This Is How Jam Sessions Work

I’ve never met someone who said they didn’t like jam sessions. But there are plenty of people who have never really experienced a real jam, so here are some observations up close and personal from wandering around the jam sessions here at the Swannanoa Gathering.

I walked around and checked out the various jam circles. This in itself is interesting. Players tend to sort themselves into similar playing levels with no effort at all. You always have your hotshot circle, very intimidating if you aren’t up to their level. There are the jam participants sitting in their circle, and those who observe from outside the circle, enjoying the music, or hoping that someday they will be good enough to sit in that coveted circle.

Then you have little tiny jams, and you get the feeling that it is tiny and that is how they want it to stay, so you don’t really wander up to them and just sit in (unless you are very confident, and you’d probably ask first). There might be a large circle of medium players, not as intimidating as the “Hot Shot” circle, and large enough to feel approachable. Then you have a “slow jam” circle where players of all levels are welcome, and nothing is played too terribly fast.

The larger the circle, the easier it is to join in because you are noticed less. You can sort of just merge with the traffic. If you join a small circle, you will be an integral part of that circle, and your contribution or lack thereof will be very much noticed. So you choose a circle at an appropriate level and at which your contribution can be appropriate.

People can discuss what song to play next, (I prefer the discussion) but generally, whoever has a tune in mind can just start in. So it goes like this: The last tune has ended, and there is a pause. Sometimes it is very short, sometimes it is quite long, and chit chat might begin. But regardless of whether the pause was short or long, usually a lone voice starts to sing out, and all conversation halts, as ears hone in on the tune, identify it, and join in as quickly as possible.

Woe unto the player who starts a tune that nobody recognizes. You will be playing alone for a very long time! And you just hope to GOD that someone will recognize it and join in, or you have three choices: Finish the entire tune alone, with everyone looking at you, or stop mid-way and admit failure, or pat yourself on the back for having such an obscure tune in your repertoire . (Martin Hayes says obscure tunes are getting harder and harder to find, so I guess it would be something to be proud of!)

So, go dig out your musty, dusty music books and learn those tunes sitting on a shelf! You’ll be sure to have a solo at the next jam session! (My recommendation is to buy Pete Cooper’s book on fiddle and memorize every tune in it! They seem to be favorites at Irish jams!)