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Thread: Jam etiquette

  1. #1
    Registered User Bunnyf's Avatar
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    Default Jam etiquette

    I'm a newbie to jams and also a beginner mandolin player. I've gone to a couple local jams and they are very welcoming to beginners and encourage you to take your turn and not pass around the circle. I'm comfortable playing rhythm and singing and have told them I am in no way ready to take a break yet. Sometimes they still want to give it to me and I have to wave them off and reiterate that I'm not there yet. But my question is how do you give out breaks when you don't really know who wants to take one (don't know the other players well enough yet). They are all good players and probably most could take a break, even if they don't know the song but I don't want to presume (I only pick very common songs also..."Bury me beneath the willow" and such). I look to make eye contact and line up someone but thats hard when I'm also trying to sing and play. What woukd you suggest? I thought about saying, " I'm gonna do X song in G, does anyone have a break?". What would you do?

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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    How does everyone else in that jam do it? I would follow the lead of the regular players. But jams have all different etiquette, some just go around in a circle, some pick and choose with a wink or a nod, you just have to watch.
    Play it like you mean it.

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    Lurkist dhergert's Avatar
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    In a jam, all a person should need to do is shake their head if they don't want a break. It isn't like a person has to avoid eye contact.

    Often if I'm jamming and don't want a break, I'll also tell the next person in line -- either verbally or by body language -- to be prepared if they want the break; otherwise that next person gets a surprise and half a break.
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    It depends on the kind of jam, bluegrass, old time, Irish, country, sing along, whatever.

    I would say one has to hang in and listen for a while to see how it goes. No two jams are exactly the same and there are no universal answers. Participate as much as you can, push yourself a little to do more, and most of all, enjoy.

    There is nothing wrong with sitting out a break, or playing just the melody for your break if you know it.
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    Registered User Bunnyf's Avatar
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    These would be bg jams. Folks usually take the first break themselves and then call out to someone they know to take other ones and since I don't know who to give it to, it's super awkward for me. It makes me wanna just pass entirely, so I don't have to figure it out.

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    Registered User Bunnyf's Avatar
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    I can avoid the break, I don't know how to "give" the break when you don't really know the other players and the procedure seems to be random. I find it hard to try to make eye contact with someone near the end of the chorus, while singing and playing to get some kind of indication that they will take the break. I'm just wondering if there's a better way.

  8. #7

    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Unless its an unusually large group just ask..."I'm doing In the Pines in A who wants a break?" that should do it. I've been in all kinds of jams where winks, nods, shakes, etc are done...you'll get used to the general way in your jam after awhile.
    Northfield F5M #268, AT02 #7

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    Registered User Bunnyf's Avatar
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Quote Originally Posted by bigskygirl View Post
    Unless its an unusually large group just ask..."I'm doing In the Pines in A who wants a break?" that should do it. I've been in all kinds of jams where winks, nods, shakes, etc are done...you'll get used to the general way in your jam after awhile.
    Thanks, that's what I'll do. Thought it might be a no-no since no one else does this. In fact, they rarely gave the name of the song and only occasionally the key. It was my first thought to ask like you said but then i didn't do it. I think because I was afraid no one would say they wanted one, so I said nothing. I figured maybe people don't want to commit until they get closer to the time of the break cause they're thinking maybe I'll be a trainwreck or something. My other fear was that if I didn't ask, I'd get to the break and no one would take one. One other new person did a song and no one took a break and she was stuck just running through the chords for one verse and I didn't want this to happen to me. Anyway, my songs went ok and folks jumped in and I had fun.

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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Yes, jams cam have all kinds of quirks that’s for sure. Possibly the reason no one took a break on your friends tune is because no one else knew it. If I say I’m gonna do...x tune...and just about everyone doesn’t know it I’ll pick another tune...or sometimes we play them because we want to hear it and have everyone to have fun.

    Unless you’re sitting in with an advanced group I can pretty much assure you that no one is thinking...”oh, hope she doesn’t suck”...rather they are thinking “gee, do I know this or can I get thru a break of my own”...you mentioned they are very friendly and encouraging group.

