What Key is it In? – Jamming at The Studio

“What key is it in? Wait, wait! What key is it in?” Shadows in the Rain, Dream of the Blue Turtles, Sting

You meet the most interesting people on Guitar Noise. Not just in the forums, and the interesting authors that we manage to find, but sometimes live and in person. My husband Dan, of Bass for Beginners and Sound Engineering, found Laura McKenna of The Studio in NYC via our very own Gigs and Jams Forum. She posted way back in November 2002 about the place she works:

“I run some big jams in midtown NYC (251 W 30 Street, 3rd floor) every Friday and Saturday night. We basically take over the entire floor (9 rooms) of a rehearsal facility called “The Studio” and do different kinds of music (blues, R&B, funk, rock — EVERYTHING!!!) in each room. We even have a beginner jam for the newbies! Email me at [email protected] if you’d like more info.

Keep on jammin’!

Laura McKenna

P.S. “The Studio” jams were mentioned by my friend Jennifer in guitarnoise.com’s November 21 article The Joy of Music

Hmm, sounded intriguing enough for me to delegate Dan to check out The Studio’s website. Even lowly unpaid Other Side writers can have researchers working for them! (Only if the researcher wants dinner…) Well, in perusing the website we found some great things. In the Studio’s own words:

“Freely travel from room to room to enjoy many styles… We have Blues, Jazz, R&B/Funk, Indie/Alternative, Singer/Songwriter, and “Anything Goes” Rooms… Up to 9 active jams with rotating lineups, every weekend!”

Quoted in the website is Keyboard Magazine’s summation of everything The Studio has to offer: “A Health club for musicians”. For the jams, all you have to bring is your guitar. They have microphones, amps, and PA’s all set up. Even cables and effects have been thoughtfully provided. For drummers, they have complete drum kits; all you need is your sticks. Vocalists just walk in and there’s a weighted keyboard in every room for the keyboard players. For your first jam, you can play all 4 hours for just $15 US. This sounded like a place worth visiting!

While Dan was checking out the website, I did my research in looking up the article on GN that Laura referred to. David Hodge had done a compilation of our readers’ stories about the joy that playing guitar and making music had brought them during the past year. I looked for Jennifer’s story and found:

” I am also a member of a place in NYC called “The Studio,” which is a great place to be to learn and grow. It’s a supportive, creative and nurturing environment, where they hold jams on the weekends. I now have the confidence to walk into these jam rooms with some really rad guitar dudes and hold my own thanks to all that Al (Pitrelli) has taught me. The Studio also helped me find my rock voice, a voice which I never heard come out of me before. I was always timid about singing but now I’m singing my heart out, playing the guitar and having the time of my life! I’d say there is a lot of joy going on there.

By the way, I LOVE your website and newsletters. I find the information you provide very valuable.”

Wow, what a great testimonial for both GN and The Studio. This was sounding like a match made in heaven. The Studio is located in NYC, which was only about an hour from us. Dan emailed Laura McKenna to ask if our kids could come with us and play sax, and she was fine with that, as long as we felt they wouldn’t be bored. We were delighted to hear that The Studio is receptive to younger jammers.

It took a few months before we were able to actually make our calendar mesh with the Studio’s jam calendar. The Studio’s calendar is very easy; they’re there every Saturday night. The jams offered each weekend are published on their website, plus you can sign up there for their weekly newsletter, “The Studio News”, for up-to-date information on who’s leading what kind of session when, and for other events they sponsor. The Lasley’s calendar was not as simple as The Studio’s, but after a few months we finally made it down for a jam — without the kids, as it turned out (they had other plans). We found the location without any difficulty, taking note of several parking garages within a half block.

At The Studio a friendly young man greeted us and asked us to fill out some cards with demographic information. We were directed to some chairs to wait for a brief orientation by none other than Laura McKenna! Laura is a cheerful person with a font of knowledge about The Studio. She plays clarinet and alto sax herself, and has jammed many a time at the Saturday Open Jam sessions. After we paid, we followed Laura through the different rooms. That night there were 8 running simultaneously in different rooms: Beginner Rock, Intermediate Blues, Advanced Blues, R&B, Jazz, Funk, a Singer’s Lounge, and an Open Jam, each held in a different rehearsal room. Jammers are free to wander from room to room, playing and/or singing to your heart’s delight. Each room has a coordinator, who makes sure that everyone gets a turn, not only to play, but to choose a song to play. If no one has a preference, the coordinator will suggest music to fit the level of the musicians in the room. As we checked out each room, the musicians looked intent on their playing, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. The music sounded wonderful! Then we poked our head in the Open Jam room, where there is NO coordinator. We found the guys in there wondering what to play. One of them said, “How about some Allman Brothers?” Then came the muttering, “um which one, what do you know” etc, etc. I interjected, “One Way Out!” and we walked out of that room to a rousing performance of that tune. In case you can’t tell, the folks playing at The Studio are a very mellow and friendly bunch.

