The “Rules” of Jamming

The jam session always seems to present a “special” set of circumstances for autoharp and hammered dulcimer players.  Unlike fiddlers, guitarists and yes, even banjo players, we seem to go through an unexpected “initiation” process, especially with jammers who see us for the first time.

I have endured my share of initiations, including everything from being ignored because I’m from a place called “Off,” closed out of the jamming circle (with my dulcimer being stationary, all the other jammers take a step towards each other and suddenly I’m out), and surviving tunes played in “unfriendly” keys like Bb and E major!  These psychological attempts to get rid of the newcomer who everyone else in the session is sure cannot play, for whatever reason, are completely ungrounded: I have a very good ear, as well as the skill to play all the same notes everyone else does at breakneck speed, so I’’ve survived.  However, “trailblazing” for all the other players of these instruments gets a bit tiring.  So I need your help, if you play.

Why aren’t autoharps and dulcimers accepted in jam sessions?  My observation is that it’s not because of what the instruments are, but because how they’re played, such as:

  • Only the melody comes from these instruments, and it’’s LOUD.
  • The versions of the tunes played are without most of the notes to allow for playing at break-neck speed.  To fiddlers, etc. (and to me, frankly), a tune missing most of its notes isn’’t the “real” tune (despite all the versions that exist).
  • Insensitivity to what all the other players are playing, both individually and collectively.  Someone else’’s break is often “stepped on” by the novice jammer, for example.
  • This is a “perhaps”: Perhaps the players beg the group to play in a key their instrument has?  (The mountain dulcimer players always want D major.)  Or to play a tune slowly enough so that they can play along?

Would you want to play with someone who does any of this?  Although I don’’t know for sure, I can only conclude that these fiddlers, etc. have experienced enough of the above from people who play autoharp and both kinds of dulcimer that they’ve convinced themselves that all players of these instruments are that way.

Jamming for us, then, requires ambassadorship.  We need to be more competent and skilled for the sake of our own enjoyment of music as well as for instrument acceptance.

I don’’t advise separating ourselves from fiddlers et al, “”because no one understands us.””  For this reason, I steer away from calling the autoharp and dulcimer “”our instrument.””  The more we think this way–and verbalize it, if only to each other–we only reinforce to ourselves and to other jammers that autoharp and dulcimer do no’t fit in jam sessions.

The only solution seems to be getting in there, doing it, and sticking with the session no matter what.  Here are some suggestions towards that endeavor:

  • First, practice, practice, practice.  Learn to play the tunes up to speed with all those little notes.  When you can play freely to keep all your moves constantly fluid, the speed will come.  Once you’’re streamlined, you’’ll convince any jammer worth his/her salt that you know what you’’re doing.  Along these lines, befriending a couple friends to play with once a week will help you become comfortable playing in a group.  (Face it: No one in a jam stops for the person who goofs and drops dead in his/her tracks out of the tune.)
  • Learn to harmonize a variety of different ways, and to do so in a way that complements rather than overpowers other instruments in the session.  (The scratch bands at the Sore Fingers Summer School in England are a good venue to develop this.)  On the dulcimer, I simply play rhythm on one or two notes; on the autoharp, I depress two chord bars to produce one tone and strum a rhythm.  These are simple ways to contribute harmony, as well as support to the person playing the break.
  • As you back up other players, focus on playing more quietly so that they can be heard.  Do your thing, but make sure it fits with the group; listening to what the individuals are creating as a group is crucial.  (On the dulcimer, I find that the most acceptable volume is when I can barely hear the dulcimer.  Not a lot of fun being unable to hear, but the group is what’’s important.  Think group!)  The strong, off-beat rhythm within reels is important, too.  Offbeats can be hard to feel, but that’s what makes for hot playing.
  • There’’s usually one unspoken leader in every session.  This person either does most of the talking between tunes, or eyeballs each person in the group while a tune is being played in order to hand out breaks.  Look around at the people playing while you’re playing and you’’ll be able to tell who the leader is.  If that person lends an ear to what you’’re doing and likes it, you may get a nod to take the next break.  (Looking at your strings all the time means you will miss this opportunity!)  Take it if you know the tune, or if you don’’t know it but believe you can improvise on the chord progression.  When the time comes, let out the volume for ONE time through the tune, then back off immediately to allow the next person’s playing to be heard on the next break.  (Remember: while you’’re busy playing, the leader is silently communicating with someone else for the next break.)  Do not under ANY circumstances play the melody again after your break unless you are invited by the leader to take another one (this can happen, but it’s rare).  The next break-taker might improvise on the tune, and your continued melody playing will get in the way of the jam as well as the potential for camaraderie afterwards.  Harmonize quietly behind the tune once again.  The last time through, which may be called or not, as well as the first time, are just about the only times in a bluegrass jam when everyone plays the tune together.
  • Don’’t wait for an invitation.  It won’’t happen.  And don’’t wait for another autoharpist to join a jam with you.  (This probably won’’t happen, either.  Save your autoharp-only jamming for the autoharp club meeting.)
  • Don’t leave the jam session, even if the key changes to Bb major!  A rhythmic “drone” on any note in “off” keys will help you keep playing.
  • Finally, no whining about instrument unacceptance.  It’’ll be accepted the more you jam.  (Now to be honest, there’s almost nothing any of us can do about attitudes by the group about what instruments are acceptable in old-time or bluegrass circles.  But if you find a way, let me know.)

The more you jam, the better you’’ll play.  And the better you play, the more fun you’’ll have.  And the more fun you have, the more friends you-’ll make.  And…….wow, are you ready?!

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