I like to do a little pickin' and grinin' at jam sessions. The music could generally be characterized as folk. Under that umbrella there's old time, which is fiddle-based dance tunes. Then there's bluegrass, the classic folk from the 60's, Celtic, Cajun, a little Country & Western and some Gospel.
The traditional format for a jam session is for the players to sit in a circle. Someone suggests a tune and everyone tries to play along. Sometimes it comes out as a well-rehearsed performance; stopping and starting at the same time, a variety of instruments taking the lead for a verse and a chorus, and vocals fitting in just right. At other times it's more like a train wreck. As a matter of fact, there is a whole genre of songs about trains including The Wreck of Ol' 97 and other disasters.
Keep in mind that the more accomplished players usually get it all right and pretty much hold the whole group together. Sometimes people-like me-play ourselves into a corner. We miss a cord change and have to wait until it "comes around again" to get back on track. Sometimes a pick will get snagged on a string and the melody line is lost for a whole verse. Sometime a musical key is selected and a singer realizes too late that the chorus goes so high only dogs can hear it and no one can sing it. All this contributes to our learning process and to the absolutely wonderful fun such jam sessions are.
Howard is a regular at jams I attend. He plays at many other locations, knows hundreds of songs, sings well, and plays several instruments. At the last few sessions we both attended (and apparently at some others) he has researched some old tunes that we haven't played, like Down in the Valley. What sets these tunes apart is that they have MANY verses. After six or seven Howard is fond of saying "Only twelve more verses to go!," a statement that is usually greeted with groans. Recently one jam member slumped in her chair after the announcement and said: "Wake me when it's over." Howard enjoys leading these groan-inducing tunes and everyone enjoys giving Howard a hard time about them, so, it's a win-win and again, lots of fun and they really are great tunes.
Those very long songs have a lesson to teach, often through the lyrics, but more importantly through the way they're performed.
On the one hand, there is the repetitive tune, often the same three chords repeated over and over and over and over (getting the picture?). In a sense, that routine can be comforting. I can actually be part of a musical performance and get a kick out of it even if I'm only in this very basic support role. On the other hand, sometimes the singer will stop between verses so the instrumentalists can play the melody. After a few times playing the back-up part, I can sometimes pick out the melody and am engaged even more in the process making it a richer, more rewarding experience, especially when someone nods their head to acknowledge a decent effort. And finally, there's the story the tune tells. Sometimes I just play muffled chords in the background or stop playing altogether just to hear the story told, and letting the star shine through.
What else in life might we handle with this varied approach idea? Might we stay in the background sometimes and just be content "playing along"? That might mean contributing quietly to a cause or helping someone out without any expectation of being recognized for the contribution. Might we pay a little more attention and decide to get a little more involved? This may mean taking a little calculated risk and moving out of our comfort zone a little. This allows for personal growth. Might we take a lead role and "belt out" our song? This might involve some background work, some rehearsal, and a safe environment. But sometimes "going for the gold" can make for the most rewarding experience of all.
All this takes some concentrated effort no matter what type of endeavor it is. I'm not going to improve much as a musician if I never take my instrument out of the case between jam sessions. I need to feel free to ask for help when I get stuck. I need to find a safe environment for my risk-taking, at least at first. But if you think about it, you no doubt can meet all those measures among the people, places, and activities that interest you.
So, get out there and "make some music" in your life whether playing in the background, attempting an occasional solo, or taking a turn being the star.
Next week, maybe I'll "pull a Howard" and sing The Fox. Then again, maybe not it's only seven verses long.
Gary Lester, M.S., is the executive director of Family Services of Warren County-a charitable agency that provides counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups.