Summertime is jam season on the farm. I’ve made blackberry, peach, and plenty of strawberry jam in my time as a farm wife. But, this summer we had a fun music jam in the barn! Friends gathered for some merry-music-making in the barn. A great crowd of musicians drifted in and claimed their seat in the semi-circle, always leaving room for the next picker to join. They opened their cases here and there or found an empty spot out of the way or on a hay bale.
Technology has brought about the transition from paper lyrics/chord charts to iPads, but the songs have remained largely the same. The bass thumped out the beat of “Old Joe Clark” and “Jerusalem’s Ridge”, but our cellist even busted out some classical music for the evening! Each person brings something special and unique to the group and everyone comes at their own skill level.
If you’ve never attended a jam, you may not know that there are unspoken rules about how it runs. Someone starts by picking a song. Everyone joins in as they’re able. Then, each person gets a chance at a “break” or chance to do a little playing around on their instrument, a solo, if you will, while everyone else continues to play the song straight. The chance to take a break continues around the circle until it’s gone all the way around. The song-choosing goes around the circle, too. This way everyone has the chance at least every few songs to play a tune they’re familiar with. But, it also gives the opportunity to learn new songs or get better at those you’ve heard once or twice. When it comes to your turn to pick, you call out a song and a key. This might be a song that you feel confident about, or it might be a request for your favorite tune another picker plays or sings.
There’s a lot of non-verbal communication that happens at a jam, two players making eye contact, a nudge of the soldier, a shake of the head are all loaded communication between musicians. It takes awhile to become familiar with the subtle cues of music-making, but when you do, it gives the illusion of effortless harmony. When the chemistry is right, it sounds like the pickers have rehearsed the song dozens of time even though this may be the first time they’ve played it together. A jam, however, is not all about perfection. Mistakes happen and, if it’s a good jam, welcomed! It’s a safe place to try new things and stretch your limits. It’s a place to laugh and pick and grow as a musician.