The Keys to Jam Session Success, with Kim Alexander

secrets-jam-session-success
Going along to a musical jam session is an intimidating idea for many musicians—yet it can be one of the most liberating and rewarding musical experiences there is! So how can you break past your inhibitions and learn to enjoy the spontaneous musical collaboration of a jam session.

We recently featured Kim when discussing musical jam sessions as she published a terrific set of tips for jam etiquette, or as she calls it, “jamiquette”.

She is well-positioned to give advice on the topic, having been running a jam session called Music Night for over a decade. Folk musician and activist Pete Seeger described her jamiquette tips as “wonderful”, encouraging her to print them up in pamphlet form, which she duly did, now distributing them at events such as the Strawberry Music Festival where she teaches a “Learn to Jam!” workshop.

We invited Kim to join us to discuss jamming and jamiquette, the listening skills required for playalongs, and how to make it easy for yourself and others to get started with jam sessions.

UPDATE: Kim has very kindly provided us with printable versions of her “Learn to Jam!” pamphlet and “Jamiquette” poster. Download them below!

Note: bolding in the interview text has been added by the editor.

Q: Hi Kim, welcome to the site and thank you for joining us here at EasyEarTraining.com today!

To begin with, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your musical background?

Kim AlexanderI grew up in a musical family. My mom played guitar, and my dad tenor banjo. We listened to music in our home all the time, and played songs and sang along. A lot of John Denver, Pete Seeger, and Broadway musicals.

We attended Temple Akiba in Culver City and music was a big part of the Reform Judaism movement of the 1960’s-70’s. So we learned 60’s folk songs like “If I Had A Hammer” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” alongside modern-day Debbie Friedman-interpretations of traditional prayers.

By the time I was 13, I was the assistant music instructor at the temple, and soon leading songs at Shabbat services and working as the summer camp songleader.

I’ve noticed how for a lot of people their first experiences with singalongs and music jams was through a religious affiliation. It’s not surprising really, but it’s noteworthy that religion has been a place where people engage in the joy of singing together and it uplifts them.

From 13-17, I took guitar lessons every day, five days a week, at Culver junior and senior high schools. I learned every song my instructor knew and my repertoire grew tremendously.

Once I moved to Sacramento in my early 20’s, I started camping and enjoying weekends at family cabins in the mountains. I’d bring my guitar and songbook along. We’d sit around on the deck or porch and play and sing songs. It was a wonderful way to pass the time, around a campfire, or sitting by a lake in the sun.

I have always known a lot of musicians but have never really felt called to perform. I tried an open mic one night and it was the most terrifying experience. What I liked was sitting around a fire, at night, in low light, where you could sing your heart out and play your guitar and make mistakes and it was okay because it was just for fun, not a performance, not a spotlight.

“What I liked was sitting around a fire […] where you could sing your heart out and play your guitar and make mistakes and it was okay because it was just for fun.”

I tried being in a band for a little while. In high school I had a fake band with four of my friends, called The Dead Batteries. Then my friend Bonnie and I started a band called The Secretaries of State that existed for about one performance. Then we later formed an all-girl jug band called, of course, “The Juggs”. People loved us but I found being in a band to be a chore and tedious and now know that live, acoustic, unrehearsed music is what I love most.

A friend of mine who felt the same way suggested we start a “Music Night”. Like, some of our friends had “poker nights”, or “bicycle ride nights”, and we needed a Music Night. One night a week when we’d get together and play songs. We picked Thursday.

That was back in 2005. Now I have a regular jam schedule and get to go to lots of other jams too!

Q: It’s one thing for a musician to go along to a local jam, but quite another to take the initiative and start their own!

What led you to start your Thursday night jam sessions?

I realized that I wanted to make music with people more often than I was, on a regular basis, and that I wanted to make a commitment to music being an ongoing and important part of my life.

Q: Your jam sessions have been running for over a decade now, while many local jams fizzle out. What would you say has been the key to its longevity, and do you have any tips for other jam leaders to sustain their groups?

That is a great question!

The most important thing is to pick a regular date, time and place. Music Night is on the third Thursday of the month so people can plan ahead to attend.

The "Music Night" Jam Session which Kim hosts

The “Music Night” Jam Session which Kim hosts (Photo: Gordon Lane)

As for the location, our jam has moved around over the years. We started with six people in a living room, then it got bigger and we moved to an artist residence/performance space called the Horse Cow. The site was in an industrial area of Sacramento and we could be outside, at night, with a burn barrel blazing, playing and singing as loud as we like under the stars with no neighbors around to complain. That was really ideal! But the site became inaccessible so we moved first to a coffee house and then later, in 2011, to our current home, The Old Ironsides. It is the oldest bar in Sacramento and has a great reputation for supporting live, local music.

We have 25-30 musicians come for each session plus other folks who want to sing along. We keep it from becoming a train wreck by trying to make it clear who is leading a song and also by taking turns and giving everyone a chance to pick a song.

