8 Dos and Don'ts for Proper Jam Session Etiquette
Going to jam sessions is one of the best ways of becoming a better musician. The experience of making music in front of a live audience, playing with other musicians whom you may not know, and doing it all without any kind of rehearsal can be exciting, rewarding, challenging, and terrifying all at the same time.
In order to ensure good fun for everyone involved, here are eight Dos and Don'ts for proper jam session etiquette:
1. Don’t Hog the Mic
Depending on how many other musicians are up on the bandstand with you, you’ll want to be sensitive to the number of choruses you take in your solo. For some reason, saxophonists tend to be guilty of overstaying their welcome in the spotlight. Don’t be that guy or gal—no one likes a chatterbox in conversation or in music.
2. Do be sensitive when playing with a vocalist
No, I’m not talking about not whining when a singer calls a tune in an unusual key (you really should be able to play "Autumn Leaves" in all twelve anyway). Similar to taking more choruses than they should, instrumentalists tend to overplay when on stage with a vocalist. You know the type—the horn player whose mission it is to shred sheets of sound between every sung phrase. It’s annoying and doesn’t do the music any good. Quite frankly, if there’s a singer on stage, he or she is the star of the show, which means that everyone else in the band needs to listen, support, and compliment appropriately.
3. Don’t play on a tune you don’t know
If someone calls a tune you’re not familiar with, do everyone a favor and "sit this one out.” Neither the audience nor the other musicians in the band want to hear you fumble through a melody and/or try to “hear” your way through the changes, also known as “skating.” You’re much better off making a note of the title of the tune and learning it cold for next time.
4. Do think of some tunes you’d like to play prior to getting up on the bandstand
Once you get called up to play, the last thing anyone on stage or in the audience wants to do is trudge through the tired comedy act of a bunch of musicians trying to think of and agree on a song to play. The best way to avoid this situation is to think of a handful of tunes beforehand, including some fail-safe standards, e.g., "All the Things You Are," "Stella by Starlight," etc.
5. Don’t call hard tunes just for the sake of calling hard tunes
When you call "Moment’s Notice" and count it off at 400 beats per minute, you’re not impressing anyone. If you want to play a difficult tune—fine, but don’t let the choice come from your ego, and at least try to make sure the rest of the band can keep up.
6. Do socialize (afterwards)
One of the best parts of attending jam sessions is getting to meet and network with other musicians. By no means am I recommending you go around asking everyone in the room to call you for their next gig. But once the session is over, do work up the courage to introduce yourself and get to know some of the folks you just played with or listened to. No one built or strengthened the musician community, or made a friend for that matter, by being aloof.
7. Don’t forget you’re there to make music with other people
Too often we spend our time shedding in the practice room alone with Jamey Aebersold Play Alongs, iReal Pro, and Band in a Box backing tracks and then, when it comes time to play live, we forget to actually open our ears and, dare I say, interact with the other musicians on stage. Did you know you can musically “react" to the drummer’s rhythms and the pianist’s voicings? Give it a try—they might just answer back. Music is a conversation, so remember the adage: listen more than you speak.
8. Do come back
Whether you got your ass kicked or felt like you were playing with a bunch of amateurs, do give every session you attend at least a second chance. Different people will show up, new tunes will be called, and, if you got beat down on the first time around, you can leverage that pain to practice hard for round two. The more you view jam sessions as valuable opportunities to improve your craft and make good art, the more rewarding they will be.