10 reasons jamming will make you better

Playing with other musicians is a great way to improve on any instrument. Here are 10 reasons why you should make jamming a priority and part of your practice. 


You practice listening

When you play with a group, there are several different things you can practice listening to. Sometimes it can be really fun to listen to yourself, but it's incredibly important to develop your ears so you can listen to several things at one time. Jamming forces you to open your ears enough to at least hear the beat and play in tempo with other people. That's the first basic step. Then you can actively pay attention to other things in order to develop your listening skills.

Here's some things to listen to:

  • Yourself
  • Your "inner ear" (melodies or chords you want to play)
  • any of the other instruments
  • chords
  • melodies
  • tempo
  • different rhythms

It makes you a better improviser

In a jam setting, you'll hear melodies that you've never heard before, and you'll probably hear them several times in one night. The cool thing about improvisational music such as bluegrass or jazz is that there is a common vocabulary. All of us banjo players have studied Earl Scruggs, so we're going to play a lot of similar stuff if we're playing straight forward bluegrass. It may be played with a different touch or intention, but the essential vocabulary will still be present. 

As you get familiar with the different songs played at jam sessions, you'll notice the many commonalities between them, and you'll begin to intuitively mix and match some of the vocabulary. An Earl lick in Worried Man Blues may work great in Foggy Mountain Breakdown! 

The more that you actively listen to what other people are playing, the more you will learn about what you like/dislike, and the more prepared you'll be for creating your own vocabulary, and ultimately forging your voice as an artist and improvisor.

It helps you see and choose what you need to work on

I like to use jam sessions as a time for me to play, have a really great time, but also make mental notes of things I need to work on. It's often very eye opening to play with people. As you have probably noticed, you play different in front of your teacher than you do by yourself, or in a jam, or on stage. 

Taking note of what feels funny in a jam setting helps prepare you for a more important setting, such as a performance.

It helps you become a better performer

Getting comfortable playing in front of people at a jam is a great way to prepare yourself for performing on stage. There is less pressure, and you can imagine yourself playing a live performance easier than just practicing in front of a mirror or no one. 

You learn jam etiquette/vocabulary

There's a unique etiquette that goes along with the jam territory. It differs now and then, depending on the jam, but for the most part it's the same. For example, everyone gets a chance to pick a song to play. You're not obligated to do so, but the opportunity is there. Also, you'll be able to watch people as they lead songs.

Do they communicate when it's time for a solo, or time for the chorus? What do they do? Nod their head? Say something?

Musicians speak to communicate different song forms or chords to each other using standard vocabulary such as "A section" or "verse" or "chorus". It's beneficial to start hearing these words and associating them with the songs you are playing, so you can be a better song leader when it's your turn.

You learn songs and tunes

There are going to be musicians at the session that you don't know, and they are going to have their own set of songs they enjoy playing. By merely listening and figuring out the chords, you're developing the foundation of learning songs on the fly faster.

If you really like a specific song someone plays, don't be afraid to ask the name of it. Learn it and ask to start it at the next jam.

Some people will actually record songs that they like, so they can learn them later. This, and making a list of songs to learn, are both great things to do. The more songs and tunes you know, the more fun you'll have, and you can more readily practice improvisation over them.

You meet other musicians

There is bound to be another musician or two right at your skill level at pretty much any jam session. They probably have similar questions and a similar repertoire to you, and are just as eager to learn. Making friends with others at your level is fantastic for many reasons, but one being because there can be a friendly competitiveness that can drive you to learn things quicker and better. You want to keep up with your friends, and they want to keep up with you. 

It challenges you

Jamming gets you out of your comfort zone in many ways. Playing in front of people, improvising, playing on songs you don't know, etc. It's all great, and it's totally fine if you don't sound good. Generally people don't care. If you are fun to hang out with, don't have an ego, and you are looking to learn, the more experienced musicians will usually share their knowledge. 

Remember that you are there to learn, and be challenged, and if you don't sound good, there will always be another jam session for you to practice at.

You get to test out what you've been practicing

Let loose and take chances. You are not performing. You're at the session to have fun, learn, and try things out. When it's your turn to pick a song, choose one you are working on and take the lead on it. Take mental notes of what went well, and what didn't, and be sure to practice them after the session :). 

It positively reinforces your practice

Playing music is fun by yourself, but it is so much more fun when you are interacting with one or more people. By enjoying music, and by enjoying what you are playing, you are positively reinforcing the fact that you play music. You're having fun, which is due to all of those "hard" hours of practice you've put in. 

Practice is essential because it allows you to relax, let your creative energies flow, and have a great time when playing with others.


Do you have any reasons to add to the list? I'd love to hear it in the comment section below!  

Also, if you liked this post, share it with your friends! I want to help as many musicians as I can, and with your help, we can succeed in doing so. 

Transcription - why is it essential for musical growth?

