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Destination Jam

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
March 21, 2008 - 8:30 am

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

Jamless in Utah sent a forlorn plea for help.

This dedicated but novice mandolin player seeks others to play music with, which isn't easy in her neck of the West.

Her mandolin instructor is Mike Compton, via live computer linkup with his Nashville base. Mike's a fine teacher, she said. But he's at a loss when it comes to hooking her up with other hobby mandolin players in small-town Utah.

She found one jam session and went a few times and bravely chopped along. But there were sarcastic looks her way from some veteran players and someone said: "I remember when people at this jam knew how to play."

Take heart Jamless. You are not alone.

We've all been there.

Though some forget.

I've also had two other e-mails in recent weeks from people lamenting finding other pickers or dealing with the obnoxious ones.

When you're new to playing acoustic music and the folklife culture, joining the picking circle can be very scary.

Music is very personal, and you risk failure in front of others. Your turn to pick a solo or sing can make your mind race, your palms sweat and your muscles lock rigid.

Even when you get good, perhaps even turn pro, there's always someone whose playing stuns and intimidates you.

I don't know who makes Sam Bush or Chris Thile edgy in a jam. But I'm sure those musicians exist.

But first things first, how do we get started?

When you walk up to a festival jam or attend a regularly-held community session, take some time to size up the participants and the music. If they play just like you, jump in.

But if the tunes are cooking hot, be cautious.

Understand that there are people who have worked long and hard to be able to play with good tone, timing and speed. It's a beautiful and fun thing when everyone's on cue. It's a downer when someone without good skills and the sense to realize it muddies things up.

You won't gain ground if you gum up other folks' good time.

However, at the hot session you can listen and take some time to figure out who the friendliest players are. Afterwards, hit them up for some suggestions on playing and where you can find people to play with.

You might find yourself getting invited into new circles.

Music stores that sell acoustic instruments and offer lessons on how to play them are gold mines for finding jam sessions. Check out their bulletin boards in the store or web site online. Contact salesmen and instructors and tell them you're looking for people to jam with.

I stopped at a local store on a recent Saturday and heard music coming from the adjacent concert parlor. I peeked in, and there were 15 people sitting in a circle playing various instruments. They ranged from beginners to intermediate players, and the theme was everybody play and have fun.

That's the setting Jamless needs.

Tina in ol' Virginny took up mandolin playing in recent years and she started her jam career at one organized by her music teacher.

"Going to jams that are not 'my' jam are fun and scary all at the same time—that's why I stand outside the circle!" she said. "And as I've been going to jams I've found more jams."

Now granted Tina Buchanan lives where bluegrass festivals and pickers are thicker than Ozark ticks.

But she has some great ideas that might work for folks where bluegrass is scarce.

"When I go to 'outside' jams I hand out cards with the contact info to those people I think would be interested—no hot pickers," she said.

Tina took her mandolin to work one day to play at lunch. Someone saw it and hooked her up with a group that plays for fun and social functions.

Don't forget that Mandolin Cafe has a section for locating jam sessions. There's also classified ads in newspapers and magazines, such as Bluegrass Unlimited magazine.

Playing music with people on your level makes it easier to have fun. It's worth the search.

But Tina at times, like Jamless, found herself discouraged by jam snobs.

"There's no cure for them," she said. "People do it to feed their egos. When you're new to jamming you're so scared and then you run into them and it just makes it 20 times worse—or at least that was my experience. I do have to say that they are the minority. I don't expect people to dumb down their jam for me but I just expect common courtesy."

The best solution is to simply keep looking for pickers who are fun and friendly.

Stick with it, and you may someday play smooth, improvise at will and look forward to your turn to lead the group in a song.

Remember though, way back when and how to say "welcome" when you see the newcomer shyly standing at the circle's edge.

© Mandolin Cafe

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