Article by Dean McNeill
IAJE-Canada Article: Etiquette for sitting in
on the bandstand: A topic more important than students might think
Recently I have attended a few jazz jam sessions
in clubs across Western Canada. During these jams it has occurred
to me that many young people sitting in with professional bands
do not know some of the basic musical etiquette commonly observed
by professional musicians in such situations. I am hopeful our
I.A.J.E.-Canada members will feel comfortable passing this article
on to their students who themselves are venturing into the realm
of professional music making.
First let me make a few observations regarding
the various kinds of jam sessions students will likely encounter.
The two extreme ends of the spectrum include the private jam session
and the public jam session.
Professor of Mythology Joseph Campbell would
have likely referred to the private jam session as the creation
of a sacred circle. In such a social situation, no bystanders
are generally present and the music is created for personal artistic
consumption and/or personal pedagogical reasons (as well as for
sheer fun!). This is not the type of jam session I will be focusing
on here. Rather, I am referring to the public jam session often
found in club/restaurant settings where a group of musicians have
been hired and guests are asked to play a few tunes with the band.
In the public jam session, often the intermediate
level jazz musician (a person who has been bitten by the jazz
bug and is seriously working at honing their jazz skills) is keen
to sit in with the professional group. Students in this setting
are at times nervous and usually have the very best of intentions
in mind, learning on the bandstand from more experience players.
While sitting in is a very important part of
the musical mentorship process, knowing the extra-musical 'rules
of the game' often helps all parties involved to have a more successful
social and musical experience.
Below is a list of suggestions which were politely
(and sometimes not so politely) pointed out to me when I was gaining
such experience as a student. I have also included some of my
own thoughts below as well as some input provided by a few colleagues
who are full time professional musicians in large Canadian musical
• Pragmatically Speaking: The vast
majority of employment opportunities in the jazz realm are awarded
on a referral basis system. Establishing a good professional report
on and off the bandstand is very important if one wants to work
in the music business today. Students should become aware of these
musical social graces early on in their career.
• Know your stuff musically: All
points below are moot if a person has not done their musical homework.
It amazes me when people want to sit in yet they do not know any
tunes. Although this article focuses on the social graces intrinsic
to such musical situations, the importance of the following music-specific
items cannot be overstated. Ideally, before students play a tune
in public they should learn the melody in at least in 3 keys and
be able to play it without the aid of any printed music. Students
should know all the chords (and the related scales) of a song,
and again be able to play all chords and scales without the aid
of printed music. Horn players should learn the tune in the standard
key or keys. Vocalists should do their best not to be insistent
on a specific key (i.e. If a student likes to sing a tune in F#
Major, they should also be prepared to sing the tune in least
F or G major as well). All students should listen to various versions
of the tune as played by seasoned players (ideally, transcribing
some music similar to, or the same as, the tune one is learning).
Students should practice improvising over the song often. This
entire process will take quite a while when getting started, therefore
students will need to be patient with themselves. If an individual
wants to have a positive experience (fun!) while sitting in, they
need to understand that musical preparation is the key!
• Do not take music making in public
lightly: (i.e. 'Hey lets just all jam and see what happens').
Remember that the musicians in the band are trying to make a living
playing music. By in large the public (our musical patrons) can
only hear the (singular) sound coming from the bandstand. If a
student is making an otherwise good sounding band sound bad, most
of the audience will only hear the band sounding bad. Students
should not get discouraged however. More often than not professional
musicians and audience members alike will be understanding while
a student is still getting their musical vocabulary together.
However, students need to be as musically prepared as possible
when sitting in and need to realize the real-life ramifications
associated with people listening to them and others perform music
publicly in a club/restaurant.
• Do not select repertoire on the bandstand
as a guest unless invited to do so. It is always best to let
the bandleader decide what song to play next as it is 'their gig'
(the bandleader is always right by the way when it comes to all
such musical decisions). That being said, students should be prepared
to suggest a song or two if given the opportunity. This includes
having a key, style, and tempo selected. It is considered rude
to jump on the bandstand, even as an invited guest, and start
calling tunes/keys/tempos without checking with the bandleader
• The above suggestions may seem to
put the student in a situation of potential conflict. On the
one hand students should be well prepared musically before they
walk onto the professional bandstand as a guest. On the other
hand students should also be respectful of the bandleader's repertoire
choices and their organizational jurisdiction. This then potentially
leads to the following scenario: What if a tune is called by the
bandleader that the student does not know(!)? Fundamentally, both
of the above suggestions are still true and the student should
simply acknowledge this irony and deal with it as best they can.
One solution again is to be as musically prepared as possible
(by learning a lot of standard tunes for one). Another is learning
to play by ear and learning how to figure out tunes on the fly.
