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Rule of Thumb – Getting to Know Your Jam Signals

by | Master Your Craft

A collective of musicians playing together is an often understated meeting of magic and science. Much like birds mitigating in flight or the way cars all glide in unison down a highway, there’s an order that occurs despite its participants’ lack of communication. You may find yourself in musical situations that could require you to fall in with unfamiliar musicians or pieces of music. Thankfully, some universal hand signals and gestures that musicians have come to adopt that helps keep everyone on the same page are universal hand signals and gestures. In today’s article, we’ll cover a list of the essential jam signals used by most musicians for performance or improvisation.

The Counting Hand

The counting hand applies as a universal rule across most forms of Western music. You will find this technique is used primarily in classical jazz or orchestral music by conductors. The counting hand is generally the right hand, and bandleaders will either wave a conductor’s wand or a pointed finger up and down in a tapping motion to indicate the song’s tempo. This signal is generally directed towards rhythm section instruments and can also reference a specific groove or swing on a rhythm.

The Cue Hand

The cue hand generally applies to the left hand of the conductor or bandleader. The right hand is used to keep the tempo and start/stop signals. The left-hand signals a variety of more arrangement or player-specific cues. This rule is quite common amongst most music circles, although a conductor may choose to use their right hand exclusively for all signals or cues. Try to check with your band leader or conductor for their personal signal preferences if you can to prevent any miscommunication during performances.

Volume Control

Volume or dynamic control can be a potent tool when used in live situations. The band leader uses their palm to indicate the direction of the volume. An upward palm will indicate a rise in volume and is usually paired with a lifting motion to indicate the rise or swell’s velocity. A downward-facing palm is a signal for the band or player to drop in tone down and is paired with a tapping motion to help indicate the speed of the drop in volume. You’ll often see this signal used by band leaders when they wish to communicate with the audience or create tension before a loud piece of music.

Take It

This signal consists of a prominent pointing finger to cue a musician to ready themselves for a solo. The solo could be a previously rehearsed piece of music or complete improvisation at the length of the band leader or player’s discretion. If you’re a musician who likes to get involved in improv sessions, you’ll have to train yourself to be trigger-ready for this signal. If you do your job well, you’ll probably be asked to do it again, so it’s best to have a broad vocabulary of licks, runs, or fills. The more you allow yourself to grow to access your improv skills, the better you’ll become at performing articulate solos on the fly.

Run Another

During improv sessions, a band may fall into a groove or progression that is extra appealing to the audience at present. When this happens, you’ll often see the band leader raise a pointed finger and draw a circle with it, often in a looping fashion. This signal usually means that the band should stay in the groove or piece of music they’re currently playing, thus live looping a particular composition. This hand signal is an excellent tool for drawing the audience’s attention on the fly as it suggests that the performance is a three-way conversation between the audience, band, and conductor.

To The Top

Many compositions are easily identifiable through a memorable riff or melody that generally happens at the start of a song. During performances, a bandleader may wish for the band to go to this part of the song and will signal this by tapping their head (to indicate the head or top of the track). This signal is often used towards the end of a performance and is a useful way to end the song with a strong impression.

Take It To The Bridge

Sometimes you may be playing a rehearsed or familiar piece of music that has a particular bridge. The bridge is an auxiliary part of an arrangement usually placed somewhere in the middle of an arrangement. A conductor will cue the band to head into this section of this song by tapping on the bridge of their nose with their finger.

Wrap It Up

A perfectly executed song can sometimes have its quality compromised with a sloppy ending. To remedy this problem, band leaders will ready a band for an ending by raising their fist in an upward position to suggest the song’s close. For improv sessions, this signal will usually be thrown up at the start of the final cycle of a progression. If you’re playing a rehearsed piece,
you’ll want to ensure that you have your ending practiced and tight if you may have to end the song spontaneously. Most band leaders will follow their raised fists with a snatching motion at the song’s final note to enunciate the signaled silence.

Final Thoughts

Playing with other musicians in a rehearsed or improvised context can only add exponential strength to your musicality. While you may be able to reach a level of virtuosity by learning and practicing at home, the true essence of your musicality is probably at its most authentic when shared with others – whether they’re players or listeners. Thanks for reading our list of music hand jam signals. Hopefully, you’ll utilize the above tools to integrate some fluidity into your jam sessions or simply become a tighter and more alert player.

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