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Jamming Guidelines

Guidelines for jamming at IN-PERSON Fiddle Hell

Many of you are here to join in on the jam sessions. It’s a great way to meet new friends and create spontaneous music together.

At Fiddle Hell, we have many instructor-led jams that are listed on the schedule, and which are usually oriented towards certain styles and levels. Many informal jams spring up in the hallways, in function rooms not in use, and even outside. At the "Official Jam Spots" marked in the hallways, it's ok to jam at just about any time. Please don't jam where the signs say "No Jamming Here."

Here are some rough guidelines from jamming experience to help you out.

1. There are two fundamentally different types of jams, usually (but not always!) depending on the style. It’s a good idea to observe which type is happening before you jump in:

- All players play together just about every time through: Southern Oldtime, Irish, New England, Scottish styles

- Players take turns playing instrumental breaks: Bluegrass, Swing, Texas, Blues, Rock styles

2. Some jams have a leader (either appointed or de facto). Leaders call or coordinate the selection of tunes, including medleys, and may call out arrangements on the fly. Other jams have no fixed leader, in which case the tunes are often selected and led by the players in some order, such as going clockwise around the circle.

3. Some coherency in jam style is expected. An Irish jam shouldn’t suddenly change into a Southern Oldtime jam, or a bluegrass jam into a Scottish jam. On the other hand, some players play multiple styles, and their jams may wander among styles (which may be fine, or may cause problems).

4. Jams may vary in their choice of tempos, usually depending on the level of the players. Some jams are rather speedy! Occasionally, jams are designated as “half-speed” or “slow.” Beginner jams are also slower. It’s good manners to let the person calling a tune start it at his/her tempo, Sometimes a group may agree to play a tune slowly at first, and then speed it up. If tunes are falling apart rhythmically, it’s better to slow them down. Good taste is better than raw speed any day! Keep the beat.

5. Sometimes you may be invited to join an ongoing jam. If not, it’s polite to ask to join in. But it’s generally fine to stand or sit on the periphery (“outer circle”) of a jam, playing along quietly (perhaps learning the tune!) and not getting in the way. Be conscious of the level of a jam before jumping in at full blast. And tune up before joining in.

6. Listen to the other players! Watch them, too. Support singers or soloists; don’t play over them or back them up disruptively. For jams where many players are playing together, such as oldtime, the goal is to converge and lock in on a common version, getting tighter as the tune is repeated.

7. Tend towards choosing tunes that are common or at least easy to follow. A large jam with multiple levels of players isn’t the time to trot out a complex, obscure tune. That being said, advanced players like to challenge themselves, and may throw anything out. Or a player may really want to teach everyone a new tune. Whatever the level, it’s a common practice to mention any strange chords, crooked parts, or other structural oddities before starting a tune. Oldtime sessions with clawhammer banjo players usually stay in a chosen key for quite a while.

8. Be kind to beginners and new jammers. It takes courage to join in and play along, and many players don’t have much jamming experience. Ask what tunes they know, keep tempos down, and help them out where you can.

9. At jams with breaks, such as bluegrass jams, the lead singer or the person who started the tune calls the breaks by nodding at players or raising an eyebrow, or shouting out a name or instrument. Indicate your willingness to take a break by smiling, nodding, or stepping forward. Indicate that you’d rather pass this time by shaking your head no, or avoiding eye contact in the first place.

10. It never hurts to play melody on a break. Don’t throw in every lick you know! If you screw up part of a break, keep going if you can. You may find your touch again. If not, nod to another player to step in and finish the break.

11. Whoever starts a tune determines when it’s over. It’s common to raise a foot (or yell “out”) to indicate the last time through.

12. Minimize noodling around between tunes. This isn’t the time to show your virtuosity, practice tunes you don’t know, or raise the noise level in general. If you want to suggest the next tune, say it, don’t start noodling on it.

13. Step aside to tune or converse at length.

14. If you don’t want to continue with a jam for any reason, split off and start your own. Or just listen for a while.

15. Seek out jams at the right level and in a style you can play. Your jamming skills will improve over time.

ONLINE Jamming 

Jamming is a great way to meet new friends and create spontaneous music together! The first section, which is new, is about Online Jamming. The other section has a helpful set of guidelines on In-Person Jamming at Fiddle Hell - many of these apply to online jams as well.

Here are a few observations from online jamming experience to help you out.

1. Latency (delay of sound) in transmission means that people can't jam together with each hearing all the others. Physical distance, wireless transmission, slow proccessing by computers, and network delays all contribute to latency. A common solution online is to have a jam leader (or a band in one location) lead the jam; each participant watches and listens to the leader only and plays along. The leader doesn't hear the participants, but can see their comments and requests in a chat room (Facebook) and also see them playing (Zoom). It's fun - although of course different than an in-person jam.

2. Fast hardware and hard-wired internet connections can reduce latency enough to permit a few people, geographically close, to jam (JamKazam). It's complex but shows promise. Another approach is to play together strictly in time, but with your fellow jammers' music delayed by an interval (say 8 bars). It's live, but it's not real-time (jammr).

3. At Fiddle Hell Online, we'll be jamming over Zoom with one or more jam leaders. You'll hear them and see them, and will be able to hear melodies, take breaks, try out harmonies, substitute chords, swap instruments, quaff a beverage of choice, use the chat feature of Zoom to say hello to friends and maybe even make tune requests. Maybe you'll want to listen more than usual, since you'll hear the jam leader clearly and can appreciate nuances of style and variation.

4. Since the jams at Fiddle Hell Online (as well as workshops and concerts) will be recorded and the videos can be replayed for 4 months, you'll have second - and third and fourth - chances to play the tunes you like. Or try out a new style, or even a new instrument, perhaps with a jam leader who's new to you. It can be a low-pressure and encouraging environment!