What’s your biggest fear about jamming? Recently we asked you on social media to share what makes you feel nervous about jamming. You gave us lots of wonderfully candid responses, including:

  • Not knowing the jam etiquette of a particular genre
  • Not playing as well as I do during my practice
  • Being asked to play a tune I don’t know
  • Playing with a group better than myself and then taking a lead and making a mistake
  • Messing up or not playing something cool enough
  • Trying to remember lyrics
  • Performance anxiety coupled with shyness
  • Bad intonation or playing wrong notes
  • Ruining the jam for everyone else
  • Not having sheet music
  • Doing fills
  • Improvising

Relate to any of those?

Before we jump into the specifics of these jam fears, I just want you to recognize that you’re not alone in feeling however you feel about jam sessions. Jams require you to put yourself out there, be vulnerable, and accept imperfections. Those characteristics can make jamming feel like a challenge sometimes, but those elements are also one reason I love jamming so much: it’s an opportunity for us to create deeper connection with each other and share in the creative process (which is never perfect). With those priorities in mind, let’s talk more about some of those fears listed above and look at some potential tools to help you feel more comfortable and confident at your next jam session. Read Part 2 of this article here.

“I’m afraid I don’t know the jam etiquette of this genre.”

Every style of music has its own particular jam etiquette. At some jams, you’ll see people reading music, while at others, everyone plays from memory. Sometimes jams will pass tunes from one person to another, while others will spotlight one musician for many tunes in a row. If you want a basic primer on  jam session etiquette in the fiddle world, check out our blog post where we break down three of the most common types of jams.

In general, there are a few rules of thumb that will keep you on any jam’s good side.

  1. Listen before you join. Whatever the type of jam, it’s always helpful to listen to at least a tune or two before asking to join. That way, you can get a feel for what the jam is like, assess if it’s the right level for you, and settle in before joining.
  2. If it’s a jam that’s been publicized and people have already been invited to participate, you can join after listening by asking one of the participants something like, “Mind if I jump in?”
  3. If it’s a jam that you haven’t yet been invited to join, you can often expect for the jammers to ask you to join after you’ve been hanging out and listening for a while (if they’re open to adding more people.)
  4. If you’d like to ask someone if you can join their jam, be sure that you assess the level first and note if it’s right for you. If it feels too advanced, sit this one out and enjoy listening. If it feels like it’s an appropriate level for you to join, you can politely ask between songs, “Hey, do you mind if I join you or are you keeping it small?” This gives the jammers an opportunity to invite you in or to gently decline if they’re intentionally having a smaller jam.
  5. Keep a close eye on what the more seasoned jammers are doing. When they call a song, do they also share the key and the form? When someone takes a solo, how long is it? When someone is doing fills or singing, how do the other jammers respond? Just by watching and mimicking the behavior of the other folks in the jam, you can pick up on a lot of jam etiquette. In general, I try to find the most experienced person in the jam and copy them. As you get the lay of the land at a new jam session, blending in is a good thing.

“I’m afraid I won’t play as well as I do during my practice.”

Practicing and jamming are two different skill sets. When you practice, you’re in a very controlled environment. During practice, you’re probably at home in a comfy chair, going through the same routine that you do every time you practice. If you make a mistake, you probably let yourself go back and fix it (hopefully!) You’re constantly thinking about what you can improve, then working to do so.

But when the time to jam comes, even though you’re playing the same tunes that you’ve practiced so many times, your brain perceives events very differently. You’re probably in a less familiar space, playing tunes in a different order and tempo than you normally do. If you make a mistake, there’s no going back. All of these sudden changes combined can overload your brain and make it feel like you’ve never played fiddle before—because biologically, you are doing something totally new when you break out of your practice routine. Here are a couple suggestions for how to train your brain to be more prepared in a jam setting:

  1. Change up your practice routine. Try playing your tunes in a different order, practicing your B part before your A part, standing up when you normally sit down, putting away sheet music that you’ve been using as a crutch, trying things at a slower or faster tempo for a bit, or anything else you can think of to switch things up. When you introduce novelty into your practice routine, not only will you be more prepared to jam, but you’ll make faster, more permanent progress in all areas of your playing. Keep it fresh!
  2. Practice playing all the way through your tunes as if you’re performing them every time you practice. This is what we call “Action Time” in Fiddle School: the portion of your practice when you put on your game face and practice playing your tunes like you want to play them in a jam or performance. This means using back-up tracks, recovering from mistakes instead of stopping, and playing them at the tempo where you plan to perform them. When you practice, you can’t just focus on the tiny details the whole time. You’ve got to take the detailed work you’ve done on your technique, intonation, bowing and more and bring it into the big picture.During action time, you’re not focused on getting every little element just right. You’re focused on connecting to the groove and feeling of the music as you play the whole song. These skills are what will allow you to navigate gracefully and confidently through your tunes at a jam session or other performance.

“I’m afraid of being asked to play a tune I don’t know.”

Imagine this scenario: you’re at a jam, surrounded by awesome musicians playing a cool tune you’ve never heard. Suddenly, one of them nods at you to take the next solo. But—gasp—you don’t know this song! What can you do?

The most obvious option here is to give a firm shake of the head and pass it on to the next person, and that’s always okay. If you don’t know a tune’s chords or melody, that’s often the best choice. But ideally, as you get more comfortable jamming, you can acquire the skills it takes to figure out a tune’s key, chords, and maybe even the basic melody on the fly. Those aren’t things that you’re born knowing how to do, so if you can’t do that yet, don’t worry. These are skills you can learn.

In fact, Katie hosted a webinar specifically designed to help you feel more comfortable jumping into unfamiliar tunes on the fly. Check out our Jamming Skills webinar (available anytime) to begin building your confidence for next time you’re in a jam and somebody calls a tune you don’t know very well.

“I’m afraid of playing with a group better than myself and then making a mistake.”

One of the most common fears about playing an instrument is that you’ll be judged. All the fears that we carry with us about not being good enough can come right to the surface when we open ourselves up and play in public. But although it’s an uncomfortable feeling, that fear is showing you that you’re stepping out of your comfort zone and pushing yourself to a new level of ability—both wonderful things. So first of all, when you feel the fear, remind yourself that it’s an indicator that you’re doing something that’s helping you grow. Kudos to you.

Secondly, it’s a really cool opportunity to be able to play with people more advanced than you are. Everything I learned on my instrument, I learned by playing with and listening to generous people who were (and are) more advanced than I. If you’re invited to jam with people above your level, take that chance! They were all beginners once and they all definitely make mistakes. Most folks will be gentle and welcoming. If they’re not, move on and find a jam that fits you better. Either way, you win.

“I’m afraid of messing up or not playing something cool enough.”

Mistakes are part of music. There is no musician who plays mistake-free, no matter what people tell you. The best musicians do know how to move through mistakes gracefully and even make them into something awesome, though, and you can do that too.

Instead of watching yourself from an outside perspective when you’re jamming (“Oof, I bet they heard that flat note… I wonder if they like my version of this song?”), try focusing on being present in your own experience and cultivating a supportive inner voice. If you’re having fun and simply enjoying the act of making music, the people playing with you and listening to you are going to really enjoy it too.

Stay tuned for our next blog post when we talk about the rest of these jamming worries and how to overcome them. In the meantime, go find a jam! Happy fiddling.