    Last, some jams just take off on a tune and everyone catches up...they are either very advanced or very inexperienced...I’ll usually just ask what tune and key and I always count mine in...

    If you’re new and shy about things it can be hard and you may run into some jerks but in the long run you are helping them to be better musicians and ensemble players. Have fun!
    Northfield F5M #268, AT02 #7

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    Registered User Bunnyf's Avatar
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    At one jam I went to there are about a dozen quite experienced players. Several are retired pros, a few still gig regularly. But they are super friendly and welcoming. I'm going tonite again and do as bigskygirl said. They meet weekly at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant/bar and provide the entertainment for patrons. It's very chill but 90% of the players really know their stuff. It's pretty exclusively BG, but a tiny bit of old country sneaks in.

    The other jam is 50/50 good players to beg-intermediate. It's a jam in the park, also with an audience and is more old country than BG. Maybe 20 players, with quite a few pros and worship leaders. This group is even more welcoming and I worry less here about doing the wrong thing. P.S. there are a few very beginner players who get up and perform and they occasionally crash and burn, so I don't feel quite as intimidated.

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    Moderator MikeEdgerton's Avatar
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Don't feel intimidated, they are offering you a chance to step up as a courtesy and as a little push to get you farther along. Just shake off the break if you don't want it. One thing though, make sure they DO know when you do want to step up. If it was me I'd take a song they do regularly and go home and get the tab and try to learn a break at your own pace in the privacy of your own home. You can even ask one of the other players to show you some stuff (in private, off to the side) to move you along. It's meant to be fun and hopefully the group is nurturing.
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    If you want to do In the Pines and ask who wants a break and no one speaks up. Don't play a break. It wouldn't be the worst thing if there was no break. Enjoy the music and the learning aspect of the jam, and don't worry, most folks are friendly and want to help beginners. We were all beginners once and a good player will take the time to help.
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Quote Originally Posted by MikeEdgerton View Post
    Don't feel intimidated, they are offering you a chance to step up as a courtesy and as a little push to get you farther along. Just shake off the break if you don't want it. One thing though, make sure they DO know when you do want to step up. If it was me I'd take a song they do regularly and go home and get the tab and try to learn a break at your own pace in the privacy of your own home. You can even ask one of the other players to show you some stuff (in private, off to the side) to move you along. It's meant to be fun and hopefully the group is nurturing.
    Mike, I am gonna do just that. I'm gonna pick a super common song, like "bury me beneath the willow" and keep working til I can get it up to speed or maybe a slower song like "Wayfaring stranger". It'll sure be a simple break but I'd love to push myself into trying. Heading out to the woodshed!

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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    It takes a while, but if you can also learn to play without watching, it's probably the biggest positive thing a player can do either for jams or bands. It allows you to watch everyone's body language, their chords and playing patterns, and really allows the group to tie together.

    I usually say if you can learn to touch type, you can learn to play your instruments without watching.

    I have a friend who lost his vision due to diabetes some years ago and had serious trouble playing mandolin afterward. At that time I started practicing playing with my eyes closed. If I ever lose my vision, I want to still be able to play music.
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    There is some kind of a pattern to what they do at each jam. I suggest sitting out for the first couple of songs and just observe how the breaks are handed out. If they are distributing them through eye contact, it is likely that certain people are "favorites" and get called on first in most songs. Those people are generally always paying attention and are ready and willing, so if you are able to look at one of them and nod at any point during your song they'll play the break. You can also announce before you start your song that you will not play a break, and nod at one of those known break players who is looking at you. You could also ask one of those known players in advance if he/she would play a break when you do your song. One of the real keys to success is to arrange your songs being sure they have a consistent location for breaks - such as after every chorus.

    I run a weekly jam session that has a large variety of music, musicians and skill levels that show up. I solve the problem you are having by going around the circle with breaks. It becomes obvious the first time around who doesn't want to play breaks, so it's also obvious who gets the next break. Some musicians don't like that format and really resist it, but it is very helpful for folks who are not yet comfortable calling on people.

