Author: Campbell, Bruce

Beginnings...and Endings..

Donít worry, this is not a serious piece about serious matters. The beginnings and endings Iím referring to are for songs (or tunes, since bluegrass people make a stark distinction between the two).

I have written before about the importance of crisp beginnings and endings in performing music. The philosophy applies not only to songs, but instrumental breaks on a micro level and setlists on a macro level.

However, at a jam, these guidelines surely donít apply, for a number of reasons. In a jam, songs (or tunes) donít always launch neatly. Sometimes, they lurch and burble their way into existence, as everyone taps into the groove. Similarly, a song in a jam may end in an indistinct manner Ė it may dribble off into silence, or crash into nothingness with a sound akin to a drawer full of cutlery being dropped onto a kitchen floor. None of this matters of course Ė unlike an onstage musical performance, with a jam, itís the middle that is the most fun. (The exception is when everyone nails a Jimmy Martin-style hard stop to a song Ė thatís glorious.)

For folks who jam more often than they perform, this can lead to some interesting challenges. Some jammers are never the person who does the cool intro, or the classic tag ending. They prefer to hop on board the rhythm once itís established, and will choose to drop out just before the song crashes altogether. No harm, no foul.

Sometimes, however, these folks will find themselves in a situation where they are expected to begin or end the song, and then it can get weird. Some jams have an unspoken etiquette wherein the caller of the tune (or song) in the circle will launch the song, nod at the appointed soloists as they see fit (rather than just working around the circle in one direction or the other, and end the song when itís time to do so.

More than once, I have had a panic-stricken jammer look at me with wide eyes and mouth ďI donít know how to end this!Ē at me, imploringly. When in doubt, remember the two most important universal symbols in jamming Ė the twirl and the leg lift.

The twirl is a circular motion done with a finger (if you can spare it), or a headstock, or even a chin, and it indicates the last passage will repeat and the song will end. Itís advance warning to the whole circle of the impending end.

The leg list is even more common Ė when you want to end a song, you lift one leg. You donít have to look like a Dalmatian at a fire hydrant Ė it just has to be a obvious intentional act, and should be held long enough for everyone to spot it, and that will herald the end of the song.

So, now you know how to end a song. How do you know when to end a song? Basic rule Ė when you or someone else gets sick of it. With songs, it gets a little less bluegrass-like when youíre repeating verses a bunch of times, or tripling up on solos to extend a song. If itís a red hot groove, yeah, stretch it a bit, but once everyone has tore it up twice, itís time to end it.

Posted:  5/1/2013

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