“Like when you fuck up a note, you, like, clammed it. You say “That was a clam.” It’s probably for when you should know better, not sight-reading. I feel like it’s like “damn…I practiced this so much but I still clammed it.” I think it’s for when you play the wrong note, not when it’s out of tune. That’s how I use it.”
Background Info: The informant is a man in his early twenties who is minoring in violin performance at a university in Washington State. He spent his entire childhood in Long Beach, California and has performed in various orchestral groups. In addition, he also played tenor saxophone in his high school marching band and jazz band. He is currently a working gig musician.
Context: The concept of “clamming” is typically found in a musical context, usually jazz or orchestral. Clamming is a term that the informant actively uses, and has encountered in just about every orchestral setting he’s played in. It usually comes up during rehearsal when he is playing a piece he already knows (as opposed to sight-reading, where the musician plays through a piece they’ve never seen or practiced before). The clammed note is not simply out of tune—it’s a completely different note than the one written on the page. Sometimes, whole passages or phrases of music can be clammed, but it’s usually used in reference to a specific note. It’s typically said in a self-deprecating, humorous manner, but the informant notes that it sounds so natural he barely even notices it’s a unique word—he only realized it was something specific to musicians when I asked him to elaborate on what he meant when he said it.
Thoughts: The origins of the phrase are not particularly clear—some have asserted that “clamming” comes from the phrase “to clam up” or to shut down or get quiet when pressure is put on you. Other people assert that “clamming” has origins with specific orchestras or stage bands from the middle of the century, and from there the term spread to other music groups. No matter what the basis is, it seems to be a pretty widespread term, based on my informant’s geographic history. Musicians tend to have a lot of inside jargon, just like any other specialized profession or folklore, but what makes this different from music theory or Italian terminology is its informality and unofficial, yet commonly known definition. The use of “clamming” as a term offers a way for musicians to ease the tension—in a form of art so demanding of perfection, saying you clammed a note is a way to acknowledge a mistake that never should have occurred while also moving on from it. In essence, it’s the equivalent of “my bad.” Everybody shrugs and moves on, usually to start the section or piece over again without any more missed notes.