“Let’s get together and jam sometime.” You hear this a lot.
There is a societal/cultural aspect of this which signifies people of varying musical skills sitting around and happily playing tunes – a free and easy unstructured social event, a musical conversation.
The thinking is that a “jam session” is rather like a musical version of a “bull session.” After all, don’t we all know the same songs? Can’t anyone simply pick up a guitar and, in 10 easy lessons, be able to “sit in” or “jam”? Isn’t it simply a matter of “play by ear”? Heck, you don’t even have to know the song, just listen and follow along. How hard can this be?
Granted, the piano takes Study and Practice and is Hard Work. But that’s the piano. That’s Struggle. That’s being made to sit half an hour or more at it every day as a child when you’d much rather be out with friends. That’s Classical Music and we all know that’s Different.
Jam sessions are not about the piano. They are about the guitar, the easiest, most accessible instrument ever devised, and maybe a clarinet or a sax or some other instrument that plays one note at a time and how hard can that be? Throw in a mandolin and a banjo. You chunk a few chords while everyone sings. Piece of cake. This doesn’t actually require musical literacy, does it? How many times have you heard it said that someone “never took a lesson” or doesn’t “read music” just playing “by ear”. This isn’t Work, or Study, or Practice. This is just for fun. Isn’t it?
Ain’t social mythology wonderful? Explains a lot of folk music clubs. Right up until you actually do it. I’ve done this sort of stuff and, yes, it can be a lot of fun. If you know what you are doing. If you don’t … well, I’ve done the folk music club routine and it is a little heart-breaking to watch the person with 10 easy lessons wind up putting their guitar back in the case because they just can’t keep up.
Their dejected look tells the whole story and you feel badly for them. They wanted to participate and have fun with music, but its like throwing a kindergartner into a dinner party with a bunch of adults and expecting the child to keep up with the adult conversation. Even sing around the campfire can be fraught with peril. Explains a lot of instruments collecting dust in a closet.
Sit in with a bunch of old blues, folk, or jazz guys and you will learn exactly how much you don’t know. First of all there is a matter of Key – what key are we in? If they are in A and you are in Eb this isn’t gonna work. And don’t expect verbal cues – to indicate key they use fingers to tell you the number of sharps or flats. Three fingers up means 3 sharps, 3 fingers down means three flats. You are supposed to know which sharps (or flats) and what key that is and what the key scale is and what the relative and parallel minor scales are and the modal scales and what the chords are and how to use those chords. Oh, and you need to know about key modulations because sure as heck the key they give you is the starting key. After that you are truly in for Mr Toad’s Wild Ride.
The scales you think you don’t have to do – you have to do. The chords you think you don’t have to learn – you have to learn. The practice you think you can dodge – you can’t dodge. The technique you think you don’t need – you need. If you think you don’t have to know about harmony and chords and all that “long hair” stuff because you are playing an instrument that plays one note at a time – think again.
How you learn all this stuff makes no never mind. Some folks do the formal lessons/training route (some even have advanced degrees in Music) and some folks have simply sat down with a teach-yourself book and really worked it (which is how Haydn learned composition). Doesn’t matter – the knowledge, and the application of that knowledge, is all that counts.
Old blues, folk, and jazz musicians may not have had a formal Lesson in their life, but that only means they are self-taught – which means they have worked harder at learning this stuff than anyone else; they may “play by ear” but that is an educated ear achieved by a lifetime of having worked harder at this stuff than anyone else – and if you think you can sit in with your 10 easy lessons (or even your fancy Music Degree) and “play by ear” or “just follow along” They – Will – Bury you.
Like I say, I’ve done this sort of thing and it really can be a lot of fun. It is also always a learning experience because no matter what you know you can’t know everything and someone always knows something you don’t. I’ve been buried and learned ways of doing and thinking music that I never imagined. And I have left a few folks, even old blues, folk, and jazz types, in my dust as well. Its called “trading licks” and is probably more social fun than anything else.
Later I’ll give you a couple examples of how something that seems easy isn’t quite as simplistic as it seems. In the meantime, in the full and certain knowledge that you cannot in a lifetime learn everything there is to know about music, get out your instrument and get to work.