I maintain an email list and send out notices for the jam to the list and also via Facebook. It’s advertised in the local weekly as well. We occasionally get new folks in and I always try to make people feel welcome but also try to make sure they understand that it’s not a free-for-all, we go around in the circle and everyone gets a chance to pick a song.

“We keep it from becoming a train wreck by trying to make it clear who is leading a song and also by taking turns and giving everyone a chance to pick a song.”

I think a jam should be about “small d” democracy and I always find I learn great songs when I give other people the opportunity to make suggestions. We urge folks to play simple, three chord songs and avoid jambusters. We also encourage people to “get quiet” for instrumentals which is important when you are playing acoustically with that many people!

Another key is to have a stand-up bass player. If you have that, you have someone who can keep the beat and make sure folks are playing together.

Sometimes I look around the circle, and there are thirty people playing and singing together and completely in time with each other and we’ve never played the song together before and maybe don’t even know each other but somehow we are able to hold the song together in time. It’s absolutely magical. Music Night is always fun but there are times the experience is downright ecstatic.

Q: You now teach a “Learn to Jam!” workshop. Could you tell us a bit about what you cover there – specifically how it works and what you hope musicians come away from the workshop being able to do?

I developed twenty tips for jamming that are designed to help people understand the basics of playing music with others and also to give some diplomacy tips so that musicians who are experienced understand how to participate in a way that will result in them being welcomed back.

People literally need to be taught to play well with others. Simple things like “wait your turn” and “tell people what you’re playing before you start” make a big difference to whether people are going to find you to be an agreeable person to play with or not.

“Simple things like “wait your turn” and “tell people what you’re playing before you start” make a big difference.”

Playing music with someone else informally was a regular thing in many cultures for a long time. But I suspect that with the advent of recorded music people became more self-conscious of whether they sounded “good enough” to perform in public. Music went from a participatory experience to one of performer/audience.

The folk music movement was, I think, the beginning of the breaking down of that line and the return of the circle and the sing-along. The civil rights movement was fueled by music. And now technology enables people to find and play and learn songs from all over the world.

My theory is that at least 25 percent of the population really loves music, even knows how to play an instrument or likes to sing—but plays or sings infrequently, if at all.

I know how much joy making music with friends brings me, and I want other people to experience it.

It is one of the easiest ways to entertain yourself and uplift your spirits.

Video produced by Kim to promote Fete de la Musique in Sacramento, a global musical event taking place on the summer solstice where people are encouraged to go out into public and make music.

How to Have Good Jamiquette

Q: As part of your “jamiquette” (jam etiquette) rules you recommend musicians look up the chord chart and lyrics for a song they want to play and then use YouTube to help them prepare. Could you tell us more about this? How does YouTube help musicians prepare to jam?

YouTube is amazing. For any song you might like to learn, you can probably find a version of it on YouTube. You may even find a video of someone playing that song!

When I want to learn a new song I often purchase it on iTunes and then download it and listen to it while I drive, swim or work. But I could also just as easily go to YouTube and find that song.

Sometimes you can’t tell what the lyric is on a song. When you watch and hear other people perform it on YouTube you can more easily figure out the lyrics.

I also use Chordie, which is an amazing repository of songs. Just about anything you want to learn is there. I recently have been learning Jackson Browne’s songs and between Chordie and YouTube I can find just about all the instruction I need.

Q: You encourage musicians to get familiar with the “1-4-5 rule”. Could you tell us more about this and how it makes life easier for a jamming musician?

If you know this rule you can play about 90 percent of the songs that will likely be played at any music jam. Many country, rock, folk, Americana and bluegrass songs are comprised of just three chords.

It’s pretty simple: you line the seven notes up in order and assign each one a number – so A is 1, B is 2, C is 3, D is 4, E is 5, F is 6, and G is 7.

“Many country, rock, folk, Americana and bluegrass songs are comprised of just three chords. […] That’s how people who have never played a song before can play along so easily.”

Every song is in a key, and that key is the “1” in the 1-4-5. So if the song is in A, the other chords in the song are going to be D (the 4) and E (the 5).

Or, if it is in C, C becomes the 1, and then F is the 4 and G is the 5.

Once you learn what chords go together you can pretty easily anticipate most of the rest of the chords in a song.

Q: One of your tips is that a major chord can almost always be used to replace a 7th chord, for example substituting A Major for A7. This contrasts with what musicians are often taught, which is to follow sheet music as precisely as possible and prevent any possible mistakes.

How does that traditional attitude to learning music reconcile with the spirit of a jam session and “bend the rules” tips like this?

That’s a good question. My feeling is that if you are playing along with others, not leading a song, it’s okay to play the parts you know and skip the parts you don’t.

