Jam Session Notes

“We lost.” – beginner student talking about an apparent upcoming Fail after seeing a presumably more accomplished student unpack a green Les Paul from his guitar case.

2.5 hours and 15 middle-school rock guitarists: An Overview – The significance of the participation of fifteen middle-school aged students playing in the following performance-based, peer-centered, informal group practice (that we musicians call jam sessions) was as varied from jammer to jammer as their individual experience and comfort level within such a dynamic.  In an environment built similar to the previous jam session, students were divided into bands.  Bands of three to four were expected to perform for their peers two pieces – one being a single choice of ten songs presented at the beginning and another being an original creation using a given pair of chords – TWICE: once in one location and another in a different one with different instruments and song selection.

The assumption is that a more authentic learning experience would be created if the students were allowed to choose their own music and be accountable for their own work within a group of their peers and minimum instructor supervision.

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The Setup, And Why They Built A Bonfine

“We lost.”  Of course, it wasn’t a competition.  But to this beginning student holding his practice guitar, seeing a real life Les Paul being unpacked in a basement studio rather than onstage in an arena, indeed from a student who looked half his age (of fourteen) was, to him, the reason why three days ago I was convinced he would only come to take pictures and could not possibly play with people under circumstances of such incredible expertise (contradicting the very process of group learning).  In the end, this beginning student actually won the “competition” in many ways.

The Loudest Applause

The beginner group picked a popular song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Snow” to perform for their peers, many of whom also study that song with me in our private study.  The song is a straight-forward but very fast, impressive sounding lead guitar-oriented piece that these jammers felt a particular connection to by way of a tribute to a friend of theirs**.

And even though their performance sort of crash landed in the end, their fellow students rewarded their efforts – use of a looping pedal and different parts arranged for a rhythm and bass guitar – with a moment of special sincerity when their fellow musicians kicked off an applause that was started by them, not me.

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This group went on in the next round   especially confident  as evidenced by the their bonfire making.  apparently they and even felt like they had extra time to play soccer with the beagle.  A noticeable relaxation of nerves resulted in a mature rendition of “Stand By Me,” another tribute to their friend, that landed smoothly and on time.

Notation Schmotation

Not surprising, throughout the day there was a complete lack of written notation, a resource normally used to help organize or preserve a musical work. Three reasons why written notation wasn’t important to these students (who work weekly with me on both reading and writing in our private studies):

Image1) The informal nature of the collaboration placed more emphasis on social dynamics and imitation.

2) A higher regard for improvisation and playing by ear, and in some cases, simple intuition, lead them towards more organic forms of teaching and learning their parts.

3) A general inability to sight-read – that is to play the instrument without looking at it – negated the advantages of the written resource as a valuable tool when performing live.

A Lack of Notation Revisited

There are enough advantages to being able to read and write music, either in guitar TAB or standard notation, to make it a worthwhile effort in private study.  Arrangements are allowed more complication when numerous parts can be written down and short-term memory resources are freed to allow for others.

Anymore it is not necessary to preserve music by writing it simply because it is no easy to record it for playback using soundcloud or garageband.  Plus, it’s hard to represent complicated rhythmic ideas that way, and much easier to hear them instead.

At My Most Instructive – A Lack Of Instruction

I gave them all my cell phone number amidst jokes that it shouldn’t be trusted with certain people.  I meandered in and out of the groups mostly to prevent them from running out of time, but to answer questions as well and remained on call throughout.

The most common question was “How do we make this better?” meaning, “We really only know the intro to this song and if we just play the intro over and over again it’s gonna be boring so what should we do?”.  The usual solution was to devise a way to split what they know into smaller pieces and build them up slowly by playing little bits of it and passing them around in sections as it grew.  Another group that played “Snow” used this quite interestingly and another with “House of the Rising Sun,” during which the guitarists would trade arpeggios and strum patterns over an improvised solo section.

A Lack of Instruction Revisited

I think next time I will put myself in a rotation to lead band games.  Stay tuned.

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** Tribute to a friend (and former student): http://www.growmoreloving.com/cam-vennard.html

Author: aarondoerr

Owner of Fellow Musician LLC, a small music education business specializing in outreach and private study. I'm guitarist for musical theatre and production assistant at St. Louis Public Radio.

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