Notes on Jam Session Etiquette for Singers

Natalie Performance Techniques, Uncategorized 1 Comment

Hello reader,

My postings on my website have this far been oriented towards keeping you updated on my performances and CD release; from now on I will strive to combine postings of such nature with postings on broader musical topics and recent observations I’ve made of the current music scene. Today I will share with you a bit of my  experience as a jazz educator thus far (this is a very new and exciting endeavor for me!)

I wrote up these notes for a vocal jazz clinic I taught alongside Ingrid Jensen for some talented adolescents coming to NYC from rural British Columbia on a school music trip.  My thoughts and musings are as follows; all are what I’ve learned from my own experiences trying to sit in on competitive sessions in NYC.

How to show up at a jam session and sing some jazz!

1. Get your list of tunes together.
-It’s good to have somewhere between 5 and 10 songs committed to memory that range from well known standards (Bye Bye Blackbird, Autumn Leaves) to more adventurous selections (You Don’t Know What Love Is, All of Nothing at All).
-Know what key you like to sing your songs in! The rhythm section (usually represented by the pianist or guitarist) will most likely ask your preference, so accept the invitation to sing in the key most comfortable for you.
-If you are playing with less experienced players who don’t transpose on the spot (or just don’t know the song you have your heart set on) bring a simple lead sheet with the song written in your key (see attached example).
2. Pick a program-appropriate tune to sing. When it’s your turn to get up (depending on how rigid the schedule is, you may not get a choice when you get to sing!) it’s a good idea to pick a tune from your prepared list that’s contrasting to the previous tune. This keeps the night varied, exciting and ensures your appearance keeps listeners engaged.
3. Stretch the limits of the tune. You don’t always have to play Body and Soul as a ballad. Call it as a medium blues shuffle if you feel like you (and the musician in the band) play strongly in that style, and as noted above, its appropriate for the given set list programming.
4. Counting a tune in should be strong. Hear the tempo you want in your head and feel the tempo by snapping your fingers before you start counting 1,2,3,4…
-My trick that always ensures that it’s the tempo that I want to sing in: Think of the hardest, fastest passage from the melody and hear it in your head. Take the tempo directly from there. Somehow this prevents a too-fast or too-slow count off.
5. Taking an improvised solo isn’t necessary if you don’t feel comfortable scatting in a new environment, but if you do, step up and take the first solo after you sing the melody or else a sax player may cut you off unknowingly before you get a chance to start!
6. Song endings at jam session are classic noodle-fests for horn players that get really tedious, especially when every tune ends the same way… Take the opportunity to direct an assertive ending with a tag (*to be discussed) and/or a directed slow down and fermata (*also another discussion). Everyone will thank you for it (if not silently) and you will have contributed an extra bit of class to the bandstand.
5. Sometimes there are jam sessions specifically for vocalists; sometimes you’re the only one in a sea of horn players. Either way, confidence and preparedness are key! With these two tools, you are immune to any vibes that anybody, vocalists or instrumentalists, will throw your way.

*other tips*
-Before the set, introduce yourself to the jam session leader as a willing participant, so they can plan you into the programming of the session.
-Come prepared with your own microphone when you’re not sure if the session will be properly equipped. Standard microphone is the Shure SM-58. Don’t forget a transformer/adapter (in case the club/room doesn’t have a PA and the guitarist/electric keyboardist has an available input into their amplifier).
-Keep your eyes and ears open! Yes, you’re singing the melody, but there’s a ton of interactive things happening on the bandstand that if you are conscious of them, you can too participate in shaping the on-the-spot song arrangement and bring the music to a higher level (often unexpected of the vocalist, and always impressive!)
-Always bring business cards and/or some sort of promotional flyer or demo to the session in case a spectator or fellow musician expresses interest in your voice and music. Don’t promote yourself ad nauseum when talking to musicians after your appearance, but with a friendly demeanor, make sure they know how to contact you in the future. I’ve met many musicians at open (and closed) sessions that I’ve kept in touch with, and sometimes paid gigs and other musical opportunities have resulted from these networking strategies.

Comments 1

  1. k.d. nash

    I’m new to the whole jam session thing, actually I’m pretty much to the whole scene–this is infinitely helpful. My palms get all sweaty when I think of asserting myself to a band I’ve never met…keeping these things im mind will certainly boost my confidence. And your music is absolutely beautiful, as is your voice! Inspiring. If you ever hold auditions for a backup singer I shall be there!


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