While there are wonderful performances at Blue Skies' workshops and mainstage shows, some of the most memorable musical moments take place at the informal jam sessions. They happen at the fire pits, under campers' canopies, or anywhere someone settles down to play music.
It is easy to find yourself listening and participating in such terrific music that you decide there is no point in going to the organized festival performances.
How to Join a Jam
- Wander around the camping area with or without a musical instrument until you come across people playing music you like.
- If it is obviously a public firepit and there are places to sit, sit down. If it seems more private, like someone's campsite, stand close by, listen and smile. If you're able to quietly join in, do so. [Hang out even if someone you think is a huge star is at this jam. If they're playing Blue Skies, they don't think they're a big star.]
- When the first or second song ends, someone will almost certainly invite you to join the circle. Don't be shy. Let them make room for you. Sit down.
- Ask if you need to know what key is being played and nobody is saying it before the song starts. If they don't know, they are probably playing in G or D.
- You may have joined a circle where one person is playing song after song. This could be because it is someone really good that everyone wants to hear, or it could be that you've sat yourself down where some narcissist can't let someone else lead a song. Nobody will mind if you move on after a few songs if you are not into the scene.
- If songs are being rotated around, before long people will look at you and ask for a song. If you're not a singer, you should pick a song that at least one person will know all the words to. If you're a singer and not an instrumentalist, you probably won't get asked to lead a song, but if you do, pick a familiar one that you sing in the standard key that guitar players use for the song. With any luck, one of them can tell the others the chords to play. If you sing and play, you can do anything you want, but you'll get the best reception if the song doesn't have lots of weird chords, key changes, or time signature changes.
- If they ask you to do another and you've got one, go ahead; if they ask for a third song and you've got one, go ahead. But if they ask for a fourth song, suggest that you'd like to accompany someone else. Because guaranteed there is someone not suggesting you do another song who would like to lead one.
How to Host a Jam
I never thought I'd host a jam, but a few years ago, Dave T and I had a bunch of chairs under the gazebo at our camping site. I brought out my horn and started to play some songs I have music for. Dave brought out his accordion and joined in. Then these guys with guitars stopped by and started playing with us. Then along came Bob Stark who was in Ontario for the weekend. Before long we had a bunch of our favourite folk musicians playing music with us. We kept looking at each other with disbelieving looks.
- Either by yourself, or with a friend or two, start playing music somewhere that others can join. If you're at your campsite, it doesn't hurt to have a few empty chairs.
- Play whatever you like.
- When someone stops and listen, invite them to sit down with you. You can do this when a song ends, or one of you who isn't singing can take a few bars rest to do the inviting.
- If your new guest or guests seem comfortable, ask if they have something they'd like to play.
- If a guest keeps playing songs and you're not into it, do a polite redirect when you've had enough. Example: "Fred, that last song reminds me of that song you do about pirates. How does that go?"
- Do what you can so people know the keys being played and the chord progressions of the songs.
How to Jam with a Wind Instrument
Sheet music: You probably learned to read sheet music and can barely play by ear at all. Also, you can't sing while you play your instrument. So bring some sheet music of songs people likely know so that you can play melody sometimes. Book of solos with chord notations for piano or guitar are not hard to find.
The Key: Traditional folk instruments, like the guitar, fiddle, accordion, stand-up bass, mandolin and ukulele are concert key instruments. When someone says the song is in G, that's the song it is in for them. But if you're playing a B-flat clarinet or trumpet, you're in D; if you're playing an E-flat horn or saxophone, you're in A. Learn the trick for transposing the concert key into the key you play. There will invariably be someone there with a concert instrument who will want to get into a discussion about which way the transposition works. Do not get sucked into this. It is only a road to confusion. Just repeat, "tell me your key and I'll figure out mine," until they leave you alone and tell you what you need to know.
Playing by Ear: Once you know the key, figure out what the 1-, 4- and 5-chords will be. Or at least, figure out what the 1st, 4th and 5th of the key is. Most folk songs, like most rock songs, and most church hymns, use only those three chords. (If this doesn't mean anything to you: in C-major, C is the 1st, F is the 4th and G is the 5th. It's like counting floors in a building where the name of the key is the first floor.) When you don't know what note to play, try the 5th because it is in both the 1-chord and the 5-chord. If it sounds wrong, slur up or down a note in the key you're playing in. This will bring you to a note in the 4-chord and if you did it quickly enough, and everybody else really is in the 4-chord, it will sound like you did a fancy grace note. Before long, you will get a feel for what notes work best at different parts of the song and will be able to start doing things like rhythm riffs, and cute little runs. Maybe you'll even find you can play the tune without sheet music.