Above all else, transcribing music is the best thing you can do to improve. This is true for any type of musician in any genre, but especially important for those interested in improvisation. There is absolutely no way for you to be able to truly improvise unless you've transcribed. 

Note: The word "transcribe" as used in this post means to listen to and learn, as opposed to reading and learning. Sorry for any confusion.

Why is transcription such a big deal?

You learn vocabulary, technique, rhythm, theory, and most importantly, you get to examine and hear a musician at a level that just can't be acheived by using standard notation or tablature. I'll get into that in a bit, but first let me explain the other benefits.

Vocabulary

You can directly equate learning music to learning a language, and I’m sure you’ve heard people compare the two. Say you’re learning Italian. If you needed to learn Italian as fast as possible, what would you do? Buy a book, or buy a ticket to Italy? 

When you are in another country learning a language, you’re forced to listen intently to what people are saying to pick up the dialect, vocabulary, and tense of the phrases and words. You also pick up gestures and slang unique to particular regions. This can be compared to going to a jam session or concert. As your listening develops, you’ll actually hear a common vocabulary among players. You’ll hear how they construct their phrases, and how they communicate via their instrument. Just like in speaking, every musician has their own unique tone, volume, phrasing, and ideas. 

Also, when at a performance or jam, all of your senses can be engaged - and this is huge. Playing music is an experience, and when you are engaged in the process of transcription, or even just listening for that matter, you are living the music, and that is so important for connecting the dots of how to play an instrument at a high level.  

The fastest way to learn anything is by the process of immersion. That is how the best musicians get so damn good at what they do. They’ve spent a whole lot of time with music in their ears - in bars, at jam sessions, with friends, and listening to records.

Technique

Technique is tied into vocabulary, but is a more physical experience than mental. When you’re working on your physicality as a musician, what you do with your hands absolutely needs to correspond with what you are hearing in your head. As you transcribe a piece of music, you’re hearing notes from the recording and figuring out different ways to play them on your instrument. If a passage is difficult because of rhythm, or speed, you need improvement in that area of your playing. Transcription allows you to simultaneously enhance your technical chops while improving upon your vocabulary. 

Rhythm

When I teach transcription, I tell my students to first transcribe the song or lick they’re interested in, then play along with the recording. This will install aspects of the phrase in your playing, and will improve your ability to hear and improvise in time.

Try to “lock in” as best you can, and if you can’t play a particular passage up to speed, take time to work it up. Playing along with the recording is so crucial to learning because you’ll learn how a certain musician phrases and places the notes in time, and learn how to execute complicated rhythms by learning how a musician phrases, as opposed to learning rhythm with a book. You may notice that some musicians will play behind the beat, and some will play before it. Their phrasing may be choppy and rhythmic, or they might play longer and smoother melodies. 

Noticing and analyzing what a particular musician is doing is great as you listen to the music and reflect on it, but transcribing and playing along is the kind of practice that will show you real improvement.

Theory 

A great way to learn theory is to listen to music, figure out what a soloist is doing, write it down, and analyze. You’ll learn so much more that simply reading about stuff out of a theory book because you’ll hear the solo in context. Where did the soloist place those notes? Why am I attracted to the solo? What is the relationship between the chords and notes being played? 

After asking any of these questions, you can investigate the answers in a theory book or ask a teacher, and you can start to utilize some of what you’ve learned in different keys. It’s great to learn a solo, then practice playing it in all 12 keys. You’ll truly master that solo, and you’ll have a whole new appreciation and understanding of what is going on in keys you don’t normally play in. 

Deep Listening

Transcription allows you to put a musician’s playing under the microscope so you can learn about his or her’s style and vocabulary. But ultimately you get to know the musician at a level which is inaccessible using tab or sheet music. 

Sheet music/tab learning = eye based learning 

Transcription = ear based learning 

Which do you think is better for learning music?

For me, to transcribe is to step into the musician’s shoes and feel and hear what he or she is communicating or feeling. I feel like I'm getting more intimate with the musician every time I hear or play a solo I’ve learned, and I feel like I'm gaining a deeper understanding of what that particular style of music means to me. 

The reason I believe this is because to become a great musician, you need to transcribe, which means listening to single recordings hundreds of times. Each time you listen to that individual recording, you’re picking up something from it. You may not be conscious of it, but your mind is getting better at "hearing between the lines”. 

It allows you to hear stylistic nuances which are impossible to identify when learning from a source other than the recording. This is HUGE! These nuances, which can be pretty much anything depending on the recording, combined with other solos you’ve learned, will shape your unique voice. This quote pretty much sums it up - “God is in the details.” 


So put down your sheet music or tab, go to your computer, tape player, turn table, etc., and just transcribe. There may be resistance, but once you start, it’ll feel great, and you’ll be a better musician for it. Set goals for yourself, and follow through. It’s important to make transcription a priority in your practice routine. It usually takes a little longer than technical practice, so set aside a little bit extra time, and BE PATIENT. Good luck!

Share your transcription tips in the comment section below!