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3 Things to Know Going Into Your First Jam Session

http://media.cleveland.com/ent_impact_arts/photo/10120021-large.jpgYou’re browsing Craigslist and you see “bass player wanted”. You click the link and read the description.

“looking for bass player to jam with/possibly start a band with. Call me if you’re interested.”

You think this sounds interesting and you make the call. You’re going to your first jam session.

Jam sessions can be intimidating event. While it’s immensely satisfying to play with other musicians and make new, exciting music and sounds on the spot, there can be a bit of a nerve racking twist to the experience.

What if I sound bad?

What if they don’t like me?

What if I play a wrong note?

All perfectly reasonable questions and concerns to have entering your first jam session, but remember – don’t let these things hold you back. Jam sessions are great places to meet other musicians, build connections and build new musical relationships. I know from experience that some of my best friends I’ve met through music and I couldn’t imagine a world where I would have met these people otherwise. Music introduced us and we all realized we actually enjoyed each others presence and became friends.

I’ve played in my share of jam sessions over the years. Some lead to fruitful and fulfilling musical projects, others left sour tastes in my mouth and unfulfilled musical feelings.

Here are 3 things I’ve learned from playing in jam sessions that you – the bassist entering your first jam session – should keep in mind.

1.  Nothing Kills Jams Faster Than Shyness and a Lack of Ideas

http://cdn.mtlblog.com/uploads/2013/11/first-date.jpgJam sessions are very similar to dates…just with more people in the room. You set up a time to meet and get to know each other. It’s after that first experience together do you decide whether or not you want to see more of each other. While you’re meeting for the first time, someone has to start the conversation and the other reciprocates with answers and other ideas to keep the conversation going.

Jam sessions are no different.

Jam sessions rely on someone starting things off. Yes conversation is good, but when the instruments are plugged in, someone has to get things going musically. Whether it’s a song that you may (or may not) know, a riff or a groove, someone’s got to start playing something that gets the other musicians going and playing.

If not, well, it’s just silence. And none wants that.

The second point is a lack of ideas – or the awkward silence if we’re keeping with the date analogy.

Conversation is going well and then all the sudden both you and the person you’re with run out of things to say and the awkward silence begins.

Musically speaking it’s that time when after one jam someone turns to the rest of the people in the room and ask, ‘anyone got any riffs or a song?’ and none replies.

Suddenly, we’re back to the first point: shyness killed the jam.

Being shy takes the fun out of jams, but the shyness is understandable especially for a first timer. It’s likely the first time you’re playing your instrument for other people (complete strangers, none the less) and you’re used to a certain style of playing and a certain way of hearing yourself – and in a way that doesn’t involve others.

Regardless of your shyness, here’s the fix for that the next time the awkward musical silence emerges at the jam: start with a simple groove.

Seriously – something very, very simple. Eighth notes across 3 chords simple.

What you’re probably thinking is that the other people in the room need to be impressed by your playing. Truthfully, there’s a time and a place to show off and people will be impressed with your playing in different ways. Fast, Jaco-esque playing might not get you the praise you think it will.

Since you’re playing with a group, you want to set the others in the room up so they can play with you, not spend their time figuring out what you’re playing. More importantly, the drummer in the room needs to catch what you’re getting at. If he doesn’t, none will.

Now, you’re in control of the room and the silence has ended. You’re back to playing music. Now, how you manipulate that jam leads me to the next point…

2. Creativity and Listening Ability Make or Break Jam Sessions

The best jams I’ve been a part of were with musicians that listened.

Now, you’re probably thinking – what do you mean by ‘listen’?

In this sense, to listen means to understand where jams are going to go and, like a good defender in basketball or soccer, can anticipate where the musician leading the jam is going to go and compliment their direction with their own instrument.

Granted, this technique is one that can take a few years of critical listening to get a hold of. Many musicians will go their whole lives just playing their instrument and becoming technically proficient at it without ever once figuring out that most Western music – rock, blues, funk, soul, R&B, you name it – tend to follow very predictable musical phrasing patterns including (but not limited to):

  • Musical phrases extending only 2 bars
  • Musical passages resolving with a cymbal crash on the downbeat of 1 after a bar coupling of 4, 8, 12 or 16 bars
  • A turnaround phrase that usually lasts 1 bar and is on bar 4, 8, 12 or 16 that signals that the passage is going to loop again or go in another direction

First understanding these patterns and then having enough understanding of your instrument to work and think independently on it will immediately make you a hero at your next jam session.

3. Above All Else: Know Your Instrument

Of course, the above points are moot unless you know your instrument.

And I don’t mean think you know it. I mean know it well enough that you can perform it in front of complete strangers without crippling fear.

That means developing a practice routine for your bass playing interest, becoming a student of music and listening to everything (again not just listening – but listening with purpose; counting, tapping your foot, and being aware of the changes in the song).

Wrap Up

There’s nothing to fear at a jam session. In fact, there’s more reason to be excited.

You’re finally taking your craft out of the bedroom and making the first steps towards playing out and really enjoying the rewards that come with playing music for others.

While these points might have a tinge of cynicism attached to them, that’s far from intentional. Music is about having fun and the more people you can have fun with the more fun you’re going to have.

So get out there – and find yourself a jam session!