My first time in a public music jam: intense fun with Chris Norman and David Greenberg

David Greenberg and Chris Norman and the rest of us

Friday evening, Abby and I packed up various musical instruments of ours, and attended an event that I had been eagerly awaiting for over three weeks since I first found out about it from Annie of the local Pittsburgh recorder gang: a jam session open to the public being offered by Chris Norman, flutist, and David Greenberg, violinist the day before their concert the next evening to close the current season of the Renaissance and Baroque of Pittsburgh.

I was so excited by this opportunity to jam with such esteemed musicians. Norman and Greenberg specialize in playing Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton and Baroque music. I’ve come to love playing the rhythmic, danceable music of the old days.

I learned a lot from the experience, and would like to share what I learned.

Some photos of the event

The Facebook page of the Pittsburgh Renaissance and Baroque has a bunch of photos of the event. I’ve used a couple of these here.


My instruments

I have been spending most of my daily music practice all year working on the modern flute; I have not reported on my progress in over a month because I’ve been too busy doing rather than writing, but will catch up with the writing sometime.

But for this jam session, I had decided very quickly that I was not going to be bringing my modern flute to play, because I do prefer to play older music on other instruments; I planned to bring the following instruments instead:

Therefore, interspersed with my continuing work on the modern flute, I have also done some maintenance practice of tin whistle and recorders. The most difficult challenge was trying to get serious about Baroque flute: the one-keyed flute is very, very, very tricky to play in tune. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s worth the bother. But I tend to be inspired by quirky challenges whose benefit I don’t fully understand immediately.

Ideally, I would own an Irish flute, preferably with a number of keys to aid with intonation and fingering, but given that I don’t currently intend to specialize in Irish music, and am still working with the tin whistle anyway, I cannot at all justify buying an Irish flute at this time. So I’ve been working on using the related Baroque flute instead, for traditional Irish or Scottish music.

Abby’s instruments

Abby started learning mandolin just this year, joining the Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra, so I was excited that she decided early on to bring it to the jam session. (And I look forward to seeing her play for the first time in the orchestra’s concert on Mother’s Day coming up in three weeks!)

She also brought a frame drum.

The event!


Abby and I arrived a little late, so I scrambled to get ready while a whole bunch of people were already gathered. Many people were sitting in back just to watch and listen, while maybe twenty of us were armed with instruments of all kinds, ready to have some fun!

We played lots of different instruments

We ran into half a dozen people we knew from various of our musical circles, including Annie from recorder, a guy Abby knew from mandolin, and some fellow Holiday Ball musicians.

I was intrigued by the couple of people who had actual keyed Irish flutes and eager to hear them play (it would turn out, of course, that they were very, very good).

Music scores

So each of us got a packet of around twenty pages of music. We didn’t play all of it, of course, but it was a good basis for sight reading along with Chris and David leading the way.

Much of the music went at breakneck pace that I’m still not proficient enough to sight reading perfectly, but my (yet unreported) musical adventures in the past month have made me far less self-conscious about perfection and figure out ways to cope:

Learning by ear, improvisation

As I expected, much of the time we didn’t play music from the handed out scores at all. This was the fun I was anticipating all along (I had not really expected music scores at all, actually).

Almost half the time, Chris would ask us for music suggestions to offer up by example, so that the volunteer would play (or sing) the melody, then the rest of us would start “learning” it by ear and join in and continue with repetitions. I had not anticipated the call for volunteers, else I would have come prepared with some favorite tunes to offer!

Some people were more familiar with various tunes being offered up than I was, since they had a lot more experience with Irish, Scottish and other such music than me, so I felt awkward and lost trying to learn and play on the spot, without written music, but it was part of the whole fun, really stretching what I have usually been doing with music (very oriented toward following a written score).

I’ve mentioned before my poor memory having a considerable impact on my life, and I worked around it again, given that I could not quickly learn the details of a melody, by just giving up and improvising around the harmony changes instead. I would like to find ways to improve my memory, but for now, I work around my limitations.

A charming tangent involving an oboe

So it turned out that a young woman among us had come with a Baroque oboe tuned to A415 instead of the modern A440 tuning. This caused confusion, of course, when she tried to play from written scores. I’m not sure what she ended up doing: the only choices were to mentally transpose from the written scores (when we were playing music from them) or just ignore the scores and learn by ear.

In any case, Chris and David repeatedly wanted to play with her and asked her what music she had on her, and she had a variety of Baroque music scores with her (she said she was actually giving a recital the next day), and so they tried to play some stuff just with her while doing their own mental transposition so that she would get to play without mental transposition! Check out Chris hovering over the score trying to do the really hard work of transposing on the fly:

Baroque oboist with Chris and David


Periodically, a number of people got up to dance in the space at the side, especially when we played waltzes. It was nice to see people moving.

A couple dancing

I’m caught on a photo playing Baroque flute

I spent a fair amount of time playing the tin whistle, and some time on my recorders, but in the end gravitated toward the Baroque flute because it was mellower and I could draw less attention to my mistakes by playing it instead!

It turned out that a photo was taken that included me when I was playing my Baroque flute. In this photo, you can also see a guy playing tin whistle (this guy also at one point volunteered to sing a tune, and did so with quite a powerful voice, a great rendition).

A fellow tin whistle player, and me on Baroque flute

My posture is really bad here. I need to sit up straight and keep my head over my body rather than straining over my neck. My only excuse is that this photo was probably taken two hours into the jam session when it was almost over, and I was having energy issues.

A note on energy requirements

I was totally exhausted after the jam session. After Abby and I drove back home, we both had to eat something. We were starving. We should have taken a snack break at the jam session.

I weighed myself and I had lost weight. The mental demands on me were considerable, and I had really spent myself. Given that I have lost weight before when taking exams in school, or playing in chess tournaments, or doing similar activities that combine both mental demands and personal anxiety, I should have been better prepared with fuel at the event. I get the impression that I burn more energy by thinking hard than by running.


This was my first time ever at a public music jam session, and I quite enjoyed it. I am grateful to Chris Norman and David Greenberg, and the Pittsburgh Renaissance and Baroque, for providing it to the community. I am always very happy for opportunities to play music with Abby, and keep remembering how she got me into this particular early traditional dance music world, through our first musical time together at the Holiday Ball.

I got self-feedback about musical shortcomings for me to keep working on in order to enjoy future jam sessions, and I learned that I really need food to keep me fueled for optimal musicality!

comments powered by Disqus