just to have fun?  

The term ‘jam session’ usually calls to mind jazz and other improvisation-based genres, but almost all styles have their own equivalents.  My hometown (Richmond, Virginia) has frequent jam sessions for both jazz and bluegrass musicians. Anyone who plays can go and bring their instrument.  There is usually a wide range of playing abilities and they are a great opportunity to meet others in your area who play your style of music.  There are singing circles that exist just for the purpose of singing together - nothing planned, no performance to prepare for, just music.

In Spain, flamenco music has its version of jam sessions, called ‘tertulias’, for singers and guitarists.  The singer tells the guitarist what style they’re going to sing, the guitarist accompanies them. Every singer is different, and you often accompany people you haven't even met yet!  Even if you’re familiar with the melody, you never know what to expect.  

When I was a classical guitar student, my peers and I would often get together to share our repertoire in progress.  We weren’t improvising, but we were sharing in the early stages of knowing a piece. It was really useful for getting feedback on our interpretation from colleagues, and for developing our performing skills.

Lessonface Presents recently hosted a great conversation and performance with guitarist Flávio Silva, interviewed by Lessonface’s Flávio Lira (bassist and teacher), and they mention jam sessions a few times during the session (around 8 minutes and 38 minutes).  

One thing they discuss is why it’s so important to participate in jam sessions.  Music is inherently about connecting with people - with other musicians and your listeners.  Jam sessions help you learn how to communicate musically, which is a skill that you just can’t develop by yourself.  Some musicians overemphasize the importance of ‘shedding’ in their own home -- that is, working on technique, improving fretboard knowledge, and playing over pre-recorded rhythm tracks to develop ideas and improvisation skills.  

Obviously, studying independently is great and necessary.  You need to put in time to develop your ideas and connect them fluidly.  You can can use recordings to focus on specific skills you need to sharpen.  You have the luxury of repeating something over and over until you get it right.  But a huge part of playing to music is about connecting to your listeners and fellow musicians.  You can’t do that in the comfort of your own home, even with a carefully constructed curriculum of recordings to work with.  Unlike recordings, musicians in a jam session respond to what others play. You have to communicate when you want a turn to solo, and communicate when you want to end it.  Mistakes and miscommunications happen, and you have to learn to resolve them on the spot.

Another part of jam sessions that Flávio Silva and Flávio Lira discuss is etiquette, especially in the context of soloing.  Solos are your time to be in the spotlight and have your ideas be heard, and of course you should enjoy and make the most of them. But keep in mind your ensemble and your audience too.  Jam sessions often have many participants, and everyone wants a turn to solo.

We have equivalents to marathon-solos in flamenco, when a guitarist who plays an interminable falseta (a falseta is like a guitar solo) or a dancer who extends her footwork for six or seven minutes.  When a guitarist is accompanying singing, we have to learn to support the singer and give him/her time to breathe, yet at the same time to keep our ‘filler’ material concise so that the melody doesn’t ‘get cold’.  

No matter how skilled the musician and well-crafted the solo, listeners get weary.  A good rule in any performing art is to leave your audience wanting more. Length does not make a solo interesting.  It’s more about knowing how to use your ideas to catch your listener’s interest, build tension, and resolve it. Keep your solo short, sweet, and nicely shaped, and your fellow musicians and audience will enjoy it more.  

What have your experiences with soloing in jam sessions been like?  What are some of the subtle communication skills that you've learned from playing with other people?  Is there any advice that seasoned musicians have for players interested in going to jam sessions?  

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