What exactly happens in a ukulele jam session?
The word “jam” conjures up images of people playing music together, on different instruments in a frenzy. As ukuleles come in different sizes, they naturally sound different. Often there are complementary instruments such as the cajon, bass guitar, tambourine, kazoo, harmonica, and violin. The word “jam” also sounds loud rather than soft but it doesn’t have to be. Coining the words “jam session” makes it sound more sophisticated than the technical description: a group play and sing along. It’s not karaoke, because it’s not about people taking turns singing on the microphone, rather, everyone plays and sings together. As you may expect, not all jam sessions are the same.
My definition of a “ukulele jam session” is two or more ukulele players getting together to play and sing a song. It can happen indoors or outdoors, in a private space, such as the comfort of your own home or elsewhere that has restricted access, or a public space, such as a park, church, school classroom, library, restaurant, or pub. If you don’t play from memory or by ear, you would read song sheets from 1) print, 2) PDF or web-page on screen (smartphone, tablet, or computer), or 3) big screen via a projector.
How participants select the songs, play and sing together depends on the group tradition. There are two extremes: one with a designated leader who serves as a kind of conductor, counting and/or playing to get the group on the correct tempo and time signature and one without a designated leader.
A leader needs to get everyone’s attention and sound loud enough for everyone to hear the counting to start together, something like the following:
“One, a two, a one, two, three, four” steadily and evenly in a crescendo and accenting on the last word.
Anyone can lead, provided it’s loud enough for everyone to hear and the count is steady enough. The count does not have to be vocal, such as when a percussionist or bass player leads. Having a leader helps to keep the group in sync for the entire song, including ending together.
The leader can choose the songs or ask the members to choose and decide on the request. At a recent Balham Ukulele Society jam session, I requested the song “Runaway.” The leader said it would be better in the second half because of the chords and the solo riff. The guy sitting next to me, also wanted the song. Full of interesting trivia, he told me that the solo riff was the first time the synthesizer was used as a solo in the history of pop songs. When we played the song in the second half (which lasted without a break from 9:15 to 11 pm) I realised I didn’t know the solo riff on kazoo. Indeed, the solo riff was an essential part of the song.
Leaderless jam sessions can work if participants listen to each other. Otherwise, a session can default to everyone following the person or persons with the loudest voice, or, in the other extreme, an agreed-upon “round robin” style of choosing and leading. It’s hard to hear which song is chosen in large groups. There’s usually a rush of whispers in a chain reaction, “which song? which song is next?” or peeking over someone’s shoulder to see the next song sheet.
In terms of the structure of a ukulele jam session, the ones I’ve attended in Maui, Boston, London, and Amsterdam, tend to begin with songs that are easy to play and sing to warm-up the voice and fingers. Starting with easy songs also helps to welcome beginners to the group. That’s why I encourage participants in my ukulele workshops to stay for the jam session afterwards. They get to practice in a group setting. If they stay long enough, they might get a few tips from their fellow ukulele players!
Note @ 2nd August 2018
If you have read this entire blog post, you are very likely a candidate for my 50-question survey to help me understand how leaders of ukulele groups select songs and/or create song sheets for their members to use in jam sessions, workshops, or gigs. Without a doubt, song sheets are a necessary ingredient of ukulele jam sessions (group play and sing alongs). The current atmosphere of freely sharing and distributing song sheets on the Web helps foster the spirit of amateur music making. For most, it’s a labour of love, for you do it without expecting any remuneration.
What will you get out of completing the Google Form survey? It’s entirely voluntary. However, the more responses I get, the more reliable my results will be. You will be the first to learn the results of my research and new song sheets that I produce or critique.