Playing Music with an Open Mind

Playing bass

Photo by Rolf Lübke

Playing music is a curious thing. We excite at the opportunity to play with and for other people. We look forward to it, prepare for it, take pleasure in it, and enjoy the feeling of making music together. Sounds perfect, right? Well, the funny thing is that the more you play in a “formal” scenario (such as a gig or rehearsal), the stranger it is to get together with people to just play music.

There’s an interesting life-cycle when it comes to being a musician. Everyone starts out at the same place… awkwardly holding an instrument that they’re intrigued by but don’t know how to use. Eventually we learn how it works, we take a few lessons or figure things out on our own, and ultimately end up getting together with people to jam. So here we are, a few people in a room, trying to figure out what to do. As a younger player, you find an easy place to jump in. You may only know a few tunes, so everyone starts to play “Sunshine of Your Love,” a 12-bar blues, or a two chord vamp. Sweet.

As time goes on, you practice more, do a few gigs, learn new licks, and have far more musical knowledge and ability. If you decide to officially study music and make it your profession, most of the time you spend playing with a purpose. You practice the songs and techniques, learn the theory and history, and hopefully find yourself on a bunch of different gigs. Suddenly, you realize that the only time you get together with people to play is when you have to work on something. So much for the days of hour long Cream tunes.

Then, one day, you get a call from a friend who wants to get together to jam. Okay, you can do this. You don’t know what you’re going to play, nor do you know the other players well, but you figure you give it a shot. I mean, after all, you play bass, and every jam session needs a bass player.

The day finally arrives. Time to jam. You still have no idea what to do, and “Sunshine” is definitely not cool anymore. You’ve been to open jam sessions at clubs, but this is something entirely different. After you set up your gear, you realize that this is your opportunity to let down your guard, to rely on your creativity, and to truly play.

Believe it or not, this is much easier said than done. When it comes to playing music, much of what we learn has to do with structure. We follow the structure of a song, we comply with the methods of our teachers, and we follow the bandleader on a gig. Without any kind of structure, we are at the same time liberated by the freedom of playing and inhibited by our reliance on knowing what to do. Somehow, you feel both excited and self-conscious about your potential to create.

On a good day, jamming comes easy. The drummer noodles around and kicks off a quiet groove, you join in, and the guitar player follows. Perhaps someone starts playing a familiar lick and it morphs into a song, other times you follow a blues progression, and sometimes you just hang on the one. You’re not watching the clock, there’s no specific “audience” hanging on your every note, and the temperature in the room is just right. Everyone connects, the music flows, and it’s like magic—communication on a different level.

On a not-so-good day, jamming can be awkward. There may be long periods of silence, conversation about the weather, many fumbles and a few failed attempts. The room seems sterile, everyone is guarded, and it’s possible that one or two bad apples have spoiled the bunch. This scenario is certainly not as much fun as you thought.

So how do we get to that happy place? The room where the temperature is a perfect 70 degrees, there’s a slight breeze, and everyone plays nice and gets along?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer.

What I can say is that there are many forces at work, some of which are indefinable. The players are important, and whether they’re good friends or playing together for the first time, they need to communicate and feel the music on the same level. Grooving together is essential, as is listening to each other and respecting one another’s playing.

Hopefully, whatever space you pick will be relaxed enough to cultivate a low-key and creative vibe. If the jam space doesn’t feel good, or sound good, then the players may be put off from the get-go. For instance, based purely on the rules of physics, putting a bunch of people in a small space will result in a cramped, hot, and stinky dungeon that people can’t wait to escape from. If you happen to gather in a room that’s usually used for “formal” rehearsals, it will likely reek of professionalism. The addition of incense and peppermints won’t conceal the music stands looming in the corner and the jam may feel more like a professional get-together than a time for creativity. Finding the proper room chemistry may be just as important as finding the right player chemistry, and yet neither of those compare to the greatest factor of all, the mindset of the players.

Opening up musically is no easy thing to do, especially when you’re dealing with a group of “pro” players who are usually called to show up, music prepared, ready to rehearse. Getting back to the good ol’ days where you don’t have to worry about how you play, just what you play, can be particularly difficult to do. Some people have complete confidence in their abilities, and are ready and willing to set up and play. Others have the dreaded devil sitting on their shoulder, questioning their decisions and whispering nasty nothings to the tune of “what are you doing here?” Most people fall somewhere in between, where they admit to their strengths in a jam as well as their weaknesses.

There’s no tried and true method to help you be a better jammer, but what I can advise is pretty simple: take it easy on yourself. Don’t get too worked up about what you can play and what you can’t, just be aware of the music. If you happen to hit a wrong note or fail to connect with the drummer, the note will quickly disappear and you can change the groove. Give yourself permission to ask a question about the chords and be able to quickly forget your mistakes. People have many tricks and tools to help them open up but everyone is striving for the same thing: to explore while being free from perfection and judgment. Listen with big ears, follow when someone calls a tune, and lead when you hear the music moving in a certain direction. The best moments happen when everyone is smiling; surprise yourself, surprise the other players, and enjoy the act of making music.

How about you? How do you open yourself up, musically speaking? Please share your insights and experiences with all of us in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. I have found a great piece of Gear called the JamHub. This makes an impromptu jam session easy. You can play anywhere, anytime and never have to worry about noise or room for amps. It can be almost completely silent (to the outside) if you have electronic drums. If not the drums and the vocals will be the only thing the outside world hears. Everyone else can make there own mix and hear exactly what they need to hear from each musician. Very clean raw recording high quality audio that can be recorded on the spot. (If you have the tour bus model).

  2. I’m studying a music degree and this year I picked a free improv elective for one of my subjects. Best thing I’ve ever done; it was so liberating to play without any charts or predetermined direction. All I can weigh in and say is: do it more if you want to get comfortable with it, just like anything else, practice, practice, practice and never let mistakes get the better of you. Those times where everyone locks into the same headspace and everything sounds great are well worth all the times that it doesn’t happen.

  3. Playing bass has opened musical opportunities never afforded to many guitarists that I’ve known and played with. Becoming a bass player has forced me to become more open to music and put me in more environments to explore.

  4. Some of the most incredible music I have ever heard has emanated from my living room when a couple of people are just sitting around chatting and jamming

  5. So true, Ryan. Optimism, positive mindset, ego-less encouragement of self and others; like ingredients in a pie, they can come together and make a tasty dish. Even if someone else in the jam room is frying, you can experience that musical ‘ahhh’. I do a lot of ‘for fun’ playing, and there are times when it is a very high and satisfying experience. The music ends, and people just look at each other and go whaaa? Conversely, I’ve never been able to even play in a music store. Hmmm. Another great article.