Last weekend I found myself in a jam session among professional musicians at a party at Sonic Zen Studios in Berkeley. As a vocalist who dabbles in playing instruments, rarely do I feel confident enough in my playing ability to pick up something more than a tambourine in these kinds of circumstances.
I walked into the party and a jam session, full of professional musicians. The jam session had already begun. I sat down, listened for a while and then, of course, got myself a tambourine.
Then they hooked up a microphone. I decided to not even consider not singing. I jumped right into it and had the most positive jam session experience I’ve ever had.
How does a vocalist “jam”? These are things I’ve figured out over the years.
1) Be very conscious about how much space you are or are not taking.
As soon as a singer begins to sing, the ear focuses on them. It’s just how the ear is trained. A bass guitarist or drummer can keep playing, and should keep playing unless they are making a specific statement to drop out. A jamming vocalist needs stay very conscious about taking up too much of the attention and stay sensitive to what the other musicians are doing. If the keyboardist and drummer are getting something going between them, you want to be sure not to step on their toes until the back-and-forth is over.
2) Dealing with lyrics.
How does a vocalist deal with this whole word and lyrics situation? Well if you are a poet, you probably won’t have any trouble. I’ve never considered myself a songwriter or a poet. And I've never really felt that words come easily to me. But this evening, words sort of came out in a stream of consciousness, or as a couple words and then some “Bla-dee-bla-dee-bla” nonsense syllables. I don’t think it really matters if you scat or sing words, but when out pops some funny or thoughtful lyric, people react to it.
3) Think like a horn player.
Play your melody a few times, riff on it a little bit. Then drop out for a while, come back in with some back-up, simple lines with some oooo’s or aaaah’s or back-up vocal type punctuation at the end of phrases. (Think Motown or soul back up singers.) Then come back in with the melody.
4) Don’t be afraid to be dramatic or silly, just don’t over do it.
Make funny voices, sing real low, real high, scream. Just don’t let that be all you do. Save it for special moments.
5) Don’t be shy to use material that isn’t yours or something you’ve been working with on your own.
There’s nothing wrong about quoting someone else. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with bringing in something that you’ve written on your own. You never know what kind of ideas someone else in the circle might bring into the mix that you wouldn’t have thought of. It could make an idea blossom into something bigger the next time you work on it.
6) Milk a good idea, just know when it’s time to move on.
When you get something good going, and the other musicians seem to react well to it, work it. And then when you feel that you’re ready to move on, do it.
The more you jam, the more comfortable you’ll get. You’ll start to get more confident in following your gut and your abilities to make things up on the spot.