Jam Session Etiquette With Terrence Higgins

Terrence Higgins

Playing with a group of musicians for the very first time can be an extremely daunting experience. This goes double for drummers, as we are the ones charged with the challenging task of keeping everyone on the same page. In situations like these, young drummers often find themselves feeling self-conscious about things like tempo, feel, and their ability to adjust on the fly.

Luckily, the supremely versatile Terence Higgins is a seasoned veteran when it comes to making the jam session happen. Busting onto the New Orleans scene with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in 2005, Higgins has since amassed an impressive résumé within the heralded jam band circuit — routinely landing gigs that require a heavy amount of intuition and improvisation on his part (and in the mean time kicking out slick lessons for DRUM!’s Practice Pad section).

We tracked down Higgins while on his recent run with Warren Haynes (of Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule fame) and asked him to break us off some sage-like advice on the subject of jam session etiquette. Here are seven quick-hitters Higgins insists are crucial to a productive jam:

1. Respect Your Fellow Musicians

“When you’re asked to a jam, there’s a certain amount of respect coming from the musicians who’ve invited you. You should have the same respect for them as well.”

2. Listen Closely

“You need to be cohesive with the whole to make the best musical statement possible. Music is a language — if you study music and listen to a lot of different stuff you can almost kind of figure out what to play even if you’ve never ‘spoken’ to a particular group of musicians before. I focus in on whoever’s soloing — whether it’s a sax player or keyboard player — and change what I’m doing texturally to complement that player’s unique sound. It gives every soloist a different atmosphere. I try to build the tension as they’re building it and release it at the same time.”

3. Make Eye Contact, Read Body Language, Be Vocal

The worst thing is to play with musicians who don’t ever look at you — especially within the rhythm section. If we’re not making eye contact and sharing body motion when we’re playing, I feel disconnected. When something really cool is happening between me and another musician you might hear me go ‘Woo!’ or ‘Yeah!’ By showing my excitement for what they’re playing, we’re locking in and it’s feeling good. Then everybody’s grooving.”

4. Establish Tempo

“Unless you’ve got a bandleader counting the song off, the drummer pretty much dictates the tempo. I sometimes tell other musicians, ‘If you ain’t in my pocket, you’re in the wrong pocket.’ As the drummer, I feel I have some kind of authority on tempo — unless it’s Warren [Haynes] saying ‘Speed up, speed up!’ When it’s the boss, that’s another story.”

5. Develop Your “Sixth Sense”

“Warren can look at me and I automatically know what to do. I don’t know how we know it, but we know. There’s a look that means we’re about to do something different. It’s amazing. That just comes from playing and listening, developing your ear. A lot of young drummers think they can just buy some DVDs and cop everything off of them, but the only way you get a feeling for anticipation is by playing with other musicians. That’s how you grow, by playing different styles of music in different situations.”

6. Don’t Overplay

“Some drummers want to blow all the time. That doesn’t work when you’re playing with other musicians. You’re stepping on other people’s musical space. In a jam session, you’ll get your chance to shine — just be patient. And always play within the context of the music. I hear cats attempting traditional New Orleans stuff and they’re trying to fit some Dennis Chambers fills or gospel chops in there — bad call. Selfish playing is the best way to not get called back.”

7. Keep It Together

“You can have train wrecks even when you’re rehearsed — you just have to know how to recover. Whatever you do, don’t stop the music. There are usually one or two cats in the group that are keeping the form together. If you’re lost, look to them to pick up on clues as to where the 1 is. If you can’t find the 1, then you’ve got a serious problem — you’re definitely not getting called back.”