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How to get the most out of a music jam

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

Jam sessions come in many flavors: fast, slow, jazz, bluegrass, expert, beginner, exclusive, welcoming. Ukulele Shenanigans, for example, draw from a wide variety of music styles and offer everyone, from beginners to advanced players, something fun to play. The songs are played at their regular paces, for the most part, so it helps to have an adventurous spirit and willingness to have fun reaching for something new.

Here's what you need to know to see if a jam is right for you and to enable you to have a great time once you get there.

  • Find out if the jam fits your idea of fun. Word of mouth is your friend here. Asking the right questions up front can help you decide if the jam is right for you: > What is the music style? Make sure it's a style you are interested in playing or exploring, as different styles follow different musical cues. > What level of play is welcome there? If you're a beginner, you'll find it easy to participate in a slow jam, or one that is designed for beginners. It's always good to play with people who are more experienced than you, but don't get down on your progress if the music is too complicated; look at it as a learning opportunity and you may be inspired to reach for something new - and make some new friends in the process. > Who is leading it? If you can get their contact info, you can ask them directly, or get details on where they get their music from (many ukulele jams post their tunes online). If they welcome beginners, they'll make sure some nice, easy tunes are sprinkled in.

  • Prepare yourself for the unexpected. You'll likely be playing tunes you've never heard of, and maybe even at a faster clip than you're used to at home, where you can slow down for parts that are harder for you. Hang in there! You'll become a more nimble player if you pay close attention to what other musicians are doing and hang on for the ride. It is a bit like a rodeo, and an adventurous spirit helps! Here's how to get yourself ready for anything: > Nail chord changes. In many ukulele jams, chords in the keys of A, C, D, E, and G will predominate. Practice switching among those chords until you can form them quickly and cleanly from any other chord - with the ultimate goal of forming them within a quick beat AND without looking. Here are the basic chords for each key (along with the relative minor, in parentheses). These are likely the chords that will be in songs in that key. There's a good chance that there will be others as well, but these'll get you going: Key of A: A, D, E (F#m) Key of C: C, F, G (Am) Key of D: D, G, A (Bm) Key of E: E, A, B [sometimes Bb] (C#m) Key of G: G, C, D (Em) Don't stop there - go for other keys, too! Here's an easy tool to help you anticipate which chords belong to which key. > Learn basic guitar chords on sight. There is more often a guitar at a jam than a uke, and guitars are easier to read because they're not so tiny and cramped. Spend just a little time learning guitar chords by looking at what the guitar player is doing and you'll be able to follow along in no time. > Have a good, solid strum that you can leave up to your subconscious to maintain. Your focus should skew to keeping the rhythm going without speeding up or slowing down, and nailing those chord changes! > Just listening can sometimes be the best choice. It allows you to watch how others are playing, and to see that others are just as imperfectly human as you are. > Develop the ability to maintain timing -- especially when it is coming from outside of your own head! Keep your speed in check and focus on blending your rhythm well with the person leading instead of hopping onto a faster beat that someone else is erroneously creating. > Bring song sheets. If the jam plays from the their own collection, bring printouts, alphabetize them, pop 'em into a notebook and you'll have everything you need, available in a snap - including a tune that you could lead! Practice up and share it. You can find the current Shenanigan packet here.

  • Practice jamming with a friend or two. Extra credit for practicing with a friend who plays a different instrument, so you can learn to recognize their chords on sight. It's easier than you may think - but, as with everything, it takes practice. Luckily, you're practicing with a friend, so you get a nice visit out of the exercise.

  • Don't give into your fears! Ukulelians are a pretty fun-loving and forgiving species and they love to help others along and share what they've learned on their own journeys. I have learned so much by observing, playing, listening, and practicing those essential jamming skills.

Got any jamming tips that have helped you along the way? Send 'em my way and I'll update this blog with your comments. Now, check out the jamming opportunities and let's play!


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