“We should jam sometime!”
If you play guitar, you hear this often. I usually don’t even tell people I play guitar (it’s almost like I’m ashamed), but it still comes up eventually in conversation. And if it happens to come up with another guitarist, all too often you’ll be presented with the invitation to jam. If you’re one of the people who hear that and are stricken with fear or disgust, this is for you.
Please note that when I say “musicians” I’m mostly referring to western rock/pop musicians. People that generally play in 3-4 piece bands involving drums, guitars, etc.
Why do I have to share?
Music is fairly unique as an artform, in the sense that sharing is almost demanded. Most other artists (writers, photographers, painters, etc) will certainly share their creations, but at their discretion. They’ll have a portfolio, gallery, blog, or some other self-curated sample of their work for the world to see. And that’s assuming they even want to do so. There are countless people out there creating art just for themselves. Nobody seems to pressure them to share their work with the world. Especially not other artists.
That’s where musicians are different. Musicians always want to hear what other musicians are doing. You have to show off your bandcamp site, or soundcloud tracks or worse yet, perform live. It’s almost as though the only reason someone would play an instrument is to present their playing to the world. Is this being taught in schools and I missed it? Is it a competitive thing? I don’t get it, but while I’m fine presenting my own self-curated collection of sounds to people, I don’t want it to be on-demand. I don’t want to be put on the spot, handed an instrument and expected to perform like a trained seal. And more than anything else, I play because I enjoy it (not because you enjoy it), and more often than not, enjoy playing alone.
Music is less collaborative than you think
Western music has its clearest origins in the church. Those in power dictated which notes could be used, how songs were to be structured, etc. The new Justin Timberlake album sounds like it does because of what the church did ages ago. And as music evolved, a composer took these rules and created songs. That’s one guy, dictating what a group does. Not a group of violin players sitting down and working out how a sonata will go.
In the modern era, so much music is dominated by individuals. The Beatles had 3 strong songwriters, but they wrote songs individually. Some of the greatest names in popular music history are solo acts (Elvis, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince; to name a few). Even when there are multiple names on songwriting credits, it’s usually because one person wrote the song but had others fill in their parts. The Rolling Stones are another great example, where Keith Richards would write the guitar part and come up with a vocal idea, and then hand it over to Mick Jagger to write all the words. That’s two people writing the song, but working separately and alone.
So why do so many musicians not understand this? My hunch is, again, out of competition. If you’re jamming together, you have a chance to size up and show up the competition. You can try to throw another person for a loop with a complex turnaround. Or you can smoke them with your incredibly skillful licks. This sort of thing plays out daily in guitar stores around the globe. The one-upsmanship is what drives guitarists to play faster than anyone else, or louder, or heavier.
Hell is, other people
There are endless articles out there documenting the lives of introverts. Many, dare say, most artists are introverts. It simply gets written off as being “moody” or “reclusive” or even just “artsy.” The truth is, they just prefer the ability to think and process things completely and without distraction. That in depth take on issues is probably what leads to creating abstract work. It’s what allows them to imagine things that don’t yet exist. It’s why they don’t like to present in progress work. And jamming, flies in the face of all of that.
Yes, social interaction is required if you ever want to be known as an artist. But it is not required for creating art. Personally, I do my best songwriting work alone and late at night. There is nothing to get in the way of creating. It’s quiet, it’s calm, there is nothing else to think about. If I’m playing music in a band setting and somebody presents a new song idea, I’ll prefer to take notes and work out my part at home later. I know a lot of people who operate the same way. Sure, something could be thought up on the spot, but it might be less than ideal. The time and stress involved in doing that could be much better spent understanding the song as it was written rather than just jumping in with a reflex-driven idea.
Our musical tastes aren’t the same, probably not even close
This is the one thing that amuses me most about the concept of jamming. If two chefs meet, and one of them is a strict vegan and the other works for a greasy burger joint – they wouldn’t likely be eager to cook for each other. But if you play late 80’s eastern European death metal and I play mid 90’s garage rock… why should we try to bring those sounds together?
Yet most musicians don’t even wait to ask that question. They just discover another person that plays, and assume they want to jam. At least ask the question of what kind of music the person enjoys listening to and performing. If it sounds like there is a match in styles, then pursue further.
No matter what, I’m a jerk… or a hack.
Despite all logic and reason, in the end, the outwardly-focused jammer wins. If you shrug off or flat out deny their request, you’re going to be looked at as a jerk. There’s no nice way to do it. If you try to make up excuses, you’ll probably get tagged as a jerk who can’t play. It’s just assumed that being at all talented involves the ability to collaborate and improvise. The only thing is, everyone assumes there is only one way to do that.
I know jamming has its merits. I’ve done it plenty of times and it can even be fun in the right scenario. I’m not saying it should never happen, but just hoping someone out there can at least understand the perspective of the anti-jammers.