These are two very important skills for jazz musicians to develop.
Most professional players will ask students while on the bandstand
"do you know tune X". If a student knows the song, they
are all set. If the student does not know the song, they have
2 options, both of which I would recommend at one point or another
in their musical development:
Option 1: When asked such a question, be
honest and say no. Keep discussing repertoire suggestions
until all agree upon a tune/key/tempo/time signature that the
entire band is comfortable with. Take the time to get it right.
As well, different musical communities sometimes consider different
jazz standards (and related key(s)) as 'standard'. Check the
key of the tune about to be played before starting the tune.
This precaution will avoid the occasional train wreck (i.e.
When various band members start playing the same tune in different
keys!). As well, always talk in concert pitch. When learning
standards to sit in on I would suggest knowing the following
basic repertoire, virtually all of which professionals will
know like the back of their hand. This basic list is by no means
complete or definitive. It is rather, a point of departure:
Autumn Leaves (G-), Stella By Starlight (Bb), 12 Bar Blues (Bb
and F, know some melodies/heads as well), Softly as in a morning's
sunrise (C-), Have you met Miss Jones (F), There will never
be another you (Eb), Green Dolphin Street (C and/or Eb), I Got
Rhythm (Bb, or better yet, a jazz tune based on these chord
changes such as Oleo, Moose the Mooch, etc.), Minor Blues (C-,
I.e. Mr. P.C.), Bird Blues chord progressions, Just Friends
(F and/or C), Solar (C-), and Blue Bossa (C-). Knowing even
a few of the above selections will be enough to get a student
Option 2: Intentionally put yourself on
the spot. The student could say that he/she is willing to
play the tune just called by the band leader however they would
like someone else in the band to play the melody. This puts
the student in a situation where they need to fly by the seat
of their pants (and 'fake it') in order to make the musical
situation work. This is a risky proposition however I have heard
some wonderful musical moments, created by necessity, as a result
of individuals (students and professionals alike) who have found
themselves in this situation. Again students need to prepare,
prepare, prepare. This includes practicing playing by the seat
of their pants. As well, in this situation I would let someone
else take the first solo. This allows the student more time
to hear the song form, bass line, and chord progression before
they play an improvised solo. With both options, students should
try to develop a fair sense of their own current abilities and
limitations while striving to stretch themselves musically.
If this seems like a balancing act, it is.
• Watch the volume: Remember that
jazz music (for better or worse) often serves a function of duality
in the club/restaurant setting. As a craft, the professional musicians
are creating a 'product' (good music) so people will come/stay
in the club and spend their money. As art, the musicians are spontaneously
creating a work of art (good music) for themselves and for others
who are interested in listening to the band. Seldomly are all
individuals in a club interested in listening to the band. This
is not a value statement, it is the way it is. As a guest who
has been asked to sit in, one needs to be respectful of the craft
side of things in these settings as well as (obviously) respecting
art side of things. If a guest plays too loud, the band's singular
sound will be too loud, patrons might ask for their cheque early
and/or might not come into the club in the first place if walking
by. When this happens, the club owner will not be inclined to
hire that band again. Practice playing soft.
• DO NOT PLAY TOO LONG!!! The idea
for this article became apparent when I observed some students
in a club recently play solo after solo, 2-4 times longer than
any solo I would play as a guest musician sitting in. Always leave
them wanting more(!) both in terms of the length of the solo and
the number of tunes one sits in on as a guest. It can be uncomfortable
when a band member invites a guest to come up and play and then,
after a few tunes, the band wants to return to their set however
the guest has overstayed their welcome and will not get off the
bandstand. As well audience members and fellow musicians alike
would more often than not, rather hear a student guest play 2-4
choruses of a well-constructed solo rather than listening to 8-12
choruses of a meandering, wandering solo. Again students need
to be prepared. They need to work at developing a sense of real
time also referred to as 'clock time' while on the bandstand,
especially while improvising. If a student finds their inner dialogue
to include the conversation 'should I play just one more chorus?"…I
would suggest they stop playing.
• Wait to be invited up on stage and
do not take the horn out of the case until then. Such behavior,
often motivated by keenness, is considered rude by most professional
musicians; to walk up on stage uninvited and/or to get ones horn
out or, worse yet, to play a few notes just off stage before being
asked to sit in, is rather presumptuous. I always keep my horn
in the case until I have been called up on stage, even when I
have been invited down to the club to sit in by a band member
earlier in the week. I do this because a lot could have changed
between when I was initially invited and the actual gig.
• Do not abuse the rhythm section.
Generally horn players and vocalists sit in more often than rhythm
section players. Remember that there are a number of people on
the bandstand already. They are not a play-along rhythm track.
