The importance of jam sessions to your education as a musician can not be emphasized enough! It is vital to attend, have gone to, held one of your own, thought about going to, etc. a jam session. Sit-ins or jam sessions truly give you a taste of what working professionally as a musician entails, they are essential to the development of your skills as a working musician.

If you do not know what a jam session is:

A jam session, in short, is pretty much karaoke night for jazz musicians. You go in to the club or where ever it is being held, sign your name on a list, and wait for your name to be called to go up and play. Once your name is called, you go up on the stage, call the tune you want to play (make sure it is a standard or the band won’t know it), and play. Very often, they call up groups of people to play, so you may have to negotiate a song with the group of people you are playing with.

Here are a few things that you can do to make your jam session experience more enjoyable:
1. You can bring copies of the song you want to play in the case that the band doesn’t know it (although they are more likely to ask you to play something other the musicians already know.
2. Be flexible – things might not go as planned.
3. Use your ears – once again, things might not go as planned, and;
4. Pay attention to everyone else who is playing.

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The most important aspect of a jam session is (1) getting experience, but you also benefit by (2) getting out there to gain exposure and (3) starting to network. The more you play, the more people see you, and in result, the more people remember you. Then, when the band needs the instrument that you play, guess who they will call…

Which brings me back to networking. There are a few things you should keep in mind when meeting other musicians and people in the music industry.

You should buy or make your own business cards. It helps if there is a photo of you on the card, your name, your instrument(s), your phone number, and your email. When you go to a jam session, hand them out to everyone there who doesn’t already have one (or lost the one you already gave them). For every ten you hand out, you might get one call, so be persistent and keep handing them out.

If you can, make a demo, even if it is just you playing with an Aebersold, and hand that out too. Make sure you put a lot of effort into your demo. It should be a good representation of your skill as a performer.

How to get the full jam session experience:

Learn new songs and play different ones every time you go to a jam session. Memorize them. Building up your repertoire really helps. Jam sessions are much better than practicing with an Aebersold, plus you have an audience so you are improving your stage skills. But, please please PLEASE practice the songs first before you get to the jam session or you might not get invited back up to play again (yes, hosts will do that).

If you are a more advanced player, go and sit in on songs you don’t already know. Make sure to ask what key the song is in first, and use your ears. Sometimes people really don’t know what key the song is in, and they will tell you the wrong key. So, play a few notes off the microphone first to check before you start playing where everyone can hear. If you play something wrong, make sure you know you made a mistake so you don’t continue doing it. Do not be a stage hog or take really long solos – everyone hates when someone does this. Also, do not try to out-play other people. Those listening see right through what you are doing and will think you are impolite when you try to show someone up. Everyone there is doing the best that they can, and you should be respectful of that.

Back to watching all the other performers; #4 on the list of making jam sessions more enjoyable. You can learn something from everyone. Let me say that again, YOU CAN LEARN SOMETHING FROM EVERYONE. Even if you can play circles around another performer there, you can learn from them, even if it is what not to play. Ask someone to teach you a cool lick that they played, or ask someone for a chart to a song they played that you like, or maybe imitate the way someone stands on stage. You can even learn what not to do. For example, that this lick doesn’t work over that chord, or it looked really lame when this person did that, so you know what not to do. Bring a notebook and write down all the stuff that you learned (I suggest not using names or waiting until after, you know, just in case).

If you can’t find any jam sessions in your area, start one. Invite some of your friends over to jam at your house. If you guys sound good, your neighbors might even enjoy the free concert. If you aren’t working professionally, jam sessions are an important part of getting there. Even if you are working as a professional musician, you should always be humble enough to go to a jam session. If you have students or friends, bring them to the jam session, even if it is just to watch you play. My band and friends and I still go to jam sessions all the time. Sometimes we go just to watch the other musicians, and sometimes we go to play. But it has been an important part of shaping us as musicians, so we continue to make it a part of what we do. If you haven’t started going to jam sessions, I highly encourage you to do so.

Of course, keep in mind that there is an etiquette unique to jam sessions that you should be aware of.

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Published by Shannon Kennedy

Shannon Kennedy is a vocalist and saxophonist living in Southern California. She is author of "The Album Checklist" and the founder of Teen Jazz. She has been contributing articles to music magaizines and websites since 2004.