    There's nothing wrong at a bluegrass jam with practicing chopping and passing on the breaks, except that they may eventually quit asking and then it can become very difficult to get a break when you want one. Work up a simple break to one of the songs they play and when you're ready to give it a try, step up and make eye contact early in the song.
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Quote Originally Posted by dhergert View Post
    It takes a while, but if you can also learn to play without watching, it's probably the biggest positive thing a player can do either for jams or bands. It allows you to watch everyone's body language, their chords and playing patterns, and really allows the group to tie together.

    I usually say if you can learn to touch type, you can learn to play your instruments without watching.
    I agree with you and do play without watching, if I'm just playing rhythm. If I switch to picking I have to look. I did play guitar for a few years before I took up mandolin, so I'm used to not looking. I do sometimes have to look at my ipad for lyrics on occasion.

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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Haywood View Post
    There is some kind of a pattern to what they do at each jam. I suggest sitting out for the first couple of songs and just observe how the breaks are handed out. If they are distributing them through eye contact, it is likely that certain people are "favorites" and get called on first in most songs. Those people are generally always paying attention and are ready and willing, so if you are able to look at one of them and nod at any point during your song they'll play the break. You can also announce before you start your song that you will not play a break, and nod at one of those known break players who is looking at you. You could also ask one of those known players in advance if he/she would play a break when you do your song. One of the real keys to success is to arrange your songs being sure they have a consistent location for breaks - such as after every chorus.

    I run a weekly jam session that has a large variety of music, musicians and skill levels that show up. I solve the problem you are having by going around the circle with breaks. It becomes obvious the first time around who doesn't want to play breaks, so it's also obvious who gets the next break. Some musicians don't like that format and really resist it, but it is very helpful for folks who are not yet comfortable calling on people.

    There's nothing wrong at a bluegrass jam with practicing chopping and passing on the breaks, except that they may eventually quit asking and then it can become very difficult to get a break when you want one. Work up a simple break to one of the songs they play and when you're ready to give it a try, step up and make eye contact early in the song.
    Tom, that's an interesting way of giving out breaks. I've only seen the wink and a nod or a name called out.

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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Another common practice, particularly if you don't know names is to call out a person's instrument whilst looking in their direction. You don't have to make eye contact necessarily; for instance you could look at a banjo player and say "Go banjo!", look over toward a fiddle player and say "take it fiddle" or toward a harmonica player and shout "BLOW, HARP".... my preferred method is to call a person's name, but I've been jamming with the same group for several years and am very comfortable with and know most people's names.

    I agree with the above folks about making note of songs you hear regularly and to work on them while you practice so you can take a break once you've prepared. But understand, it is A LOT different when playing in a jam. You WILL get nervous and you most likely will mess up. It happens all the time, to everyone, and its completely okay. You may be embarrassed in the moment, but in the end you'll be a better player for it. Every time I pull out something new, I usually mess it up the first 4 or 5 times I play it at the jam.
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    not a donut Kevin Winn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Tom's approach has always worked well for me.

    Just like no one will ever complain if you simply play some form of the melody for your break, no one will complain if you announce your tune like "Bury Me Beneath the Willow in G, and we'll just go around to my left for the breaks." It helps if you follow that up with eye contact/nods when the next player is up.

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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Another newbie- practicing after 1-2 months, and planning to join in a jam for the first time. I appreciate this thread, and the ideas/ experiences posted for us new players!
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Well, I spoke up tonight and just said what song I was playing and the key and that I didn't really know how to give out breaks other than to ask. They told me that it goes around clockwise from me. That really helped to know. They do also occasionally just say "dobro" or such or call a name if they are going out of order. There is also some signaling to each other but I didn't catch it all. They all know one another well. It was kind like a silent auction. For me, they kept to clockwise order and it was nice to know that was sorted.Now I just wish they'd say the name of the song, especially fiddle tunes. I say only one in four do this.