We started in the Beginner Rock room, just to see how that felt. They had songbooks on hand with lyrics and chords. Plus there was a white board for writing up the chords to songs that weren’t in the book (which I used for Somebody to Love). We had an excellent time playing there! We were in there for about two hours and played all kinds of rock tunes. We found the equipment to be in excellent working condition. It was nice not to have to lug a PA, or mics or amps around, and only bring our guitars. We really enjoyed playing some of our current favorite tunes with piano, drums and lead guitar involved. When we play at home we only have rhythm guitar and bass, so it was really great to have a full band. We were also able to learn music that other people enjoy playing, but that we don’t know, like songs by Oasis. (I know, I know: Where have I been?)

The quote at the beginning of this article is a bit tongue in cheek. Usually when jamming, I’m reminded of the little verbal intro to Shadows in the Rain from Dream of the Blue Turtles by Sting. If you listen to the album, you will hear a voice ask calmly at first “What key is it in?” Then as the other musicians start up, you hear him say “Wait, Wait! What key is it in??” as the others are laughing. This was not our experience at The Studio. If you weren’t sure what you were supposed to play, all you had to do was ask and the other musicians were more than happy to explain what key we were playing in. For those of us struggling to figure out how to configure a C9 or G9 chord, either the coordinator took a quick second to write the form on the board or to show us, or gave us complimentary chords to play (like C or G), so we could participate in the song. The vibe was very friendly and mellow, so it wasn’t embarrassing to ask questions, or even to make mistakes when playing. I would just figure out where I messed up in the song, recover my composure, and pick up playing again.

After a while, we decided to check out the Open Jam room. There was a small technical problem as the bass amp wasn’t working. Dan went to ask someone to fix it (it was just a finicky cable), and the rest of us jammed while we waited. The staff at The Studio was quite prompt and efficient at fixing the problem and we were able to have a bass player again after only one song without. I didn’t take my guitar out in this room, as there were already 3 guitarists. Instead I sat down at the keyboards, which had a nice boom mic in front of it. Another female vocalist joined us, and she had an amazing voice, very full and powerful. Our vocals complemented each other’s nicely and we were off and running. We went through Somebody to Love again. With the synergy in this room the song was even better than the first time. We then went through some Stones and Zeppelin tunes – each of us belting out the lyrics while one of the guitarists had smoking leads and even the drummer was very happy. We played a blues number that I hadn’t heard before, but found that I was able to harmonize to and echo the lead. I went into the jam to work on my guitar skills, but in this room I had the unexpected benefit of working on my vocal and keyboard skills.

I found the atmosphere and set up at The Studio conducive to relaxing and letting go, which made for an excellent time jamming. The Studio certainly lived up to its billing. Just as I always feel relaxed and happy after working out at my health club, this “health club” for musicians did the same for me musically.

I would recommend The Studio to anyone in the Greater New York area for the jams alone, but Laura McKenna is quick to tell me that the jams are just a fraction of what they do to help people live their musical dreams. For starters, The Studio has music profiles of every one of their 500 members loaded into a computer database, and can match you up with other members who share your musical tastes and goals. And if that’s not enough, they also sponsor fully roadied shows at famous NYC clubs like The Bitter End, Le Bar Bat, Downtime, and many others for member bands. Plus a Studio Member ID card will get you discounts with their affiliates like Manny’s Music on West 48th Street, The Modern Drum Shop, The Learning Annex, and many others. A yearly membership is usually $200, but at this writing, there’s a summer special running that will get you in for $150 for a year. For more information about benefits and specials, check their website (www.thestudio.org) as well as the next OtherSide article.

n.b. This column continues in a series dedicated to the female musician. Of course, male musicians are welcome to read and comment on the topics discussed as well, as many have (thank you!). We have our own forum in the forum section. As always, I would love suggestions on topics you would like to see covered. Please email me and tell me your story. I enjoy hearing each and every one.