How to get work as a professional musician in a new city (Part 1)

So you’re a professional musician and have just moved to a new city. You need work but your not sure how to get it. All the musical jobs are filled by great players and nobody’s looking for “newcomers.” What do you do? How do you proceed?

(Insert big pause here………)

Gone are the days when a hot new player would arrive in a city like New York and land a big gig that same day. (Like my piano teacher Billy Taylor did back in the 1940s when jazz saxophonist Ben Webster hired him after Billy played at his very first NYC jam session!) No, there are far too few musical gigs these days and far too many players vying for the same jobs. You need to think this through and have a plan to start with. The plan might shift as you go along, but you need to have some sort of strategy for getting yourself known and trusted to “do the job.”

The first thing I’d recommend is that you find the places you want to work and “hang out.” A lot. If you play jazz, go to jam sessions and jazz clubs at least several times per week. Go to same places repeatedly and meet people. And remember, you never know who can help you out so be nice to everyone. Don’t be taken advantage of, but make some friends along the way. Sure, you have to have musical chops, but remember that people generally hire people they enjoy hanging out with. If you treat people well, they will generally reciprocate.

I know some musicians who have a very specific professional goal, like blues keyboard, and only want to do that. If you are one of these musicians and feel that you don’t want to dilute your passion by taking on other work, then I respect that and wish you the best. But know that this will limit your chances of success. “Go for it” if you have to, but if you want to make a living from your music, you might want to look at closely-related jobs that will keep you playing. For example, the great jazz trumpeter Clark Terry didn’t just play with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and other jazz greats. He was also a member of the Tonight Show band on TV for years, playing jazz as well as other music with them.

Sometimes you can get established by simply going to where the work is, and then broadening from there. When I first moved from Connecticut to New York City, I only had two professional contacts. I had taken some lessons with the wonderful jazz pianist Harold Danko and he would send some of his “overflow” students to me, who he didn’t have time to teach. My other contact was a Broadway pianist, Connie Meng, who I had worked with once in Connecticut. She recommended me to play auditions for a children’s theater company. So that was a start, but not nearly enough income to pay the rent.

So here’s what I did: Even though I wanted a jazz career, I loved classical music and knew that every church had an organist to play at Sunday services. Even though I had never played church organ, I took a few lessons, mainly to learn the mechanics of the instrument and get a little familiar with the use of the pedals. I also joined the American Guild of Organists for the sole purpose of being able to say that I was a member (it sounded “official”).

Then, I opened the Manhattan phone book (this was before the internet existed) and sent a letter to the musical director of every church in Manhatten. The letter stated that I, an AGO member, had recently moved to New York City and was available to substitute if needed. (I reasoned, correctly, that organ subs were hard to find, since most organists had a steady church gig.)

I didn’t get many calls for the next 2 years; maybe one job every few months when an organist was sick or on vacation and none of their usual subs were available. I played adequately on these jobs but nothing special since I’m really a pianist who plays a little organ. But I got by and developed my skills and confidence a little.

Then it happened. Some of my original letters were apparently filed away in church offices for future reference, and a full 2 years after I sent them out, I received a call from a church who needed someone for 2 weeks. The church’s secretary explained that the organist was ill and they just needed someone to fill in for a short time. I dutifully woke up early on Sunday morning, rehearse the small but enthusiastic choir, and did my best at playing the preludial music and hymns.

After 2 weeks of this, one of the choir members privately told me that the longtime organist was unfortunately very ill and would not be coming back. So I basically just showed up the next week, and the next after that, and so on. I got the gig simply because I was there and they didn’t have any reason to look for anyone else.

I stayed at that little church for 18 years!!! I liked the music, I liked the people, and it was a steady gig. In fact, even when I was playing hit shows on Broadway, I woke up at 7:00 on Sunday morning and dutifully made my way to early-morning choir rehearsal. In fact, I once played a wedding reception in Virginia and drove all night back to New York to get to play the church service! I appreciated the fact that a steady gig like that would be around long after most Broadway shows came and went. I was right. And during that time, the church congregation appreciated me and embraced my varied musical interests so I could bring in jazz musicians to play spirituals and jazz music like John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Duke Ellington’s sacred compositions. I also brought in gospel singers as well as classical instrumentalists and vocalists. When I met a new musician on a jazz, rock, or musical theater gig, I could then hire them a church service to develop the musical relationship further. This “2-week” gig turned out to be rewarding on many levels!

So if you’re a musician who has just moved to a new city, take a moment and think of how to make professional inroads. Yes, hang out in the obvious places and meet people who do what you want to do. But at the same time, look for less obvious ways to get established. And once you get something, cherish it. After all, you never know where that first gig may lead you!

Here’s Part 2, in which I share a very specific strategy for getting established that I gave to one of my piano students. This type of creative, “out-of-the-box” thinking might help you too. Check out the post and see how you can apply this to your own musical situation!

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