Tag Archives: musicians


Main Text:

“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.

Summer Camp Taps Tradition

Main Piece:

BO, a junior at USC, shared this story from a Musician Summer Camp he attended. He says, “Like at 10PM everynight we would all have to be in bed in our cabins while they play a military trumpet song called Taps. Everyone was supposed to be extremely quiet and if you made any noise you’d get in trouble. The idea was it was supposed to give everyone in the whole camp a few minutes of silence to reflect on their day.”


BO is a junior at USC. He attended this music summer camp from ages 12 to 18 and was familiar with lots of its traditions. This piece was taken during a text chat with BO.


This tradition seems to reflect the discipline that they would teach at the camp. BO explained how they would train a lot during this musician camp, and discipline is a big part of this training. Playing Taps, a military song which is typically played during solemn times, shows how this moment at the end of their day is a time for them to reflect. The formal nature of it also shows how they are training their musicians to be disciplined, and self reflection is important to that.

Trombone Player Joke

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student who was enrolled in ANTH 333 during a prior semester, was eager to participate in my folklore collection. She shared some folklore with me that she has collected throughout her childhood and her time at USC. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant shared a joke told to her by her father, a professional musician.


Informant: My dad is a musician, and he has a lot of musician jokes. Basically he told me that, and I wouldn’t have gotten it, but basically he told me that like trombone players are apparently like the butt of every joke because apparently they’re like useless. So, one of the jokes he um told me is: What’s the difference between a rattlesnake in the desert and a trombone player?

Interviewer: What is the difference between a rattlesnake in the desert and a trombone player?

Informant: The rattlesnake was on his way to a gig.

Interviewer: That’s really funny. So, do musicians say this to trombone players? Is it like a form of hazing?

Informant: It kind of is. I don’t know if my dad tells this to trombone players, but definitely among his musician friends they go back and forth with stupid trombone player jokes. I just had no idea that trombone players were the butt of the music community’s jokes, but apparently they are.

Informant’s relationship to this item: While the informant did not understand the joke initially, once her father explained that trombone players are often teased by other members of the music community, she was able to recognize the humor in her father’s joke. This is not a joke that the informant regularly shares with people who are not members of the music community, nor is it a joke that her father typically shares with trombone players.

Interpretation: The joke shared by the informant definitely qualifies as an inside-joke, or a joke that only a specific community of people would be likely to understand. Not only is the joke specific to the music community, who are the only people who understand that trombone players are regularly made fun of, but it is also not typically performed for trombone players. Additionally, the joke qualifies as a joke riddle, in which the listener is prompted to figure out the correct and humorous response to the posed question based on context clues. Finally, the joke qualifies as blason populaire, a term used to describe any kind of folklore (not just jokes) about a stereotypical identity or group. This specific joke is making fun of the fact that it is typically difficult for trombone players to find paid work.


How do you get a violist to play with vibrato?

Context: This joke was told to over the phone by an older relative of mine

Background: This relative has been teaching music for 15+ years at a small liberal arts college.

Q: How do you get a violist to play with vibrato?
A: You write the word ‘Solo’ above the notes

This joke plays on the idea that Violists are very timid, and generally try to avoid solos.

The Conductor came to MY House?

Context: This joke was told to over the phone by an older relative of mine

Background: This relative has been teaching music for 15+ years at a small liberal arts college.
A violist comes home one day and sees his home is burned down. The policeman says, “Conductor came, killed your family, and burned down your house.”
The Violist says, “The Conductor came to MY house?!”

This joke plays on the idea that Violists are very timid, and would not typically be noticed or acknowledged by the conductor.