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This series of articles is written with the beginner and intermediate level performer in mind. It is also written primarily for musicians that play instruments and sing during their performance. However, with a little imagination these principles can be applied to public speaking, teaching or reading poetry. These suggestions are by no means original. Many of them come from more seasoned performers of music and other arts who I cite whenever possible.

Song Swaps and Jams

Did you ever witness or participate in a Song Swap or a Jam at a festival, party or other event? These are unique performance opportunities that have their own special etiquette requirements.

First, you need to ascertain whether the event is a song swap, jam session or hybrid of the two. If you understand how the pure song swap and pure jam are different from each other and require different behavior then you can figure out how to deal with either or with situations that are a combination of the two. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules. Letís not become Song Swap Nazis. Each situation is unique. Still, here are some observations and guidelines worth consideration.

Song Swaps

The classic song swap usually occurs at a house sing, party, festival or Songwriters in the Round Concert. At these events, you usually find from 2 or 3 to 20 or more musicians sitting in a circle taking turns playing one song each. Before you join in there is some important information you should try to find out.

Are you invited?

Is this a circle you happened across at a festival or music conference? Did someone ask you to participate? If you werenít asked, itís a good idea to either blatantly ask permission to join in or in some other way make your availability known. When I pass a song swap at a festival that I want to join, I usually stand nearby with my guitar in my case, make sure I clap after each song and make a few comments about the song I just heard. I listen to a few songs and see if I get invited in. If I donít, I move along.

When you do join a song swap, find out whether the songs being performed are originals, covers or either. An all-original song swap has a special atmosphere. It is an honor to be asked to perform in one because it is a type of showcase where the spotlight is on the songwriter and his song. And it is a showing of mutual respect among songwriting peers. It is usually expected that all others in and around the circle listen carefully to the words and music. Sometimes, the song or the artist calls for the audience to sing along but other times it would be rude for others to doodle on their instruments or try to sing. And it is usually disrespectful for audience members to talk loudly or make other noise while a song is being performed. You as a listener need to be conscious of what behavior seems appropriate. If you get to perform a song, it is usually not cool to play a cover. That can be perceived as saying, ďOkay, I heard your song, now let me play a good one.Ē

Keep your songs short.

It can be a real drag to sit in a circle and hear an eight-minute song - especially if it is poorly crafted - after hearing three or four well-written ones. It is also seen as not fair to take that much time while everyone else is taking only three or four minutes. And it is an imposition on audience members who want to hear a variety of songs from a variety of writers.

Wait your turn.

Another uncool practice that does not go unnoticed is ditching or sneaking in front of the line. Letís say you are at a festival song swap with six or seven players. You may have to wait 35 or 40 minutes before it is your turn. Then, someone else comes along, sits in and starts playing the next tune without waiting. Now you have to wait another five minutes. And if this happens frequently, you may never get to play. Worse than that, if you are the one cutting in, those that you are dissing are sure to remember you negatively. Itís not a great way to make friends. On the other end of the spectrum, Itís equally uncool to split from the circle too soon after you have played. Did you return the courtesy of listening to all of those songwriters that listened to you?


Jams are a different animal. Unlike the song swap, most jams are very informal events consisting of a variety of musicians on a variety of instruments all playing the same songs together. So, some of the courtesies expected at song swaps donít apply here. But, there are others that can determine the enjoyability of a jam more than does the level of musicianship of the jammers.

When jamming it is real important to make sure your instrument is in tune with the others. In case someone comes along with a harmonica or keyboard that tuning should be to concert pitch. Itís polite to take turns leading songs and to choose songs that others know or can easily follow. It can be frustrating when someone hops into a jam and plays a complex original that no one else can follow. Volume is a big issue here. If you are not playing or singing lead you should not be the loudest. In fact, if everyone played quietly, it would be easier to hear and appreciate what everyone is doing. Depending on the situation, seasoned performers may share the love with the less seasoned by leaving room for them to take a lead here and there. And sometimes, it is appropriate to play longer songs. At a jam, there should probably be at least as much time for improvs as there is for singing.

House Sings

A third type of event worth mentioning is a house sing. The Folk Project in northern New Jersey has excellent house sings every month. Here, up to 30 or 40 people gather, share food and gab before finally getting down to business. People take turns leading traditional or well-known folk, country, bluegrass or Irish songs that lend themselves to singing along. While song swaps feature the songwriter and jams feature improvs, house sings are about sharing, learning and teaching some of the best and lasting songs of all times. Anybody serious about songcrafting should attend a house sing occasionally to learn some songs that have endured centuries and still touch the hearts of normal everyday people.

Building Bonds

Song Swaps are a great opportunity to showcase your material, and all three of these events are a great way to meet and catch up with your peers and hear what other performers are doing. You can glean all kinds of ideas about content, technique or style from your contemporaries at these events.

Spook Handy runs "The Spook Handy Show," New Jersey's longest running open mic, at the Corner Tavern in New Brunswick. The show began in 1985 and has over 860 nights under its belt. He is also a songwriter and performer and a co-coordinator of the Princeton Songwriters, the New Jersey chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International. For more information on Spook Handy go to

Provided by the MusicDish Network.
Copyright © Tag It 2004 - Republished with Permission