Sometimes people, especially new players, worry about making a mistake and messing other people up. These kinds of fears keep some people from jamming at all.

Or they look at a song and see a lot of 7 chords in it and get scared and think they can’t play it.

So this rule is meant to say: it’s okay to not be perfect, and don’t worry about “wrecking” a song if you don’t know how to play every single chord in it.

Q: At Musical U we dedicate a whole module to singing and playing guitar or piano at the same time, because it can be such a challenge to juggle the two, particularly while you’re still at beginner/intermediate stage with either – or both!

You touch on this in your jamiquette rule about songleading, and the difficulty of multitasking singing, playing, keeping steady rhythm and being aware of the other musicians.

How can jam leaders and participants develop this multitasking ability without getting overwhelmed and discouraged?

That is a great thing to teach people because it certainly is not easy. And I’m not sure jamming is for everyone.

I’ve met a lot of talented musicians over the years who are great singer-songwriters but not necessarily great jammers, because they have played alone for so long they are not as focused on playing in a way that makes it easy for others to keep up with them. They might change the tempo, or pause, which can really throw off a jam.

One thing I tell people who are new to our jam is that it’s fine to suggest a song but to ask someone else to lead it. Songleading is definitely a skill that some folks have and others lack. Sometimes at our jam when someone new is leading a song I will go and stand next to them and back them up and make sure we are keeping the rhythm steady – that is the best way to make sure a song doesn’t go off the rails, to keep people in time with each other.

But once someone moves into that songleading role, I can see how thrilling it can be for them! When they call out a solo and someone else lets it rip on their instrument, it is a very satisfying feeling, something like being a conductor.

In some jams there are people who want to lead the song and others who want to sing and others who want to play instrumental leads. Having a good jam requires all kinds of players!

Kim's "Learn to Jam!" Workshop at Strawberry Music Festival

Kim’s “Learn to Jam!” Workshop at Strawberry Music Festival

Q: Several of your rules are about the flow of the music and the craft of putting together a cohesive performance: the “big picture” of performing a song, beyond just playing the right chords in the right order.

How do you help new jammers step back and become aware of this way of thinking about each song, rather than just getting buried in the detail of trying to play through each section according to the sheet music?

I think of it as being “held” in a song together. Whoever is leading is driving it but often there is this moment where we are all just playing and strumming along, in time, and just letting the song be.

When you have that experience you want to have it again!

I’m not sure what the secret recipe is but a big part is paying attention to each other, being attentive, watching for who looks ready to play a solo, concentrating and being part of something bigger than yourself.

Q: You mention beginner jammers worrying they’re not “good enough” to play in front of others. This challenge of musical confidence is a hot topic for us at Musical U.

Do you have any tips for encouraging and nurturing musicians to gain confidence and be more comfortable jamming and performing music?

I always encourage people to start in small groups. It’s a lot easier to play and sing in front of one or two other people than it is 20 or 30. Drinking a little wine or beer can certainly help people lose some of their inhibitions—though going too far will likely keep you from getting invited back!

I think you can overcome the “not good enough” fear once you have something you really want to share. If you find a song that you love and you learn to play and sing it, you will want to share it with others. I’ve seen this with many of my friends – they are not the greatest singers, they hit the wrong notes sometimes, but they bring these songs that are like treasures to the jam and introduce me to great songs I would not otherwise know.

To be honest I don’t really like the sound of my own voice! But I do like to sing. And I kind of hope that I’m setting an example, showing people you don’t have to have a great voice to sing in front of others, with others.

“I kind of hope that I’m setting an example, showing people you don’t have to have a great voice to sing in front of others, with others.”

I’m also really discouraging of people recording or taking photos at our jam without asking first. I don’t want the experience to feel like a performance, and we live in a time when people think they have the right to record everything. But to me the music circle is a sacred space and recording what may be an intimate or emotional or ecstatic experience makes me and probably others too feel self-concsious about playing and singing. So I discourage it and I think that helps.

And I guess my final tip is practice, and be prepared! Have a few songs in mind that are simple, that everyone knows and when it’s your chance to call a song be ready.

If you pick a song others know, then it’s not a performance—it’s a singalong, and the pressure is off a bit. I love doing songs like “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I’ll Fly Away” because lots of people know the melodies and the words and that makes it easy for people to participate.

Once you have a great song to share it’s easier to overcome any fears you may have about playing in front of others.

Wonderful! Thank you again, Kim, for joining us on the site to share these tips and insights on helping musicians to get jamming and enjoy the tremendous experience of joyfully making music together.

We hope that Kim’s advice and encouragement has inspired you to go along to a jam session—or perhaps even start your own! You can learn more about Kim on her personal blog and seek out a local jam session on Meetup.com or folkjam.org


Kim has very kindly provided us with printable versions of her “Learn to Jam!” pamphlet and “Jamiquette” poster.

Download them here (PDF, right-click and “Save As” to download):

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