Students need to play with the rhythm section. They need to ensure
to include all rhythm section players in the musical process.
Some obvious options/suggestions include trading 4's, trading
choruses, encouraging bass, drum and piano solos, including the
rhythm section in tune selection conversations and so on. If a
tune is getting too long, remember as well that not every person
needs to take an improvised solo on every tune.
• The Safe Bet: To avoid train
wrecks on the bandstand (i.e. when a student ends up playing a
tune poorly for a variety of reasons which could have easily been
avoided) students should talk to a band member, preferably the
bandleader, at a set break. This is also a good time to find out
what tune(s) will be called during the next set. The student can
then choose what tune(s) to play and perhaps more importantly,
what tune(s) not to play if invited onto the bandstand. As well
in such conversations, a person can ascertain the general 'vibe'
on the bandstand and decide whether or not it is a good idea to
sit in at all. 90-99% of the time, professional musicians will
be willing to help out and encourage students (just as others
helped them out when they were younger!). The professionals want
the entire band sound to sound good… their livelihood in
fact depends upon it! More often than not, these professionals
will let the student/guest pick a tune/key/tempo and will let
the student know when in the set, they should come up to play.
• Learn the often-subtle visual and
musical cues professionals use while playing: For example,
make sure to not cut off another musician's solo by starting ones
own solo too soon. The power of observation is very useful in
this regard. Students need to learn when to follow others and
when to take a leadership role on the bandstand as well. For example
when approaching the end of a tune, the person playing the melody
(this includes the guest) needs to take a leadership role via
deciding how to end the tune.
• First impressions are lasting impressions:
When going down to a club with the intension of sitting it, students
should dress appropriately. Ripped jeans will likely project to
the audience and perhaps to the band members, that the student
is not taking the opportunity seriously.
• Watch the noodling: The ability
to play little subtle accompaniment phrases behind another who
is playing/singing the main melody can be a beautiful musical
moment or, if overdone, downright annoying. Students should be
mindful to not over-noodle, to coin a phrase, especially when
playing a ballad. Most bands already have an accompanist or more
(i.e. the drummer, bassist, pianist and/or guitarist, not to mention
the person playing the main melody). When getting started, and
for the sake of musical transparency, I would suggest students
stick with the idea that 'less is more'. When getting started,
stick with playing the main melody and improvising a solo.
• In the most general of terms:
students must always be respectful of the audience and of the
professionals who are giving them this great opportunity to learn
and to express themselves musically.
• Do not get discouraged!!! After reading
the above a few times, the same idea keeps coming back to me.
'Is this article going to discourage students from taking the
plunge and agreeing to sit in?" I sincerely hope not! I,
and the vast majority of others I am certain, will continue to
encourage younger players to sit in on gigs and do what we can
to ensure that the experience will be positive for all. We realize
that for most students, it is no small task to take the plunge
and agree to sit in publicly with professional musicians. It can
be nerve racking and it takes bravery, will power, a great deal
of preparation, and a love for the music to overcome this stressful
aspect of the musical growth process. It is of course, well worth
• If one prepares for such an encounter
and the opportunity to sit in on a given night does not present
itself the time spent preparing was not wasted. Each student's
time to shine will eventually come!!! I've seen this happen too
many times to believe anything else. Be persistent. Keep practicing
and keep listening to the music.
• It gets easier: As one becomes
more and more fluent in the language of jazz, the process of sitting
in gets easier and the related social graces seem to flow more
Sitting in is an important stage of one's musical
growth. Such experiences can be a greatly rewarding, even life-altering
especially in an ideal situation where a student is invited on
stage to play beside one of their musical heroes. I would encourage
all to 'go for it' and to take the plunge when these opportunities
If students follow the above guidelines, they
will likely be invited back as a guest again and again. All parties
involved will have a good time and the student will project a
confident and professional persona both on and off stage.
I sent this article to a few full time Canadian
jazz musician friends of mine whom I have the greatest respect
for, both musically and personally. Their input was insightful
and valuable however I was not able to incorporate all their suggestions
here. I would invite our IAJE-Canada membership to respond via
the Jazz Bulletin as they see fit.
Dean McNeill is Head of the Department
of Music at the University of Saskatchewan. Canadian trumpeter/composer
Dean McNeill holds degrees in jazz studies from the University
of North Texas (Masters), McGill University (Undergraduate),
and Grant McEwan College (Music Diploma). Currently he plays
with the Metro Jazz Ensemble, The Saskatchewan Brass Quintet,
and the Saskatoon Symphony. His trumpet teachers include, Bill
Dimmer (Edmonton Symphony), Kevin Dean (McGill University),
Real Mathew (McGill University), Garry Guthman (British Columbia),
and Keith Johnson (University of North Texas).
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