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    Moderator MikeEdgerton's Avatar
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Quote Originally Posted by Bunnyf View Post
    Well, I spoke up tonight and just said what song I was playing and the key and that I didn't really know how to give out breaks other than to ask. They told me that it goes around clockwise from me. That really helped to know. They do also occasionally just say "dobro" or such or call a name if they are going out of order. There is also some signaling to each other but I didn't catch it all. They all know one another well. It was kind like a silent auction. For me, they kept to clockwise order and it was nice to know that was sorted.Now I just wish they'd say the name of the song, especially fiddle tunes. I say only one in four do this.
    OK, if you only have one dobro player in the jam and you don't know their name or there are 3 guys named Mike you can certainly call out "dobro". It would work the same if there was one fiddle, one mandolin, or one clarinet. Not everyone goes in a circle but that's not uncommon. If there are five mandolins it's always better to get the right mandolin to take a break.
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

  29. #23

    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    One thing that hasn't been mentioned: I often like having more than one lead being played at the same time. "Dueling" leads can be great fun, although I certainly don't look at it as a competition, just a collaboration. The "only one lead at a time" philosophy is one of the downfalls of post big-band jazz, as far as I'm concerned. Early jazz (original Dixieland) often had the cornet playing the melody with the trombone and clarinet improvising around it. Players are so used to the one-at-a-time approach that it is sometimes difficult to get them to play at the same time.

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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Quote Originally Posted by MikeEdgerton View Post
    OK, if you only have one dobro player in the jam and you don't know their name or there are 3 guys named Mike you can certainly call out "dobro". It would work the same if there was one fiddle, one mandolin, or one clarinet. Not everyone goes in a circle but that's not uncommon. If there are five mandolins it's always better to get the right mandolin to take a break.
    I was leading a song in a circle jam while playing guitar and called out "fiddle." I couldn't remember any of the fiddlers' names but nodded to one guy in particular. Well, all three fiddlers heard me say fiddle and let loose. My poor D-18GE had no chance. I could have stuck my head in the soundhole and still not of heard it. Haha.

    The best organized public venue jam I go to handles breaks in an ideal way, I think. The person leading the song stands at the mic. Anyone wanting a break steps up and stands at the ready to the song leader's right, but a bit behind. Song leader takes a break, then steps to the left and passes to the first musician in line. That one finishes, steps left, and passes to the next musician. The song leader can always see when those desiring a break have gotten their chance and can then seamlessly move back to the right and start singing into the mic.

    A good jam leader is key. Every jam I've been in (regardless of type) that had a solid jam leader called out the song and key before every song. Every jam I've been in that had no leader eventually had people starting songs without telling any others what song they were playing or what key they were playing in.

    One guy (always did classic rock) never gave any song info before his songs. I mean never. So I started asking him what he was going to do right after the previous song ended. Interestingly, he couldn't always come up with the name of the song he was going to play and wasn't always sure what key they were in. He was a good player, too. I guess he never bothered with such formalities.

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    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Quote Originally Posted by David L View Post
    One thing that hasn't been mentioned: I often like having more than one lead being played at the same time. "Dueling" leads can be great fun, although I certainly don't look at it as a competition, just a collaboration. The "only one lead at a time" philosophy is one of the downfalls of post big-band jazz, as far as I'm concerned. Early jazz (original Dixieland) often had the cornet playing the melody with the trombone and clarinet improvising around it. Players are so used to the one-at-a-time approach that it is sometimes difficult to get them to play at the same time.
    Duh. I'm not surprised that it's difficult to arrange for two players in a jam to playing competing leads at the same time. I wouldn't want to play that way, as a rule. In a band situation, which is subject to arrangement beforehand, this kind of thing might be possible -- and requires that the two players know each other's style and are able to give 'space' to one another. But in typical a folk jam, it's just a recipe for chaos and cacophony! And in a bluegrass, it is considered highly undesirable by most of the musicians I know and play with. On the other hand, a SPLIT break, where one instrument plays the the first half of the break and another instrument plays the second half, is perfectly do-able and welcome, particularly when there are more musicians playing than available breaks within a number. Split breaks work especially well for things like two-part fiddle tunes that have an AABB sequence, and with songs with a verse-chorus sequence in the break. But please, no dueling 'Dixieland' leads!

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